Continued from our introduction of Mai, the Psychic Girl.
Ryoichi Ikegami is one of manga’s most talented artists, and he’s certainly one of my own favorites. His cityscapes and vehicles are bafflingly realistic. And while manga’s usually designed to be read quickly, it’s easy to get lost in the sheer precision and beauty of Ikegami’s art. Ikegami’s characters are often slightly less detailed than their environments, a technique often used in manga to encourage identification, but Ikegami could never be confused for the kind of stylized, big-eyed, wild-haired cartoonish figures that the West now wrongly generalizes all manga artwork as having. And in Mai, several panels are shockingly masterful, in a way that almost stops the eye like the best of American and (even more so) European comics art.
Ikegami’s realistic artwork most benefits Mai in its depiction of super-powers, because there’s nothing cartoonish about these sequences. Instead, they immediately put you as a reader in these situations, such that you feel as if you’re really witnessing telekinetic powers. And the effect is often devastating.
We first witness Mai’s powers in the most subtle and mundane way possible. We see her distracted in school, her mind wandering. She makes a pine cone fall from a tree, then makes it hover in mid-air. The nearby birds react with confusion, and Mai giggles, attracting her teacher’s scolding.
While making a pine cone defy gravity is surely remarkable, it couldn’t be less melodramatic. It’s enough to demonstrate her powers. We don’t need her to stop a bully, or a dramatic near-disaster, the way American super-hero comics would probably play such a sequence.
What we get instead is a portrait of a very normal schoolgirl, who may have promised her father not to use her powers but who can’t resist playing with a pine cone while stuck in class.
The sheer restraint shown here, especially relative to American comics, is shocking. But of course, the sequence also characterizes Mai. And the depiction here of a schoolgirl, who’s simply using her powers because she’s bored, or because her mind is wandering as the mind of teenagers so often do, is as graceful and delicate as the sequence is restrained.
We don’t need to see her pulling her hair out, or bullied, or any other melodramatic impression of teenagers in school. What he get instead is, compared to those familiar sequences, like the difference between the highest literature and the silliest pulp.
After leaving school, we see Mai make a baseball pause in mid-flight, causing the batter to miss. It’s much the same trick as the pine cone, except that it shows she can stop objects moving with some considerable speed. There’s an escalation at work here.
Next, Mai and her two girlfriends are followed by men in suits. The girls split up to see which one of them is being followed. Of course, it’s Mai.
She escapes not by stopping anyone with a psychic blast, but by using her powers to make a streetlight change.
It’s the subtlest thing, the lightest touch the series could use in order to have Mai use her powers to escape. And it makes shame for so many other stories, which would use such a sequence as an opportunity for a big public display of super-powers (even when the character in question is similarly hiding his or her powers).
This isn’t a girl who’s using her powers to stand out, to bend reality and people to her will. This is a schoolgirl who, much closer to actual children her age, is more concerned with fitting in. Who’s far more inclined to nudge the environment around her, rather than make big, bold gestures.
Later, we see Mai, having been moved by her father to a new location, use her powers to lift the phone from the receiver. It’s just about the most mundane use of super-powers imaginable. As she calls her classmate Yumiko, she causes the cherry blossoms outside to drift into her room, where she idly spins them around and arranges them into geometric formations. It’s her version of the distracted, idle activities one does while talking on the phone, like doodling or playing with one’s fingernails. It means nothing more to her than this. But of course, it’s stunningly beautiful.
This subtle depiction of Mai’s powers dovetails perfectly with her character. She’s a 14-year-old schoolgirl, who’s very beautiful but also has a delicate innocence. Of course, girls have long been depicted poetically as flowers, and that shouldn’t be ignored here. But because these manifestations of her powers are an outgrowth of Mai’s mind, it’s telling that she’s not interested in exploring her powers’ capabilities. It’s not that Mai’s lacking in imagination. Rather, she has a mind that’s more interested in imaginatively animating flower petals in the air than in, say, blowing up trees.
