Use of the Psychic in Manga and Anime

Overview and Critique

And Personal Speculation on Its Effects on the Audience

Note: One of my purposes in writing this is to help the Westerner to become more aware of the psychic undercurrents in most Japanese comics. Not everything psychic depicted in manga is true or even close to the truth, while some of it may be disconcertingly true. Either way, as with all media, one must carefully examine the material and make judgments on its merits or counter-merits for oneself. If a comic's treatment of the psychic is disturbing, it may simply be a different and valid way of looking at an issue --- or maybe you'll find you're just better off not reading the material, for various reasons.


Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of manga and anime to a Westerner is the emphasis on the supernatural, whether psychic or spiritual. From the ki-attacks of martial artists to the Shinto wards that keep demons at bay, manga and anime are overflowing with psychic references. Even many girls' comics center around demons and angels and ghosts and vampires, and many that don't have brief incidents of psychic activity --- such as people hearing the voice of a loved one who has just died. Why is it material that might normally only be found in The X Files or Unsolved Mysteries in the U.S. so routinely winds up in mainstream Japanese comics?

It's part of Japanese culture

Japan's culture has as a backdrop the rich mythological tapestry of the Far East, as well as hundreds of years of specialized martial arts training. Up until relatively recently, many Japanese believed in gods and demons and spirits as a result of both Shintoism and certain forms of Buddhism, and also had a belief in reincarnation, "Hell" (Jigoku), and "Heaven" (Tengoku). Every child in Japan is also brought up with a stock set of ghost stories, from the stories of the faceless nopperabo to the tale of the plate-counting ghost; students learn of the ancient Chinese beliefs and tales, such as the mythical 108 supernatural rebels in the story of the Water Margin ("Suikoden"). Eastern martial arts, with aspects of Indian yoga, emphasize the use of Ki ("psychic" energy, the basis of Star Wars' "the Force"). The Japanese language uses the word "Ki" extensively; it's almost impossible to avoid it in its many uses. For example, "depression" can translate to "heavy Ki," "happy and healthy" to something approximating "proper Ki," and so on. On top of all of this, the Japanese remain deeply curious about the world around them, and they tend not to have the traditional Western Judeo-Christian-based prohibitions against exploring the psychic realm.

With such a background of psychic legend, experience, and curiosity, it seems only natural that the Japanese would delve deeply into the subject matter in comics --- a medium ideally suited for such endeavors. The cross-fertilization with the West, with ideas such as aliens, vampires, cyborgs, mermaids, and Western architecture and dress, has also produced an amazing explosion of East-West supernatural hybrids.

Treatment of the Supernatural

Instead of treating the supernatural with overwhelming disbelief, the Japanese tend to treat it as normal --- at least within the world of comics. Characters within the comics tend to either treat the supernatural with either (1) initial disbelief but quick acceptance or (2) immediate acceptance. Perhaps the most telling factor, that which tends to separate manga from American treatment of the supernatural, is the everyday-ness of it. Rather than treat the supernatural like something utterly horrible, utterly mysterious, or utterly ridiculous, manga tends to treat it like anything else: something that can be used or misused, something to be respected and laughed at, something to be both feared and treasured.

What are some other examples of the psychic in manga and anime?

There are too many to count. But here's an overview of various types of the supernatural and examples.

Just Plain Occasional Inexplicable Stuff. Yes, there are manga where supernatural things happen ... with no explanation, mostly for the sake of the characters, and life goes on. These stories tend to be more about the characters than about cool psychic battles. For example, Me Gumi No Daigo featured a fireman with a sixth sense for saving lives -- and offered no explanation. Takahashi Rumiko's short stories often include strange events (e.g., an old woman suddenly getting psychic powers, or a man haunted by his wife's ghost) in order to tell a human story. Black Jack, the Tezuka Osamu series about a surgeon, also had some strange incidents (sometimes involving ghosts or even aliens). Yet, the supernatural isn't at all the focus in these stories (though it does add some flavor). The people remain the focus. Many Western short stories feature bizarre incidents too, and one could point to A Christmas Carol or some Nathaniel Hawthorn stories as famous Western analogues.

