What is a hero?
I know that is a sudden question, but I am going to come back to it later and I thought it would be clever if used it to open this article. Trust me, I know what I am doing.
Onto the actual business, If you live on the internet then chances are that you have probably heard of this little thing called ‘anime’, a primarily Japanese form of animated story telling that is only limited by the human imagination, and yet it’s mostly used to make High School dramas.
Of course, if you are from the West, then most of your experiences with anime probably involve hot girls and guys punching each other while yelling constantly. That awesome and utterly nonsensical combination is what those in the known refer to as ‘Shonen’, an ancient genre of Japanese animation aimed specifically at young males.
From Saint Seiya to Dragon Ball to One Piece, it is hard to overstate the enduring popularity of the Shonen genre, which is amazing when you consider that there are only so many ways a guy can punch the lights out of another guy, and 90% of those were already done by Fist of the North Star.
Still, recent years have seen what I would graciously call a renaissance in the popularity of Shonen, and not surprisingly, it all stems from the popularity of western Super Heroes and Super Hero movies that has swept the world at large ever since Marvel realized that strapping Robert Downey Jr. in a robot armor and have him blow up things was a surefire way to print money.
Everyone likes super heroes, that’s a no brainer, but while Japan has always had its own brand of transforming heroes, in recent years the popularity of their western counterparts has started to influence the Manga scene in some rather interesting ways, which has resulted in the birth of a whole new paradigm within the Shonen genre.
As I am sure you have already figured out thanks to your impressive deductive skills and the title up there, this eventually led to the creation of what I think are two of the most popular Shonen franchises in recent memory, which is ostensibly the reason why you even clicked on this article to begin with.
One Punch Man and My Hero Academia are two currently running manga turned into anime that feature, revolve around and often make fun of the very concept of heroes. I know making a show about super heroes doesn’t sound like the most original idea in the 2017 year of our lord, but what really makes these two franchises stand out is the particular approach they take to the material, even if they are fundamentally different shows.
One Punch Man, also known as Wanpanman because someone has to bring Anpanman down a notch, is essentially a Super Hero Parody; the show contains pretty much every single trope or cliché you’d expect from a Shonen, from an evil scientist bent on world domination to ancient creatures of untold power, but none of it matters because there’s already a guy who’s more powerful than absolutely anything you can throw at him.
As someone who appreciates all forms of comedy, from Toilet humor to the Stooges, I really have to give credit to the author of One Punch Man since he basically made a successful serial comedy in spite of having a single joke: it doesn’t matter how powerful, fast, skilled or cunning you are, this one random guy can beat you in one punch without even breaking a sweat.
That’s it, that’s entire the joke.
On the opposite side of the Super Hero Spectrum, which by the way totally sounds like a DC character (Editor’s note: Turns out it’s a Marvel character, go figure), My Hero Academia follows the adventures of Midoriya Itsuku, an all-around nerd and super hero fanboy who wants to be the very best, like no one ever was, and his mentor and idol All Might, by all accounts the Earth’s Mightiest Hero and the dad you wish you had. I am probably underselling the show a bit, but MHA has a really good mix of action, likeable characters and some rather compelling drama that make it quite entertaining even if you are not a fan of the genre. Also, the main setting is a Super Hero High School.
It’s fair to say that MHA did not reinvent the Shonen wheel, in fact, a lot of the developments in the show are exactly what you would expect from the genre; from bitter rivalries to the power to believe in the you that believes in yourself, there really isn’t anything here that you haven’t seen half a million times before. Still, the execution is so earnest and the author’s love for heroes is so palpable that it makes the series charming nonetheless.
You would think that a coming of age story with a Super Hero spin on it and the tale of a man so strong that he makes the entire premise of his own show pointless would have nothing in common, but there is actually one aspect in which both of these franchises are remarkably similar: the setting.
The worlds in which these stories occur are best described as what I like to call a post-modern Hero society; a world, much like our own, where the concepts of heroes and super powers had been part of the popular culture even before the emergence of actual Super Heroes and Super villains, which eventually lead to a society that has adapted to the presence of these extraordinary individuals to the point that it heavily revolves around them.
