Portrait of M & N 1-2 by Tachibana Higuchi: B-

Much as with Natsuki Takaya’s Tsubasa: Those with Wings, I had been looking forward to the English release of Portrait of M & N by Tachibana Higuchi only because I enjoy later work, Gakuen Alice. Aaaand, much as with Tsubasa: Those with Wings, I ended up somewhat disappointed.

Portrait of M & N is a love story starring a beautiful girl named Mitsuru Abe and a handsome boy named Natsuhiko Amakusa. Matters are complicated, however, because each character harbors an embarrassing secret: Mitsuru is a masochist (or M) and Natsuhiko is a narcissist (or N). Ostensibly, these conditions developed as a result of the way they were treated by their parents—the most attention Mitsuru received from her mother was when she was being punished, while sickly Natsuhiko was forbidden to go outside and play with other kids, and thus developed a fixation for his own reflection.

Both Mitsuru and Natsuhiko are hoping for a normal, peaceful high school life, and things seem to be off to a good start because their good looks have attracted positive notice from their classmates. That is, until Mitsuru’s masochistic tendencies are triggered in Natsuhiko’s presence. It’s almost as if she has a split personality: when she is hit in the face, she suddenly becomes aggressively submissive, offering anybody who happens to be nearby the chance to do whatever they want to her. Against his better judgment, Natsuhiko becomes friends with Mitsuru and attempts to protect her whenever she goes into M mode, and thus reveals his own secret to her, one that turns him into a tearful, blushing fool whenever he catches sight of himself in a mirror.

If you’re looking for an accurate, sensitive portrayal of masochism or narcissism, you’re not going to find it here. This is a comedy, after all, and Higuchi seemingly delights in inventing ridiculous situations for the characters to endure—like a mandatory game of dodgeball, for example. A third character, Hijiri, enters the mix in toward the end of the first volume and, realizing Mitsuru’s secret pretty quickly, uses it to extract her cooperation in protecting him from a particular dog (he has a secret phobia of his own) on his way to and from school. Mitsuru’s closeness with two of the hottest guys in school does not go over well with the other girls, who treat her very poorly. These are the most tiresome scenes in the series, by far.

Setting aside the ridiculous and the tiresome, however, there really are some things I genuinely like about Portrait of M and N. Most of the time, a shoujo romance is presented from the girl’s point of view. She falls in love with the boy and we’re privy to her emotions, but we rarely, if ever, get inside his head. That is not the case here and, in fact, I believe there has been more attention paid to Natsuhiko’s developing feelings than Mitsuru’s.

As one bit of text reads, “She swiftly fell in love in spring, he realized he was falling in love in summer.” For Mitsuru, it was easy to fall in love with Natsuhiko, who is kind and understands her, but for Natsuhiko, the realization that he is falling in love with someone else is doubly important because it means that he can. All of his life, relatives and classmates have been vocal in their doubts that such a thing would ever be possible, but he has proved them wrong, and his happiness is mixed with not a little relief.

While I find Hijiri generally annoying, he is useful in that his interactions with Mitsuru force Natsuhiko to confront how he feels about her, and they end volume two by sharing an awkwardly cute moment together. It’s for scenes like these that I’ll continue to read Portrait of M & N and hope that there’s less to irk me in volumes to come.

Portrait of M & N is published by TOKYOPOP. The series is complete in Japan with six volumes, and two have been released in English so far.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Gakuen Alice 7 by Tachibana Higuchi: B

gakuen7For the most part, Gakuen Alice is a fairly episodic series about the adventures of spunky ten-year-old Mikan as she acclimates to attending a mysterious school whose students all have special powers known as Alices. Beginning in volume six, however, its first multi-volume arc, involving an organization that’s opposed to the Alice Academy and is responsible for infecting Mikan’s best friend, Hotaru, with a virus, gets underway. In volume seven, Mikan and friends are pursuing the organization responsible through a forest beset with dangerous traps.

