Gakuen Alice, season one

33-cover

Ten-year-old Mikan is living the good life with her best friend Hotaru when disaster strikes: their small-town school is being closed down! Mikan, emotional and quick to take action, circulates a petition. Hotaru, typically, appears not to care. But when the school receives a large donation enabling it to stay open, Mikan discovers that the money came from Hotaru’s family: the government paid them to send Hotaru to a special boarding school for gifted students, Alice Academy, and Hotaru asked that they use the cash to save the school. So Hotaru really does care! But now she’s gone, and Mikan didn’t get to say goodbye! Mikan waits, writing letters and missing her best friend, until she hears a rumor that the Academy’s students are kept at the school like prisoners. Mikan is off to save Hotaru!

Just getting to the Academy is tough – taking a bus all alone, navigating an unfamiliar city, and dodging sketchy strangers – but Mikan is the determined type. Which is good, because when she finally arrives, she’ll need all her determination to face her next challenge: being suddenly drafted into Alice Academy. The school accepts only people with special powers called Alices, and a perceptive (if strange) teacher tells Mikan that she has one. At last, she’ll be reunited with Hotaru! But it comes at a price. Many other students don’t think Mikan belongs at Alice Academy, and since she can’t seem to discover what her Alice is, she questions it herself.

When Mikan does discover her Alice, it’s a rare ability to nullify other people’s Alice powers, which is good to have when maladjusted schoolmate Natsume is throwing fireballs at her, but not as useful (or fun) as other people’s powers of flight, mind-reading, and more. Hotaru has the power to invent and build spectacular machines, but not, apparently, the power to sympathize with Mikan’s rough transition into the Academy. Eventually Mikan’s persistent cheerfulness wins her friends at the school, and it slowly becomes clear that Hotaru’s chilly demeanor hides real caring. Even Natsume has more depth than Mikan would have suspected.

But caring and common ground aren’t the only things Mikan uncovers at Alice Academy. Who are the shadowy figures manipulating and what are they trying to achieve? Who can be trusted? And when it comes to an all-out battle for the Academy, will Mikan and her friends be strong enough to make sure good triumphs?

Bubbly and comical, this anime will surprise you sometimes with the complexity of its world building and the emotions of its conflicting characters. Mikan is easy to like: irrepressible, caring, and highly entertaining. The other characters show a variety of personalities and relationships. It’s funny to see both dangerous Natsume and unemotional Hotaru start to look like potential romantic interests for Mikan. (And then there’s sweet Ruka, who seems to actually like Mikan, but what chance does the actually-interested-nice-guy ever have in fiction?) Of course, as they’re ten-year-olds, this is all quite innocent. The art is a good match for the feel: cute, with clean lines and smooth, active animations. (I also feel I should mention the extreme catchiness of the theme song, which is just as bouncy as Mikan.)

The humor includes clever running jokes, often with meta elements. For example, money-obsessed Hotaru showcases her amazing inventions by demonstrating them to the show’s viewers in the style of an infomercial, leading her friends to wonder during one of her spiels, “Who is she talking to?” In a great inversion of the anime/manga panty shot trope, Mikan’s panties never actually appear to the viewer, but other characters sometimes see them (no wonder, given the length of the Academy’s skirts), and Natsume mocks her with nicknames like “Polka-dots” and “Strawberry-pattern.” With a rating of 13+ , the show is smart enough to appeal to older viewers, but would be successful with many younger kids, too – nothing too scary or sexual.

Just a note: this edition does not include an English-dubbed soundtrack, only English subtitles. It does, however, have a fun Translation Notes feature on each disc, where you can see explanations of some of the Japanese linguistic and cultural references.

Gakuen Alice, season one
Right Stuf/Nozomi Entertainment, 2004
directed by Takahiro Omori
650 minutes, Number of Discs: 5, Season set
Company Age Rating: 13
Related to: Gakuen Alice by Tachibana Higuchi

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