What’s so fascinating about this approach is how both shows decided to deal with this particular situation in the most realistic way possible: once heroes and villains with super powers emerge, the governments start regulating the situation before it gets out of hand. This eventually leads to a world where Heroes are basically government employees who work with the system to ensure peace instead of doing something stupid like, I don’t know, pointlessly fighting amongst each other because their rights to recklessly fight evil anonymously are being threatened or something.
Of course, once heroes become officially sanctioned they do loose some of the cooler perks of the job, like living in caves or T shaped buildings, but they also gain the official recognition from the public, some form of social security and since they have a proper salary they no longer need to sell pictures of themselves to their part time boss just to make ends meet.
A more educated and therefore obnoxious person might call this particular approach to the material a social critique of the commercialization of heroes in our society, but I, the master of obvious statements, will go one step beyond and say that the way in which these shows took something as surreal as people with actual super powers and handled in an unnecessarily realistic way constitutes a whole new subgenre of Shonen, or even Super Hero story telling in general.
Actually, I wouldn’t exactly call it new; while One Punch Man and My Hero Academia are the best implementations of this concept I’ve seen so far, this idea is actually pretty old. No, I am not talking about Watchmen, I never am, but something far more rad.
Meet “Mystery Men”, a 1999 Super Hero dark comedy starring Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria and a bunch of other comedians whose names I’ll never remember. I will save you the details of the plot so you can go and watch it yourself, but rest assured that this film enshrines many of the same ideas we’ve discussed so far: a world where Super powers are real, heroes are basically rock stars and a society that has to contend with all of this, for better or worse.
There are probably older examples of this post-modern take on Super Heroes, comic artists from the 80’s loved their deconstructions almost as much as they loved Batman, but the way I see it Mystery Men is one of the first times when the idea of a realistic society that revolves heavily around super heroes really started to take shape.
Of course, it goes without saying that Mystery Men is very different from most anime productions, let alone the ones I mentioned; while the idea is similar, this movie is more interested in making fun of a society obsessed with heroes by showing what could happen if all the delusional hero-worshipping fanboys (AKA you, me and everyone you know) could actually become Super Heroes who fight crime and regularly hang out at dinners.
That is both a hilarious and incredibly cynical approach to the super hero formula, but against all odds it actually ends up asking the very same question that rests at the core of both My Hero Academia and One Punch Man, this article and our very lives: what is a hero?
You’d think that we, as a society, would have answered that question by 1978, but it’s precisely this particular type of setting that makes pondering this question so interesting. Think about it this way: if being a super hero is just a regular job where doing the right thing is no longer a selfless action and super powers are common, then how do you separate heroes from non-heroes?
One Punch Man probably takes this idea the furthest since there’s a heavy focus on how when heroes are ranked and rewarded based on their ability and power, being a hero becomes a popularity contest that completely perverts the ideals of heroism. My Hero Academia doesn’t takes it nearly as far, but the question of what heroism is about does come up constantly.
The clearest example of this comes during the Hero Killer arc, in which the protagonists face against Stein, a former hero and KISS reject who idolizes the ideals of heroism and who, after being ostracized from society for liking The Amazing Spiderman or something, becomes a serial killer hell-bent on purging the world of the heroes he deems fake or unworthy.
Incidentally, this idea of “heroes” being more interested in fame and money than in actually doing heroic things is actually one of the central points in Mystery Men; the movie starts when Champion City’s Greatest Hero, Captain Amazing, plots the release of his greatest nemesis, Casanova Frankenstein, after the crime rate in the city becomes so low that the hero is hardly needed and his sponsors threaten to dump him.
That seems like an extreme solution to a non-problem, but MHA and OPM do not strive too far from this approach; a lot of the “heroes” in OPM are either fancy thugs looking for fame and glory or actual psychos using the system for their own gain. Not to be left behind in the world’s most messed up race, more than a few characters in MHA are clearly only in it for the glory, and some, like the Nº2 Hero Endeavor, are so obsessed with being N º 1 that they are not above beating their wives and locking them in an asylum.
