Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Mai the Psychic Girl
by Jason Thompson, Mar 7th 2013
Episode CXL: Mai the Psychic Girl
"A young girl with psychic powers is abducted by a crazed industrialist intent on exploiting her gifts."
—Mai the Psychic Girl New York Times Movie Entry
Who could forget Mai the Psychic Girl, the first manga adapted into an American movie musical? The New Wave soundtrack by rock band Sparks. The comedy/heartwarming/thriller script by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, authors of Surf's Upand Parental Guidance. And of course the ever-so-slightly campy direction by Tim Burton. Can you imagine if Kirk Wong or Francis Ford Coppola had gotten hold of it like they were planning? (Actually, Kirk Wong…mmm…) If there was any problem with Mai's overwhelming success, it's that now, whenever you talk to a non-fan about anime and manga, they think it's all about musicals. Still, I can't wait for the Mai the Psychic Girl Glee episode.
The previous paragraph is all true except for being in the past tense.(And the Glee part.) Every name is real. It all could happen. Mai the Psychic Girl has been in development in Hollywood since the late '80s, as a musical with a handful of big-name directors attached to it. Even as recently as 2010 Tim Burton was still talking about the project. Something about this story has held Burton and Sparks in its thrall and kept Hollywood executives talking for at least 20 years. Will the Mai the Psychic Girl film get greenlit before Detroit Metal City remake? What the heck is so special about it? What is Mai the Psychic Girl anyway?
In 1987 Mai, along with Area 88 and Kamui, was one of the first three manga published by Viz. Viz was then a tiny company working in partnership with Eclipse Comics, throwing stuff on the wall to see what kind of manga Americans might like. Mai was chosen presumably for its psychic/ESP/mutants theme (think X-Men) and its unique, neither-Western-nor-Japanese artwork. The rewriter was early manga fan James Hudnall, who got the job partly because of his psychic comic ESPers. The artist, Ryoichi Ikegami, was nothing like most mangaka before or since, and definitely nothing like the stereotypical 'big eyes, small mouth' style Americans even then associated with anime and manga. The author, Kazuya Kudô, was a mangaka better known for his seinen manga, such as Pineapple Armyand several ghostwritten Golgo 13 stories. But never mind the author: PSYCHICS! And CUTE GIRLS! And Ikegami's incredible, photorealistic-yet-gestural art! As the front cover of the first issue announces, "She is pretty. She is psychic. SHE IS JAPANESE!"
Mai is unusual (especially for its time) in that it's a shonen manga with a female lead. Typically for a girl in a boys' manga, she's part heroine and part damsel-in-distress, and there's a bit of flipped skirts and torn shirts in the later fight scenes, although Ikegami keeps the fanservice pretty classy by mid-'80s standards: it's no Boku no Brassiere Island. (Not wanting to alienate audiences, Viz cut a nude bath scene from the very first issue, although they put it back in for the graphic novel. Later, Americans would discover just how much nudity Ikegami could draw when he really wanted to.)
Mai, who lives with her father since her mother's death, is a carefree tween who likes to hang out with her friends. She has one great secret: she has telekinetic powers, which she's concealed her whole life, using them only for her own amusement like moving soap around in the bath. One day, when she accidentally reveals her powers, the news quickly gets around to shadowy government agencies, and then to the shadowiest figure of all, Senzo Kaieda. An intimidating old man with long white hair and a vicious stare (and a missing front tooth when he smiles; in Ikegami's art, the bad guys almost always have some goofy facial feature), Kaieda was a Japanese war criminal during WWII. Now, he rules Japan through the Kaieda Agency, and he wants Mai's powers for his own.
Kaieda sends his agents to capture Mai, but luckily Mai's father, Shuichi, is no pushover. He knows martial arts, and when bad guys show up looking for his daughter, he kicks their butts. Barely a step ahead of Kaieda's agents, he takes Mai and flees to the wilderness of Togakushi, the traditional home of Mai's side of the family. They climb high into the mountains, hoping to escape their pursuers. But Kaieda's agents are more than just men in black suits; Kaieda commands Tsukiro, an incredibly strong, giant beast-man. (Tsukiro looks anywhere between 10 and 20 feet tall, depending on how Ikegami draws him, or on how big Ikegami's assistants draw the backgrounds.) Tsukiro pursues Mai and her father up a perilous mountain path, the "Ant's Tower Crossing," and her father stays behind to fight the monster so she can escape. Seeing her father pushed off a cliff to certain death, Mai utters an uncontrollable psychic scream, and blows up part of the mountain, sending Tsukiro plummeting into the ravine as well.
After expending tons of power in one attack, Mai is rescued by her knight in shining armor, Intetsu, a muscular young mountain climber who happens to be in the area. Intetsu turns out to be the boss, more or less, of a huge group of college-students-slash-bikers who live in a collective in a rundown building. (Shades of Ikegami's previous series, Otoko Gumi and Otoko Oozora, also about gangs of young rebels who live outside the system.) Like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the guys all fall in love with Mai and vow to protect her, while she does the cooking and laundry. (At least they all pitch in, making a big party out of it, those wild and crazy guys.) A scraggly hippie tutors Mai at math, since she's missing school, while a fat nerd with glasses hacks into government computers in search of data about the Kaieda Agency.
