Having finally recovered from reviewing a succession of average to utterly dire anime at the cruel behest of others, I decided to take my destiny into my own hands, and publish my thoughts on an altogether more acceptable anime. While I didn’t expect to be able to remove the sordid memories of the last show I reviewed, I was hoping to at least find enough of a claming influence to dispel my fury and perhaps even convince the judge that the psychotic rampage was merely an environmentally-induced episode and not at all indicative of my true nature. For the purpose, I selected Gakuen Alice - a light-hearted and cute shoujo romp. It’s debatable whether I could have chosen any better.
For the sake of balance, it behooves me to begin with the negatives. Gakuen Alice’s plot is not the most sophisticated, and finds itself occupying an uncomfortable middle ground between an encompassing, coherent storyline and a series of random misadventures. The compromise made to reconcile the two results in a winding story with no real focus. It occasionally lurches in the direction of plot advancement, but a lot of momentum is devoured by sideways motion. There is nothing inherently bad about the story-irrelevant tangents on which Gakuen Alice merrily embarks - they contain many of the anime’s most enjoyable moments - but their presence alone serves to stymie the flow and impetus of the main story.
The series’ humour has a tendency to be hit-and-miss. When all the pieces fall into place, Gakuen Alice offers creative, original, whimsical humour backed up by understated wit and a divine sense of timing. However, it does not always pan out so well. The show has a penchant for using humour to add levity to otherwise serious scenes, but it frequently errs on the side of recklessness, and the wild slapstick employed doesn’t so much lighten the mood as punch it into space. Another side effect of the physical humour is that Mikan very quickly gains a kind of cartoon invincibility, which makes the viewer less inclined to worry that any actual physical harm might befall her in moments of peril.
The failings of a stuttering narrative and erratic humour, however, are more than made up for by the brilliance of Gakuen Alice’s character interactions. Quite aside from the individual protagonists being stellar - something which I will cover later - the interplay and developing friendships within the cast are the grease which lubricates Gakuen Alice’s engine and keeps it running smoothly. The unorthodox friendship between Mikan and Hotaru is an obvious and touching highlight, but more impressive still is that all interactions are given the same care and attention to detail, with friendships constantly and consistently evolving.
Similarly positive is Gakuen Alice’s unorthodox setting. The scale is not epic, but the imagination and attention to detail invested into the little world of the Alice Academy make it fascinating and intuitive at the same time. Mikan’s unfamiliarity with her surroundings is used as an effective narrative device to educate the viewer in the ways of the show’s occasionally surreal universe at a pace which is neither baffling nor patronising.
The animation in Gakuen Alice gets the job done. The approach to detail is more workmanlike than perfectionist, which, along with the gentle colour pallet used, gives the visuals a soft feel. There are some pleasing little touches, such as the frog on Mr. Jinno’s shoulder mimicking his every action but, for the most part, detail is limited to the crucial rather than the extravagant. Consequently, many action scenes rely on stills or simple motion, which too often fails to engage the viewer.
The character designs largely stay true to the manga. Hairstyles and outfits are simple on the whole - certainly none are striking enough to be either eye-catching or unpleasant - yet there is plenty of variety. A handful of relatively minor individuals sport more quirky appearances that, while initially jarring, quickly grow on you, and add an eccentric flavour to the landscape of faces.
I’ve never been a fan of the sort of jaunty, wacky numbers that many anime use in an attempt to complement funnier scenes, and the pieces used by Gakuen Alice for this purpose grate after a while. The preceding sentence, incidentally, is the only genuine criticism I have to level against the entirety of the anime’s sound. Aside from the aforementioned tunes, the soundtrack is memorable, well-written and masterfully employed. In addition to adding adrenaline to more dramatic moments, or complementing emotional scenes, the soundtrack stamps itself upon all quarters of the show until even events as mundane as walking down a corridor exude atmosphere.
The voice cast is perhaps better still. Kana Ueda is immense as Mikan, capturing every facet of her personality and injecting them into serious and comic scenes with aplomb. Of course, it’s (fairly) well documented that Ueda is my favourite seiyuu, so perhaps it might mean more if I praise one of my least favourite - Rie Kugimiya - for her turn as Hotaru. As opposed to the angry tsundere fare for which she is unjustly and slavishly adored, Kugimiya offers a reserved, deadpan but emotionally capable performance, with a begrudging yet genuine affection that is comfortably more believable and infinitely more rewarding than her usual output. The co-stars also perform the OP and ED in character, giving rise to two memorable and gentle tunes that capture the essence of the anime perfectly. Credit - should any be left over after Ueda and Kugimiya have been given their dues - also goes to Romi Park for her performance as the stereotypically brooding Natsume. Park adds just enough depth to keep him believable and interesting without going too far and divesting him of his mystery.
Gakuen Alice thrives on its characters. Not because they are unique, but because they and their social circles are observed with such precision and written so neatly that it‘s impossible not to be taken in. Many of the character traits - such as Sumire’s quivering insecurity hidden behind a façade of arrogant self-importance - have been done many times before, but rarely will you see them executed with such charm and adroitness.
Mikan might well be the pick of the cast, and serves as a case in point. She’s enthusiastic and plucky, with a simple world view and a strong sense of right and wrong. These elements could make her a main character in almost any shoujo or shounen anime, but here they are sewn together with flair and complemented with deft touches - such as her propensity for making adorably lame comebacks when outwitted - in order to create and endearing and engaging protagonist.
Gakuen Alice does not deal in instant gratification. The visuals are far from striking and loud, and explosive humour is not its strong point. However, in contrast to the cynically engineered moe of shows such as K-On! or the made-to-order, plastic-wrapped cuteness of Hanamaru Youchien and the likes, Gakuen Alice offers an involving tale and a host of genuine, sympathetic characters, which affectionately reward the viewer’s patience and attention with delicate wit and moments of heart-warming bliss.
The show is perhaps best summed up by the lyrics of its own OP and ED. A line like “Let’s stay this way forever, wrapped in colours of happiness” could feature in the theme for almost any anime, but very few of them could hope to capture the joie de vivre and delight of friendship quite as adeptly as Gakuen Alice. It lacks flash, zip and much polish, but as a paean to happiness and simple pleasures, Gakuen Alice is without peer.
Ever since they met, emotionless Hotaru and ditzy Mikanhave been best friends, and are virtually inseparable-- that is, until Hotaru is invited to attend a strange school far away, a school for those who have special abilities known as "Alice". Unable to be separated from her friend, Mikan soon sets out on a mission to find her. After traveling to a city far away, she finds Hotaru at last, but gets much more than she bargained for. Now, she is lost in a school full of kids with strange powers, unusual animals, and has secured an immediate rivalry with the toughest little punk in town!
When it comes to anime, I tend to be a fan of comedy, shoujo, romance or anything else that will put a smile on my face. However, I'll review pretty much anything. Whether you like or dislike my reviews, I'm always glad to receive feedback, and I'm always happy to get into intelligent discussions.