Super-Powers in Mai, the Psychic Girl’s Final Act

Continued from our introduction to Mai, the Psychic Girl and parts one and two of our discussion of how super-powers are depicted in the series.

In the story’s truncated third and final act, Mai’s life has quieted down, including her return to school. Consequently, her usage of super-powers has calmed down too. In fact, their first use is a return to the kind of subtlety that characterized the beginning of the first act. During physical education, Mai uses her powers to lift herself up onto an elevated bar. Her form is that of a gymnast, far surpassing her two friends who go before her.

Physical education is often especially traumatic for teenagers, combining as it does the student’s confusion about his or her changing body with the risk of mockery by one’s peers. As if to underline this, we see Hong (the Widsom Alliance’s plant in Mai’s school) unable to complete the same maneuver, leading to his teacher’s scolding and teasing from his peers, who lift him up onto the bar as he screams that he’s scared.

It’s no surprise that Mai would use her powers in this way, especially since we’ve already seen that she can telekinetically manipulate her own body to the extent of causing flight. But this simple use of her powers can be read as representing Mai’s increased maturity, including an increased comfort with her own body (which she explored and questioned in the first chapter). She’s also not restraining herself from using her powers, as she has for so much of the preceding several hundred pages. Her comfort with both her body and powers seems to contrast sharply with the diminutive Hong, who presumably could perform the same trick but restrains himself.

The other two psychic boys are far less reserved. First, American David Perry casually levitates himself up to Kaieda’s penthouse in order to attack. Ikegami excels here, combining the effortless look of his floating super-powered characters with his famously precise buildings, here twisted by the shot’s perspective to emphasize the height at which Perry’s hovering. In Ikegami’s hands, no one could doubt that David Perry was levitating in a real and defined urban landscape. The story’s frequent sense of subtlety, in its super-powered depictions, is preserved as David lands and balances effortlessly on a railing, preparing to unleash a devastating attack.

The attack itself is a rather more conventional affair, with David unleashing a psychic blast against Kaieda that Kaieda’s giant, mutated son intercepts. The giant shields himself with his cybernetic arm, which strips away the arm’s flesh and explodes the mechanisms beneath, setting the man on fire for good measure. The giant rushes onto the balcony, where he stands in flames, blocking the way. With more of Kaieda’s men arriving, David chooses to withdraw.

Here, Ikegami’s able to use his profound strengths as an artist. As David withdraws, the scene naturally expands, allowing Ikegami to place the flying David within the Tokyo cityscape. In a spectacular splash page, shot from overhead, we see David floating high above the city, telepathically reporting his failure to his masters. It’s just the sort of blend of the astounding and the mundane that characterizes the best of super-hero fiction.

In the next few chapters, the characters’ super-powers are mostly limited to telepathy, as the story builds to its final confrontation. Mai’s father gets some attention, as he struggles with the Wisdom Alliance’s offer to spare Mai from the coming nuclear apocalypse. As he debates what to do, he checks in on the sleeping Mai, and a father’s love comes through in these meditative panels. Characters often look innocent when asleep, and the context, which defines Mai as a child, serves to remind us that, despite her growing maturity and everything we’ve seen her do, Mai is still a schoolgirl and a daughter.

With barely more than 100 pages left to go, Baion Yuwon and David Perry begin their final assault. As the American again levitates up to the penthouse, Baion blasts his way into the garage, blowing up one car after another in a scene that all but begs for a movie adaptation. While the scene is rushed, we’re made to understand that Baion has proceeded all the way upstairs to the penthouse, blasting away the entire time, so that he’s preceded by flames and carnage. As he converges on David Perry in the penthouse, the two succeed in killing both Kaieda and Kaieda’s giant son (a fact revealed only here, as the father holds his dying son). The two are dramatically consumed by the conflagration that envelops the entire building. It’s dramatic fare, as well as a terrific demonstration of super-powers, lessened only by the fact that one can’t help but wish such a terrific sequence was granted far more pages (typically a strength of manga).

David and Baion next confront Mai’s father, destroying a telephone pole as a demonstration of their powers. Although this pales in comparison to what we’ve just seen, Mai’s father is apparently sufficiently impressed, because he surrenders. When Mai returns home, she surrenders in turn, and Mai’s father is left with Hong (who’s clearly perceived as the weakling or lowest-status member of the three boys), while Mai is escorted away with the other two.

