Psyren – Review
Tell me if this has ever happened to you. Someone gives you a recommendation of a particular series, and a big part of why they recommend it is because of how dark the series is. Hearing this, you get very excited about it at first, only for that excitement to quickly decrease when you think about it and realize you have no idea what the other person meant by “dark”. Take, for example, Hunter x Hunter. I’ve often heard that series described as a darker shonen, but if you actually looked at a lot of popular shonen series, you’ll realize they can be pretty dark as well. So is Hunter x Hunter on that level, or is it closer to something like Deadman Wonderland? If all you hear is “dark”, that’s a tough question to answer.
You see, there are a lot of factors that can go into a series being qualified as dark, and which of these factors a work contains can be crucial to the viewer. What is the overall mood of the series? What are the characters like? Is there death, and if so, how much? Is there war? Is there rape, and how is it handled? What other personal issues are discussed? Does it have an apocalyptic setting? Does the universe run on the angst of children? The answers to any one of these questions can be a serious deal breaker for some readers, so it’s important to know where the manga stands.
I bring all this up because the beginning of Psyren is actually very misleading when it comes to setting the tone. We start off with the hero, Yoshina Ageha, assaulting several thugs for bothering his classmate. He then goes on a minor philosophical rant about how screwed up the world is and how everyone is likely to die. When something like this happens in the first few pages of the story, it’s usually a sign of what the mood for the rest of the series will be like. However, looking back on it after completing the manga, it only ends up feeling very out of place. I never got the idea that the character or the series was nihilistic, so aside from some gentle foreshadowing, I don’t know why these pages were here.
Moving on, we eventually meet up with one of Yoshina’s school mates Sakurako, and with her comes the introduction of the Psyren phone cards. These special cards are rumoured to be the source of widespread disappearances around Japan, but when Sakurako goes missing, Yoshina decides to use one to try and find her again. And by doing so, he is thrust into the deadly Psyren game, where the contestants must fight through a hellish landscape full of bizarre creatures to find their way back home.
Between the bleak setting and the style of the game, the first thing that comes to mind is probably Gantz, which was centered on a similar game. I haven’t read Gantz myself for personal reasons, but from everything I’ve gathered, Psyren starts off about as close as you can get to it in a magazine like Weekly Shonen Jump. People are dying like crazy, the world they’re plunged into feels alien and hostile, and the first battles are only won by taking on incredible risks. It never reaches the point where characters are getting pureed, but it manages to set the dark tone regardless.
However, what makes Psyren interesting is that unlike most other series of this nature, it actually gets less dark and intense over time. People still die, but nowhere near as often. The apocalyptic setting becomes much easier to grasp the more we know about it, even if we’re still spending time there. I know this is an easy comparison to make, since they’re both Jump titles, but the overall manga feels like the inverse of Death Note. The beginning has the revelations and speeches about how the world works; the middle has the planning and overall quirkiness, while the end has people declaring themselves to be the new God, buuuut we’ll get to that.
Now, this being a Shonen Jump title centered on action, you can imagine that there should be some interesting fights here. The focus of the series is the bizarrely named psychicers, who gain an abundance of special abilities either through contact with the atmosphere in Psyren or from just being born special. This usually means increased physical abilities, but also gives each character a unique ability, as is the style with psychics. This goes beyond the more common abilities seen in fiction and includes such classics as being able to create spheres of annihilating energy, manifest the parts of a dragon, summon laser trees or create…
…kekkai? Um, alright. Even the more common powers are used very interestingly. The healer can mutate his enemies, the teleporter can send people into the stratosphere, and the telekinetic can bend light and make space lasers! Not sure how that works, but its space lasers, so I’m not complaining.
Alright, now comes the awkward part. I have two more points I wanted to discuss, and they both require a few spoilers in order to talk about them properly. They aren’t big spoilers – the first point spoils the end of Chapter 4 and the second just alludes to things – but I know that might bother some people. So if you’re interested in the series, you might want to skip ahead a few paragraphs.
Okay, I wanted to talk about the use of time travel in this series. This is something that is very hard to get right without becoming overly complex and unforgiving on the readers. The story of Psyren involves a large amount of time travel, but rather than becoming too complicated, it makes everything much more simplistic so it’s easier to follow. The series goes with the splitting timeline theory, but also incorporates a smaller version of ripple effect time travel. So the timeline is a lot like a bad comic book writer in that it just retcons in any changes you make to the past as long as it can get away with it. For instance, several characters who died in one timeline were shown to have been alive in another and just hiding until the changes are made. It’s not exactly a bad system, but depending on your experience with science fiction, it may feel very dumbed down.
Lastly, I want to talk about the ending. I’ve discussed this before, but it bears repeating. The series was actually canceled before it could reach the planned end of the story, so the last 20-30 chapters consist of all the remaining heroes and villains meeting up to kill each other before they hastily try to fix the future. It’s difficult to simply describe how rushed it was, so let me put some numbers to it. The series is 145 chapters long. The last chapter is spent wrapping things up after the fighting is over. Chapter 140 is where the characters return to the present for the final time. The four chapters in between that and the epilogue – four weekly chapters, mind you – are all the time the series has to find the villains, deal with their entire group and defeat the last, strongest enemy. That’s pretty bad.
Of course while I would have liked to see the series run to its natural conclusion, looking back on it, I can’t say it was as disappointing as people make it out to be. Yes it went too quickly, but I feel like not very much would have changed in the overall plot aside from some characters getting some more focus. I stand by what I once said in that this ending got so much attention for being bad that it turned out rather underwhelming. Overall, the way it ended wasn’t as important as the rest of the story.
Highly Recommended: Fans of both Gantz and shonen action, fans of American superhero stories
Recommended: Shonen fans, soft sci-fi fans, anyone who can’t get into One Piece or other long shonen
Not Recommended: Fans of Gantz but not shonen action, anyone who isn’t impressed by space lasers, those for whom the ending is paramount
Psyren is available from Viz Media, who have released the first four volumes in North America. A 2-volume light novel called Psyren: Another Call was released in Japan alongside some of the later tankobon, though there’s no word if they’ll come out in North America.