The strong point of Gakuen Alice is the way it mixes darker revelations about the nature of the Academy and the uses to which it puts certain students with warmer scenes of Mikan and her friends. In this volume, this balance is somewhat thrust aside due to the “we’re journeying along a spooky trail, watch out for that laser beam” action that’s going on, but occasional nice moments shine through, mostly involving the sweet romantic triangle going on between Mikan, gentle animal-loving Luca, and Luca’s best friend Natsume. Natsume’s one of those tortured, self-denying characters who, rather than seek his own happiness, instead nudges Luca and Mikan together, because Luca being happy “is enough.” In other words, just the kind to win a shoujo fan’s heart.

While all of the journeying gets a little tiresome, the cliffhanger ending suggests that we might soon get some facts about Mikan’s mysterious origins, which would certainly be nice after all of the cryptic hinting that’s been going on. I’m looking forward to it.

Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Gakuen Alice 6 by Tachibana Higuchi: B+

gakuen6From the back cover:
A series of mysterious incidents in which Alices lose their powers strikes close to home when Prez’s abilities suddenly disappear! As if that isn’t bad enough, an encounter with “Z,” the Anti-Academy organization (who might be behind the missing Alices), leaves Hotaru sorely wounded. A cure may lie outside the school, but how will Mikan and her friends get past campus security?

Well, this is certainly an action-packed volume and more Potter-like than ever, involving several instances of students defying rules and taking matters into their own hands (and sometimes making things worse).

We’re probably supposed to admire the plucky bravery that makes Mikan declare she’s going to fight Z and help Hotaru, but seriously, how?! Still, I liked the reasons that made both Luca and Natsume decide to help her. Too, I like learning more about Hotaru—turns out she’s the kind of seemingly detached person who secretly relies a lot on the steady happiness of those around her, a personality with which I can completely identify.

While the plot to thwart the invaders and save Hotaru is the main focus, there are a lot of other questions and tidbits floating around, too. Things like Natsume overhearing some faculty talking about Mikan and also shirking an assignment from headquarters in order to help her, some mysterious girl who once lived with Luca and Natsume, Hotaru resolving to investigate the Academy’s treatment of Mikan, some possible recognition of the invaders from Z, and the fact that one of them may’ve recognized Mikan… At times, it can actually get to be rather too much, and part of why I’ve ennumerated all those things here is to help me keep track of them and see whether they’re adequately resolved in the future.

So far, this series has been pretty episodic, though there’ve always been some continuing threads woven throughout. Are we finally coming to the start of something more epic, or will this all be resolved tidily in a volume or so and we’ll be back to watching Luca frolic with woodland creatures?

Gakuen Alice 5 by Tachibana Higuchi: B+

gakuen5From the back cover:
The Alice Festival is coming to a close, but the surprises and fun aren’t over for Mikan and her friends yet! Things get a little crazy for Narumi’s musical when an accident takes out some of the performers and Mikan has to step in as the star of the show. But what will happen when she and Luca have to kiss on stage?! And as if that’s not enough, as soon as the kids are back in class, it’s time for exams, and Mikan is in for some bad news when the scores come back!

I wonder how it is that this series is able to use common manga clichés without annoying me. First there was the genuinely entertaining school festival, and now there’s the tried and true “school play wherein the princess is played by a boy in drag” bit. I think it’s because Higuchi-sensei is able to use each scenario to both show the uniqueness of the school and bring about some nice moments for the characters. The play is totally goofy, for example, but Natsume ends up being kind to a super-cute little kid as well as thwarting a smooch between Mikan and Luca, so how could I not like that?

I also like that one’s expectations are subverted. Like, of course whenever a group works really hard like Mikan’s Special class did on their festival attraction, they’ll get the big medal at the end! Except they don’t, though they do get recognition of a sort. And, of course, when our plucky heroine buckles down to study for her exams (cue studying montage!) so that she can earn a visit to her grandpa, she’s going to win! Except Mikan gets the lowest grade in the class.

In addition to this, some of the mystery has returned with this volume, with some more details about Mikan’s parentage coming to light and more notice of her presence, and affect on Natsume, by the headmasters, which is definitely not a good thing. So far, at least, I get the impression that Higuchi knows where she’s going with this story, which is always something I appreciate.

