Sometimes, guts, stubbornness, and the overly defiant shonen spirit aren’t what makes a hero.
These days, it’s almost impossible to navigate through life without hearing about superheroes. They’re everywhere: in our TV shows, in our long-standing movie franchises, in our games, and even in our cereal boxes. People and the media love them, and it’s easy to see this globally, whether it’s Marvel spin-offs or in the case of anime lately, stories by ONE, the writer behind One-Punch Man. This anime season in particular returns with a ONE show, but it’s not One-Punch Man (you’ll have to wait till April for that!); rather, it’s the equally mesmerizing Mob Psycho 100.
It’s clear ONE is obsessed with our vision of a heroic icon: you could even argue that his works are an attempt to demystify the traditional superhero by clashing them with harrowing and realistic issues. In One-Punch Man, the main protagonist, Saitama, is so powerful he can defeat any of his opponents in one attack. It’s originally used for comedic purposes, but ONE also quickly dives into how hard work, satisfaction, and the idea of “aiming for the top!” are all ambiguous and useless ideas when society refuses to acknowledge them from a personal standpoint. The result is a man who grows increasingly dissatisfied with the selfish hierarchy of power as he tries to navigate around them and find his place in life. It would almost be depressing if it wasn’t also charming and funny at the same time: ONE makes sure to balance parody with brutal satire.
It would almost be depressing if it wasn’t also charming and funny at the same time: ONE makes sure to balance parody with brutal satire.
Mob Psycho 100 is a little different. Whereas Saitama is almost cartoonishly apathetic, the protagonist of Mob Psycho, a middle schooler named Shigeo Kageyama, is incredibly calm. For all intents and purposes, Kageyama is your typical anime protagonist: he has a crush, several friends, and even has difficulty choosing what club he wants to join. He has a normal family and a loving brother. He’s not great with his studies, but he’s not flunking either. He even, like most titular fantasy shonen protagonists, wields an incredibly powerful ability: psychokinesis. Sounds unremarkable, right?
But ONE keeps us on our toes. If One-Punch Man is a scathing (but heartfelt) look at how society can mold people into selfish and apathetic cogs in a machine, Mob Psycho 100 is an empowering and critical look at self-improvement. Kageyama has many faults, and the show isn’t afraid to point them out: he has huge amounts of social anxiety, trouble saying no to people who would want to use him for their own gain, and is saintly forgiving to a fault. In many other anime, these would be portrayed as weaknesses. After all, the self-insert male protagonist in fantasy or isekai (other world) shows is someone that emphasizes cool by being callous to the world around him and kind only when it’s someone he cares about or is romantically interested in. As long as he’s powerful, it’s alright, because he’ll immediately attract the attention of girls around him and be redeemable and forgivable in any fashion.
ONE finds this trope juvenile with Mob Psycho 100. Kageyama is the most powerful psychic in the world, but it makes little to no difference on his respectability as a human being. The girl he likes doesn’t care about his superpowers. He can’t find a way to fit into the occult club, and so in an attempt to make improve self-image, he joins the Body Improvement club. His best friend is a 30-something-year-old conman who still somehow ends up being the voice of wisdom. Kageyama is, outside of our perspective, a nobody; barely anyone in his class knows him, and fewer want to talk to him. Like Saitama, he’s almost pitiable, but unlike Saitama, he’s also incredibly emotionally fragile. In fact, he is so repressed that releasing the full extent of his powers can only be triggered by self-devastation: in this case, Kageyama’s life almost seems cursed and depressing.
This makes for a serious question: if a hero’s typical values are triggered by his own self-destruction, what is the root of heroism? Is it our ability to overcome our own limits? Is it the ability to ‘save’ other people with your own belief system? Is it the performance of selflessness and empathy?
However, unlike One-Punch Man, which seeks to tackle these questions, Mob Psycho 100 isn’t really concerned with heroism, getting stronger, or saving the world. Kageyama does save people, but that’s not what the show wants to be about. It makes its case in the moments where Kageyama isn’t bound by his power – it is rather, his weak, empathetic, and forgiving characteristics that make Kageyama powerful. He is someone who wants to improve on a mental, emotional and physical level: the embodiment of a real hero.
He is someone who wants to improve on a mental, emotional and physical level: the embodiment of a real hero.
One of the most cathartic moments in the show is the first episode from its second season (spoilers for the Season 2 premiere episode are limited to this paragraph) when Kageyama attempts to join the Student Council and fails. To his surprise, however, a girl from his class asks him out. He respectfully declines but chooses to hang out with her until she reveals that she only had asked him on a date due to a dare by her friends. When she leaves to go hang out with her friends, they rudely tease her and her hobby of writing, ripping up her novel in progress. Despite being ‘dumped’, Kageyama steps in, and slowly begins to pick up and gather the pieces of the torn novel together. “I don’t think this is trash,” he says tearfully, almost more to himself than the bullies in front of him. “I decided to respect my emotions a little more. And you need to cherish what’s important to you.”
It’s moments like these, combined with the quirky charm and whimsical nature of Kageyama’s mentor, Reigen, that makes Mob Psycho 100 so emotionally powerful and fun to watch. Backed by some of BONES’ (the studio behind My Hero Academia) finest talent and ambition for exploring the medium, Mob Psycho 100 packs just as strong of a punch as One-Punch Man, albeit in a different way. If you haven’t given it a go already, you can catch the first season on Crunchyroll and in other countries, on Netflix. The second season is also streaming on Funimation.
When not writing about Japanese cartoons, Natasha can be found on Twitter as @illegenes, talking avidly about her love for doomed relationships and complicated characters. You can also find more writing by her on Crunchyroll or on the blog, Isn’t it Electrifying?