It’s a criminal understatement to say that Superheroes are pretty big in America. The Marvel Cinematic universe alone has been releasing some of the highest grossing films every year since 2008, having released 16 films at the time of writing. Superheroes and what they stand for are integral to American pop culture. America isn’t the only country with superheroes, but it is safe to say it popularized them by creating some of the most iconic heroes ever made.
So it’s interesting what happens when artists from other countries craft stories about Superheroes. How do they view superheroes and what kinds of stories do they make about them? British comic artists like Alan Moore opt for a more grim take on superhumans in alternate timeline stories like Watchman or even in established properties like Batman: The Killing Joke. But recently, Japan has made a few Anime that have captured the superhero market of America in a big way.
One Punch Man by Studio Madhouse and My Hero Academia by Studio Bones are two of the most popular Anime of the last three years. Both produced by credible high-profile studios and both garnering a fair following in the US. The former a viral hit and the latter an ongoing shonen series that is essentially a textbook guide for how to do a shonen series right. On top of all of that, these shows are fantastic superhero stories.
There is a reason I chose to analyze these two series through the lens of superhero fiction rather than say the shonen genre like most people do. The most monumental difference I notice between these two Anime and superheroes in the west is that the government doesn’t just coexist with superheroes, but actively regulates and monitors them.
Keeping this in mind, what would it be like to live in the worlds of these shows or even be a hero in one of them? Are these societies and their systems stable? Most importantly, what do these shows do with the superhero genre that isn’t too common in American superhero fiction?
One Punch Man – Despair, Labeling and the Importance of Conflict
One Punch Man is a show that takes pleasure in subverting Shonen tropes. The long monologues and what would be multi-episode battles are cut short by a protagonist who can end any fight in one punch and who gets bored easily by everyone’s monologues. However, One Punch isn’t a stranger to the tropes of superhero fiction either. Particularly, the catastrophic destruction as a result of monsters and villains.
And perhaps Madhouse took that concept a bit far because it would suck to live in any of One Punch Man’s alphabetized cities, seeing as how every major plot point revolves around some part of the world getting wrecked by all the giant monsters and the heroes battling them, especially Saitama who, in the process of punching a meteor into pieces, still ended up destroying much of the city. Not to say the alternative is preferred, but it’s a crappy situation none the less. Not to mention, the heroes have a rough time too and not just because of all the monsters.
Every Superhuman in One Punch Man needs to register with the Hero Association. Those who forgo becoming part of the Association will never be recognized as a hero nor receive donations from the government. So if you want to actually make a living and save the world, you need to register. Doesn’t seem like such a bad deal, right? Well… that’s where things get complicated.
The heroes registered are divided by class. There are four classes. From lowest to highest, C, B, A and S. One’s placement upon registration is decided through two exams, one physical and one written. Now, this makes sense. After all, the government should be able to differentiate the heroes by their power levels. The problem lies in the interactions between our protagonist and society as a result of the system.
Saitama and Genos register and go through a physical and written exam to decide class rank but only Genos gets S. Saitama gets put in Class C because he didn’t do well on the written exam. One’s position in the ranking system can be determined by votes by the public. This means the status of heroes is a popularity contest, which on paper sounds like a good idea, but in practice kinda creates problems of its own.
Remember that meteor I mentioned earlier that Saitama destroyed? Heroes and even the populace end up blaming him for the destruction and those who doubt him even call him a cheater taking credit for the actions of S-Class heroes to advance the ranks. After all, how can a C-Class hero be capable of such feats? But Saitama’s strength doesn’t just cast doubt about him, but about all heroes.
During the Sea King arc, heroes from all ranks fall at the hands of the Sea King. When Saitama does show up and kill the monster in one punch, people begin doubting whether or not the villain was that tough or if the heroes are just weak. “They can call themselves Class A or Class S, but their titles mean nothing… the Hero Association gets their funds from our donations… as long as we’re paying for it, they’d better protect us,” argued one ungrateful prick.
During the final arc of season one, the number 1 Class A hero, Mirai Mask, criticizes the S-Class heroes for letting the destruction escalate to the degree it did. They tried their best but they are S-Class remember? They can’t make mistakes. Labeling one’s heroes by their limits only lead the citizenry to doubt them and THAT is the worst case scenario for any superhero society.