Ki and Ki-based ESP. Many boys' comics that center around intrigue, fighting or martial arts heavily exploit the notion of Ki. Ki is literally "The Force" of Star Wars fame; it is apparently an energy that is all around us and which can be used for good or for ill. Eastern martial arts emphasize training of Ki, and this awareness of Ki has extended into popular Japanese culture. Characters sense each others' presences from far away, such as an incident in City Hunter in which Kaori becomes alarmed when she notices that she can no longer feel Ryo's presence. Deadly-ki is the feeling of impending attack that snaps people out of sleep or into action, as seen in Ranma 1/2 whenever Akane senses an impending attack by Kodachi. A strong field of battle-ki is said to surround powerful warriors, as characters in the fantasy series Dragon Quest frequently note --- sometimes so powerful that attack is made impossible (these stories parallel legendary events with real historical people). Entire battles are sometimes fought with ki, as in Yu Yu Hakusho: martial artists in both manga and real life can sometimes fell an opponent without ever physically touching the person. In manga, however, the battles tend to be flashier than real life, with bursts of brightly lit energy and auras that glow like fire.

Psionics and ESP. Psionics sometimes seem to be just a different form of ki, but without the label of "ki." Psionics also allow for teleportation (which ki usually doesn't) and a clearer form of telepathy, as well as controlled telekinesis. Stories about psionics crop up here and there, too. Chojin Locke, about a psionic boy who can heal others, teleport, use telekinesis and so on, is an obvious example. Some psionics, like those in Jo Jo's Bizarre Adventure Party, are a unique mixture of ki, psionics, and magic. Psionics tend to appear in science-fiction realms. Even an occasional Doraemon story involves psionics, such as a 21st-century training device for developing one's potential (which, of course, Nobita fails to use properly).

Chinese, Japanese, and other Eastern Mythology Foundations. The classic Chinese epic fantasy legend of Suikoden ("The Water Margin") and the traditional cardinal direction associations (Peacock-South, Blue Dragon-East, etc.) has carried over considerably into modern Japanese storytelling. Movies, games, and manga have been based on these supernatural themes (such as the Playstation game Gensou-Suikoden and the manga Ao No Fuuin and Fushigi Yuugi. Myths about the princess from the moon and the multi-headed, Hydra-like Yamata no Orochi also continue to have an influence on manga as diverse as Doraemon to Queen Millennial. More Indian-esque themes, such as the popular notion of 3-eyed super beings, has seen echoes in such works as 3x3 Eyes and Mitsu Me ga Tooru. And many works that fall into this category also utilize other characteristics from other categories; it is pretty much assumed that, if one builds upon a fantastic framework, fantastic abilities must surely fit in too. The below is especially commonly used:

Eastern magic and/or spiritual/divine powers. Japanese spirituality, influenced by Hindu-based yoga, Buddhism, and Shintoism, tends to be a mishmash of those religions. Many manga and anime spiritual warriors use mantras (chanted prayer) and mudras (special hand positions) to summon the spiritual strength of the good "Buddhist" or Shinto gods (as a note, some branches of Buddhism do not have any gods). The character Sakura from Urusei Yatsura ("Lum") had the skills of a Shinto priestess, and used Shinto tools to keep demons at bay. Nuube in Hell Teacher Nuube uses Buddhist mantras to help banish demons. Not just spiritual warriors use these techniques; ninjas (both in real life and in the comics) also use mudras and Ki meditation to improve themselves. Unfortunately, there are few obvious Western influences in manga spirituality, and one of them is the sadly stereotypical use of the cross against vampires (which usually doesn't work). One hopes that some of the more positive aspects of Western culture could be incorporated, instead of just the negative ones.

