How HeroAca and One Punch Man Flip the Script on Superhero Anime
All right, maybe the title of this video is slightly misleading. Superhero anime have been a thing, well, basically since anime has been a thing. Astro Boy, the OG anime is, at its heart, basically a superhero story, and its success spawned many imitators in the same Silver Age vein. But ever since Kamen Rider kicked off the Henshin boom in the 70s, Japanese superheroes have diverged from their Western counterparts. Now, by and large, they fit into a few different templates that are very different from what we see in the West. Classic “Henshin,” or “Transforming” heroes like Kamen Rider, thematically unified Sentai squads, (or Power Rangers for the uninitiated) which are basically squads of Henshin Heroes, and then their female-targeted equivalent, Magical Girls. Japanese heroes are defined by the transformation. They don’t just don costumes to fight crime, they change their physical appearance, often activating their superpowers at the same time, like Captain Marvel. And those powers aren’t typically something that’s inherent to those characters, rather, they’re granted by their suits, or transformation devices, or bestowed upon them by an outside, usually alien or magical force. Japanese superheroes also tend to fight just one evil organization at a time, rather than a cavalcade of independently-motivated villains, and the monsters sent by those organizations have a tendency to grow a hundred times in size, and start wreaking havoc on reused sets from Godzilla movies, where the heroes must then confront them in highly marketable transforming and combining Mecha. Even Spider-Man got himself a giant robot when he came to Japan. This model has the I’m-sure-totally-unintended side-effect of tying all of the cool superpowers to props and costumes that can be marketed as toys. It also means that the heroes can augment their abilities with modular add-ons, that are of course sold separately for a modest fee, or even attain new transformations, with new levels of power and even cooler redesigned costumes, that are of course sold separately. If American heroes are Macs that basically come as-is, then Henshin Heroes are more like modular PCs. Which is not to say that American comic book heroes don’t change or gain new powers. Just that their stories aren’t typically written with an explicit mechanic for doing so baked into the narrative. And while I’m sure that I could write a whole series of videos about Henshin Heroes and how they fit into the broader spectrum of superhero fiction, that’s not really my wheelhouse, and it’s not what I want to talk about today. because in the last few years, superheroes have gotten huge in Japan, and not just the Henshin variety. Two of the biggest manga and anime franchises of the last few years are My Hero Academia and One-Punch Man, both of which are about, at least on the surface, classic American superhero archetypes. Spandex-clad individuals who use natural born, or at least mutated abilities, to fight crime in a modern urban setting. It doesn’t take the keen analytical powers of the Anime Pope to surmise that these have been largely inspired by the monolithic success of Disney’s Marvel movies. And the same goes for slightly older shows in the same vein, like Tiger & Bunny, the excellent X-Men knockoff The Unlimited Hyoubu Kyosuke, and obviously Stan Lee’s Heroman, all of which followed the explosive success of 2008’s Iron Man. And of course, X-Men and Spider-Man before that. And that’s to say nothing of Madhouse’s officially licensed Marvel anime, or Disc Wars, Toei’s attempt at turning the Avengers into Pokémon. But I want to focus specifically on HeroAca and One-Punch Man today, because what’s interesting about them is that, while they do hew closely to the American superhero aesthetic, the way that they tell their stories is very distinctly anime. Both One-Punch Man and HeroAca eschew the idea of secret identities. The heroes in these universes are celebrities whose true identities are, for the most part, widely known. While heroes may have superhero names, like Eraserhead and Caped Baldy, these are more like stage names than actual disguises. It’s unusual for heroes in either universe to actively hide their identities from the public, except in special cases like All Might’s increasing frailty, and aside from illegal vigilantes like The Crawler from the HeroAca Vigilante spin-off, their identities are all known to the government. That is, if they take off their costumes at all. A lot of the heroes in both series seem to forget that that’s an option. In any event, neither franchise focuses on the double-life concept that is the cornerstone of most Western superhero drama. This is probably, at least in part, a result of the influence of Shonen battle anime, like Naruto, Dragonball Z, and Hunter x