Unfortunately, the narrative doesn’t ramp up the displays of Mai’s powers as slowly as one might like. Her father’s soon confronted by Kaieda, and in desperation, she projects a mental blast that bends Kaieda’s sword, sparing her father’s life. Soon, she and her father are confronted by Kaieda’s giant minion (later revealed to be Kaieda’s mutated brother) on a rather absurdly narrow mountain path. After her father falls, apparently to her death, a hurt Mai causes the path to collapse, apparently killing the giant. As Kaieda watches this from above, Mai looks down from a helicopter, and there’s a clear suggestion in the comic that she represents a threat – that she might, in her rage, cause the helicopter to crash. She doesn’t, it flees, and soon she’s hanging out with Intetsu, the muscle-bound hiker.
It all feels like a melodramatic misstep, almost as if it was added to please readers, or out of a misguided belief that the story was moving too slowly. In any case, afterwards, the depiction of Mai’s powers turns back towards the subtle. After a cocky Intetsu loses money at pachinko, Mai causes a machine to pay out.
It’s just the sort of subtle implication of super-powers that 1980s revisionism loved. Of course a young person with psychic powers would use them to win at gambling. Why haven’t we seen this routinely? The answer is, of course, that most stories involving super-powers are far more concerned with super-fighting than this sort of subtlety. Mai isn’t without its melodrama, as we’ve just seen. But notably, the pachinko scene is far more interesting and unique than any of the fight scenes of the previous chapters.
If we consider Mai in the context of 1980s revisionism, the next usage of her powers is a doozy. In fact, it would probably be one of the finest revisionist demonstrations of super-powers ever put to paper.
Traumatized by her father’s apparent death, Mai goes for a walk, spying on her friends and gazing longingly at them, but knowing it would endanger them to approach them or even “call out to them.” After this, she’s swinging on a swing set when she encounters an apparently stray puppy. They play together, and the pup gets Mai to laugh again. It’s all heartwarming stuff. But she realizes Intetsu’s probably worried about her, so she tells the pup to head home and walks off.
She takes a footbridge over a highway. On the other side, she looks back.
The cute puppy’s on the other side of the highway, staring at her. It doesn’t know to take the footbridge. And then it runs right into traffic.
A car’s about to hit the pup at high speed when Mai, no doubt horrified, reaches out instinctively and makes the car stop.
And it does, just like the baseball earlier.
But what Mai (like so many writers of super-heroes) hasn’t considered is that the driver hasn’t stopped. He’s not buckled, and he goes flying through the windshield with all the speed at which his car was travelling.
The cars behind his car haven’t stopped either, and they slam into his at full speed. You can’t stop a car on a dime on a busy highway and not have these kinds of problems. More cars collide. Tires go flying. And the highway becomes an inferno, a hideous scene of death and fire.
The pup appears at her feet. It’s safe. But Mai’s reflective, schoolgirl instinct to save him has caused a nightmarish scene of death and destruction. As people and fire trucks rush to the scene, Mai can only stare in shock. “I only wanted to save the puppy!” she thinks in a caption.
It’s a stunningly brilliant scene, which depicts the unexpected dangers of a world with super-powers – and especially a world in which children possess them, with little supervision. That the ensuing fireballs are overdone is the smallest of criticisms about what’s indisputably a scene that, in many ways, redefines what a story with super-powers can do. And it works remarkably well, partially because the manga takes its time with Mai’s previous wandering. The pup’s arrival doesn’t come off as a convenience that sets up the later disaster. Instead, it comes off as a respite to Mai’s depression. The whole wandering sequence, including its horrific ending, works as a unified whole.
In the unexpected death of its climax, drivers and passengers become surrogates for the dog, who’s saved at great price. But symbolically, there’s all also surrogates for Mai, who we know to be in danger and to be taking a risk by walking alone.
Mai’s college inquire about her depression, leading to her revealing her abilities to them by causing their books to fly about the room, much as she earlier did the cherry blossoms.
The dog sequence worked so well that the comic’s creators can’t resist repeating it. Mai’s resisted using her powers until a she hears the dog (which she’s named Ron) yipping in fear. A much larger dog, whose owner eggs the dog on, is chasing Ron. If you’ve ever seen a larger dog attacking a smaller one, you’ll recognize the brutality with which Ikegami depicts this sequence. The larger dog takes Ron in his mouth, biting down, and whips the smaller dog around. It’s horrific and upsetting to read. Watching this, Mai has a similar emotional response. The bigger dog is lifted into the air and torn apart, falling to the ground like a torn rag doll.
