For those of you who are not as knowledgeable about manga, let me define it. People in the West define manga as comics originally written in Japanese while in Japan, the word means a certain style of drawing. (source) The manga form in Japan is, I would argue, a respected one and there many prestigious awards centered around the form and the literature produced in the format. I don’t think it is fair to dismiss an entire genre just because some of the books created in the medium are not good because that’s like saying that because Twilight is so horrible, all YA must be terrible.
I’m not too knowledgeable about graphic novels being a recent convert where their awesomeness is concerned, I have read a lot of manga. Predominantly shoujo (girl’s) manga because I admit it, I like them. Some of them are terrible but I’ve been seeing a positive move away from tired tropes and cliches which is always a good thing. Of course, I do not want to simplify something that I do not have cultural or education background in. I will approach my posts as a reader who does know anything about Japan and does not presume to be an expert in Manga. I just know what I like and that is what I am going to be speaking about.
Now that I have said all that, let’s move on to the manga I am going to be talking about in this post.
Gakuen Alice – Higuchi Tachibana
31 volumes, complete
Original publisher: Haukencha
Published in English by Tokyo Pop, 16 volumes before it went defunct
So I know that many of you might not read manga for whatever reasons but if you ever do get an urge to pick one up, I suggest Gakuen Alice (which translates to Alice Academy). I hesitated for quite a long time before I started this because hello, it’s about grade school kids and how interesting could their lives be? Turns out, very. The series is a best seller in Japan and has spawned two seasons of anime, countless artwork and has a Wiki devoted to it. So what is the series about?
Think about Harry Potter and, if possible, just make it a bit more complicated, a bit bloodier and a bit more interesting. Yes, I said it!
Mikan, the main character of this series, is seriously attached to her best friend Hotaru. She’s so attached that when Hotaru transfers to a strange new school called Alice Academy, Mikan follows. At Alice Academy all kids have special abilities that are called Alices and it turns out that Mikan has one as well. Only she has no idea what it could be. But this Alice gets her admitted to the Academy where she can at last be with her beloved Hotaru. Or that was the plan. She has to initially prove her worth and find out about her Alice and gain the approval of her entire class. Her class which revolves around the surly presence of Natsume and his best friend, the gentle Ruka. The shenanigans that occur when the two (Natsume and Mikan) meet will be enough to have you giggling for a while.
The strength of the series lies not just in the art but in the complexity of the story. Though the age of the protagonists are young, the issues they grapple with are serious enough in tone and portrayal that the target audience is far older than the age of the protagonists would suggest. The characters present have been exquisitely individuated and have been so finely delineated that you need only read the dialogue to know who it is that is speaking. Mikan is endearingly naive but her naivete is fitting to her sheltered upbringing. She is no Mary Sue and though there is a lot of attention given to her, she is not flawless. In fact, she may be the most flawed one of them all. And then there are the relationships, both the romantic and platonic ones.
I like how the mangaka (author/artist) is careful to maintain the relationship at a level appropriate to the age of her characters. This is not to say that the relationships are superficial or flimsy, nothing could be further from the truth. She gives her characters this adult like comprehension and situations, as though they have been aged far more than they ought to be because of what they’ve seen and been through in their shorts lives but she retains that sort of immaturity where liking each other is concerned. The immaturity that is so characteristic of children at the ages she portrays them. The friendships portrayed in the series is perhaps the most important theme. Mikan learns about love and loss and friendship not just by experiencing these things but by observing others going through the same experiences.
The plot is convoluted and probably not something I can discuss without spoiling the audience majorly. The series touches on the divide (both perceived and real) between adults and children, about greed and how resources are exploited, how people are objectified, about the true meaning of friendship and what being a parent actually means. I’m not sure if the novel will ever be fully released in English but if it is, I do recommend it. Maybe library the first few volumes?