Gakuen Alice 4 by Tachibana Higuchi: B+

gakuen4From the back cover:
Mikan’s daring rescue of Natsume earned her an upgrade to One-Star rank, with all attendant privileges. And just in time, too. For the School Festival is about to begin, and the Special Ability class is using every last trick they’ve got to create an exciting—and surprising—attraction!

There’s not as much darkness in this volume, and though I’m a fan of that aspect of the story, it’s nice to have a fun interlude like this one.

One of the things I really like about this series is how it’ll go into detail about things that could be boring, like specifics of Alice power capacities or ranking systems, but make them interesting (and not seem like afterthoughts). The same thing happens regarding the Special Ability class’ attraction for the school festival—there are actually a few chapters about the RPG they create and its rules and it’s still a lot of fun to read about.

Natsume and Mikan are thrust into each other’s company again in this volume and, though he’s a jerk to her, it seems like he might fancy her some. Their relationship reminds me of Hayama and Sana from Kodocha in some respects. In its initial setup, Kodocha features a cheerful, pig-tailed girl in conflict with the surly ringleader of class miscreants. She gets to know him (and his sorrows) better and no longer hates him, but he still avails himself of opportunities to cop a feel.

I’ve not talked about the art in this series much. At first, I thought it was too cluttered with too much screentone, but now it’s either balanced out or I’ve gotten used to it. There are occasional pages where the use of tone is excessive, including a weird tone for the hair of blond characters, but on the whole I haven’t any particular complaints.

Also, I continue to love Luca. I hope we’ll eventually find out why he’s ranked a Triple, since he says that he “didn’t get it because of [his] talent” like Hotaru. Is it merely the school’s way of thanking him for keeping Natsume reasonably content? That wouldn’t surprise me.

Gakuen Alice 3 by Tachibana Higuchi: B+

gakuen3From the back cover:
The school cultural festival is approaching, and the special guest is Reo, a former Alice student turned Hollywood superstar! But Reo is involved in some awfully shady dealings, and when his plans suddenly start to involve Natsume, it’s up to Mikan and Sumire to save the day!

I never thought I’d be giving a B+ to something featuring a school festival and a kidnapping perpetrated by a bishounen idol, but there you go. I guess I’m just a sucker for the combination of ominous facts about the Academy and warm, fuzzy friendship scenes between its students that this volume offers.

It helps that Higuchi uses these silly scaffoldings to reveal more about Natsume’s situation at the school. Being classified as a “dangerous” ability-type means that he’s prohibited from participating in the festival, and even as Mikan is orchestrating something that the “special” type can do to show the other students that they aren’t rejects, she’s aware of Natsume’s exclusion. Later, after she and snobby classmate Sumire have gotten themselves kidnapped while trying to save him, she overhears the kidnappers talking about Natsume’s tragic background and the real reason the dangerous class exists: to do the Academy’s dirty work.

My favorite chapter, though, is mostly fluffy. Mean Professor Snape Jinno denies Mikan a visit to Hogsmeade Central Town, an area on the Alice Academy grounds full of shops owned by Alice artisans, but manages to wrangle permission and then puts on a street performance to earn enough money to buy some candy. Put like that, it’s lame, but when she gives the leftovers of her candy to Narumi-sensei to give to her grandfather when he sees him, it means that she’s decided to trust him (despite the warnings from other students that no adult is trustworthy) when he says he’s going to contact her grandfather and let him know that Mikan is okay.

As we learn more about the Academy, Narumi-sensei’s urgings for Mikan to make friends, and how these friends will be her strongest allies at the school, take on a new meaning. We get a nice contrast between scenes where Mikan and Sumire finally seem to have become friends and scenes where Natsume is being urged to do his “duty,” suggesting that this band of kids might be called upon at some point to mount a rebellion. Interesting stuff, indeed!

