The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Crazy Noisy Bizarre Town: Mob Psycho 100, Diamond Is Unbreakable, and... Post-Shonen Anime?

Mob Psycho 100, like comicker One's previous work One Punch Man, has a premise that seems to undermine core aspects of Shonen narratives... or even action narratives in general. Coincidentally, the current arc of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Diamond Is Unbreakable, has developed in ways that also disrupt traditional storytelling. Might we call these two works post-Shonen? And what can a 1961 short story by Kurt Vonnegut tell us about what these shows are trying to do?

Watching Mob Psycho 100 and Diamond Is Unbreakable (the current story arc of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure) back to back has been pretty interesting for me, because while the shows are in many ways quite different aesthetically, I think these are shows that might be described as post-Shonen. Well, maybe. I'm not really wedded to that term, but it's a good shorthand at the outset of this article for the kind of ideas that I'm interested in.

Certainly these shows are both setting out to manipulate shonen and action tropes in ways that result in some interesting new narrative directions. This potential is best seen when putting them in juxtaposition to other works, works that reveal the underlying ideological assumptions of the two shows.
And no work makes for a better, more logical, or more straightfowardly intuitive juxtaposition than Kurt Vonnegut's 1961 short story "Harrison Bergeron," which you can read, conveniently, online here.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves though. It's worth taking some time to set the stage properly and consider just what these two shows are doing in their own terms.

Mob Psycho 100 is the second series by webcomicker ONE, a dude who is best known for meager drawing abilities paired with storytelling sharp enough to get attention despite his works' visual roughness. Now, I'm not as enamored of ONE's work as others seem to be. I wasn't super impressed with his previous work, One Punch Man, despite its remarkable popularity. For someone famous for ideas shining through humble art skills, the ideas didn't strike me as particularly fully formed or original. The wider setting frame of that comic, a setting in which superheroes are celebrities, was explored previously in Tiger and Bunny, not to mention the various actual Western superhero comics that have touched on the idea (isn't this a core part of who Adrian Veidt is?). The setting didn't feel particularly lived in--everything felt weirdly weightless, like an abstract exercise in trope subversion and manipulation.

The core premise though... now that is something special.

See, the main character of One Punch Man can defeat any enemy with just one punch. Through the power of having done a bunch of squats, this dude is capable of defeating basically anything with zero effort.

It should be fairly clear that action narratives in general, and Shonen in particular, is kind of screwed by this premise, as it undermines core parts of the archetype. What I think of as the Shonen Archetype is stuff codifed by shows I came of age with: Bleach, Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, anime like this. What a lot of these shows share is a sense of constant escalation through more and more powerful foes. Powerlevels rise, characters get beaten then they get stronger through training, things continually escalate. The ultimate kind of logical endpoint of this is probably Gurren Lagann, which concludes with a battle between robots the size of entire galaxies.

And underlying it all, I think, is a sense of characters being capable of imposing their will upon the world. It is notable that ALL the shows mentioned here have effectively godlike powers within the grasp of characters, the power to make and unmake the world, whether through dragonballs, spiral energy, increasingly bizarre weapon upgrades, or that cat's cradle shit they do in Naruto.

Plenty of things have played with these tropes previously. Evangelion, for example, escalates things to the point where Zeruel shows up and trashes everyone's shit, but the last few angels attack primarily through psychological means (and arguably are more interested in trying to understand humans than anything else--their methods of experimentation just happen to lean less towards careful observation and more towards psychic vivisection, an inherently destructive learning process). As for the underlying current, that ability to impose a singular will on reality, well, I feel like it's pretty well known even to people who haven't seen the series how well that works out.

So, there is certainly plenty of history of shows like Eva challenging the arc of traditional shonen storytelling, I wouldn't argue otherwise. By the same token though I think you can look at One Punch Man as responding very precisely to the trope of escalation in action narratives and making its derailment the core part of the show's narrative game. The whole setup is designed to make sure that escalation dynamics can't happen because there's a fundamental limit on how badass anything can be, since, you know, the main character can defeat anything in one punch.

