In early 1987, Eclipse introduced American comics readers to manga with three translated series. The first, debuting one week before the other two, was Mai, the Psychic Girl. The following week, Eclipse debuted The Legend of Kamui and Area 88; all three were (initially) biweekly. Almost simultaneously, First Comics debuted Lone Wolf and Cub. Manga had arrived, and it’s not too much to say that the American comics market would never be the same.
It made sense to put Mai, the Psychic Girl first, because her mental powers fit the American market best, given that market’s dominance by super-heroes. (The cover absurdly read, “She is pretty / She is psychic / She is japanese [sic]” — as if everything you needed to know boiled down to those three adjectives, like some dating profile.) The Legend of Kamui was a ninja story, which played into the ninja fad of the 1980s. The series billed itself as “a genuine ninja story,” underlining that it was actually a Japanese story, not the American adaptations of ninja, with which fans were familiar. Similarly, Lone Wolf and Cub was a samurai story, and it had the advantage of fans knowing that Frank Miller was a fan. Area 88 was about airplane pilots, and its art was the only one with any relationship to the big-eyed manga stereotype many Americans would later develop.
These titles came like revelations to the comics readers willing to branch out from standard super-hero fare. They did well, and the first couple issues of Mai, the Psychic Girl went into second printings. Soon, manga was experiencing an great expansion in the U.S. Especially noteworthy, Marvel’s Epic imprint began reprinting Akira, in colorized form, in late 1988. But only a few years later, manga had died down a bit, and several of these publishers had gone out of business. But English translations of manga never fully went away, and manga would turn into a license to print money in the early 2000s, when bookstores had huge manga sections, with kids reading in the aisles, but comparatively few American graphic novels.
But it all started with Mai, the Psychic Girl, written by Kazuya Kudō, with art by Ryoichi Ikegami. And it’s actually pretty good.
Like almost all early manga in English, Mai was printed right-to-left. You know, the way we read in English? In the 1990s, it became fashionable to keep manga in a right-to-left format, and odds are if you’ve read manga in English, you’ve probably read it like this.
In a grid-like panel layout, it’s easy to move the panels around without problems in order to accommodate English reading order. But when panels have angular gutters, those images would have to be reversed or somewhat redrawn. In addition, when pages are put into English reading order, Japanese sound effects are often removed from the originals. Both fans and Japanese creators complained about this, which was seen as compromising the original.
Of course, the idea that readers could reasonably be asked to literally change the direction they read if they wanted to buy your comic wasn’t even fathomable in 1987. But once manga became popular enough in English, publishers began printing manga in English right-to-left. While there are virtues to this approach, it also has the advantage of reducing costs, since cutting and pasting panels around on every single page, and redrawing where necessary, was a huge endeavor. Simply not bothering could also be marketed as truer to the original. “Authenticity,” while not always logically defined, is highly valued in art, but it especially matters when people are being sold translated material from a foreign culture.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with preserving the Japanese art and asking readers to read right-to-left, though it’s remarkable to ask an audience to adapt something as basic as its reading order in such a way. But there’s also nothing wrong with reversing art and altering it where necessary. Most of Mai, for example, is laid out in rectangular panels, so moving them around is pretty easy. Removing sound effects normally only requires drawing what would be under that lettering, which is pretty easy to extrapolate.
Furthermore, redrawing isn’t some “violation” of the original. Anyone who’s studied translation knows that it’s a process of finding equivalents, and there’s no such thing as a perfect equivalent. If a character eats a sandwich, do you translate this literally, or do you translate it as a similarly mundane food for the target audience? Whether the actual food item or its mundane quality is important might depend on the context. Of course, in either case, alliteration or rhyming might be lost, and if that’s important, an equivalent of those qualities should be chosen. In other words, translations are necessarily adaptations; changes will occur. And since comics are a union of words and images, we shouldn’t be surprised that the visuals might have to be adapted along with the words.
All of which is just to say: there’s nothing wrong with the way Mai and these early manga in English were prepared for the English-speaking audience.
It’s also interesting to note this American willingness to adapt to the original work of art, rather than the other way around. Similarly, Americans prefer subtitles to dubbing. But go to France, and everything’s dubbed into French. They expect material to be accommodated to them, and that’s part of translation.
Mai is the story of Mai Kuju, a 14-year-old Japanese girl with telekinetic (called “psychokinetic” in the translation) powers. Her mother died 12 years earlier, and her father has been raising her. Unknown to her, her mother had the same powers, which somehow killed her. In fact, her mother was part of a long line of telekinetic women from Togakushi, a rural Japanese village; the powers apparently only materialize in female descendants. Although her father is a businessman, he’s been trained in Togakushi’s martial arts techniques. Mai knows she has powers, but her father’s made her promise not to use them.
