Mental Illness in Anime and Manga
Mentally-ill and insane characters have a long and storied history in anime and manga. Depending on the situation, mental illness can be used to explain the suffering of a character, or make them seem more scary and frightening. Many depictions of mental illness in media suffer from a lack of realism, and characters whose symptoms are true to life are few and far between. Nevertheless, anime, with its propensity for giving its characters engaging personalities and complex backstories, still has the potential to humanize the mentally-ill and draw attention to their plight.
Types of mental illness
Mental illnesses come in many forms; however, in anime and manga, they generally fall into one of four categories: mood disorders, stress-related disorders, psychotic disorders, and personality disorders. Mood disorders involve abnormal or inappropriate moods that a person cannot control, and include major depressive disorder 1 and bipolar disorder 2. Stress-related disorders are either causes of, or caused by, stress and anxiety; often both. Examples of these disorders include obsessive-compulsive disorder 3, post-traumatic stress disorder 4, and dissociative disorder 5. Psychotic disorders are characterized by abnormal behavior, hallucinations, and delusions, which the sufferer does not recognize for what they are. The best-known and most debilitating of these is schizophrenia 6. Personality disorders are more difficult to define, but generally involve some problem in a person’s personality that impacts their ability to go about their daily lives. Borderline personality disorder 7 is among the better-known and studied, but antisocial personality disorder is probably the one most likely to be depicted in fiction.
Stereotypes about mental illness
Many people have stereotypes about the mentally-ill, and creators of anime and manga are no exception. Generally speaking, these stereotypes boil down to three major points 8:
First, fear and exclusion: persons with severe mental illness are to be feared and, therefore, kept out of communities; second, authoritarianism: persons with severe mental illness are irresponsible, so life decisions should be made by others; and third, benevolence: persons with severe mental illness are childlike and need to be cared for.
Any of these stereotypes has the potential to harm people with mental illness by separating them out from other people and preventing them from exercising their own self-determination. At their furthest extreme they may be used to justify violence against the mentally-ill, by presenting the violent behavior as either a reasonable act of self-defense against a “dangerous” person or else an understandable response to someone being a burden.
Interestingly enough, anime characters who fit these stereotypes rarely show clear signs of diagnosable mental illnesses, and their problems are just as likely to be due to supernatural elements as anything that could lead to mental illness in real life. The character Mao, from Code Geass, falls into this category. He demonstrates many outrageous, self-absorbed behaviors that cause him to be labeled as “insane” both in the story itself and in the fandom, but the only reason why he acts like that is because his mind-reading powers prevent him from forming normal relationships.
Another problematic way to portray mental illness is to treat it as something humorous, or not that big of a deal. For instance, in Soul Eater, Death the Kid’s obsession with symmetry is depicted as a silly, socially-awkward personality quirk, and the pain and hardship associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder in real life is not taken seriously. Osaka from Azumanga Daioh, meanwhile, demonstrates a number of behaviors associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder 9. Again, these behaviors are played for laughs and treated as harmless personality quirks, even though untreated ADHD can be deadly 10.
Despite these problems, anime and manga abound with interesting and thought-provoking characters who happen to be mentally-ill. Mentally-ill characters in anime may be either heroes or villains, and vary greatly in how accurately their mental-health problems are portrayed. Some of these characters end up being among the most engaging and complex in their respective works.
When most people think of mentally-ill antagonists, they assume that the mental illness is the cause of their problems. However, this isn’t necessarily always the case. Anime presents a number of villains who have a mental illness but are not defined by it.
A well-known example of this phenomenon can be seen in Hansel and Gretel, a pair of twin child soldiers from the anime Black Lagoon. These characters have a dissociative identity disorder that causes them to switch identities sometimes. Whether this depiction of dissociation is true to life is unclear, but given the characters’ personal history, that they suffer from dissociation is not much of a surprise. Dissociative disorders are disorders of childhood development that result when very young children experience severe, prolonged abuse and neglect 11, something we know is true of Hansel and Gretel. What’s even more interesting is that, unlike with many mentally-ill villains, the series maintains that there might be some hope for at least one of twins, Gretel. While it’s unlikely she could have lived a normal life, it’s implied she could at least have learned to become more selective and merciful about who she killed and when. The scene that best illustrates this point is one where she taunts Revy, the show’s anti-heroine, by claiming that she and Revy are the same. The implication seems to be that an adult Gretel would be much like Revy herself.
Another anime villain who shows signs of mental illness is Furuichi Teraoka, from the obscure Studio Bones production Xam’d: Lost Memories. At the beginning of the story Furuichi seems to be an ordinary, well-adjusted, caring young man. However, when war breaks out in his homeland and his life and that of his friends grows increasingly complicated and desperate, he sinks into a deep depression and starts attacking the people who care about him. Crucially, the series never seems to imply that his villainy and depression are directly causally related. Instead, the unfortunate circumstances he finds himself in cause him to, simultaneously, become depressed and start doing villainous things. Unusually for an anime series, Xam’d seems to display a fairly sophisticated understanding of what might leave someone vulnerable to mental illness in real life. Furuichi’s father is never mentioned, and while no explanation for his absence is ever given, the implication is that he died or disappeared long ago. Scientists now know that experiencing stress and loss at an early age makes one more vulnerable to developing mental health problems later in life 12.
Of course, the preponderance of mentally-ill villains, even well-written, still risks feeding into the stereotype that the mentally-ill are dangerous. Fortunately, some anime and manga depict mentally-ill characters in leading roles, depicting them sympathetically and asking the audience to root for and care about them. In this way, the series provide mental illness with a more human face, and mentally-ill anime fans have more chances to see their specific issues and concerns reflected in media.