Hunter, which if you think about it, aren’t all that far off from superhero stories in themselves. Their heroes typically use superhuman abilities to fight other characters with superhuman abilities. But instead of superheroes they call themselves Martial Artists, Hunters, or Ninjas, which I guess would make Rock Lee Ninja Batman. And that makes me like him even more. And while you might argue that those are superficial distinctions, there is a tangible difference in tone and structure between Shonen battle anime and superhero stories. You feel that difference strongly in the Saiyaman saga of Dragonball Z, where Gohan becomes a masked hero and starts fighting crime, and the story structure and tone of the entire series kind of changes into something more like an American comic book. You definitely feel the influence of Shonen anime in both HeroAca and One-Punch Man. HeroAca in its high school setting and emphasis on the rivalry between classmates, and One-Punch Man in its focus on fighting big bad supervillains as opposed to petty crooks of the week. But putting the genre roots of these stories aside, I think there’s an argument to be made that neither story really needs the secret identity hook, and perhaps that it’s reached the point of obsolescence in American media as well. Think of all the big superhero hits of the last few years. Aside from Ant-Man, and the side-story about Hawkeye’s family in Age of Ultron, and now the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, we don’t see any of these characters leading dual lives. Even Wonder Woman, the first good DCEU movie, abandons the concept entirely, where Man of Steel and Batman Vs. Superman were kind of mired in it. The CW’s superhero shows do have secret identities, But they mainly just exist as part of a formula to remind the hero periodically that it’s really, really, just SUPER important to be open and honest with the people you care about. Personal privacy and their personal safety be damned. What do you think, Scott Niswander of NerdSync? Hey Geoff! Change of plans, I’m Geoff here on the floor of Vidcon, and I just caught with Scott, who did not complete his video on time. Scott? Why don’t you say a thing or two about secret identities for the people? Yes, sure. So, secret identities don’t really seem super important in today’s society, especially because we live in a culture that overshares everything on Twitter and Facebook. And you know if superheroes represent people who are powerful, then do we really want powerful people… hiding things from the public? why is this camera so close to my fa- THANKS SCOTT! What an insightful thing for Scott Niswander of NerdSync to say. You can check out Scott Niswander’s Channel down in the doobly-doo, where I’m sure he will have more things to say about superheroes and secret identities from a more western perspective in the near future, if he is alive by the end of this convention. – Help.
– See ya! But coming back to anime, I don’t think the idea of secret identities is really all that applicable to One-Punch Man or Boku no Hero Academia. Because as much as they are just fun superhero romps, both series also comment on different aspects of the society that spawned them. And to a certain degree in Japanese society, the work that you do is a defining part of who you are. Your social circle rarely extends beyond your coworkers, and it’s very unusual to change your job on a regular basis. A lot of Japanese companies keep employees on for life, so rising through the ranks at your company is the primary avenue for both social and economic advancement. In that light, in a story about professional superheroes coming from a society where the division of work life and private life just isn’t that much of a thing, secret identities don’t make that much sense. And I think to some extent that points to what these series are trying to say. My Hero Academia envisions a world where everyone has powers and superhero teams are professional agencies. Most of the show’s cast dreams of growing up to be recruited by one of the bigger, better known hero agencies as a sidekick, and working their way up to a full-on hero position. Which is not at all dissimilar from, well, most jobs. Yes, in their professional lives these characters will get to fly and blow shit up and beat up bad dudes. But they will do so for a paycheck, and how much they earn will be based on their performance, and where they can land a job. Which is, in turn, based almost entirely on how much they can impress potential employers while they’re still in high school. And their opportunities to do that are based on what class they end up in, and what school they end up at. It seems like UA High is the only school that really matters to most of the big agencies. And THAT is all determined by how they perform on a single standardized test. A test that is