Now that I've gotten Fushigi Yugi out of my system, I want to focus on something better, something more positive, even a little unconventional. Who would have guessed that I could find that in a manga adapted from a visual novel?
ALICE IN THE COUNTRY OF HEARTS (Hato no Kuni no Arisu), adapted from the visual novel by QuinRose and drawn by Soumei Hoshino. First published in 2007, and first published in North America in 2010.
A young girl dozes off in a country garden, only to discover a white rabbit in a waistcoat and a pocketwatch. This all sounds very familiar, right? Well, it gets far less familiar once the rabbit turns into a bunny-eared man who snatches Alice into Wonderland and tricks her into drinking a vial of liquid which leaves her trapped in Wonderland until she finishes 'the game.' Alice isn't entirely clear on what this game is, but she quickly learns it involves the struggle for control between three factions: Heart Castle, a mad amusement park, and Clock Tower Plaza, which includes the Mad Hatter's mafia that sides with no one but themselves. The denizens of Wonderland have been (mostly) replaced with attractive young men, all of which are armed and more than willing to engage in gunfights as part of 'the game.' It's also part of 'the game' that all of these gun-toting hotties will all fall for her, which they tell Alice outright. In the meantime, Alice is determined to figure out just what is going on and how to get herself home.
I didn't have high expectations for this series, being both a reverse harem and an adaptation of a visual novel. What's curious is that Alice doesn't just manage to meet those expectations, but actually exceed them.
The first question one has to ask is "Does this work as an adaptation of Alice In Wonderland?" The answer to that is "Oh goodness, no." If you were expecting a simple retelling of Alice In Wonderland where everyone but Alice and the Queen of Hearts is a bishonen, you're in for a disappointment. The weird thing is that I actually respect this manga more for taking all the familiar characters and set-ups of the original work and doing its own twisted take on things. "Twisted" is definitely the operative word here, as I certainly wouldn't have expected so much violence in what is normally such a fluffy, candy-colored genre, and for once the Queen of Hearts is not the most violent person around. Of course, being set in Wonderland, these gunfights are not fought on normal terms, and nothing is taken too seriously. After all, to them it's all part of 'the game,' a plot thread which serves as a wink and nod to the manga's visual novel roots.
The writing itself isn't taking things too seriously either, which is to the manga's benefit. Alice is surprisingly proactive and skeptical for a shoujo heroine. She doesn't sit around mooning over the guys, wondering why her heart is beating faster. Instead, she is trying to gather as much information about this world and this 'game' as she can, while doing her best to keep the peace amongst this gaggle of psychopaths and keep the bloodshed around her to a minimum. She's also mostly convinced that this world is simply a vision of her own lonely subconscious, which also makes Alice unusually self-aware for a shoujo heroine. The rest of cast varies - some are cheerful (Ace, Elliott the March Hare, Mary Gowland), some are mysterious (the Hatter, Julius the Clock Tower keeper), some annoying (Peter White, the white rabbit), but all are strange and mercutial, leaping from pleasant conversation to threats to declarations of love within a scene.
As this is a work that has been licence rescued and retranslated, I must note that there are differences in the translation. Tokyopop's translation is irregular in quality, as for every fine touch it adds (such as making most of Peter's dialogue rhyme in an excellently written, unforced manner), it also add modern slang which sticks out like a sore thumb. The Yen Press translation is more even in quality, but it lacks the personality of the Tokyopop take on the dialogue.
Alice In the Country of Hearts is a refreshingly self-aware take on the reverse harem, led by a lead who is both smart and even a little cynical. It combines both its source material and its digital origins into something strange and new, and I found myself liking it all the more for straying away from the paths of the original story and from your standard reverse harem.
I wish I could say that I was enchanted with the artwork as I was with the story. The character designs are a bit generic and plain, even if they are dressed in what looks like a combination of steampunk, Hot Topic goth, and punk. I suspect this is done not only for the sake of being fancy, but because Hoshino can only draw one kind of bishonen face and has to dress it up a lot to distinguish the cast. It's an expressive one, at least, even if the expressions are broad, so it's not a major failing. The pages and panels are presented in a rather straightforward manner. Backgrounds are nicely drawn and fairly frequent, and each section of Wonderland is visually distinct, right down to their faceless minions.
Alice in the Country of Hearts isn't all that interesting visually, but it gets the job done in an efficient and nondistracting sort of way.
There are no extras of note in the Tokyopop single volumes. The Yen Press reprint is done in 2-in-1 omnibuses, with a couple of color splash pages in the front.
I expected nothing but silly, shallow fluff from this series, but its darker, stranger, and more metatextual edges give this Victorian-flavored tale enough character to make it genuinely, unironically entertaining.
This series was published by Tokyopop and is now published by Yen Press. 5 of the 6 available volumes were published by Tokyopop, and all are now out of print. All 6 have been published by Yen Press and are currently in print.
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