Probably the best-known mentally-ill anime protagonist is Shinji Ikari, from Neon Genesis Evangelion. Director Hideaki Anno has suffered from depression for many years, and he wrote Shinji’s character based on his experiences 13. Despite his depression, though, Shinji is still able to pilot a giant robot and fight monsters, and is at the center of most of the conflicts in the story. Shinji’s example shows that mentally-ill anime characters don’t have to be villains or victims.
Another surprising place where mental illness arises is in Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha, a manga adaptation of the Buddha’s life and times. In this manga, Siddhartha, the man who ultimately became the Buddha, shows a number of signs associated with depression. When he’s a child other characters comment on how he sleeps all the time, frequently gets sick, and shows little interest in the festivities that his courtiers arrange in his honor. Instead, he spends much of his time pondering death and his fear of it, a fear that haunts him until he reaches enlightenment, and occasionally returns even after. In one particularly suggestive scene, a young noble named Devadatta finds Siddhartha in a cave, claiming that demons are taunting him and telling him to die. All these thoughts and behaviors could be seen as symptoms of depression. Nevertheless, he still founded a religion that has millions of adherents all over the world.
When there’s more than one mentally-ill character
Occasionally, an anime will contain multiple characters who show signs of mental illness, in multiple different roles. One prominent example of this is the horror manga series Deadman Wonderland, which features no fewer than four characters who appear to suffer from particular mental illnesses. Only Shiro, the female lead, has her mental health problems explicitly identified; she suffers from dissociative disorder from years of being tortured in a lab. Other characters who show signs of mental illness are Nagi Kengamine, who has psychosis; Rinichiro Hagire, who has antisocial personality disorder; and Idaki Hitara, who has major depressive disorder. It isn’t spelled out in the series, but most of Nagi’s actions for the earlier part of his character arc are based on a delusion he has. Nagi also dresses strangely, wearing a long-sleeve shirt, jacket, and scarf, even though the prison he’s in is implied to be warm and most of the other characters dress for warm weather. This suggests he has some sort of sensory issues, or possibly a simple lack of concern for social norms, both of which can be seen in psychotic patients.
In Hagire’s case, clues to his antisocial personality disorder stem from the fact that he shows no remorse for his misdeeds, as well as his persistent insistence that he doesn’t understand human motivation or emotions, particularly love. Hitara’s depressive symptoms are more subtle, but largely stem from his inability to sleep, a problem he has had for years. He also hallucinates the voice of his daughter, who died many years prior to the series. Psychotic symptoms are rarely associated with depression, with elderly patients at a particularly great risk 14.
A more mundane example of mental illness can be seen in Welcome to the NHK! The protagonist of the series, Tatsuhiro Sato, is a hikikomori 15 who suffers from crippling anxiety. Throughout the series he encounters many other characters who also have psychological problems, including, briefly, another hikikomori that he meets on an online gaming site. When Sato asks him why he spends so much time holed up in his room, supported by his sister, the young man replies: “Because I’m afraid.” This series calls attention to the hurdles facing those with mental health problems in Japanese society–a society that, despite increased awareness, still touts self-reliance and not burdening others with one’s personal problems above all else.
Anime and manga provide a wealth of examples of mentally-ill characters. Some of these characters fall prey to stereotypes, being depicted as violent or irresponsible. However, others do a fantastic job of calling attention to numerous mental-health issues in Japan and the wider world. Thus, anime has the potential to serve as a vehicle for greater understanding and humanization of people with mental illness, often in a particularly fun and engaging way.
- “What is depression?” Mind, March 2019. Retrieved 5 July 2019 from www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/depression/#.XR9pNuhKiM9 ↩
- “What is bipolar disorder?” Mind, May 2018. Retrieved 5 July 2019 from www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/depression/#.XR9pNuhKiM9 ↩
- “What is OCD?” Mind, May 2019. Retrieved 5 July 2019 from www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/#.XR9qL-hKiM8 ↩
- “What is PTSD?” Mind, May 2017. Retrieved 5 July 2019 from www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/#.XR9qj-hKiM8 ↩
- “What is dissociation?” Mind, March 2019. Retrieved 5 July 2019 from www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/dissociation-and-dissociative-disorders/#.XR9q4ehKiM8 ↩
- “What is schizophrenia?” Mind, February 2017. Retrieved 5 July 2019 from www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/schizophrenia/#.XR9rL-hKiM8 ↩
- “What is BPD?” Mind, January 2018. Retrieved 5 July 2019 from www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/borderline-personality-disorder-bpd/#.XR9r4ehKiM8 ↩
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- Connolly, Maureen. “ADHD in Girls: Why It’s Ignored, Why That’s Dangerous.” ADDitude, 1 July 2019. Retrieved 5 July 2019 from www.additudemag.com/adhd-in-girls-women/ ↩
- Dalsgaard, Soren, Soren Dinesen Otergaard, James F. Leckman, Preben Bo Mortensen, Marianne Giortz Pedersen. “Mortality in children, adolescents, and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a nationwide cohort study.” The Lancet, vol. 385, no. 9983, 2015, pp. 2190-2196. Retrieved from www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673614616846?via%3Dihub ↩
- “What Are Dissociative Disorders?” Reviewed by Wang, P., MD, Dr.PH. American Psychiatric Association, August 2018. Retrieved 5 July 2019 from www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/dissociative-disorders/what-are-dissociative-disorders ↩
- Syed, Shariful A. & Charles B. Nemeroff. “Early Life Stress, Mood, and Anxiety Disorders.” Chronic Stress (Thousand Oaks), February 2017. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5482282/ ↩
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