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"Gakuen Alice: The Complete Series": Ready To Set The World Ablaze

by on October 1, 2009

Did you enjoy the manic exuberance and heavy melodrama of Kodocha?

Do you like stories about kids in magical boarding schools?

Can you live with subs only?

If you answered yes to all three, stop here and just buy Gakuen Alice. No really, it’s wonderfully bittersweet and upbeat in the same motion, and it hits the technical points as well, so really, if you answered yes to the previous three questions, you don’t need to read a summary or anything…

…you’re still here…

…fine, I’ll actually “do my job” and “write a review.”

Gakuen Alice is set in what is pretty much a facsimile of modern Japan with one little twist: kept secret from the public are “Alices,” who are those with magical abilities of various sorts and strengths. The government of Japan pays parents to send their Alice-gifted children to a massive, K-12 boarding school in the heart of Tokyo (if this sounds a bit familiar, you maybe thinking of the various CLAMP School stories, and yes, there is a just tasteful tad bit of borrowing, but it’s never distracting,) named the Alice Academy. It’s meant to benefit the nation while keeping the gifted safe from those who would exploit them. But such a system can break up friends, family and other bonds formed by Alices in normal society, and it’s just that situation that sets up our story here.

Mikan is a energetic, everyday girl who lives in rural Japan with her grandfather. She loves her small town, she loves her school, and she simply adores her best friend, Hotaru. While Mikan is a classic, dense, Sana-from-Kodocha-esque spaz with a heart of gold, Hotaru is a brilliant, materialist, stereotypical-tsundere character who befriended Mikan in part because of their contrasting styles of cuteness. Of course, it turns out Hotaru is an Alice, and she has to go to Tokyo, leaving poor Mikan behind. Mikan starts off bitter about the whole thing, but when she finds out that Hotaru has had her parents donate her Alice money to keep the rural school Mikan attends running, Mikan sets off to the big city to apologize and restart her friendship with Hotaru. Of course, getting into a government-run school for the magically gifted is easier said than done and…

Hold up, we are only 18 minutes into the first episode. Just wanted to make that point because I’m going to fast forward a bit.

Anyway, after a lot of run around, it turns out Mikan is an Alice too, and with the terribly unique power of nullifying the effects of other people’s Alice powers, so she gets accepted to the Alice Academy, though much like other stories about magical boarding schools, life isn’t as charmed as one would think. Hotaru isn’t terribly overjoyed to see Mikan there, going so far as to leave Mikan to largely fend for herself against a school of magical weirdos at points. Mikan’s bizarre power makes some of her classmates skeptical of her abilities, since it’s not as obvious as telekinesis or super-speed, and her penchant for getting into trouble and her mediocre grades make it hard for her to move up the ladder in the school’s star-ranking system, a system which determines everything from how much pocket money a student gets, to living quarters and meal quality. Add to that outright rivals like the fire-wielding Natsume, the animal-controlling Ruka, and their respective fanclubs, and, well, she might have bit off a lot more than she can chew.

Oh, and she can’t go home of her own accord anymore. Once you’re in Alice Academy, you’re there all the time except for winter and summer break, if that.

However, over time, friendships form, respect is earned, and crazy adventures happen along the way. Mikan challenges the class bullies to dodgeball to get them to quit skipping class; she learns to better control her Nullification Alice; she learns the hard way that the school staff isn’t as friendly and sweet as they make themselves out to be since they don’t deliver her letters to her grandpa and so she tries to break out to see him; she performs an impromptu play in the campus’s shopping district to make money to buy delicious candy; she almost gets kidnapped and later saves Natsume from being kidnapped; and so on. Thus, gradually, enemies become friends, she develops some feelings for Ruka and Natsume, the weight of the true responsibility of being an Alice becomes apparent and well, I won’t spoil it, though I will note that the manga is still running in Japan, so don’t expect a real conclusion. It does at least give you some pay off to some of the going mysteries though, and it manages to come full circle on some of the main emotional themes.

As an adaptation, Gakuen Alice never drags nor feels over-compressed. It takes the mix of energetic sweetness and heart-felt though maudlin moments in the manga and renders them wonderfully. Better than I would have imagined, in fact. A lot of the humor works even better in animation than print, and having music to underscore the dramatic scenes adds a ton. Of course, it does lift various elements from other sources. (Dangerous woods next to a magical boarding school? Where have I heard this before?) but somehow that doesn’t seem to distract nearly as much as one would expect. The more surprising part was some of the adaptation choices that pay off better than expected. For example, they spend a good number of episodes on the events of the school festival, but because there is so much going during said festival, it doesn’t feel like filler somehow. Still, it’s impressive that all the nods, lifts and tropes are somehow harmonized into a fairly unified and engaging whole already in the manga, and more impressive still that the anime doesn’t damage that. If anything, it sells it all even better.

Visually, there is nothing necessarily immediately stand out about Gakuen Alice, but the visuals are nicely assembled for the most part, and the visual style reflects the manga design so nicely it’s just hard to pick apart. There a few instances of awkward compositing, and said issues seem to become more apparent as the series wears on. But most of the time it’s a lovely and congruent whole where the storyboarding uses cheats intelligently, the animation is usually more than good enough so that cheats don’t stand out, and every once and a while, some really nice visual gags take a scene to the next level. The video quality itself on the DVD seems clean as well, with no visible artifacting, though when you’re only encoding 5 sub-only episodes per disc, it better be good.

Audio-wise, it’s nothing particularly notable either, but nothing seems bad. The voice acting, while a bit clichéd, fits the show well, and the music by and large follows that cue. The opening and ending themes are pretty dull, and the background music, while not bad, is fairly average for a series of this type. Again, it sounds just fine on the DVD, and nothing seems lost in the mix.

The DVDs aren’t without flaws, though. Sure, the packaging is top notch; the inclusion of translator notes, character biographies and creditless OP & ED are definitely welcome. But the subtitles, while fairly good for the most part, have the occasional typo, which is something I haven’t seen in a long while. It’s not at all a show-stopping issue, but it can’t pass without note. A dub would have been nice too. I know it’s a niche show from a niche publisher, but it seems like it’d be a good candidate for English adaptation at points because of some of the rapid-fire humor.

All in all though, I really have to recommend Gakuen Alice. In more conservative households, some of the humor might not make it all-ages fare, but for most anime fan families, it’s something everyone in the house can enjoy, and even in a marathon sitting, it doesn’t wear on the viewer. Besides, in a era where niche kids’ titles seem to have an uphill battle getting over to the US, Gakuen Alice is a delight. Check out the manga while you’re at.

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