By Tachibana Higuchi. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by Tokyopop.
As everyone knows, sometimes setup is important. Especially in manga, you can't just get to the awesome stuff right away. You have to build your world, establish your characters, and of course bully them mercilessly until the reader wants to throw the volume across the room. Likewise, when you're doing a long dramatic arc, you need to have lots of dramatic fights against mid-level enemies, and standing around asking yourself why you're doing this. And of course, you need flashbacks.
This may sound like I'm being sarcastic, but I'm not really. When the payoff DOES arrive, if it's all perfectly timed, it can be a thing of beauty. Such a thing of beauty is Gakuen Alice 12, which draws together several threads from the previous books to create the best volume to date.
We start off by finishing up the previous volume's flashback, which shows, as expected, everything going wrong for Natsume and his family. It's especially heartbreaking as they're just so sweet, and makes you want to reread previous volumes so you can kee3p that in mind when seeing Natsume's grumpy, sullen demeanor. Natsume agrees to go to the school in order to protect his family, with his sister essentially being kidnapped and imprisoned to act as insurance. Since she's blind and amnesiac after the climax of Volume 11, this is easier than it sounds. And so Luca comes along, out of pure determination to be Natsume's friend. The flashback ends with Natsume's father, still hospitalized, hobbling after the limo taking him to the school screaming out his name. The close of of Natsume's tears as this happens is just devastating.
After this, and Luca's noting that his 'success' at the school is mostly due to the school baiting Natsume and treating him like a walking firebomb for hire, Mikan simply flips out. "What's wrong with this stupid school?" she asks, and she's not kidding. The Natsume flashback actually helps me deal with the bullying we'd gotten in previous scenes better, as it now becomes clear it's NOT just the standard Japanese "Why did you make him hit you?" school of bullying, but that the author is showing that this school's treatment of children as a combination of prisoners, lab rats, and spoiled brats leads to exactly this sort of behavior.
And so, filled with determination, they split up to go find Persona and rescue Natsume. First, however, Mikan ends up in a different level of the basement, where she runs into a familiar face. The meeting between Mikan and Aoi manages to be cute and serious at the same time, as their immediate bond (they're extremely similar) is offset by Aoi's devotion to Persona, which is a bond of deep empathy. Having only seen the brooding, broken Persona rather than his killer evil side, Aoi wants nothing more than to help him.
That changes fast, as Mikan is called to another part of the building, where the others have found Persona, Natsume... and Nobara, who is in an ice princess trance (this school does love priming its kid weapons, doesn't it). One thing I loved is both Natsume AND Persona assuming that Mikan stops Nobara through using her nullification Alice, when really it's just Nobara herself, terrified of Mikan seeing her when she's like this, breaking down and running off. Mikan has so far proved to be much better at getting her way through the power of friendship than due to her Alice.
So now we're down to Persona, who is verbally destroying Natsume. The confrontation is made even worse by the arrival of Aoi, who had left her little prison cell (one suspects, being blind and sympathetic to Persona anyway, she wasn't locked up so much as persuaded to stay there for her own good), and she finally sees him threatening everyone with his 'monstrous' powers. These two chapters are notable for a few things; Mikan's sheer determination to stop Persona, even if it means her own death; Persona's traumatic past, which we only see bits of but which will surely pop up again in the future, as it's become clear that Persona is Natsume's dark mirror; and Hotaru, normally very deadpan, completely losing that and looking just as worried as the others when it becomes clear that Persona's attacks on Mikan are making her seriously ill. The scene where she essentially begs her brother to save Mikan is very touching.
Nevertheless, Mikan *does* stop Persona, and not just by giving him a big hug (though that's how it appears). A male figure with his face hidden by hair appears behind her as a sort of 'ghostly image', much the same way the spirit of a dead teammate appears behind the hero in a shonen anime as they deal their new finishing move. It's not stated, but it's fairly clear that this must be Mikan's father, and that she not only has nullification, but ANOTHER Alice... one which can not only stop Persona (who gets a taste of his own medicine), but actually manages to heal herself. Most of this is shown in a very vague "But ... wait, it couldn't be... that?" sort of way, and clearly Mikan's new ability will drive the plot of some future volumes.
I also must praise Tono in this volume, who actually manages to figure out a way not to get everyone brutally punished. His solution, relying on the fact that Aoi-chan was imprisoned at school despite not having Alice abiliti4es anymore, is very clever, and I liked the reaction of the student body to the revelations. Notably, their reactions also seemed to be along the lines of 'what's wrong with this stupid school?'. It's always nice to see that it's not just Mikan vs. the world. And then we get the last scene, showing Aoi leaving the school. It's so ridiculously heartwarming that words just can't describe it. For a manga that deals with child abuse, bullying, and trauma the way Gakuen Alice has so often in the past, seeing a happy ending like this, even if briefly, is incredibly necessary. It's even capped off by Luca throwing his stars away, realizing the falseness of the school's hierarchy.
As I noted in the review of my two previous volumes, the buildup to this was sometimes a bit of a slog. But this volume basically had everything I wanted from Gakuen Alice. Mikan's determination (which reaches new highs here) and ability to use niceness as a weapon; Persona getting his ass kicked by a girl, even if only metaphorically; and the resolution of the horrific flashback in a way that's pure joy. Almost everyone gets a chance to shine, either by being very clever or by showing sides of themselves we don't normally see. Yes, I'm sure in a volume or two we'll be back to more of Mikan being bullied and other student abuses, but that is sort of the premise. In the meantime, we have this.