"Gakuen Alice: The Complete Series" Smacks Its Head on a Rock Halfway Down the Rabbit-Hole
Mikan Sakura is a typical shojo protagonist–clumsy and ditzy but relentlessly optimistic and well-meaning–whose best friend, the emotionally distant young genius Hotaru Imai, is abruptly whisked off to a special school. A heartbroken Mikan tracks her down only to find that Hotaru is actually an “Alice”, which is the inexplicable name given to people with superpowers, and that the school she was sent to was built specifically for child Alices. Upon arriving, Mikan learns to her shock that she is also an Alice–namely, she has the ability to nullify other Alices’ powers. Mikan is enrolled into the school and is glad to see Hotaru again, but all is not well. The school is more than it appears, and the history of the Alices–Mikan’s power in particular–is wrapped in intrigue. While trying to befriend Natsume Hyuuga, a troubled boy with the ability to control flames, Mikan begins to get in over her head.
And then the show ends abruptly because, hey, it’s a 26-episode anime adaptation from 2004 of a manga that’s still ongoing today. What did you expect to happen? Seriously. I promise I’m going to talk about the series’ other aspects in a second, but I just can’t say anything before getting this elephant out of the way. The show ends without resolving any of its plots! We have an episode that’s obviously meant to feel resolution-ish, but it only feels final–they didn’t even try to half-ass it (a la Soul Eater), they just blatantly left all of the threads hanging! We never find out about Mikan’s parents, the schools supervisors, that woman behind the curtain in the second episode, that guy in the black suit and mask … It’s all glaringly missing, and it’s the most obvious offense committed by a show that, despite a few other flaws, could have a been a fun little experience in its own right.
Gakuen Alice is probably at its best when it’s letting Mikan interact with and explore the new world she’s found herself in and observing the way her unique Pollyanna-ish perspective effects the people around her. This isn’t new ground, but it’s safe, and they even manage to be vaguely clever with it in spots. Mikan’s power being the one that repels and is outside of all the other powers, for instance, is a nice touch. As a character, Hotaru is in much the same class. The icy girl who’s really just troubled and actually has a heart of gold is unabashedly a cliché, but it’s still fun to watch her play foil to Mikan. The show does have an issue with trying to bash the audience over the head with whatever emotion they’re meant to be feeling–the scenes where Mikan comes to term with her No-Star Student status would be right at home in The Little Princess–but a great voice cast ensures that you’re willing to put up with a certain amount of sappiness, and genuinely feel for the characters, especially the main two with their incredibly intense sismance. And furthermore, when the show’s trying to be funny, it is uproariously so, with snappy timing and creative visuals that make up for rather lackluster animation. All these factors combine to make the more slice-of-life oriented episodes the best and most enjoyable of the set.
Unfortunately, the more adventurous, plot-driven portions of the show are farcical, and the hand-wavy not-ending makes them even sillier than they are. There’s an enormous discrepancy between the “light” and “dark” episodes that is probably best seen with Natsume, whose relatively fluffy trouble-making and anti-social tendencies in the normal episodes are explained through the fact that he is a child assassin in the “action” ones.
As I mentioned above, the show has a snappy and energetic look to it at times, especially when it’s being funny. The designs are cute–the OP for this show is quite possibly one of the cutest openings I’ve ever seen–and it’s colorful without being garish. Unfortunately, the show makes the same kind of mistakes you typically see in a TV anime: stilted motion and lots of boring “talking head” scenes, which means it’s unable to put all those good qualities to full effect. I’d like to see a show with this kinds of creativity in addition to full, fluid animation.
There’s potential in Gakuen Alice and it has some fun moments, but at the end of the day, with the bad at least as prevalent as the good and the complete middle finger that is the ending, I’m not sure it fulfills that potential enough to merit looking into it, especially in lieu of the comic.