I picked up Alice the 101st’s first volume recently, and, wow, I wish I hadn’t. What a harsh way to start off a review! But as a great overview of my feelings about the damn thing, I really couldn’t put it any better.
Alice the 101st is the same story you’ve seen a million times before – protagonist has a lot of raw talent but no basic skills and no formal training, comes to a super fancy and snobby private school, and quickly finds themself the object of bullying and derision amongst their peers. At least one person pops up to be the kid’s BFF, even though there’s no truly obvious reason they would be. The kid then utterly shocks and amazes everyone when they pull something out of their ass, and holy hell!, they have a lot of talent! But they still totally suck at the basics. School life ensues!
What A101st doesn’t seem to get, however, is that some of these stories manage to succeed despite their bogwater standard basic premise because they have a hook somewhere in the mix – the characters are particularly likeable, or the writer puts a new spin on the premise, orthe humor present is genuinely whipsmart. In A101st, well, the art looks nice… but the execution is hardly memorable and the characters are bland. I don’t care what happens to the titular Alice. I don’t care about why the guy who claims to love him wants to be another character’s rival. I don’t care about the possible intrigue involving a cold female celloist who flits through the narrative. And I don’t care at all about the fate of the ~mysterious~ violin which Alice is himself so interested in. There isn’t a single thing in the entire volume I give two hoots about.
And for BL fans who were considering this, as its published under DMP’s Doki Doki line… don’t bother. Author Chigusa Kawai proved herself to be a master of the slow-boil, minimalist approach to BL with La Esperanca (also a DMP title, although I think it is out of print now), but the only hint of boys chasing boys here comes in the form of an annoying and overbearing young man who, with little reason, rushes about delcaring himself to be in love with Alice. There is absolutely no build-up to it, unless you count his mistaking Alice for a girl one day, which is pretty thin pretext for his sudden obsession. I may’ve angrily tossed the final volume of La Esperanca down in utter frustration, but at least there one felt there was chemistry betwixt its leads, even if overt expression of attraction was scant.
Is there anything good to be said of A101st? Well, like I said, the art is pretty. And Kawai knows her music on a technical level that most others flub when trying to pen stories about elite music schools or about elite musicians and students of music. But the pervasive dullness of the story overwhelms these good qualities wholly.
I also have to say I find the quality of the release downright disappointing, as much as I hate to say that. I’ve always been a big fan of DMP’s yaoi imprint(s) of many names, but I find the steep decline in their finished products incredibly frustrating. When DMP first made a big splash with titles like Passion and Only the Ring Finger Knows, their BL and yaoi releases were a delightful shock to Western audiences – these were larger format volumes with dust jackets, and they usually cost about $3 more than the stuff that Tokyopop and Viz were putting out. I get that the market has changed, but DMP’s BL manga releases now are even smaller than the standard-sized manga in America are. And the prices? Still $12.95 per volume.
I may as well mention, too, that June’s/Doki Doki’s/801’s releases are trending back toward being more localized, a really weird turn after years of American manga releases leaving more and more intact in translation (i.e. cultural references, honorifics, etc.). I didn’t notice it too much here, but as long as I’m criticizing the degradation of the product, might as well bring this up as well.
But, back to A101st. Needless to say, I won’t be dipping my toes into the second volume. If you’re looking for some BL with a music theme, you’d do better to look elsewhere – there certainly isn’t a scarcity of this type of BL (athough, for the love of all things good and beautiful, do not freaking go near Fujimi Orchestra, blech!). In fact, if you can tolerate torturous “will they, won’t they?”-style BL, Kawai’s La Esperanca is a much better alternative. A101st is just boring, and for anything meant to entertain, there can be nothing more damning than that simple fact.