heavily weighted towards people with flashy, physical quirks that facilitate smashing lots of robots, as we see with Hitoshi Shinso, whose mind control quirk could easily be used to make arrests, and save countless lives without any bloodshed, but the UA practical exam gives him no chance to show that off. These kids are told that their hard work will help them get ahead, and in Izuku’s case that is true to an extent, though he’s only given the opportunity to do so in the first place because All Might noticed his heroic spirit by pure luck. But the path to these kids’ future is set so early in childhood, that natural-born abilities and plain old luck are much greater factors in their success than almost anything else. It’s hard not to draw parallels between that and the modern Japanese school system, which places immense pressure on kids from a young age. To get a good job, you need to go to a good college. For that, you need to go to a good high school. And to have a chance at getting into a good high school, you need a respectable junior high on your CV. So if a kid doesn’t have a natural talent for studying, or a natural-born work ethic by the time they’re 12, they’re going to spend the next few years of their lives playing catch-up in cram school. And if they can’t catch up by the end of junior high, they’re kinda screwed. It’s very hard to get into a top-tier university or college coming out of anything, but a top-tier high school. This is obviously not exactly fair, and really it’s not fair to any of the kids. It’s not fair to Shinso, it’s not fair to Uraraka, who constantly feels like she’s letting down her parents by not supporting them, and it’s not fair to a prodigy like Todoroki, who has only been distanced from his family and friends by the expectations placed on him by his father due to his exceptional powers and pedigree. Whether they have the skills to make it or not, that’s a lot of pressure to place on a kid. As my Editor Lachlan said in his own recent, excellent video about the series, HeroAca ultimately has a hopeful outlook for the future of these characters. But it’s not afraid to highlight their present struggles, or how an unfair system can perpetuate those problems. The simple, painful struggle of trying your hardest to do something good and failing has a broad emotional resonance. But I think it’s also specifically applicable to this series’ target audience: Japanese school kids. Kids whose futures are being determined now by choices that they aren’t really equipped to make yet. I think HeroAca resonates with these kids because despite the fantastical nature of the story, that core idea hits very close to home, but it also provides an escape in a sense. Yes this unfair grind is a fact of life, even in a world of superheroes. But at least all that drudgery at school gives you a chance to be something cool when you grow up. That’s a lot less depressing than salary work. On that note, One-Punch Man’s Hero Association is a governmental body that regulates superheroics within a rigid bureaucratic hierarchy. It’s shown to be something of a nightmare, and among the heroes you see the same mix of total assholes and good people that you’d expect from basically any work environment. The Hero Association has a lot of ideas that seem good on paper, but don’t exactly work out in practice. The hero ranking system is designed to ensure that heroes only tackle problems appropriate to their ability level, while forcing lower-level heroes to actively hunt down petty criminals to fill a quota. And it does that, to an extent, but it also creates a cutthroat, ultra-competitive culture, where heroes fight amongst themselves and form factions in a desperate effort to hold on to whatever high rank they can. The heroism seems to come second to their pursuit of glory, which is not at all dissimilar from corporate climbers who form alliances, brown-nose, and stab coworkers in the back in an effort to climb the ranks at a company, and seize some modicum of power. I see a lot of people talk about how One-Punch Man is a brilliant send up of the superhero genre, and it certainly does do some interesting, funny things with that genre’s conventions. But as with any great work of art, the most interesting things it has to say are very applicable to regular, non-super people living in this world. As a satire, One-Punch Man posits that no matter what kind of job you end up with, or what dream you pursue, the doldrums and bullshit of working life are inescapable. You have to learn to live with them. Saitama goes from being unemployed, depressed, and unsatisfied to being the strongest superhero in existence, and being even more depressed and unsatisfied. Perhaps that experience is why he’s so disinterested in climbing the Association ranks. Saitama’s already the best there is, and he knows that that grind won’t make