Compelling and intricate power systems in anime come in a surprising number of variations. From grounded and skill-based combat abilities that barely rely on the supernatural to world-altering fantastical powers, each anime decided what kind of approach to battle mechanics would make the clashes between characters the most tense, engaging, and unique. Nevertheless, regardless of how unorthodox the series’ ability structure is, superpowers in most anime are still fundamentally rooted in the canons of magic.
An age-old staple of fantasy storytelling, magic systems are still present in their most classical sense in anime. For instance, most mahou shojo series (like Sailor Moon or Little Witch Academia) still favor straightforward magic over its alternatives. Yet, lost anime prefers to put a little or, at times, a substantial twist on the prototypical magical powers. The result is the emergence of countless creative non-magical magic systems in anime whose users forego spells and witchery and, instead, draw strength from alternative supernatural sources.
10 Cursed Energy (Jujutsu Kaisen)
Out of all the new-gen shonen anime, Jujutsu Kaisen has one of the most complex and in-depth power systems with rules that rival the masterworks of magical fiction in terms of intricacy. Both sorcerers and cursed spirits of JJK use cursed energy, a power source that leaks from negative emotions, to perform jujutsu. While magical in nature, cursed energy is less a superpower and more like a natural force that only a select few can control.
At first glance, cursed energy manipulation seems to be a straightforward power system. However, the brilliance of JJK’s intricate combat dynamics comes into play when exploring the more unique uses of cursed energy, such as domain expansions, cursed restrictions, innate techniques, and reverse cursed energy.
9 Devil Fruits (One Piece)
The world of One Piece is definitively void of magic in a classical sense. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that its characters lack supernatural abilities, even if they don’t stem from magic in the context of the series. Devil Fruits, the most commonly seen source of magical powers in One Piece, are mysterious, seemingly organic objects that, upon consumption, grant a person a unique ability.
Devil Fruits range from relatively conventional, like Zoan animal transformations, to various whimsical and unorthodox superpowers of Paramicia, such as Ivankov’s hormone manipulation or Tsuru’s ability to wash and dry opponents like cloth. The almost endless potential of Devil Fruit powers ensures that the combat of One Piece never gets stale despite the unconventional limitations of its non-magical magic system.
8 Abilities (Bungou Stray Dogs)
A common tactic in creating non-magical powers in anime is to avoid constricting the characters within a power system and give each a unique ability they were born with. When it comes to anime that unites its superhuman characters not through the nature of their powers but through their unlikely coexistence in the same world, Bungou Stay Dogs has every other show beat.
Ability users in BSD are all based on various historical authors, and their powers often correlate to the literary works they reference. This loose systematization of abilities allows BSD to experiment with powers while still maintaining a cohesive logic behind their implementation and existence.
7 Ki (Dragon Ball)
The complex power-scaling of Dragon Ball makes it easy to forget that the character’s abilities are all rooted in a single concept: ki, or the “life force” masterful combatants can transform into tangible fighting power. As far as shonen power systems go, ki is one of the simplest, which actually works to its advantage.
Despite not being magic in the conventional sense, ki is similarly unbounded in its implementations, increasing the general fighting powers of the user. Applicable to both offense and defense, ki managed to become one of anime’s most well-liked power systems thanks to its easy-to-understand nature and usefulness in generating big, explosive magical showdowns.
6 Devil Contracts (Chainsaw Man)
In the world of Chainsaw Man, people’s fears give birth to Devils—grotesque, blood-thirsty monsters who become stronger the more they are feared. For how uncooperative and hateful towards humans Devils usually are, they also act as the base of CSM’s power system. Devil Hunters form contracts with Devils - mutually beneficial deals one must strike to gain access to a Devil’s power.
Devils’ abilities tie into the nature of the fears they represent; the War Devil can create weapons out of objects, the Eternity Devil traps people in a time-space loop, and the Chainsaw Man, a human-Devil hybrid, literary transforms into a person with chainsaws for hands and head. And, despite recognizing Devils as the enemies of humanity, CSM’s heroes tap into their supernatural abilities to fight on par with these demonic foes.
5 Cultivation (Mo Dao Zu Shi)
The source material for the Mo Dao Zu Shi donghua belongs to the xianxia genre, a category of fantasy that draws heavy inspiration from traditional Chinese culture and Taoism. Belonging to cultivation fiction, MDZS features a magic system that relies on spiritual practices that can grant the characters almost godlike abilities.
MDZS’s protagonist, Wei Wuxian, was once a talented cultivator who ventured onto the Demonic Path after losing access to his spiritual powers. Neither the conventional cultivators nor Wei Wuxian use magic to control or exorcise spirits. However, the unique nature of their spiritual powers makes the combat of MDZS feel reminiscent of high fantasy clashes.
4 Bending Arts (Avatar: The Last Airbender)
Greatly inspired by East Asian cultures, Avatar: The Last Airbender’s fantasy world operates on magical rules that are both straightforward and enticingly intricate. The main power system of Avatar is bending, an art of element manipulation divided into four basic styles: water, air, fire, and earth. The more advanced benders can also use specialized and deviant techniques after mastering the fundamentals of their primary bending art.
While elemental magic is not uncommon in fantasy storytelling, what sets Avatar apart is its depiction of bending as less supernatural and more based on a combination of hard science and spiritual practices. The resulting power system retains the excitement of magical miracles without losing the logical complexity of anime’s best non-magical combat systems.
3 Stands (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure)
Creating a cohesive, believable world where a battle between a parasitic spirit that detonates its host and a man who can open anyone’s head like a book and alter their subconscious is no easy task. Yet, the unique power system created by Hirohiko Araki in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure allows such battles, and many more equally whimsical encounters, to make total sense.
Stands, or ghost-like manifestations of their user’s soul, begin as pretty tame magical boxer-themed forces that characters use in combat. However, the nature of Stands swiftly shifted to allow for endless variability of unorthodox abilities. Stand battles became the golden standard for non-magical shonen battle systems thanks to benign limited by nothing except Araki’s imagination.
2 Espers (A Certain Scientific Railgun)
A spin-off to A Certain Magical Index, A Certain Scientific Railgun’s power system acts as a counterpart to the previous series’ magic. Railgun’s approach to superpowers is the opposite of magical, instead focusing on scientifically based abilities individuals known as espers can develop.
Academy City is the home of the esper development program and esper students—each of whom has access to a science-based superpower, be it the control of electromagnetic phenomena, the chemicals produced by the human brain, or vector values. Unlike magic, science-based powers are based on real-life physics and depend fully on the user’s understanding of their own ability.
1 Nen (Hunter x Hunter)
By far the most universally beloved power system in shonen, Hunter x Hunter’s Nen is one of anime’s most well-developed and creatively liberating abilities. Described as a skill to manipulate one’s life force, Nen can be used in much more unorthodox and complex ways than a simple power boost. Nen users are separated into six aura types - Enhancers, Transmuters, Emitters, Conjurers, Manipulators, and Specialists.
Depending on their type, Nen users can develop a unique fighting technique that best suits their natural talents. Unlike most superhumans in anime, Nen users come up with their special techniques themselves, allowing their personality and creativity to reflect in their fighting style.