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Mental illness in anime & manga – the art of portrayal

From TV shows to movies, newspaper articles, anime, manga, literature etc. nothing has been more captivating and visually enchanting to watch or read, than the characters with psychotic disorders and downright insanity. The idea of making the audience connect more with the fictional character in question by letting them peek into their psychic conscience is genius, but isn’t anything new. Although, in the past, movies and media have suffered from a lack of realism. These days, anime and manga have always managed to prosper in depicting engaging personas and complex plots. Probably so much so that the idea of humanizing the mentally ill and drawing more attention to their predicament has been a common practice in the anime world. But the question is, why? Why are we, as “sane” as we are, have always been drawn towards the preposterous? Keeping aside the intellectual maxim, “EvErYoNe Is MeNtAlLy IlL t0 sOmE dEgReE”. Is it because we really relate to, if not all of it, part of it? Or is it the art of portrayal?

What is Mental Illness?

Look, I am no doctor, neither am I your 200 IQ family friend uncle Jim, who happens to know literally everything from French toasts to String Theory. In fact, there’s a 69% chance I am as mentally ill as the person who is reading this article at the moment (Ya right! How did I know? Surprise surprise John!). So I won’t go into the nerdy details of what mental illness is and the relevant (Try googling something other than Phimosis for once). If you are wondering why I said the number “69” in particular, it’s because both the factors of 69 are Gaussian Primes you sick person!

Anyway coming back to mental Illness, like everything, we all grow to have opinions on different matters. Through observations, experience, and in case of terrorists, probably brainwashing. For what I know, mental illness is a condition entailing changes (sometimes unnoticeable) in emotions, thinking and behaviour. Yes, exactly! Isn’t this a bit too general? By this statement more or less everyone is in some way or the other, suffering from issues regarding mental health. And yes, probably it is more common than we think! And why not! Once we look how widespread the causes are, childhood trauma, accidents, bullying etc. The idea of “insanity” becomes pretty much run-of-the-mill at that moment.

Mental Illness In Anime/Manga

Perfect Blue (1997)
Perfect Blue (1997)

If you have made it this far, I am wondering you have, at least, a borderline idea on what anime is. It isn’t very infrequent in anime or manga to subtly delineate mental issues. Having watched some anime in my lifetime, I have been introduced with different kinds of mental disorders, most of the time not officially diagnosed. From mood disorders involving abnormal mood swings, (a good example will be the Protagonist from the anime, Banana Fish, Ash-Lyn) and severe obsessive compulsive disorder (commonly known as OCD) like Death the Kid, in Soul Eater who is immensely obsessed with – symmetry, to absolutely terrifying, balls to the walls psychotic plight of Yuno Gasai, from Future Diary (the crazy girlfriend, as I like to call it).

Even the more difficult to explain personality disorders and schizophrenia doesn’t take too much ground work to notice in some of our favourite characters. The antisocial personality disorder of the genius L or Light’s obsession with power and justice, in Death Note. Orochimaru’s bizarre fascination for knowledge and to go to the lengths of sacrificing human lives for the same or Sasuke’s compulsion towards revenge, post childhood trauma, in Naruto are probably the most popular of all.

Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion
Shinji Ikari – Neon Genesis Evangelion

However, when discussing about brain sickness, the most ubiquitous of them all is the depressive disorder. Depression has been a very prevalent topic of discussion for both online and recently even in regular conversations with family and friends. Even so, the crowd who understand what depression actually is, isn’t very substantial. Despite the shortcomings of human knowledge on this very issue, hats off to Hideaki Anno, the writer of Neon Genesis Evangelion to let us have such a beautiful insight on what we call “depression” and lack of self-confidence in modern customs. From the outside, the general concept of Neon Genesis Evangelion is to fight aliens using Mecha. But as the fans know, the anime is truly a deeper dive into the characters’ psyches. Although the anime, doesn’t have any character to have officially diagnosed with any sort of mental illness, Shinji Ikari, has some very interesting personality quirks. His neutral take on the world, how he sees everything to be miserable and has this constant premonition of worthlessness is relatable to many, and are in fact, symptoms of depression. The reluctance of getting close to people because of the fear of getting hurt in the process is probably something even you and I are guilty of, to some degree.

Some Things Never Change

Although it is quite evident that the idea of brain sickness is shown very differently in anime/manga over their movie or media counterpart. There are a few stereotypes that hold very true in case of anime as well. The preconceived stereotypical notions are often responsible for a change in behavioral approach towards someone who is known to suffer from some metal issues. The idea of-

Fear, which propels the general horde to steer away from the mentally ill. Unintentionally and subconsciously labelling them “dangerous”, putting up a social barrier.

