I remember watching Dragon Ball Z as a kid and wishing I could shoot energy blasts from my hands or fly around using ki. I would be lying if I said I never seriously tried to harness my spirit energy and pull off a Kamehameha. The idea that there could be some awesome power just out of my grasp that I could manipulate at will if I tried hard enough was pretty enticing to my kid-brain.
Ki is an example of a ‘power system’ in anime—an in-universe system that explains the extraordinary powers and abilities of the characters. Several anime feature similar ‘power systems’, all of which are intended to provide some structure and explanation for the various abilities the characters have.
Fans of fantasy literature may have heard the terms ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ magic systems. The ‘hardness’ of a magic system in fiction is determined by how well the system follows a set of defined and precise rules. Books with hard magic systems usually take great pains to explain to the reader the exact mechanisms and laws underlying the use of magic in that world. Laying out the explicit rules governing the workings of magic adds a level of realism and consistency to the world and gives the author room to create detailed and cool plot points involving the manipulation of magic. Magic is always a lot cooler when there are clear rules defining its usage
Power systems in anime are essentially just magic systems and so can be ‘soft’ and ‘hard’. Ki in DBZ is probably an example of a soft magic system. The rules governing ki usage are pretty loose and never really explained in detail. On the other hand, some anime power systems, like Hunter X Hunter’s Nen, are described in such excruciatingly precise detail that you think they could actually exist in real life.
Everybody probably wishes they had some cool powers they could unlock through special training. So we are going to take a look at some of the coolest power systems in anime and figures out all the details about how they work.
Quirks – ‘My Hero Academia’
Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia (Boku no Hero Academia for you purists out there), presents a world dominated by people with powers called ‘quirks’. Sometime in the late 21st century, humans began expressing unique talents, like telekinesis or the ability to control fire. By the time the beginning of the series rolls around, some 80% of the global population has some unique quirk which many people use to fight crime as superheroes.
For the most part, quirks are pretty standard and include standard powers like superhuman strength, invisibility, or psychic abilities. Some quirks get pretty creative, like a character who can turn manga onomatopoeia into physical objects, or another who can phase through material objects. There is also a guy who can manipulate organic flesh into meatballs and, trust us, it’s not pretty to watch. Some quirks are, to put it bluntly, pretty dumb, like Minoru Mineta’s ability to create—wait for it—sticky balls. Yep, sticky balls.
The coolest part of quirks isn’t so much their consistency or how well they’re explained, though. It’s how the show considers how the existence of quirks would change society. The existence of quirks has some pretty nasty implications, like the social stigma against ‘quirkless’ people like plucky hero Izuku Midoriya, or the real danger that people with quirks pose to society.
Chakra – ‘Naruto’
Among the “big three” shonen anime (Naruto, One Piece, and Bleach) Naruto probably has the most fleshed-out power system. Shinobi in the Naruto-verse can manipulate life energy called ‘chakra’ and put it to various uses. Chakra is described as an amalgamation of physical and spiritual energy. Techniques for manipulating chakra are called jutsu and fall under three main types: taijutsu, genjutsu, and ninjutsu. The cool hand symbols the characters make are meant to channel chakra into the right form for shinobi techniques.
The basics of how chakra works are simple enough but author Kishimoto is pretty good at thinking up creative uses of chakra. For example, one character uses chakra to control sand and create an impenetrable armor around his body, while another can animate ink drawings by imbuing them with chakra energy. There is also some pretty cool ‘ability mixing’ going on too. For instance, jutsu controlling complex substances are explained as mixing chakra of primary element types (.e.g. wood jutsu is a combination of water and earth-style jutsu).
For the most part, the rules of chakra are adhered to and kept consistent. Some people also take advantage of the inherent limitations of the chakra system. For example, it’s explained that Shino Aburame’s Rinkaichu beetles are immune to the effects of genjutsu because they lack a complex enough nervous system. Later parts of the series are criticized precisely because the author shifts the focus from strategic battles where characters cleverly use chakra to outwit opponents to a more beat-the-crap-outta-the-other-guy style of battle.
Alchemy – ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’
Say it with me now kids: “The first law of alchemy is the law of equivalent exchange.” Fullmetal Alchemist features alchemists who can, you guessed it, do alchemy. Alchemy involves harnessing the natural energies of the earth to cause changes in physical matter, a process called transmutation. Alchemy was actually a real-world proto-science but the alchemy of Fullmetal Alchemist is way sexier and extravagant.
The whole philosophy behind alchemy is the law of equivalent exchange, which basically states that if you want to create something using alchemy, you have to give up something of equal value. Something can’t come from nothing, after all. The series does a wonderful job of explaining the inner workings of alchemy and keeping things consistent and realistic. For instance, one character fights using fire by transmuting hydrogen from the air and igniting it with a spark. while another uses transmutation to disrupt the molecular structure of objects, causing massive damage.
