It’s Kodocha, toned down, with magic.
What They Say
Mikan and Hotaru are best friends! (Well, according to Mikan, anyway. Hotaru doesn't seem to care.) Then one day, Hotaru is escorted away in a fancy black car, apparently scouted by a school in Tokyo called "Alice Academy." Crushed at the loss of her favorite pal, Mikan scurries after her, determined to enroll, too! But Alice Academy is a mysterious place. Can Mikan tough it out in a school where explosions, superpowers, giant baby chicks and axe-wielding teddy bears are the norm? Though it's not as if she has a choice, because once students enter Alice Academy, there is no escape!
Gakuen Alice is given a standard stereo presentation for its single language release, encoded at 192kbps. The show has been dubbed for an Asian release, but that was not included with this one, often because these dubs are considered pretty poor and would reflect badly on the releasing company. I admit to wishing that they’d try it once and offer a note about it so fans would know it wasn’t a US produced dub. Regardless, Gakuen Alice has a good presentation here with its original Japanese mix as it deals with a sometimes busy forward soundstage with a minor bit of directionality here and there. Often there’s just a lot going on with all the characters and action that it sort of blurs, but it’s always clean and clear and without any discernable problems.
Originally airing in late 2004 and early 2005, Gakuen Alice is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio. The show splits its twenty-six episodes across five discs in a 5/5/5/5/6 format that gives each disc plenty of space to play with and good results. In general, it’s a very bright but not overly so series with lots of colors and vibrant moments that gives it the kind of childlike experience you’d expect from it. It’s appealing with clean lines and a decent amount of action and movement that’s captured well by the encoding as it’s essentially problem free. Openings and endings retain their original text and each episode has an English language version that follows, which is my preferred presentation. There’s hardly anything wrong when it comes to background noise or break-up as we get a very clean looking show with no visible cross coloration either.
Nozomi continues to provide releases that have some heft and weight to them that allows them to stand out against a sea of double disc thinpaks in the market. It’s a release that makes you feel like you’re getting something for your money and this one is no exception. The heavy chipboard box is very appealing with its white background that lets you be drawn in by the character artwork on each side. The main panel features the core cast of characters in their school uniforms, though only Mikan and the rabbit are smiling. The other panel is very cute as it has Mikan hugging Hotaru with a big smile on her face, though Hotaru has her usual bland expression. It’s a very appealing box overall, simple in its design, but it shows you exactly what to expect.
Inside the box we get five clear thinpak cases. These are all wonderfully done in a way that really is just right. The first volume has a cute picture of Hotaru and Mikan together, set with a pink background. The second has Mikan with Natsume and Ruka while the third puts her with just Natsume in the forest. Other class members help to fill out the remaining two volumes with exterior scenes and even Narumi and Bear get into the action. The back of the covers are all designed the same with a few stars floating about and a pink setting behind it. A few pictures from the show are changed with each volume and we get a rundown of the overall show premise that doesn’t change between volumes which I always find awkward. The discs features are clearly listed for each as is the episode numbers and titles that are included for that volume. There are no reverse side covers or show related inserts included.
The menu design for the show is simple but nice as it takes the cover artwork from each individual volume and uses it on that disc instead of one simple piece across all five discs. So many shortcuts are done these days that even a simple usage like this feels special and given more care. The menus have a lot of white space around them and colors that tie it all together for the borders which makes it stand out and look very appealing and vibrant. Submenus are minimal as there isn’t a language selection section but what we do have is quick and easy to navigate and problem free. Due to it being monolingual, player presets are obviously a non-issue as well.
The extras are spread across all the volumes and there’s some good stuff here that isn’t done often. The main extra of merit is the liner notes provided with each volume. There’s a few basics that we always see with school based shows, but there’s enough little cultural nods here and there in the show that merit some extra explanations. In addition to that, there’s the character bios that Nozomi likes to creat and clean opening and closing sequences.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on an ongoing manga by Higuchi Tachibana, Gakuen Alice is a very sweet and straightforward show that plays up what I can only imagine as a girls wish fulfillment show akin to what a boys one is like. I avoid comparison references since I think each show must stand on its own, but there are some cute similarities to Kodocha here with how it functions that you can’t help but feel that this is a spiritual and magical successor to that show in a way. There’s a lot hinted at here that certainly gives reason for another season or two to be made, but it also finishes out in a way that makes it feel satisfactory.
