Manga Review: ‘Alice 19th’

Alice 19th. Story and art by Yuu Watase. Viz Media, 2003. 7 vols. Rated T+ for older teen.

Yuu (or Yû, or Yu) Watase is a prolific and influential creator of shoujo (girls’) manga whose work, according to her Wikipedia page, fills over eighty volumes. She has explored a few different genres, primarily focusing on teen rom-coms and historical fantasy. She’s best known for her bodice-ripping, wuxia-inspired reverse harem sword-and-sorcery epic Fushigi Yugi, which broke the mold of the schoolgirl-gets-sucked-into-an-alternate-universe brand of Japanese pop fantasy. It’s a gigantic stew of melodrama, overwrought dialogue, lush costuming, hawt bishie boys, dippy romance, rape, martial arts battles, naked chicks, gay jokes, and rape.

How should I characterize Watase-sensei’s work? Remember the old days before Tivo when people used to channel-surf: you’d be flipping through the channels looking for something to watch, and for a brief moment you’d land upon the Lifetime Network, which was “television for women.” And it was always some guy beating the hell out of a woman. Every. Single. Time.

Reading Yuu Watase is sort of like that.

Anyway, in 2001 or thereabouts, Watase-sensei tried her hand at the magical girl genre with Alice 19th, a series that stands complete at 7 volumes. It starts out more-or-less like a conventional magical girl tale, introducing us to a retiring but likable young girl who happens upon a talking animal that grants her magic powers. But it quickly breaks from convention. By the end of the second volume, Alice 19th goes full Watase.

A reasonably engaging thriller, it is a good deal grittier than it at first appears, though it hews closely to some of Watase-sensei’s established formulae. It’s not her most influential work, but it is in some respects more approachable than her more famous titles like Fushigi Yugi or Ceres: Celestial Legend. For starters, there are only a handful of nude scenes, and I only counted two attempted rapes. That’s like zero attempted rapes for a typical writer.

Alice
(Read right to left.)

Our protagonist for this outing is Alice Seno, a meek and shy girl constantly outshined by her more glamorous older sister Mayura. Alice is a high school freshman, and she’s madly in love with the über-hawt upperclassman Kyo Wakamiya, captain of the archery team. But unfortunately, at least for Alice, Kyo is Mayura’s boyfriend.

No, wait, come back. I’ve just gotten started here. Alice rescues a rabbit from the middle of the street when it’s about to get run over, and soon after discovers that the rabbit is a shapeshifter with magic powers, just like most of the rabbits you see every day, who reveals to Alice that she is a Lotis Master, with the power to learn and use the twenty-four Lotis Words, a set of magical incantations. The first word Alice receives is rangu, the nineteenth word (hence the title), which stands for bravery.

As a Lotis Master, Alice has the ability to enter the “Inner Heart,” a sort of alternate dimension where people’s innermost thoughts take on physical manifestation. The Inner Heart is overrun with a dark force called Mara, which grows from people’s darker nature, the ruler of which is a monster named Darva, who is looking for a host that will allow him to manifest in the real world. Alice is obliged to enter the Inner Heart and fight the forces of Mara.

Unfortunately, because Alice’s words have special power, they can have serious consequences, so after she unintentionally curses her sister, she must go on a desperate mission, first to rescue Mayura, but then to fight her after the Mara overwhelms Mayura and turns her into Darva’s new host.

Oops.
Oops.

Alice soon discovers that the heartthrob Kyo is also a Lotis Master, and she soon gets help from others as well. Watase teases for a while with the possibility that this story might turn into another reverse harem; she ultimately dodges that particular trope, though she does stick in an additional love triangle with a couple of hot shirtless guys.

For a magical girl story, Alice 19th has a magic system that is unusually well thought-out. There are twenty-four Lotis Words, each with a specific meaning and purpose, and opposing them are the twenty-four Maram Words wielded by the nefarious Maram Masters. Basically, it’s white and black magic, respectively. The story is mostly consistent in its depiction of what each of the words does. For this reason, the frequent action sequences are above-average for the genre: the reader can have a good idea of what each of the characters involved is capable of, and understand what each character is doing. The setting shifts back and forth between a high school and the surrealist dreamscape of the Inner Heart, but the shifts are well explained, and all the bizarre imagery makes sense given the context.

In some respects, it’s similar to Fushigi Yugi. Both series feature unlikely heroines with unexpected powers. Both feature a couple of girls who are former besties but become mortal enemies. Both feature protagonists who gather a coterie of sidekicks who are easy on the eyes. Both contain a balance of romance-centered melodrama and violent action. Both have an excessive tendency to depict the heroine getting threatened with rape. The main difference between the two is that Alice can keep her clothes on for more than four pages at a stretch.

I don’t blame Watase-sensei for recycling her formula: it’s a formula that clearly works for her, since Fushigi Yugi is considered a classic of the shoujo genre. She employs her tried-and-true formula no less effectively here.

Anyone not familiar with Watase-sensei’s work, or with shoujo manga generally, might find some aspects off-putting, or at least very weird. Watase has a tendency to set up serious scenes and then immediately deflate them with self-parodic slapstick. To anyone who reads a lot of manga, this brand of humor eventually stops looking odd, but for the newcomer, as I remember from my early days of reading manga, it can be downright annoying. It’s Watase’s favorite type of joke.

Like many manga-ka who work in shoujo manga, Watase keeps a running journal in her marginalia. Even though her work sometimes does not appeal to me personally, I always enjoy her marginal notes. In Alice 19th, she takes some space to talk about the “power of words.” She does not elaborate on the concept, but from the event that serves as the impetus to the plot (Alice’s harsh words to her sister in an unguarded moment), she appears to be referring to the ability to encourage or discourage others through speech.

It’s not a profound insight, but it’s serviceable. Arguably, the story does not quite convey the message she’s trying to get across, as the Lotis and Maram Words, whatever Watase might intend them to represent, simply function as typical magical incantations. One thing I rather like, though, is that the story has a passably realistic anthropology: the Lotis Masters are warned that even they have some “darkness” in their hearts and can potentially be corrupted, so their fight is not only with an external group of enemies, but is internal as well. There is no sugar-coating of human nature in Alice 19th.

On the whole, I find this to be a fine magical girl series. It’s clearly aimed at a female readership, so male readers who are not as inured to shoujo manga as I am might dislike it. It is also clearly not for the youngest audience: the mild opening chapters are deceptive in this regard, so trust the “T+” rating that Viz has put on the back cover rather than your lying eyes.