What One Punch Man attempts to get across thematically isn’t necessarily any commentary on Superheroes in general but has a fascinating view on how important conflict is to living a fulfilling life. Wisecrack made an entire video on this very philosophy and I highly recommend you check it out below, but I have my own views on this as well.
I have a love/hate relationship with Superman. I think this mostly has to do with how easy it is to portray him completely wrong. Aside from making him likable, you need to establish that he can, in fact, fail and sometimes when arguments come up about Superman versus anyone, he just seems annoyingly overpowered.
Similarly, One Punch Man is unbeatable to the point that any fight involving him is going to have no narrative stakes, with some exceptions. They are still entertaining for two reasons, however. Firstly, the animation is god tier. Secondly, the show’s thesis revolves around Saitama’s unbeatable strength and the drama comes from conflicts with all the supporting characters.
Sure the animation is really awesome but I’m never worried about whether Saitama is gonna win or not because the answer is obvious. I am interested, however, in observing the mental state of a man who is so powerful that he is bored of life and depressed. The action only gets really dramatic when every other character is in battle.
One Punch Man is a subversion of the “Superman” character and an observation of what happens to those who don’t have any considerable conflict in their life. The truth is that without that which makes us sad, we can’t really appreciate what makes us happy. This is essentially a superhero, a character people tend to look up to, saying “you don’t want to be like me.”
My Hero Academia – What is a Hero?
The 2016 Shonen Anime by Studio Bones is a far more lighthearted show than One Punch Man. It is way more colorful, doesn’t have nearly the same level of destruction. By all counts, the world of My Hero Academia looks really pleasant and whereas One Punch Man’s protagonist was unbeatable, the protagonist of My Hero Academia is a true underdog. The two shows are practically mirror images of each other.
In the world of My Hero, 80% of the world population has some sort of superhuman ability. It’s actually more unusual not to have a superpower. So living in the world of My Hero Academia means that you are 80% likely to have superpowers yourself which is already a pretty good deal. Although it’s kinda like X-Men where there are so many characters with so many abilities that there are plenty of abilities that aren’t gonna be that useful at all.
Plus with heroism essentially becoming a business at that point, you’d be entering a very competitive job market. At that point, you may as well just get a “normal” job and just live with whatever random quirk you were born with. Still, this is a pretty radical place to start a story. Most superhero stories where the superhuman population becomes essential to the plot make the story about humans versus superhumans like in X-Men. Here though, Superhumans are the new normal.
The issues that are present aren’t necessarily problems with the system, but rather are more grounded in the philosophy of being a hero. In short, the world of My Hero suffers from an oversaturation of heroes. In the latter half of season two, a new villain is introduced, whose ideology personifies the concerns about oversaturation. The Hero Killer, Stain.
Stain believes that the word hero has lost all meaning, not only because of the oversaturation but also because of the profit being made off of heroism. It seems that being a big hero in this world means being rich as well. Watching Bakugo intern with Best Jeanist or watching Yaoyorozu intern with Uwabami was made to feel like they were interning with celebrities rather than Superheroes.
The only ones who seemed like they were doing actual hero work were Jiro and Asui, the latter of which had most of an episode dedicated to her adventure. However, it stands to reason that with so many heroes, the number of crimes to bust go down. More heroes, more people to respond to incidents that arise. It’s a good enough pill to swallow but the issue of motive still persists though.
Think about why the characters in My Hero Academia want to be heroes? Uraraka wants to be a hero to make money, albeit to support her family. Endeavor wants to rise through the ranks and craft Todoroki into a hero to surpass All-Might, the greatest hero. Todoroki wants to surpass his father without using the power he inherited from him to spite him. Iida wants to be just like his brother and Bakugo just wants to beat the shit out of people.
I’m not necessarily saying these motives can’t be justified, nor that these are their only motives necessarily. They are, however, undeniably unconventional motives for heroes to pursue onward. Think for a moment why your favorite superhero does what they do? The reason is usually that they want to protect the weak or because of something that happened to them in their past or just because they like helping people.