Intetsu and the nerd are startled to find out how big their opponent is. But unfortunately for them, Kaieda is just the mini-boss. Above him is the Wisdom Alliance, a secret Illuminati-style organization that rules the world from a pyramid in the Jura Mountains in Switzerland. The leader of the Wisdom Alliance is Sogen Ryu, who looks like Ming the Merciless and smokes cigarettes out of a dragon-headed cigarette holder. The Wisdom Alliance has charted the course of the entire 20th century, and America and the Soviet Union are just its pawns. ("Even Hitler, who advocated the thousand year reich, couldn't stand against us! The two current super powers cannot either!") They want Mai, and other psychic children, for nefarious purposes involving the forthcoming end of the world in a nuclear holocaust in the fateful year 1999. Soon enough, Kaieda picks up Mai's trail, and Mai must run for her life again. This time, she's accompanied by three friends: (1) Intetsu, (2) Madarao, a funny little dwarf who shows up and announces that he's the ninja servant of Mai's family ("My family has been protecting Lady Mai's bloodline for generations!") and (3) Ron, a cute little dog who is repeatedly used as a punching bag by the bad guys to show how bad they are.
But then—SPOILERS!—Kaieda has a change of heart. Touched by Mai's pureness, the old man turns against the Wisdom Alliance and decides to protect the girl from his masters instead. The Wisdom Alliance responds, first, by instigating a global economic boycott of Japan, and second, by gathering other psychic children to defeat her. It's not just Mai vs. the world: it's Japan vs. the world!! Each of the evil psychic children comes from a different country: Turm, an arrogant, sadistic West German girl; Baion, a tubby, snot-licking Mongolian kid; Perry, a cocky American; and Hong, a teeny-tiny, bucktoothed Vietnamese boy. (As is unfortunately common in Ikegami, all the evil psychics are essentially ethnic stereotypes; Viz executives later told me they'd been nervous about publishing them in America.) Now the battle lines are drawn: Mai vs. the world's second best psychics in an epic telekinetic battle, firing energy beams, flinging people out of 20th story windows, and flying high among the skyscrapers of Tokyo. Who will survive? And how long will the mild-mannered Mai be able to control her anger and the psychic destruction it could wreak?
Secret psychic wars, superpowers, evil conspiracies: Mai has great bold (and American-ish) themes that made it a natural for one of Viz's first titles. Best of all, although it's a shonen manga, Ikegami's seinen art and Kudo's seinen storytelling background give it all an air of realism. The psychic battles are great, a mix of the "flying around in the sky shooting fireballs" style psychics of Harmageddon and the gory physical effects of American movies like Scanners, with a bit of martial art fanservice thrown in too. To Americans in 1987, one of the things that made Mai fresh was those battles, the 'energy beam to the head' intensity of Ikegami's fight scenes. There's an almost pop art quality to Ikegami's poses (especially when the characters are flying and basically just hanging in the air), all so beautifully rendered you could turn any one shot into a poster, but when it's an action scene, the shots all work together like still photos turning into movie frames.
But what's even more "manga" about Mai is the character interaction. Half of the time it's intense and suspenseful, but there's also plenty of cheerfully goony shonen manga moments, like Mai and her friends just hanging out together eating hamburgers, laughing and having a good time. (I guess the heroes also laughed at the end of every G.I. Joe cartoon.) The comic-relief characters, like little-guy Madarao and toothless old lady Mrs. Mineo, leave more of an impression than the serious ones. Tsukiro is the one exception, but we eventually find out that even the giant scary man-beast has a vulnerable, childlike side. Mai's strongest theme isn't psychics vs. normals, or even outcasts finding a place to call home; it's the love between parents and children. Even Mai's growth over the course of the series doesn't manifest through romance or sexuality (there are only the tiniest hints of that), but through becoming more motherly, by channeling the spirit of her mother. If, as a female lead in a shonen manga in 1987, Mai is defined largely by her gender, at least she's more of a mighty goddess/mother figure than a tween waif. And not just a "let me absorb all your suffering into me" Maria Kannon style goddess either, but a tough, protector-goddess. In classic hero style, she doesn't want to fight, but when she has to…
Fun though it is, Mai has some problems; the biggest one is that it ends abruptly. Just when it seems like we're going to go to the next level and meet the villain beyond the villains, the manga just stops, leaving us with the feeling that Mai's adventures have just begun. It was probably canceled. Still, maybe the open-endedness is a good thing; no one could say that Mai didn't go on to, say, star in an American musical, or meet Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, or something. Perhaps it's Mai's idea of a superpowered outsider, an outcast fighting against The Man, that makes Tim Burton like it so much. But who knows whether Burton could capture the theme of pure parental love, or the overwhelming earnestness that lets Mai have it all: heartwarming cooking and shopping scenes, head-exploding psychic battles, giant mutant beast-freaks, megalomaniacal madmen, purehearted loyal followers, cute puppies and all the rest.
At the heart, though, Mai is a simple story about family and a girl on the run from evil forces, and that's probably why it's got so much Hollywood appeal. It doesn't have anything especially cultural and hard to explain, or twisted and perverse and un-Hollywood (like Evangelion), and it doesn't have a complicated backstory that's impossible to fit into a movie (like Dragon Ball). Maybe it'll actually get filmed someday and the "Mai the Psychic Girl (2013)" IMDB entry will turn out to be true. Till then, it's just another Ryoichi Ikegami manga that's out of print in America, like every other Ikegami manga. It's too bad. This was a very good choice for one of Viz's first manga. It's one of the only Ikegami manga you could shelve in a school library or show to your parents (unless your parents are much kinkier than mine are), and flaws and all, it's one of his best.
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