Gakuen Alice 2 by Tachibana Higuchi: B

gakuen2From the back cover:
Young Mikan is the newest student at the mysterious and prestigious Alice Academy, where the most talented and powerful students in the country are united, but for what purpose…?

Mikan is officially admitted into Alice Academy, but things still aren’t exactly going smoothly. Natsume still bullies her, her class ranking couldn’t be lower, some of the teachers are outright hostile, and she has been forbidden to contact anyone outside of the school! Will she be able to find true friends at the academy?

Quite a lot happens in this volume and nearly all of it is interesting. Aside from getting more information about the organization of the school—including the importance of star rankings and ability-type classes (which are totally like Hogwarts’ Houses, by the way)—there are more indications that the adults at the Alice Academy are not to be trusted and that for Mikan to come there of her own free will might’ve been a huge mistake, particularly since she’s being watched because of the Alice of Nullification that she possesses.

Mikan is also improving in the likability department. She still has her annoying moments, but she’s at least trying to be more mature. Hotaru helps, too, chastising Mikan when she’s whining about not being able to see her grandfather and reminding her that everyone else there is enduring the same sort of isolation from their families.

My favorite characters are Natsume and Luca at this point, even though the former is almost always behaving violently. I love Luca because he’s conflicted between loyalty to his friend and his attraction to the more upbeat world-view that Mikan offers. Natsume is appealing because he’s been denied any chance at real camaraderie by being labelled “special” and “dangerous” by the school. What’s more, while everyone’s relaxing after a game of dodgeball that Mikan organized, Natsume is tapped by a professor to go out on an “urgent mission,” further denying him any of the simple joys of childhood.

So, yes, it’s getting better and darker, too. Definitely don’t stop with volume one if you’re interested in this series.

Gakuen Alice 1 by Tachibana Higuchi: B-

gakuen1From the back cover:
Young Mikan runs away to Tokyo following her best friend, Hotaru, who has been enrolled in an exclusive, secretive private school for geniuses. But it turns out that Alice Acdemy is a lot more than meets the eye. Whether it’s Hotaru’s gift for inventing gadgets, the cranky Natsume’s firecasting ability, or Professor Narumi’s control of human pheromones, everyone at the school has some sort of special talent. But what ability, if any, does Mikan possess? Mikan is going to have to rely on her courage and spunk if she’s going to stay in school, or even stay alive!

I watched a little bit of the Gakuen Alice anime several years ago, so was familiar with the general premise as well as the events that take place in this volume. I’m not sure why I didn’t go farther with the anime, but I think I might’ve had difficulty with some hurdles that also present themselves in the manga: unlikable characters and too many gags.

Our main character, Mikan, is spazzy and selfish. I might’ve liked her more to start with if Higuchi had resisted the temptation to draw many outlandish reaction gags as Mikan learns more about the Alice Academy and its peculiar occupants. In the second half of the book, while traversing a dangerous patch of woods on campus, Hotaru finally tells Mikan that she needs to stop behaving so childishly. Probably I was supposed to sympathize with the heroine there, but really all I could think was, “Thank you, Hotaru!” Thankfully, Mikan does get more tolerable around that point, as well.

Hotaru has some problems with likability at first, too. We are told that she agreed to go to Alice Academy in exchange for money that she then used to keep the school where she met Mikan financially afloat. She also was cold to Mikan on her last day in an attempt to cause Mikan to forget about her rather than nurture sad memories. That’s well and good, but the problem is that we are told these things and not shown them. It’s not until the second half of the volume that Hotaru actually exhibits some real warmth towards Mikan, even deigning to smile a little when Mikan’s Alice is finally revealed. So far, though, she does seem friendlier in the manga version.

Something that I didn’t pick up on very much in the anime is the hint of something more sinister going on at the school. Natsume is being caused agony by something, though whether it’s the dangerous nature of his powers or something else is not yet revealed, and both he and his friend Luca seem to sport mysterious scars. This is definitely the most intriguing aspect of the story right now.

Gakuen Alice is published in English by TOKYOPOP and seven volumes have been released so far. The series is still ongoing in Japan and eighteen collected volumes have been released as of March 2009.