Gakeun Alice introduces us to the lead character of Mikan Sakura quickly as she’s panicking about the state of her little country school which is about to be merged with a larger one. The classes are being split and her best friend, Hotaru Imai, is going away to another school far away. She can’t imagine her life without Hotaru as she provided some stability and pure friendship that she needed when things were rough for her when she was even younger than her elementary days she’s at now. When she learns that she won’t even be able to contact Hotaru for some length of time, or at all, Mikan can’t wait any longer and makes her way out to the Alice Academy. It’s here that she meets a teacher named Narumi who takes an instant liking to her when she’s trying to sneak over the rather well defended walls. Making a deal with Mikan, he manages to get her into the school on a probationary basis.
The probationary period is difficult for two reasons. The first is that she has to essentially get along with everyone in Class B, which is mostly made up of the most difficult of kids in the school for that particular grade. The second reason is more problematic for her as she has to discover what her Alice power is. As it turns out, the Alice Academy is a place where the government brings in all the special powered people it discovers across the country and works with them to help them adjust to their powers, learn to control them and help manage them into integrating into society once they graduate. Some have really big powers like telekinesis, telepathy or powerful flame skills while others have joke powers like being able to make someone laugh by telling a series of puns that they can’t escape from. For Mikan, she has to discover her power and then figure out her place in all of this.
Thankfully, the series doesn’t spend its entire run trying to figure out her power. In fact, she learns it pretty early on that she has the power of nullification, which is actually interesting since it has her trying to learn having the power of nothing in a way. With almost nobody in the class liking her outside of the class rep and her friend Hotaru having the really odd personality she has, Mikan really is in a difficult situation. Unable to contact anyone from home, she’s dealing with a lot of troublemakers that simply don’t like her and she gets little help because she’s at the absolute bottom of the list when it comes to everything, be it power ranking, grade ranking and friends. But someone like Mikan really does manage it well as she has that can-do attitude that helps her to keep trying and being persistent. It can get a little aggravating at times, but considering what she’s up against it’s a personality trait that’s practically a requirement to survive in the Alice Academy.
Where the drama comes into the series, when it’s not dealing with normal school activities or the rather lengthy culture festival, is that there is a dark edge to the show. The first one that is lightly explored involves Mikan’s parents who are largely unknown to her here, but turns out that at least her mother went here and had the same power. She serves as a catalyst in the past for a split in how the academy has charted its course in dealing with the students. Those with the Dangerous Abilities are placed into a separate class and are worked with to see if they can handle dangerous missions outside of the academy. There’s a lot of mystery about this “black ops” group, but one of the members we see a lot of is Natsume, the really bad boy of Class B. Mikan and Natsume obviously clash a lot but she’s drawn to him in different ways as she wants to get him to smile and see him be a part of the class instead of trying to escape the academy.
Where my interest in the show grows, in the kind of way where you want to see these characters in another ten or fifteen years later in their lives, is when we learn that there are anti-academy groups out there that try to break out various kids for very different purposes. Some may be benign, others want them to sell to the highest bidder. Others have a personal grievance that they want to deal with in regards to the academy. There’s a few instances that deal with a former academy student named Reo who is parlaying his singing fame, helped by his Alice power, to get back into the school so he can cause trouble and kidnap one of the more valuable students there for his own goals of causing problems. There are some longstanding issues involved in all of this that get dealt with over the course of the series and it all comes together in a way that really does tie a lot of things to each other without feeling too awful forced. It may be predictable, but they executed it well and managed it with cute characters.
The quirky factor of the series is a big plus in its favor and it’s one of its Kodocha like areas. Mikan has a kind of spunk about her that helps, but the various Alice abilities go a long way towards making things surreal. One student has the ability to put souls inside of stuffed animals and one of them is a teddy bear that has decided to live on its own in the woods in its own house. Hotaru creates numerous devices – including robots of her friends – that add a lot of gimmicks and amusement along the way. There’s a giant chick that roams the Northern Forest which is just priceless. Add in that the character designs are all simple and straightforward but with some nice color and overall very pleasing on the eye and it’s a great combination.
Gakuen Alice is one of those shows that when you watch it in marathon form you don’t get bored by it. It does have a few stretches that go on a bit too long, notably the festival segment, but they bring in enough good material that it works out well. The show is a little choppy at first as it tries to do a lot quickly, owing to its manga origins more than likely, but once it gets rolling there’s a lot to like. A few little mysteries, plenty of progress forward and some solid character growth and changes. Mikan from start to finish is a different person and one who realizes what she needs to do in order to survive in the world. This isn’t a top of the line series, but it’s a magically charming little show that made me smile quite a lot and was wonderful to take in. It’s a show, as noted, that I’d love to see them flash forward quite a few years as well as get a second and third season to tell more tales of as they graduate to new grades.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Clean Opening, Clean Closing, Character Bios, Translator Notes
Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70" LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.