him happy. One-Punch Man does offer its hero and the rest of the heroes around him an out, though. Saitama seems to be at his happiest when he’s chilling with Genos and Bang, or playing video games with King, or grabbing ramen with Mumen Rider. His professional achievements don’t really amount to much in terms of happiness. Schmaltzy as it sounds, it’s his friendships that actually enrich his life. The message that I take away from One-Punch Man is that you need to cultivate a life beyond your work if you want to be happy, especially if you turn your hobby into your work. Whether you’re a superhero, a salaryman, a mangaka, or a YouTuber, your job alone will never be enough to feed your soul. Which is an important takeaway for anyone. I think that’s a big part of the series’ wide appeal in the West. Its themes of fighting depression and dissatisfaction with one’s lot in life really resonate over here, but again, I think those ideas are especially relevant in a nation where it’s famously difficult to build meaningful relationships outside of the workplace, or establish a solid work-life balance. Both of Mangaka ONE’s breakout series One-Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100 hone in on this idea from different angles. One has a protagonist who trained his way to the top, the other’s lead was born there, and both find no meaning in that power. Their arcs are not about becoming stronger. They’re about becoming better, more complete people. Which is a struggle that makes them relatable, despite the absurd circumstances of their lives. Really, the same can be said of any great superhero story. The truly great ones are, yes, about muscly dudes in Spandex beating each other up, but they use those exaggerated conventions to exaggerate and highlight themes and ideas that are applicable in the real world. Hopefully with a light touch, rather than a heavy hand. In that light, it’s easy to see where the differences that make One-Punch Man and HeroAca feel so fresh to us in the western audience come from. It’s simply that they’re hitting on ideas and themes that, while relevant to us, are a lot less pressing here than they are in their native Japan. That’s the really exciting thing about seeing a popular genre take hold in another country. You get to see new interpretations of that genre’s tropes that just couldn’t come out of the West. Like, no matter how tired you are of zombie fiction, High School of the Dead, School Live, and I Am a Hero feel very fresh compared to walking Dead clone number 358, and no matter how sick you are of Shonen adventure anime, Avatar: The Last Airbender and Steven Universe feel fresh and new, like the first time you watched FMA or YuYu Hakusho. The same goes for Pacific Rim and Mecha, or, going back the other way, Dark Souls and Western RPGs. So here’s hoping that Japan keeps offering us fresh takes on the Western-style superhero. I think manga and anime creators are still just scratching the surface of what’s possible for them to say with the genre, and I’m excited to see what’s going to come next. But what do you think? Am I off-base about the differences between Western and Japanese superheroes? Who’s your favorite anime superhero, and why is it Blue Rose? Excluding Saitama, if you tossed all of the HeroAca and One-Punch Man heroes in a battle royale, who would emerge victorious? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. And while you’re down there, if you could subscribe and maybe hit one of those social media buttons to share the video, that would help a lot! It also helps to support my Patreon, which lets me pay editors like the wonderful and talented Pedantic Romantic, who handled this video, and crank out more content faster. It also gives you access to cool rewards, like credits at the end of videos which hey look at that, you’re seeing right now! It’s like magic! All of that said if you’re finished with One-Punch Man and itching for more like I was when I finished it, then you might enjoy the Mangaka ONE’s other fantastic anime, Mob Psycho 100. I’m wearing a t-shirt from Mob Psycho right now, which I got out of the latest Loot Anime™ crate. That crate also contained this fantastic Noragami™ hat, as well as this super classy Death Note™ mug, and volume one of Parasyte™, a really fantastic manga with a really fantastic anime adaptation that I really, really need to cover on this channel one of these days. If you wanna hear me talk about HeroAca some more, then you can check out a video where I compare it to Naruto right up here, or right down here you can check out some of my analysis of One-Punch Man. You can click on Mob’s face in order to go to my second channel, where I host my podcast, the Weekly Weebcast, and if this is the last I see of you today, that I’m Shitbag Man, professional superhero, signing out from my mother’s basement. [click]