After Intetsu (who’s returned after being absent during most of the second act) rescues Mai on his motorcycle, the two boys take flight. They blast away at the motorcycle, causing Intetsu to take evasive action – another sequence that seems to beg for cinematic adaptation. In a nicely executed sequence, Mai lifts herself off the back of his bike, much to his astonishment, and takes to the air to confront the two boys.

It’s a climax that’s perfectly suited to Ikegami’s strengths, because it takes place almost entirely in the night sky above Tokyo, allowing Ikegami to use his profound strength for cityscapes and for placing buildings in dramatic perspectives. There’s no doubt that the third act is rushed, relative to the previous two, but its climax contains much of the most beautiful art of the entire series.

Images of Mai and the two boys, flying further into Tokyo or hovering besides fantastically realistic buildings, make the super-hero come alive in a way that few American comics have ever been able to attain. Panels shift from figures adrift in the air in close-up to images in which those figures are tiny silhouettes amid the skyscrapers, adding a diversity to the designs that manages to communicate both the effortless grace of super-powers and that locates these characters within a real urban landscape.

There’s also some play with the fact that flying characters aren’t limited to a single plane of action, or even the same sense of up and down. At one point, Mai finds herself cornered between the two boys, with a skyscraper stretching against one of her sides, as if her back’s to the wall. Except, of course, there’s no floor. Mai escapes by shooting upwards, along the vertical lines of the skyscraper. Again, one wishes that the sequence were given more space, in which Ikegami might have gotten even more aggressive – for example, tilting the panels so that the vertical side of the skyscraper became a floor, against which Mai flies. But what we get is starkly beautiful and helps us imagine super-powered flight as we’d rarely seen it before.

At the top of the building, after a glorious establishing shot from a distance, the boys begin to blast away at Mai, shattering glass windows, which glimmer and twinkle as they rain down over Tokyo – and image both terrifying and beautiful at the same time (which so perfectly embodies the super-hero).

After a brief (and completely unnecessary) encounter with what seems to be the spirit of Mai’s mother, the two boys converge on Mai, blowing up what looks like a power station, which causes Mai to be thrown, bleeding from the blast. She recovers, although her school uniform is torn, exposing her breasts (not for the first time in the story). Battered, she takes to the air, returning to the building she just left – perhaps because it’s still the nearest skyscraper, although of course she’s also left Hong there, making her choice a bit baffling, if she considers Hong a potential foe, but also setting up Hong’s positive role in the conclusion.

If Ikegami’s already secured Mai as at least one of the most brilliantly illustrated super-hero stories ever to cross American eyes, he ups the ante still further in these final pages, delivering a dizzying array of panels in every rectangular size imaginable, as defined by their remarkable control as they are by the wondrous contents they depict.

We have a splash page of the wounded Mai above the Japanese cityscape, her two pursuers in the distance, silhouetted against the white disk of the moon.

A huge panel, running along the bottom half of two conjoined pages, reverses the camera angle, placing it behind the two boys as they swim through space in pursuit of Mai.

On the very next page, a tall panel on the left of the page offers a shot from below, emphasizing the vertical heft of the buildings to which Mai has returned. In the vertical gulf in the center of the page, a series of smaller panels depict Mai ascending vertically, before the tall panel on the right pulls out to locate her against the vertical lines of the building, at an extreme perspective that makes the panel borders feel like an expansion of the image they contain.

Mai, wounded and outnumbered, does her best to hide by going inside the building. She sits silently, curled up with her legs within her hugging arms – a position that hides her nude chest, as if protectively, but also emphasizes her isolation. Accenting this, Ikegami places her at the extreme side of a panel half the page in size, and casts her in shadow. It is, on its own, a beautiful image, but it’s also a melancholy respite, the last hesitant moment of quiet, before the conclusion.

The boys spot Mai, who blasts through the nearby window, sending glass shards into both of Baion’s eyes. (While this is certainly improbable, it’s an outside possibility that Mai guided them to their destination.) Baion goes falling to the street below, and he’s never seen again, which suggest that he’s killed by the fall.