This is what Stain believes to be a true hero and this is why he calls many heroes “fakes” because now you have many heroes getting into the business because of fame or money. Another way of looking at is that hero doesn’t hold as much weight in this world anymore.
What used to be considered “super” is now normal. Even superpowers themselves are called “Quirks,” a far more normative, innocent term. In contrast, superhero stories from Marvel or DC tend to paint a world of superheroes in its infancy. What I mean is that the heroes in these stories aren’t controlled by a system of law.
When Iida, Deku and Todoroki finally defeat Stain, they are hospitalized to treat their injuries but are then told they may receive punishment for acting without supervision from their mentors. We are meant to feel angry that they would be punished when someone could have died had they done nothing. Sure, the police chief was a bro and let it slide at the cost of not letting it be known that it was their doing, but it is a preferable turnout. Still, this isn’t quite the result that someone with a more traditional mindset of heroes would be satisfied with.
This is not the world of heroes that Stain grew up in because that world doesn’t exist anymore. Superheroes, at their core, are above the law. Even when they claim to stand for justice, they are acting above regulation from any higher power. This leads to others will abilities or the drive to make a change to be emboldened. Not everyone can be virtuous and always make the right choice like Superman.
The emergence of superhumans brings an equal amount of good and bad. We accept it because if there is a supervillain, there must be a superhero to stop them. But being realistic, you can’t just let this war between superhumans go on without trying to establish ground rules or control those with looser morals than others.
In recognition of that, society has to evolve. In Captain America Civil War, the Vision points out that Iron Man’s emergence started a steady increase in the number of superhumans. My Hero follows the same concept, except instead of the rise being systemic, it is genetic. Most people in My Hero are born with their superpowers.
All of this serves to teach the same lesson: Anyone can be a hero. Take away the concept of superheroes entirely and this show becomes a traditional coming of age story, even with a message about everyone having their own quirk and what not. It is this world’s closest equivalent of normal teenagers in school, but the difference is that they all have cool powers.
The traditional idea of a superhero evolves and suddenly heroism is treated as a career path. It’s no longer the responsibility of a select few but the career of an enlightened prospective youth venturing into adulthood looking to make a difference. Superheroism in My Hero means passing the torch to make the world a better place.
Conclusion – Heroes Under Supervision
I can’t even count the number of times in DC or Marvel when they portray the government as the evil, no fun guys who are trying to hold back the heroes from doing their job. One can interpret this as a reflection of American philosophies on the government restricting the rights of the citizens and all that. Even when regulation is seriously considered it is always framed as a debate like in Marvel’s Civil War.
So it is fascinating to observe a show approach a topic so storied and loved like superheroes and change a part of the world around them while never feeling like it is too different or alien from other superhero stories. It’s such a major difference but I doubt a ton of people really pick up on it, much less compare how it actively is different from what we are used to. All this goes to show how people’s views on their governments or societies affect our pop culture.
And if you are curious what a more confrontational take on this topic would look like in Anime, look no further than Concrete Revolutio, a 2015 Anime by Studio Bones that portrays a post-war Japan where the public opinion of superhumans has descended after they were used in the last war. The only reason I don’t call it an “American” take on things is because this Anime is the most Japanese thing you’ll watch all year.
The show follows an organization tasked with supervising superhumans as the plot jumps back and forth along a complex timeline of civil strife and revolt against a society getting closer to rejecting superhumans. It’s certainly not for everyone, as writer Shou Aikawa’s (Fullmetal Alchemist [OG]) tendency to make every episode some genderbending social commentary but it’s sheer insanity and its colorful aesthetic is worth a look.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Superhero Anime that took WAAAAAAYYYYY too long to write because my new term at school started. Hopefully, with the new Anime season starting, I can write a bit more. If you have any additional thoughts on any of these shows, leave a comment below and be sure to follow my blog if you like my work.
Also, I am going to make a post about RWBY, Rooster Teeth’s popular Anime-inspired web series. I try to avoid covering shows like this so I don’t get accused of being a hypocrite after my post about what Anime is, but I have way too many thoughts about this show swarming around my head not to do a post about it and my love/hate relationship with it. So stay tuned for all that cool stuff. Thank you very much for reading and as always, I will see you next time.