Turns out the Wisdom Alliance, an Illuminati-like organization based in the Alps and headed by a man name Ryu, who wears an eyepatch, has been secretly testing people for psychic powers by hiding these tests within standard intelligence tests. Out of almost 300 million tested, only five have scored a rating of eight points, including Mai. The Wisdom Alliance tasks Kaieda Information Service, a Japanese organization run by a bald martial artist with a big white beard, to bring in Mai.
Mai’s father quickly figures out what’s going on, takes a leave of absence from work, and takes Mai to Togakushi. Kaieda follows, and Mai’s father apparently falls to his death in the mountains. Conveniently, no sooner has this happened than she finds a friendly mountain hiker – Intetsu, who’s also a martial artist and a college student – who protects her, taking her home to his all-male dormitory, where his classmates quickly bond with her. Mai becomes a bit of a college comic for a short time, during which she adopts a puppy, whom he names Ron. Kaieda strikes, and Intetsu takes Mai away in a motorcycle chase. Intetsu takes Mai to his rich sometimes-girlfriend’s place, but Mai, feeling unwanted by the girlfriend and worried she’ll hurt someone with her powers, leaves. She returns to her father’s place, where the head of Kaieda visits her, and she surrenders, on the condition that her college friends will be left alone. Kaieda vows to protect her from the Wisdom Alliance, and he’s a good guy in the story from here on out.
There’s a bit of nationalism at work here. It’s now Japan against the wider world. To put pressure on Kaieda, the Wisdom Alliance orchestrates a boycott against Japan. Kaieda actually shows concern about this, demonstrating a nationalism we’re not used to seeing in apparent gangsters.
About halfway through the story, the Wisdom Alliance deploys Turm Garten, a completely amoral 13-year-old East German girl who also scored eight points on the organization’s test. She attacks Mai, with whom she’s able to communicate telepathically. After escaping Turm, Mai discovers her father, who survived but has amnesia. Mai has vowed not to use her powers violently, and she even telepathically warns Turm about a Kaieda attack upon her, saving Turm’s life. We soon discover that both Turm and Mai can use their powers to fly, and an extended final fight ensues, during which Mai pleads with Turm and resists attacking her. Turm apparently kills Ron, Mai’s puppy, then attack’s Mai’s father, brutally killing his aide and several Kaieda soldiers. Finally, Mai gives in and, with a single mental shot, incinerates the entire house Turm is in, killing her. The resulting fireball causes Mai’s father to regain his memories, and Ryu, the head of the Wisdom Alliance, decides to go to Japan to handle things personally.
As the much shorter third and final act begins, Ryu has come to Japan with the three others who scored eight points on the Wisdom Alliance’s test. All three are boys: Baion Yuwon, a 14-year-old obese Mongolian boy, often depicted (not without racist overtones) with snot dripping from his nose; David Perry, a 15-year-old American boy, who speaks in surfer-esque slang; and Grall Hong, a diminutive 16-year-old Vietnamese boy. Mai has returned to her school and rejoined her schoolmates. Her dog Ron has apparently recovered, due to Mai’s powers. (This is convenient, especially since there was no sign that the dog had survived, but the story has already established that Mai healed him after he was attacked by the larger dog.) Ryu has Hong infiltrate Mai’s school as a new student, and Mai takes a liking to him – although Ron alerts to the fact that Hong represents a threat (much as he earlier did with Turm).
We now finally learn more about the Wisdom Alliance. It’s been manipulating human events for a while, including World War II. The Alliance believes that humanity is beyond saving and predicts that the United States and the Soviet Union will, in 1999, annihilate the world in a nuclear exchange. The Alliance plans to hide its psychics away during and for ten years after the war, then release them to start anew. While this is all melodramatic stuff, it’s noteworthy that Ryu and the Wisdom Alliance don’t see themselves as the bad guys; they see themselves as preserving humanity from what’s to come, and they believe that Mai’s joining them will save her life in 1999. It attempts (and fails) to seduce Mai’s father on these grounds.
After David Perry (the American boy) attacks Kaieda and fails, he’s joined by Baion Yuwon (the obese Mongolian boy) for a second, successful attempt. The three boys unite and, threatening Mai’s faither, get her to surrender. But Intetsu returns on his motorcycle, rescuing Mai. Mai soon takes to the sky, confronting all three boys. She’s injured in an explosion, tearing her clothes, but she recovers, killing David and Baion. Hong intercedes to save Mai because she’s been kind to him.
Nothing’s really resolved in the climax. Mai confronts Ryu, who repeats his claim that the world will be destroyed in 1999. Mai refuses to help him, channeling her mother and the peaceful spirit of the psychic women of Togakushi. But she doesn’t kill him. Hong leaves with Ryu and thus disappears from Mai’s school. Ryu’s still out there, and his final words echo the nationalistic strain of the series: “It is only a matter of time before Japan falls under the sway of our alliance!”
Now, there’s plenty of plot problems, easily visible in the above description. A hiker showing up just when Mai needs a new protector, or Mai’s father falling to his death and then returning with amnesia (which conveniently reverses itself) – these are not great moments in narrative history.
