By Tachibana Higuchi. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by Tokyopop.
Ah, Gakuen Alice. You and your hierarchies of bullying drive me crazy sometimes. Well, OK, all the time. And yet, you're still a compelling read. It's impressive.
First of all, it's Mikan's birthday, and you know what that means! Yep, no one remembers and she's left devastated. Except of course, they're all just faking it so they can do a surprise party, which backfires as she runs off. Even the cast admits it was a bad idea, but as Hotaru notes, 'teasing Mikan is just too much fun'. Hotaru fills in as an author voice a lot through the manga, and you do sense that one reason Higuchi loves to draw Gakuen Alice is to think of fresh new tortures for her heroine.
Then we get the main plot of this volume, where Hotaru (by invitation) and Mikan (by contest win) are invited to a special girl's only area of the school, or, as it's also known, the 'pretty girl harem'. And now we get another group in this manga who are elite princesses, and who therefore have honors and privileges above the common rabble. Gosh, I wonder if they'll bully Mikan?
Things are complicated by a Candy Ex Machina that glues Mikan to Natsume, and Hotaru to Luca and Yo-chan for the foreseeable future. They wear off randomly, and till they do everyone is stuck. Cue the boys being forced to enter that all-girls' enclave! And yes, Mikan is bullied. But so is Natsume, as you are reminded that while Mikan gets the typical elementary-school bullying that we all know, what's directed towards Natsume is a different kettle of fish altogether. That's not bullying, that's child abuse.
Of course, Natsume also gets to take it out on Mikan, who he occasionally tries opening up to but mostly treats like utter crap. Mikan recognizes this, and finds him hard to deal with as every time she thinks he's secretly nice he gets irritating again. This is, of course, a standard shoujo romance trope. I give Natsume more of a pass than I would other heroes as he's 10 years old, however.
There are some interesting revelations in this volume, and seeing Luca and Hotaru look badass together was cool (really, Hotaru in general is cool), but enjoying this volume may depend largely on how you feel about 'girl manages to get through her horrible life with gumption and guts' shoujo. This has long been a staple of Japanese manga bullying plots (see Fruits Basket), and the answer still tends to be 'if the victim is just stronger and cheerful, eventually the bullies will come around to her goodness and niceness!'. Well, I suppose it *is* a fantasy manga...
In any case, I do still enjoy Gakuen Alice, even thought it drives me crazy. Slightly recommended.