Fullmetal Alchemist does a good job of balancing the ‘scientific’ and ‘mystical’ aspects of alchemy. For the most part, alchemy is basically science, but like, super science, and sticks to a set of clearly articulated rules. You can’t create something from nothing and you can’t create human life. There is a mystical side to alchemy that is intentionally left unexplained. The Gate, which a person only encounters if they attempt forbidden human transmutation, is supposed to represent some kind of transcendent truth of nature that can only be grasped through direct apotheosis. This ineffable direct knowledge given by the Gate is what allows Ed and other characters to transmute without drawing a circle first.
Spin – ‘JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Steel Ball Run’
Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure has showcased some pretty awesome power systems throughout its 30+ year run. The most famous ones are Hamon from part 1 and 2, and the almighty Stands from part 3-6. The seventh part of the series Steel Ball Run, introduces ‘Spin’, a technique that allows a person to harness that rotational energy of objects to perform amazing feats.
The basics of Spin are pretty simple, as is often the case in a good hard magic system. Spin techniques involve manipulating objects so that they enter into a state of perfect rotational motion. This state of perfect rotational motion is defined by the golden spiral that is derived from the famous golden ratio phi. When an object spins in a perfect golden spiral, it produces a near limitless amount of rotational energy, which can be harnessed for all kinds of things.
Characters in Steel Ball Run use Spin to pull off all kinds of cool techniques. The protagonist Johnny Joestar, for example, uses spin to shoot off his fingernails and toenails as projectiles, and other characters are trained at using Spin for medical purposes, like stimulating nerves or strengthening bodily structures. Others just use Spin to throw objects with an incredible amount of momentum to cause major destruction. The idea behind Spin is really simple, which is why its such a flexible and realistic sounding phenomenon.
Nen – “Hunter X Hunter’
Oh boy, here we go. Hunter X Hunter is known for a lot of things, from its colorful cast of characters to its vibrant and fleshed out world. One thing the series is known for is nen, the psychic ability that the main characters use. Nen holds the distinction of being quite possibly the most detailed and fleshed out power system in all anime. Author Togashi does such an excellent job describing the inner workings of nen that you feel like it could almost exist in real life.
Here’s how it works. Every living thing produces aura, or life energy. Most of the time, aura just leaks off the body as most people can’t see it or touch it. Those who are trained correctly can control their aura and manipulate it at will. Techniques for manipulating aura are called nen, and fall into 4 basic categories. Ten involves controlling the flow of aura so it does not leak away from the body. Zetsu involves controlling aura nodes in your own body so you can shut off your flow of aura. Ren involves increasing the amount of aura your body produces, and Hatsu is a physical expression of aura, which is unique for each individual.
Any complex nen technique is just an application of one or more of the 4 basic techniques. For example, Ko is an application of ten, ren, and zetsu and involves focusing your aura in one part of your body to vastly increase your destructive power. Ken is an application of ten and ren and involves expanding your aura and containing it around your body to protect yourself from physical damage. The simplicity of the 4 nen exercises allow them to be combined in various way to pull off cool techniques. Here is a pretty cool graphics that charts the different complex men abilities.
Along with the basic exercises, each character falls into a ‘nen-type’ which determines their proficiency with their category of nen. Enhancers, for example, are good at using the aura to enhance the natural properties of objects, while manipulators are adept at using their aura to control other objects. A person’s nen-type determines their potential to develop abilities.
Nen can also be subject to conditions and limitations. Since nen is an expression of willpower, setting internal restrictions on your usage of nen shows the strength of your resolve, which can greatly increase the power of your nen abilities. Most characters’ hatsu (i.e. unique nen abilities) are subject to precise conditions and limitations that define when, where, and how they can be used. For instance, one character can steal other nen-users’ abilities and keep them in a book to use in the future. The limitation is that he can only use the stolen power when he has the book open on that page and must keep it open while he is using it. Another character can observe up to three people from anywhere she wishes; the catch is she has to have seen the person before and any new person she sees kicks the last of the list. Genthru’s ability allows him to attach psychic bombs to other people that are only activated once he explicitly explains their existence to his victims. The different rules and limitations surrounding the usage of men allow the author to create these closed logical systems of rules that characters can exploit and subvert to overcome foes.
I could go on all day about nen and how it works but that could be a Ph. D dissertation in itself. Suffice to say, nen is the single most detailed power system in all anime and is a great example of the kinds of consistency and depth that a good hard magic system can bring a series.
Power systems are all over the place in anime. Do you have a favorite anime power system? If so, comment below and maybe we can get another article out of this topic!