Maki Takano and his three best friends Ryo, Natsume and Mei are students at a private academy for highly gifted children. Like all the other students of this isolated and heavily guarded school, they have never seen the outside world since they were brought to the school at the young age of three.
When a new female student named Kiriko Hinatsu arrives, Maki has the strange feeling that he has met her before. However, he seems to be the only person who can remember the girl. When he confronts her with his discovery, Kiriko reveals the unbelievable truth about their existence: The school they have been living at all this time is actually an experimental facility and all the students are but guinea pigs who are being used for sophisticated neurological experiments.
Maki now has to decide: Will he continue his false but sheltered life or will he help Kiriko escape even if that means putting himself and his mental health at risk?
I suppose it’s only fair that I should state upfront that I am an unabashed fan of Kei Tōme’s work - both her art and stories, so I’ll have to make sure I keep my neutral hat firmly in place while writing this.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I tend to be an impatient reader, especially when it comes to allowing a story to draw me in, and “Hour of the Mice” more than satisfied me in this regard. Not that it’s a frantically paced story, mind you. In fact, it’s anything but. However, Tōme manages to create a feeling of suspense from the outset.
She manages to combine our introduction to the characters, with a growing sense of unease – as we start to realise that perhaps things aren’t quite as idyllic at they might appear to the story’s protagonists.
The strength of the tale really lies in its protagonists, as well as the carefully scripted plot. Tōme not only introduces us to all the significant players within the first few chapters, but also throws about abundant hints that things are not all well with them. Maki, the unofficial leader of the 4 friends, is colour-blind; Ryo suffers from migraines; gentle Mei is severely anaemic which results in her often spending time in the infirmary; and the bookish Natsume completes the group. As the story opens, the latter, having given in to curiosity, has been punished by being “confined” for 3 days, for attempting to leave the premises. This also gives us an insight of how apt the title is – not only are the children “mice” in the same sense as a lab rat, but they are also timid little mice, having become accustomed to the oppressive conditions they have lived under since infancy.
The entry of Kiriko to the story, turns up the heat on what I can only describe as a pressure-cooker atmosphere. Even before she arrives, Tōme has begun to increase the tension and sense of unease, whilst making sure she keeps a tight lid on proceedings. The children are certainly not super heroes, about to wreck havoc as they escape. Instead, they are intelligently and carefully portrayed as what they are – frightened, confused children, trying to come to terms with a real world they know nothing about, as everything they thought was real comes crashing down around them. Add in the ongoing machinations of the powers running the academy and you end up with a well written, beautifully drawn (again, Tōme fans will recognise her style from a hundred paces) and superbly paced slice-of-life thriller that is well worth the read.