It’s a convenient way of disposing of him, in the story’s rushed conclusion. But it’s also an interesting point about the way these characters’ powers work. Stripped of sight, it’s not at all clear that any of these characters would be able to continue telekinetically manipulating the objects around them, much less continuing to navigate through the air. And should they hit something, however much these characters might resemble American super-heroes, they have no invulnerability to protect them. They might be able to fly through the air and fire psychic blasts, but should they crash into a building – or the ground – they’d likely be splattered every bit as much as a conventional mortal.

After Mai and David Perry blast at each other a bit, they meet in the air between the skyscrapers. It’s a quiet, beautiful image: just the two of them hovering. Mai’s toes are angled sharply downward, reminding us that she’s not standing on anything and has no reason to position her feet as if she were. But this delicate posture also suggests that she’s on her tippy-toes, and that her victory certainly isn’t assured.

The two talk, and Mai tries to appeal to him. But David Perry says that he’s already killed for the Wisdom Alliance, so he rejects that there’s any going back. Like two gunfighters standing off, David fires a blast, which Mai twists to dodge, only partially successfully. For a split second, Mai’s eyes glow, and her own blast tears through David’s chest.

But David’s blast has apparently hurt Mai, and she begins to fall too. We soon see that she’s lapsed into unconsciousness. It’s one of those convenient immediately post-climax scenes, which have become quite common in super-hero and action stories. But it gives Hong, at last, a chance to act and finally determine which side he’s on. As both Mai and David fall, Hong streaks downward, catching Mai just feet above the ground. David lands with a thud, causing a small crater.

To Ikegami’s credit, Hong doesn’t catch Mai the way we’re used to seeing in American super-hero stories, in which he would whisk her off to the side at great speed. Instead, they’re paused in mid air, Mai’s skirt just inches from the ground. Over the course of the story, many objects have been stopped in mid-air, beginning with the baseball at Mai’s school. Mai is herself the final such object.

Hong carries Mai back up to the roof of the skyscraper he was on, where Ryu, the head of the Wisdom Alliance, awaits. Mai could kill him; he has no powers. But instead, the two simply talk, reiterating their worldviews. Mai’s mother makes one final, ghostly appearance, and Hong leaves with Ryu.

Tellingly, in the few remaining pages, Mai never uses her powers again. She’s simply shown returning to school. The story as Mai walks with her two friends from school, who are still ignorant of her powers. Ron runs to Mai, bounding lovingly, and leaps into her arms, where he kisses her face. She says it tickles, as she did when she first met the pup. The final, beautiful image of the story is of the three girls, with Mai carrying her dog, walking towards the setting sun.

It’s an interesting way to end a story about a girl with super-powers. It’s certainly a blissfully happy and beautiful ending, which works remarkably well and comes off as more sublime than forced. But it’s an ending which reminds us that Mai is, above all, a schoolgirl.

We’ve discussed the ways in which Mai’s powers are depicted with great imagination and drama, as well as lush and beautiful detail. And to be sure, it’s the “psychic” part of “the psychic girl” that Mai’s readers most want to see. But at the end, she’s just a girl.

It’s a reminder that, while stories can tell exciting and fascinating tales of super-powers, they should never lose track of their characters or their setting. Mai’s not a teenager as an afterthought; her teenage uncertainty is crucial to her story. As is the fact that she’s Japanese. Without ever rendering the text inaccessible as a result, Mai is rooted in its particulars, in its place and time and character. And at the end, when all the imaginatively staged and often stunning super-powered entertainment is over, this is a story of a Japanese schoolgirl, who finds joy in her friends and in the puppy that adores her.

This isn’t to say that Mai hasn’t changed. The series begins with a recurring nightmare of hers. There’s no sign of this nightmare again, and it’s hard to imagine she’s still having it by the end. She’s gone through depression and trauma, over the course of the story, but been brought out of it by her friends and by Ron. It’s these things that are left, when the super-powered, melodramatic conflict is over.

And given how much she’s been through, her real victory isn’t vanquishing Turm or the psychic boys. It’s her ability to find the simple joys we see at the end that represents Mai’s real victory. It’s the ability to smile, when her puppy licks her, and to resume a normal life.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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2 Comments

  1. David Braime says:

    I haven’t actually read this comic, although I was aware of it. I will certainly be getting a copy now!

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