1987: Mai, the Psychic Girl

Mai, the Psychic Girl (1987) #1-28 by Kazuya Kudo, Ryuoichi Ikegami et al.

Back in the 80s, I would lethargically buy issues of this series whenever I happened upon them at sales, and I would read them as I bought them. This was an interesting reading experience, and I got the impression that Mai was a kind of semi-abstract, mysterious creation where every stare between the characters had some deep portentous meaning.

So sometime in the 90s I decided to root through the issues I had, and buy the rest so that I could read this enigmatic masterpiece properly. It turned out that I had every other issue. All the even-numbered ones!

So I did the sensible thing and went to the Mile High Comics web site and bought all the odd-numbered issues and sat down to read it.

And it was such a crushing disappointment. Instead of being a vague strange thing, it turned out to be a straightforward children’s action/adventure story.

But now that I know what it is, I wonder what this re-reading will be like. It’s my second-and-a-half reading of this series, after all.

All these Viz/Eclipse co-productions have a bit of text on the cover to tease the contents. “She is pretty. She is psychic. She is Japanese.” is very much to the point.

The storyline is basically about a number of super-powered kids (all around 13 or 14 years old) and a vast conspiracy surrounding them.

Ming the Merciless is the leader of the bad guys.

But since this is about teenagers, we also get lots of totally incredibly realistic teenage drama, too. Or to put it another way: I think it’s been a while since the author was a teenager.

The three initial series that were chosen for translation were pretty different, and two of them sank without a trace after the initial attempt. Area 88 is a military soap opera that takes place mostly in the west, so you get few references to Japanese culture or daily life there. The Legend of Kamui takes place hundreds of years ago, and is about ninjas, so no pop culture references there, either.

Mai was, I think, the most successful transplant: It’s contemporary and it’s very Japanese. If you look at subsequent translations of Japanese comics that have been successful abroad, it’s this kind of thing that people turned out to want; not medieval ninjas or Western military.

Frederik Schodt, author of the seminal Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics book points of that this is exactly the opposite of what comics professionals, both in Japan and abroad, predicted. “People may be able to tolerate exoticism in other media, but not in comics.”

But it’s this fascination with the exoticism (real or otherwise) of everything connected to Japan that’s made Japanese comics such a big deal with certain sections of the public abroad; it’s not really the er content of the comics, which is often rather mundane.

As it is here in Mai. Reading it now, I think it’s quite entertaining, but it’s not particularly well constructed.

(I included the page above just as an example of the puzzling way many Japanese action comics for kids have a tendency to draw everybody as if they’re European.)

Ryuoichi Ikegami doesn’t go into super-deformed mode a lot, but when he does, it’s worth it.

And I think he has a crew of assistants that are incredibly well-versed in the art of tracing images from cookbooks.

Oh, yeah, I didn’t mention that this series has it all: Not only psychic heroes who fly around and shoot lightning bolts out of their heads and stuff, but it also has random people who turn out to be incredibly well-versed in martial arts…

… and huge monster men that have a pretty unclear reason to exist, other than that it’s cool to have huge monster men. I’m disappointed that they didn’t stick a dinosaur into this comic. That’d be fun.

Fred Patten explains “American/British cartoon-art storytelling” isn’t everything.

As with the other two Viz/Eclipse books, this has a very distinctive design, and unlike the rest of the Eclipse line of comics. I like these back covers where they’ll take a random panel and do psychedelic colouring on them.

Mai the Psychic Girl originally appeared in a weekly marketed towards teenage boys. Choosing a girl as the protagonist is slightly unusual in that market, but it allows the creators to do some fan service. The first issue ran too long: The Eclipse issues are either 40 or 32 pages, and the first episode was longer than 40 pages, so Eclipse decided to drop several pages of Mai having a bath. The editor explains that that wasn’t meant to be titillating at all, but just totally normal Japaneseness, and I have to wonder how naive the editor really was.

Scenes like this, where our 14-year-old heroine gets rescued by a kindly college kid and stays in the dorm start off in a really squicky way, where these students seem to be besides themselves with horny glee at having the girl in the dorms.