Taking responsibility, for the mentally ill as they are “supposedly” incapable of making life decisions on their own.

Keeping them in check, as they are unable to take of care of themselves and unaware of what might be going on around them.

As guessed, the stereotypes never really bring a healthy mind set to the table instead, they are often very hazardous to the person in question. Moreover, the aftermath caused by these have been proven to be making drastically worse. Someone suffering from depressive disorder isn’t going to cure himself if he always gets subjected to exclusion and sometimes even isolation. Even resorting to violence against the mentally ill, as “self-defence” isn’t very unusual to the masses.

Mao from Code Geass
Mao – Code Geass

Anime/manga typically go by these stereotypes very differently which ties in with the fact that most of the times an anime has a completely diverse universe which, to put it mildly, isn’t very similar to the social convention we are accustomed to.

In this vast world of anime and manga literature, it isn’t very hard to find someone who fits the bill just right. We have Mao from one of my favorite anime(s), Code Geass. Over the years his inability to stop being able to hear people’s thoughts has driven him into an immature and sadistic individual. His intimidating endeavors have played a pretty significant part in labeling him “insane”.

A Few LookuPS…

From protagonists to antagonists to side characters, the anime world has a plethora of personalities to dive deeper into the subject of insanity. The beauty of it all is that, even though the subject of mental illness is often tantalizing, anime/manga has always been effortlessly good at humanizing the entire aspect of it. Even if a character is suffering from mental issues there is never just that to the character is question. Mental illness is probably the least of their problems. It is baffling how multi constituent this entire culture is. A few pops out right out of the mind,

Yuno Gasai. From Future Diary is probably one of the most insane female characters to have been created. Her romantic obsession with the show’s protagonist, the shy introverted loner, Yukiteru Amano may sound like another teenage affair but the short 26-episode banger of an anime doesn’t take too long to throw the viewers in the pit of absolute madness. The psychotic tendencies of Yuno results in killing her family and herself multiples times in different iterations of the universe just to be with her beloved Yukki. When talking about psychotic issue driven serial killing and a terrifying onscreen presence. Yuno Gasai takes the cake! 

Yuno Gasai
“Maybe the future is bad but there’s a future beyond that right” – Yuno Gasai

As perplexing as the topic is, Soul Eater has somehow managed to incorporate humour into the mix. One of the characters, Death the kid, and his rare fascination towards symmetry is a very direct case of Obsessive Compulsive disorder. The plot gets lighter and casual when he gets upset when he sees things that are not symmetrical and gets compelled to fix them. Bringing such a taxing issue into light through such a casual and gullible way is truly a work of art.

Death Kid
“Symmetry is what makes the world beautiful” – Death the Kid

The field of mental health isn’t very well looked into. The number of victims outweigh the number of recovered. However, we were not short of this department either. Yuri, the protagonist from Yuri!!! On Ice suffered from crippling depression throughout his professional life of ice skating. However, Victor Nikiforov was a blessing in disguise for Yuri. He, could not only see the powerful, attractive and bright side of Yuri, but also trained him to be his best mentally. The battle of Yuri against his demons is awe-inspiring to say the least.

Yuri Katsuki
Yuri Katsuki – Yuri!!! On Ice

Hansel and Gretel, the two twins from the anime Black Lagoon had to put up with the rare sort, the dissociative identity disorder. This caused the twins to switch identities. Very little is known about this issue to human knowledge but the plot is still gripping enough to keep you wondering, “What’s next?” An abusive, traumatic childhood may as well be the prime reason behind this obscuring phenomenon of the twins.

Hansel and Gratel
Hansel and Gretel – Black Lagoon

Finally, the elephant in the room, Tatsuhirou Satou, from Welcome to the NHK. The entire plot of the anime doesn’t force people to understand what exactly goes on in Satou’s head. Because, just how it should be, it is unclear for the most part. His anxiety attacks, restlessness and self-isolation is clearly a mental health issues that needs to be addressed. The hallucinations coupled with anxiety mildly point towards paranoid schizophrenia.

Welcome to NHK
Tatsuhiro Satou – Welcome to the NHK

Honourable Mentions

  1. Orange
  2. Banana Fish
  3. Neon Genesis Evangelion
  4. Death Note
  5. March Comes in Like a Lion
  6. Naruto
  7. Monster

Wrapping it Up!

All in all, anime, in general has helped a lot to bring the matter of mental illness to the general crowd, specially the younger generation. The multiple examples of how mental instability is portrayed in a variety of ways is commendable and is really not achievable for any other media source of conduct. It paves the way of foundation for this newer generation to get out of the pigeonhole and rise up to fight against your own mind and in the process unleash  yourself to be better every day through an engaging and entertaining way.

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