It’s all quite well-done, even if it does read as a redux of the highway scene. But this time, the other students have witnessed what’s happened. Mai stares in shocked silence, mouth agape. In a caption, one of the college students thinks, “If she hates something… even for a moment… she’ll take its life. She isn’t even permitted the emotion of hatred towards any living creature!”
With the highway sequence, the ease with which Mai’s powers could kill shocked herself – and readers. Now, we begin to see that it can also frighten those closest to her.
Imagine knowing that someone you like or love could rip your body apart, if he or she became momentarily enraged at you. The distance and strain this would put on a relationship is another fascinating implication of super-powers, which American comics have rarely explored.
Ron recovers, which we’re told is due to Mai’s powers healing him, though we’re not shown how this works. At this point, Mai’s depression and the students’ fear has cast a pall over the entire dormitory. Intetsu intuits the need to rally everyone, so he begins blithely and stupidly shouting about how he’s hungry, corralling everyone to cook and eat together. It’s a nice moment that’s comedic but also shows a sensitivity to human social dynamics that’s rarely seen in any medium.
Later, when Mai and Intetsu are alone, she asks if he’s afraid of her. He acts naïve, as if there’s nothing to be afraid of, but we’ve just seen how he can adapt his tone to others’ emotional needs. Mai stares at her own distorted reflection in a pond as she explains that she “can kill someone, or ruin their life, without even meaning to…” It’s a sentiment familiar to super-hero readers, especially X-Men ones. But Intetsu’s response is sublimely simple: “Everyone has to learn to control themselves, Mai. We all have a part of our nature that can cause pain and suffering. It’s our responsibility to overcome our weaknesses.”
It’s a beautiful formulation, which universalizes Mai’s plight. Poetically, it makes her situation more general, by arguing that it’s a sort of allegory for the darkness in all of us, including momentary emotions. To pretend such a capacity doesn’t exist, within every human being, is an affront both to fiction and to humanity, and it leads to people thinking their dark thoughts and feelings are wrong or bad, rather than a normal part of the human condition. At the same time, Intetsu is calming Mai down, much as he earlier did, by saying what’s emotionally necessary but which might not be entirely frank. Because while we may all have such dark thoughts, only Mai’s passing thoughts can kill. She’s not a monster for what she’s felt or done, but her powers are potentially monstrous. It’s this that concerns her, but Intetsu sidesteps the issue in a clever way, saying what Mai, as a 14-year-old struggling in an extraordinary situation, needs to hear.
Intetsu does his best to get Mai to play and to remain upbeat. But after he’s forced to flee with her, on his motorcycle, he takes her to his sometimes-girlfriend’s place. While this woman’s very comfortable with Intetsu’s on-again, off-again attentions, she’s not nearly as emotionally intuitive about Mai. In a telling scene, Mai sees Intetsu and the woman together on the couch, and we imagine that she feels like she’s a third wheel.
Later, Mai is bathing and levitating a bar of soap when she overhears the two discussing her powers. The woman says, “If she became too upset, she could turn this condo into a smoking crater!” She says she wants to see Mai’s powers and adds, “Do I have to make her angry? Or would it be better if I made her cry?” Mai shatters the bar of soap and seems overwhelmed, but Intetsu – tending to their hostess – isn’t there to calm her. She soon leaves, calling to explain that she fears that, if she stayed, she’d do something awful to this woman.
Mai’s not wrong to be concerned, as we’ve already seen. Intetsu’s guidance has been masterful, and emotionally sensitive, but it’s not altogether true. It’s based on what she needs to hear, not the harsh truth that Mai’s right to be concerned. Intetsu might be able to retain such a pretense in an environment he controls, but he can’t in this woman’s apartment.
Mai returns home and surrenders herself to Kaieda. Her next use of powers is to shatter a vase as a way of threatening him to keep his promise not to harm Intetsu or his friends. She shatters it precisely, so that only its center, where its base narrows abruptly as it ascends, explodes. The top portion falls so that it stands upright in the center of the base. It’s not simply a statement about Mai’s ability to cause things to explode; it’s a statement about the control she has over her powers.
Interestingly, control was exactly what Intetsu told her to have – and what Mai left, thinking that she couldn’t achieve. Now in the protective custody of Kaieda, she refuses to demonstrate her powers, even when shown footage of her dad’s (apparent) death.
To be continued.