“Tokyo ESP? What’s that about?”
“Oh, it’s like X-men for Japan.”
Ever have one of those fridge logic moments where you say something off the cuff and it’s so brilliant, you wonder why you never saw it before? Okay, so I only just finished up the last volume of the manga not that long ago, and it’s been a while since I got to see X-Men on Saturday morning TV. But both are comics about a bunch of people who get weird, varied superpowers, and then shenanigans happen. Like all good fridge logic moments, the more you think on it, the more it makes sense. Tokyo ESP and X-Men aren’t just superhero stories—they’re gray, messy stories about the way humanity will be human, superpowers or no.
Tokyo ESP’s introduction to its mutants (referred to as ESPers) doesn’t really ease into it. Characters aren’t born with powers, but acquire them from flying ghost fish (this is only marginally less weird than it sounds). The main character for the first half of the series, Rinka, discovers this firsthand when she falls through her bedroom floor. Thanks, insubstantiality! The next few chapters cover her and her single parent father (who has become a human magnet) trying to keep their regular lives going. [Kitty and Magneto who? –Ed.] While there is a young man, Azuma, that she soon meets who’s interested in using his new powers for good, stopping bank robberies and the like, Rinka initially has no interest in her powers unless she can use them to make money. Saving the world sounds nice and all, but people still have to eat.
Like the mutants of the X-Men world, those with powers are not a monolith. Some like Azuma and Youdauni are interested in using their powers for good. Some, like Rinka and Ayumu, mainly want to be left alone. And some, like the criminal that sets Rinka’s apartment on fire, just want to watch the world burn. ESPers are not divided into clean hero/villain lines like many superheroes-with-powers stories. There’s less of a focus on “teams” (be they a league of justice or an evil brotherhood) and more a choice each individual has to make as to whether they want to be “good” or “evil” at any particular situation. Also like X-Men’s mutants, their powers are not a monolith; while there is some overlap (two teleporters, for example), each individual ESPer’s powers have a different base and are subject to a different ruleset.
Once you get into the realm of criminals committing psychic arson, it becomes harder for powers that be not to notice that people have spontaneously discovered magic and are willing to use it. Local police, the national government, and eventually even international agencies are getting involved as more and more people start acquiring powers and doing bigger and bigger things with them. There’s even an ESPer school à la Xavier’s that crops up. And as government gets involved, the questions of legislation and law come up. How legal is this? Can we control it? Should ESPers be registered? These questions are brought to a head at the end of the first half, which culminates in an ESPer attack on Tokyo itself.
Where the first half of Tokyo ESP focuses on the individual consequences of superpowers, the second focuses more on the societal consequences. Ren, a shut-in who comes into her powers during the onslaught of legislation post-Battle of Tokyo, discovers a world of xenophobia and distrust. Like X-Men’s xenophobia against mutants parallels the American xenophobia against people of color and LGBT+ people, Tokyo ESP’s strict regulation of ESPers feels like a calling out of Japan’s own problems with xenophobia. Like real-life xenophobia, the government’s actions of regulating ESPer movement, limiting their powers, and sometimes even forcing them into comas to control them, isn’t portrayed as puppy-kicking evil. It’s merely the actions of a government and a society that is presented with a situation it can’t fully grasp, and thus falls back on its baser, harsher instincts. While Ren’s story contains both her own personal arc and more global-level disaster, it’s shadowed over by the the mistrust and fear leveled as ESPers.
Of course, some people when pushed will push back. Like X-men has Magneto, Tokyo ESP has both the Professor and the Chairman, men who are set on advancing ESPers, even at the expense of humanity. The Professor, the main antagonist of the first half, is a man who has given up on humanity. Having acquired his ESP after a betrayal, he eventually attacks Japan itself in an effort to establish an ESPer government where they can live peacefully. And if humans die in the process, well, sounds good to him. The Chairman, the shadowy head of a paramilitary organization that drives the crises of the second half, is a more nebulous, but ultimately more optimistic figure. The organization itself sees ESP as means to a global power grab endgame, with ESPers as the superior people and humans as pawns or sacrifices. And the Chairman allows this, and many other cruel and terrible things in his organization, and yet in a way sees the ESPers as the pawns and the means to bring humanity to a better situation. The Professor is a parallel for the Magneto who wants to destroy the non-mutant humans, while the Chairman is the Magneto who wants to protect those mutants.
One place where Tokyo ESP diverges from X-Men, and I rather wish it didn’t, was in terms of diversity. X-Men, set in America, represents American diversity with people of all races, ethnicities, orientations, backgrounds, and classes. Tokyo ESP tries—we do see characters from different classes and backgrounds, but ultimately as much as X-men reflects America, Tokyo ESP represents a homogeneous Japan. Nearly all of the characters are ethnically and culturally Japanese; Rinka, the “white-haired girl” is a notable exception as she’s half-American. Given the relationship between queerness and X-Men, I would’ve loved to see some openly non-straight or non-cisgender characters in Tokyo ESP. Being that Japan is only easing itself into a recognisable cultural awareness of LGBT+ people, this story is probably a decade or two too early for that.
Also unlike X-Men, with its ongoing, sprawling, often retconned or split canon, Tokyo ESP’s eight volumes stand alone. While it brings its wars to a definitive end, the social consequences and effects on individuals remain. Unlike the limited span of the graphic novels, the end result in the world of Tokyo ESP is messy and complex. Humanity doesn’t learn its Aesop and turn to harmony or even back to normal. Nor do they ever really figure out how they want to handle ESPers. There is social fallout. In the end, the ESPers endure and move forward with their lives, because it’s all they really can do. The way ESPers fade back into history as an odd spike rather than a continuing norm feels more like the finality present in Logan, but without that film’s bleakness. It’s a fitting end to a series that explores the messiness of humanity’s complexities, but doesn’t intend to continue as a franchise.