It calms down pretty quickly and gets really sweet (and then Mai does their laundry, as one does), but those initial pages were creepy.

Oh, and there’s supernatural stuff with Mai’s mother’s ghost.

And a puppy! This comic has everything!

Aha! We finally get the explanation of why these books are so stylish and different from all other Eclipse books: They’re all designed by Shinji Horibuchi.

Oh, yeah, the books has motorcycles too, because why the hell not.

Police violence seems to be expected in Japan, too. At least in this comic.

Ah, right, the ancient city of Dresden. Check.

While the storyline is fine, I guess, the real reason to read this book is Ryuoichi Ikegami’s artwork. He draws people in a not-very-cartoony way, but manages to manages to keep pretty much everybody look distinct. His action scenes are extremely propulsive, with blood splattering every which way, but I’m particularly taken with pages like this, that are just so… cool. How’s that for articulate art criticism.

Once Our Hero and The Villain starts flying around, every other page has an upskirt panel or two, which is totally normal in Japanese culture and not titillating at all, and common to all Japanese comics. Right? Right! Sure!

And, oy vey, the racism. Everybody in the book are either Japanese or European and are all non-icky, but we get two people from other countries: This guy is from Vietnam, and gets called a “weirdo” by everybody around them.

And then we have this charming portrait of the psychic from Mongolia.

*sigh*

This one’s from the US, so no running snot. But the reason I included this snap is just to illustrate Ryuoichi Ikegami’s tendency to use the Xerox machine. I think it’s probably used an interesting effect more than because of laziness, because the identical images gives the sequence an unnerving effect.

And, of course Mai’s top gets shredded in the final conflict, so she spends the last two issues fighting while topless. This is a totally normal thing for superheroes to do in Japanese culture and is not a matter of titillation for the 12-year-old boys who are reading these comics.

Not at all.

How dare you!

Anyway, I thought this book was a lot more fun to read this time around when I had no expectations beyond that it’s a dopey book for children. It’s a quick read: It’s almost 1K pages, but I read it in an afternoon.

After Viz and Eclipse parted ways, Viz reprinted the series twice; once in smaller format paperbacks and once in larger format paperbacks. The last reprinting was in 1998, so it’s been out of circulation for a couple of decades, which I think it pretty odd.

If I remember correctly, Mai (other than Lone Wolf and Cub) the Japanese comic book that got most attention and name-dropping until Marvel reprinted Akira a few years later.

Here’s Rob Robi in Comics Journal #122:

Mai also bears an uncanny resemblance to the Disney studio’s juvenile adventure films of the ’50s and ’60s—and to George Lucas’s Star cycle, for that matter. Both Disney and Lucas sought to evoke the psychological power of the folk tales by dressing up their plots in a pop-culture context. Kudo and Ikegami do the same. With such thematic and structural antecedents, it’s no surprise that Mai the Psychic Girl should turn out to be the best comic book for children and adolescents in twenty years. (It’S embarrassing to compare it to American comics that attempt Similar themes— say, New Mutants.) Nor that, as with the best children’s literature, it also makes compelling reading for adults.

[…]

Kudo has clearly done his homework; Mai is such an accomplished incorporation of every proven mythic sucker-punch, from the oral traditions of the dim past to the poppsych requisites Of today, that it will probably make even the most jaded kid turn dizzy with excitement waiting for the next issue. (This is one jaded kid who can’t resist it.) It’s a perfect conception, with a whiz-bang execution to boot.

Ikegami’s cartooning is extraordinary. Although gently employing the brilliantly expressive, highly-stylized facial features traditionally associated with manga, Ikegami keeps his characters’ figures supple and natural; his juxtaposition of wild exaggeration with crisp realism is especially pleasing to western tastes. Mai is genuinely pretty juvenile, and the Other characters all so likable. (Ikegami’s landscapes, architecture, and interiors are pristine as well; in some places they almost look like photostats, but I think they’re not.)

One thought on “1987: Mai, the Psychic Girl”

  1. There was some talk of a movie adaptation of Mai, starring Winona Ryder and directed maybe by Tim Burton, that was floated in the post-Batman “adapt all comics!” era.

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