Perhaps no flaw is greater than Mai’s structure. Its meandering first act ends in the revelation that Kaieda isn’t a villain after all, despite his past behavior, and the personalities of him and his crew suddenly change dramatically. The second act, with Turm Garten, is by far the best, despite the amnesia plot. The second act feels remarkably rushed and uneven, despite some wonderful moments.
Mai is also weakened by its use of stock and exotic characters. Intetsu and his classmates, while charming, are pretty stereotypical characters. For that matter, so too are Mai’s schoolmates. The four super-powered children, beside Mai, aren’t free of national stereotypes. The spoiled and amoral Turm Garten can seem straight out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The American David Perry’s a surfer dude type, who wears a jacket with “USA” proudly emblazed on its back. The Mongolian Baion Yuwon’s a snot-nosed pig. The diminutive Vietnamese Grall Hong is a well-intentioned but pathetic little boy. The dog, however, is too adorable to complain about.
Oh, and anyone who complains about Asian characters, in Western stories, all knowing martial arts probably won’t be pleased by the fact that both Mai’s father and Intetsu are martial arts champions. In fact, when Intetsu visits the workplace of Mai’s father, not only Mai’s father but every other businessman in the room knows martial arts. Then there’s the white-bearded Kaieda, who spends the first half of Mai acting like an evil martial arts master, always practicing with his sword, before transforming in the second half into more of a protective grandfather role.
Still, it’s not like major, beloved works haven’t used character types too. Personally, it’s a bigger problem for me that Mai abruptly turns into a college comedy for a while (which is enjoyable, but without sufficient narrative justification) than that the college characters are a bit stereotypical.
This begins to get at one of the differences between a lot of Japanese stories and Euro-American ones. One of the most important qualities, in Western art, is stylistic or tonal consistency. Thus, a leprechaun showing up in the middle of The Godfather would be a huge no-no; we’d say the resulting film didn’t quite know what it wanted to be. Often, this is related to the story’s level of realism, which is why we don’t like mythical creates or magic inserted into an otherwise realistic story. Now, American comics violate this all the time, which is why realistic depictions of Batman lives in the same universe as magical characters, up to and including talking animals. But those uncomfortable juxtapositions of tone are looked down upon in Western art, which is one reason American comics creators have increasingly avoided them when aspiring to more than simply selling magazines. This is also why 1980s revisionism, which wanted comics to be taken seriously, favored realism – not to ruin everyone’s fun leprechaun stories, but to tell better ones.
This idea of tonal consistency isn’t unknown outside of the West, but it’s usually not nearly so exalted. Latin-American “magical realism,” for example, has interjected divine intervention, sometimes without warning, into otherwise realistic stories. Japanese stories often have what are, to a Western audience, bizarre tonal mixes. And Mai is no exception.
Thus, Ikegami’s artwork is often stunningly and beautifully realistic. But it’s got panels in which characters have silly, comedic faces. It’s not a matter of Western eyes not recognizing the Japanese idiom, but it can sometimes seem a little like a character in a generally realistic Batman story reacting in surprise with eyes jutting out from his body.
Similarly, Mai excels at realistic depictions of super-powers, from telekinesis to flight. The Illuminati-like Wisdom Alliance and the super-powered women of rural Togakushi might be forgiven, as necessary parts of such a story. But there’s also a dwarf from Togakushi who seems to have limited supernatural powers (he survives a fall from a skyscraper) and is explicitly likened to a figure from Japanese folklore. Kaieda also has a giant in its employ, who’s injured in the same attack in which Mai’s father apparently falls to his death and consequently gets a cybernetic arm. In the story’s final act, we learn that this giant is actually Kaieda’s son, whom he sent to the U.S. on a scholarship and who was mutated into his present form as part of an American nuclear experiment.
And there’s a bit of the supernatural too – unless we interpret this as an unconscious manifestation of Mai’s powers, a reading the text doesn’t prevent but certainly doesn’t encourage. Specifically, the spirit of Mai’s dead mother plays a role, and at one point (in the third act) she’s even seen, as a giant apparition in the sky, by the two super-powered boys Mai’s fighting.
But where Mai really excels, besides its beautiful artwork, is in its depiction of the intersection of mental powers and adolescence, especially girls’ adolescence.
If Mai’s inclusion of super-powers appealed to the American super-hero set, the adolescent angle must have also appealed to readers of The Uncanny X-Men, then one of American comics’ top-selling titles. Indeed, Mai can read at times like the story of a young Jean Grey (from Marvel’s X-Men), only set in Japan. And it does a much better job of depicting a young person struggling with her super-powers than X-Men probably ever did. Even two and a half decades later, the popular X-Men movies have only touched on this in a few lines of dialogue, whereas Mai paints a more or less compelling picture of a young girl struggling with her immense powers – and the damage they can do.
To be continued.