Discarnate people (ghosts) and souls. Late 1990's manga seem to have had a fascination with soul-swapping, such as with Hisoka Returns and Noside, both of which involve main characters whose bodies temporarily died, necessitating they move into the body of some other person who had recently died. The recent Tuxedo Gin is another story of soul transmigration; a recently "deceased" young man takes up residence in a penguin. In Yu Yu Hakusho, Yuusuke's body remains comatose while he wanders around as a ghost for a while. Many other manga simply involve ghost characters, such as Ghost Sweeper Mikami. In Hell Teacher Nuube, ghosts are frequently the lost souls of those who remain tied to Earth because of some unfinished task or unfulfilled longing.

Otherwordly non-human entities (angels, demons) All sorts of these appear: monsters, demons, angels, aliens, magical animals, minor and major gods from mythology, and so on. Some can be as bizarre as tea (e.g., Earl Grey, Darjeeling) royalty who act as wish-granting genies and friends (Koucha Ouji (Tea Prince)). A number of authors seem particularly fond of the notion of winged angels and demons. Girls' manga like Angel Sanctuary and Akuma No Houteishiki ("Devils' Equation") in fact seem to enjoy turning angels and demons into (often sexy-looking) manga characters. Likewise, boys' comics like Bastard and Debi Debi (Devil Devil) similarly have angels and demons, and like the girls' manga, they tend to turn them into sexual beings (sometimes with children!) who are a mixture of good and bad. In other words, it's not at all what most Westerners would think of for "angels" and "demons"! On another note, though, manga tends to hold that many evil beings (and people) are those who have gone astray due to cruel circumstances, and that they still have the chance for redemption. Manga and anime often place the reader in the bad guy's shoes, explaining his history and motivations, and showing off his good points. Often the bad guys convert to the "good side" in manga and anime after being shown a demonstration of the power of friendship and selflessness. Those who have too much pride to openly convert usually die heroically. A prime example of this tendency to convert is the Dragon Quest series.)

Heaven and Hell, the Demon World and/or Spiritual World (other planes). Japan had a belief in a Hell-like world, ruled by the Enma-Dai-Ou, as well as a Heaven. Mixing up Eastern and Western "Heaven" and "Hell" seems to be standard practice (there was a humorous Buddhist priest with halo and wings in Tuxedo Gin). Most of the manga featuring "angels" and "demons" do have a Heaven and Hell, though again, both are fictitious versions. A number of manga also take a somewhat Eastern approach and divide up the world into 3 parts: the human (physical) world, the demon/monster world, and the spiritual world where the souls of the dead go. (Comics like Vampire Princess Miyu tend to have only the first two, but Yu Yu Hakusho, Ghost Sweeper Mikami and others include the spirit world of the dead.) Typical plot involves a human who has to protect the human world from encroachers from the demon world, in the process usually gaining at least one "chaotic good" demon friend who helps in the fight. The spirit world is often not mentioned by name, but it is often implied to exist --- because the souls of characters who die usually wind up Someplace Else that is neither the demon world nor the human world.

Good points of the Anime-manga treatment of the supernatural

Here we get into a controversial philosophical discussion. I will assume that some readers object to all this psychic stuff as promoting evil. Here are some reasons why I don't think it is doing so:

How are supernatural powers depicted? What are its fruits? Even the Western Judeo-Christian beliefs argue that some supernatural forces are good or divine, even if others are not. In the Japanese view, psychic powers are like any other talent --- neither good nor bad, but capable of being used for either. Most characters in manga who routinely use psychic powers are theoretically on the side of "good." They help those in need, fight evil, and so on.

The Japanese treatment of the psychic tends to retain fundamental and arguably "good" elements, which are characteristic of manga and anime in general. Here are some basics:

Overall message? Hard work, strong friendship, and right use of one's powers can conquer even the most powerful evil. A pretty powerful, encouraging message.

What are the bad points of having so much psychic material?

OK, so suppose that you see nothing wrong with so much psychic warfare going on page after page. Here are my personal views on why it's not necessarily a good thing, either!

