St. Kleio Academy is an elite high school- very elite. All the students are clones of famous historical figures who are being trained to walk in the footsteps of their originals. All except one, that is. Shiro Kamiya is only allowed to attend the school because his father is the principal. Many of the other students look down on him or envy his status as a normal human being, but he does his best to understand their struggles. Not all the clones are happy with their preordained fates. Marie Curie, for example, prefers music to chemistry, and Shiro tries to help her out by talking to his dad. She disappears soon after, and the teachers all claim that she was sent to another school to study music. But is that what really happened? Then, JFK, one of the early clones who graduated years before, is assassinated, just like his original was. Do the clones have any choice in their lives? Or are they doomed to repeat history?
Stories about clones are nothing new, but I've never seen one quite like this. And even if there are similar stories out there, the execution here is excellent. Though there are some conventions, like the sinister nature of the school (which is hardly a secret to the reader; we all know that nothing good's befallen Marie Curie), they work with the story and support the themes of the manga. The story has plenty of drama, humor, suspense, and intrigue. It moves along at a good pace; I never felt like it was dragging or moving too fast.
The characters have pretty typical personalities, but they didn't feel stereotypical. Shiro is kind of a lovable loser. Ironically, his normalcy is what makes him different. He struggles with the fact that he's not special like the clones, but he doesn't bear a grudge, instead trying to understand what they're going through. Although many of the clones look down on him, he does have a few friends. Jovial, laid-back Napoleon seems to be his best friend, and he's also close to Ikkyu, a guy with a pretty typical personality for a clone. These two have to intervene whenever the cold, distand Freud goads Shiro into an argument. Shiro also gets along with kind Florence Nightingale and willful Elizabeth. Mozart is an elitist who looks down on Shiro, but who seems to have his own struggle. Shiro's father seems to be a cheerful man, but his pleasant demeanor masks a dark side.
The characters' personal struggles and relationships are the focus of the manga. They can be petty and childish, but this is as it should be. They're kids first and foremost, and this emphacizes the sadness of their lives. At a time when they should be happy and carefree, they're pressured, forced to study things they may not even be interested in. When life should be full of possibilities, their lives have already been decided for them. Some, like Elizabeth, who will never be queen, don't seem to have much of a purpose. Others, like Hitler, are shunned simply because of who their originals were.
The dark, moody atmosphere is expressed beautifully through the unusual artwork. It's elegant and detailed, but not overdone. The characters have big, expressive eyes and nice features, hair, and uniforms. They're easily distinguishable, with one or two exceptions. The backgrounds are also very nice. The manorly school is especially well done, lending a gothic atmosphere to the manga. Characters sometimes express things in actions that can't be put into words, and a couple of scenes are downright poetic. The only thing I didn't like was the fan-service. I'm sick of gratuitous nudity in shounen and seinen manga. It's unnecessary, sexist, and it limits the audience. I was surprised to learn that the manga-ka is a woman. I suppose it's appropriate with the focus on the youth of the characters; girls are definitely something teenage boys think about. But I still don't want to see all the detail. Oh, well, at least there are plenty of bishounen to go around.
"Afterschool Charisma" is a manga that manages to be both entertaining and thoughtful. I think what makes it so great is that it's more than an interesting story or a warning about the dangers of cloning. The struggles the gifted clones and the more average Shiro face are similar to our own. Their world, where people are valued not for who they are but for what they can do, isn't so foreign, after all (especially for Japanese readers, I would think, who are pushed toward scholastic achievement from such an early age). There are questions of free will and fate- how much of who we are is determined by genes? Can humanity improve? Or are we destined to make the same mistakes over and over? These timeless themes give you something to think about, but perhaps more importantly, make the characters' struggles relatable. And sympathy with the characters makes you want to keep reading to see what happens with them. "Afterschool Charisma" has an entertaining story with relevent themes and characters you care about. Though there may be similar stories, it has its own unique perspective. It's an exceptional manga, not to be missed.