The question of what is a hero isn’t particularly complex nor uncommon, I probably ask myself that like five times a day, but the reason why it works so well within these shows is due to the particular way in which the would-be-heroes are locked into a system that rewards success and popularity over any actual merits, essentially turning them into soulless performers constantly vying for the attention of a fickle audience.
Of course, the systems does encourage heroism; fighting evil, protecting the peace and saving people are all part of the job, but being a hero for a job and being heroic are not the same thing, and that is precisely what makes this approach so fascinating from a conceptual perspective.
This might sound kind of obvious (again, you’re talking to the master here), but nowhere is the discrepancy between being a hero as a job and being a hero by nature more evident than when you look at the main characters of both shows, whom by and large are two of the most unconventional protagonists you can have in this kind of series:
Midoriya Itsuku AKA Deku is both a painfully relatable nerd and an all-around moe blob that dreams of being the greatest hero. Saitama, the One Punch Man himself, is a self-proclaimed hero for fun and full time slacker. You won’t find two characters more opposite than them in all of the Shonen character-dome: one of them is a high school kid, the other is the ultimate unemployed; one of them is as pure as the driven snow, the other one picks his nose.
Saitama definitely stands out more in the comparison since the entire point of his character is that he is the opposite of your traditional hero archetypes; he is selfish, lazy, takes nothing seriously and most of the time he doesn’t even give a damn about the people he saves. He’s quite literally the last person you would expect to jump in and save the day… and yet when people is in danger he is the first one to act, because in spite of everything he IS a hero.
I may be reading too much into it, which admittedly is the entire point of this site, but the fascinating thing about Saitama as a character is how he lacks any of the common traits you associate with heroes, like selflessness or chivalry, but when push comes to shove he always does the right thing, even if people will hate him for it.
He might be a hero for fun, but doing the right thing is what a hero does, and that is the one thing that defines him and Itsuku as heroes; while they both have dreams of glory and what not, when there’s people to save they won’t hesitate to act, even when saving a person is not in their best interests. It’s not really their powers that define them, but their will to act when needed.
In a world filled to the brim with Super Heroes, fictional or otherwise, sometimes it’s easy to forget that it’s not really the mask or the powers what makes the hero; they don’t need to be super strong or super-fast, they only need to do the right thing when it counts. If they can do that, regardless of what or who they are, then anyone can be a hero.
I think I’ve taken the long way around to get to this point, but hopefully you can see now why I find the particular implementation of this setup into the shonen genre so fascinating; by its very nature, the Shonen heroes are always the ones who either sport the noble values of kindness, innocence and self-sacrifice, or can level a mountainside with their fists. Sometimes both.
But when you strip down the idea of “super hero” from the things that make them unique, when you make wondrous abilities the norm and turn saving the day into a daily occurrence, you start seeing the true nature of heroism in a whole new light; the real hero is not the one who can fight ALL the evil, but the one who tries his best for the sake of others regardless of circumstances, and this in turn inspires others to do their best as well.
Given the success of these two properties and humanity’s thirst for new takes on what is possible the oldest genre in storytelling, it wouldn’t surprise me if during the next few years we start seeing new anime properties that emulate this formula or genre as I so brazenly have chosen to call it. It certainly wouldn’t be a first time; I can think of a few cases where the premise of a hit anime was so well received that it spawned dozens of imitations of varying quality bringing their own spin on the same idea.
Even now there are shows out there that have tried similar things to One Punch Man and My Hero Academia, but I don’t think any of them have nailed the concept in such a practical way as these two, and, being a Super Hero fanboy myself, I honestly cannot wait to see how others authors could use this very same formula to explore the ins and outs of heroism in this Super Hero obsessed world.
This article wasn’t what you expected, wasn’t it?
Well, since I am feeling magnanimous, whatever that means, for this one time I am going to give an answer to the question that I am sure has been nagging at your skull at night like a giant blood-sucking tick in what has become a quite frankly terrifying analogy: Who would win in an all-out, no punches-pulled battle between the symbol of peace himself, All Might, and the man who is just a hero for the heck of it, Saitama?
After pondering this question on a series of heated debates with a panel of imaginary experts, we finally reached a consensus: the indisputable winner and therefore strongest guy ever until Toriyama comes up with yet another new power up for Goku is…
Wait for it.