The most obvious problem with manga and anime, especially boys' manga, is the overemphasis on fighting one's way out of everything (whether with guns or psychic attacks). The underlying issue, of course, is that peaceful resolution simply does not make for an exciting read. Watching, say, true aikido in action would be boring, because true aikido is the avoidance of conflict. In our already violence-filled world, prevention seems to need a lot of help, and battle-oriented manga (while possibly providing an outlet for frustration) may be hurting that cause.

The rest of the bad points of the depiction of the supernatural require some belief in the supernatural. If you don't believe in spirits and psychic energy and so on, the rest of this section will have no meaning to you. Skip ahead. But supposing you do believe in those things, and supposing you're willing to accept the very loose definitions of "good" as "actively caring and helpful to others" and "evil" as "actively selfish and harmful to others," here are some other problems I see associated with manga and anime.

Glamor vs. education. One recent episode of Hell Teacher Nuube involved students who unknowingly risked their lives playing with an ouija board (Nuube had to rescue them). Though the manga included a stern, explicit warning about the risks of using ouija boards, publicizing their use may not be a good thing. This is reminscent of the little tiny "how to be good" message tacked on the end of every violent G.I. Joe episode. The key question becomes, What is the ratio of real education to glamorization?

Glamorizing "evil." Sometimes the education-to-glamorization ratio is pretty low. Manga and anime have a bad habit of glamorizing the supernatural --- not just the heroes, but the bad guys as well. Demons are often depicted as beautiful or handsome creatures, and truly "good" entities are rarely depicted at all. Maybe this is a warning about how appearances can be deceiving?

Downplaying "good." It seems that "angels" in many series are just as proud, arrogant, and unthinking as their evil counterparts. They also seemingly have to resort to violence about as often. I suspect this is because "angels" are seen as "cool," which means that authors who want to write weird psychic "cool" stuff latch onto them. There are wonderful manga where ordinary, quiet, humble acts of goodness and kindness are glorified, but they don't usually feature supernatural winged beings!

Glamorizing psychic powers. Another problem is that "You might get what you asked for." Some real-world people suggest that one's desires are a powerful attractant in the spiritual world. By glamorizing psychic prowess, manga and anime may lead readers to desire psychic powers because it's "cool." "If only I could do that!" -- I have received many, many pieces of email asking about the ki/energy blasts done in Dragon Ball Z! Such an attitude can be, according to various scholars of the spiritual, dangerous to have, opening one up to subtle and sometimes unnoticed psychic attack. Just as bad, potentially, is the desire to meet spirits. The spirits most likely to meet a curious person are not the "good" ones, even if they claim to be. Yet, in most manga dealing with such meta-situations (of characters who read manga and want to meet spirits or monsters), the spirits are good and trustworthy.

Not enough real research. It would be folly to use manga and anime as guidebooks to the supernatural, but for many people, it's the main source of information. This could be seen as a problem.

My Personal Opinion?

I think that anime and manga often do a pretty good job with the supernatural. Many do take the time to depict the drawbacks of psychic skills, such as the tendency to get attacked by other beings who have such skills (and the possibility of death of oneself or a loved one resulting). They also take care to show the heavy weight of responsibility to (1) not misuse power and (2) to protect those who are not as powerful.

That said, over the past few years I have gotten more and more queries about using "ki blasts" and other psychic abilities. This alarms me, because the desire for psychic powers is a dangerous trap. It tends to get one involved in the darker side of the spiritual spectrum. Moreover, I have seen enough manga to realize some of the best stories that teach kindness tend to be the least dramatic in terms of psychic battles or winged beings.

It all depends on the author, the editors and publishers, and the desires of the consumer.

If the manga and anime medium is to continue to delve into the psychic world, one hopes that the authors do their research thoroughly on the nature of the supernatural. They need to take a long hard look at their own responsibilities and the effects of their power, even if that is the plain, natural and "mundane" power to teach while entertaining.

Text copyright 1996, 1997, 2001 by Eri Izawa

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