The nice thing about Mob Psycho 100, from my perspective, is that it grounds some of the themes from One Punch Man in a setting that feels a bit more lived in, while elaborating on this notion of deescalation. Mob Psycho 100 doesn't have a premise that quite as directly and immediately undermines the shonen arc, but it has from the outset a lot of deeper character dynamics that generate similar results, and the progression of the story is such that it's resisted a lot of the expected tropes.

I think on the surface it does have a fairly standard setup and progression. Mob--a name signifying his self-perceived "background character" status--is a kid with psychic powers who suppresses his emotions in order to maintain control of those powers. The 100 comes from the 100% count-up throughout the show as Mob gets progressively more emotional and heads towards an explosion of some sort. This seems to have much that lends itself to the shonen setup, where the goal is to climax in the season's finale with an explosion of power.

In practice, however, the show is primarily about relationships between people, relationships that tend to lead to a deescalation of conflict. It's a show that invites you to feel distress at Mob's distress, and feel satisfaction when the characters are capable of finding ways to avoid explosive situations. It is notable, I think, that one of the first real shows of explosive force from Mob comes after a highly destructive and totally unconscious leveling of a school. Mob, appalled by the extent of his destructive force, is overwhelmed with grief and while the counter reaches 100%, the result is that he carefully puts the school back together, an awe-inspiring task in itself, and saves his ostensible opponent's life. It's a genuinely affecting moment, and it's one that helps make it clear emotionally why Mob suppresses so much of his own affective range: it's clear that this power and the emotional turmoil that comes with it is genuinely overwhelming and miserable in a way that feels more real than the usual mopey superhero schtick typically does.

Comparing this to Jojo's Bizarre Adventure might be odd, given that this is a narrative grounded in big bombastic and deeply weird battles between people who are mostly really enthusiastic about their powers. After all, Battle Tendency, the second arc of the series, ended in a fight with a villain who is effectively a god. And it was great. It's worth noting in all this that I don't dislike big showy shonen fights--when done well they're delightfully bonkers.

But once you have "battle with a god" checked off your list where the heck do you go?

Diamond Is Unbreakable, the fourth major arc, goes to a single town in Japan--Morioh--where the whole narrative ultimately takes place. Narratively it involves a bunch of characters navigating the rise of a bunch of Stand users (people who can manifest their soul in a variety of weird ways). These people are, for the most part, a pack of real assholes, but they eventually come together in the face of a greater threat to Morioh, and while "Defeat Means Friendship" means... defeat, first, and battles, accordingly, the overall arc is one of different people and different agendas with a variety of personality flaws banding together as a community. It is functionally a series driven by an ensemble cast, with the title character Josuke Higashitaka often taking a backseat to the many side characters and their relationships.

If you've been following my work for a while (since the days of my coverage of Pacific Rim for example) it's probably obvious why this is of interest to me. I've long been frustrated with the state of action media--so frustrated that I wrote an entire book about it, in fact. My big beef in the book in question, My Superpower is Manpain, was with the way superhero media tends to involve a reliance on singular heroes to the point where the narrative ends up warping around the black hole of that singular character's emotions: what is good or evil is really dependent on how the Hero feels about it at a given moment. This is the Great Man theory of history--the idea that history is driven by a few dudes and their decisions rather than structural, environmental, and social forces--abstracted into cultural mythology, in which the Hero imposes His singular will upon the world.

We might contrast this with something like Pacific Rim, which posits a more distributed idea of heroism... or we might contrast it with Mob Psycho 100 or Diamond is Unbreakable.

Let's talk about Harrison Bergeron instead of those shows though.

Harrison Bergeron is a short story by Kurt Vonnegut exploring an idea of a kind of perverse equality. In the future of 2081, everyone is finally equal... in the sense that they have all been brought down to the same level. Intelligent people are given earbuds with periodic loud jarring sounds to keep them from thinking for too much or too long. Strong people are weighed down with buckshot. Beautiful people must wear grotesque masks. And so on.

The narrative isn't so much a narrative, actually, as it is an anecdote. The viewpoint characters, Mr and Mrs Bergeron, basically experience the whole event as they're watching TV. Their son Harrison has been carted away by the Handicapper General for not wearing his required handicapping devices, but they can't quite remember that that's why they're sad. They're watching a ballet which is interrupted when Harrison himself bursts onto the stage and, on live television, casts off his chains and names himself emperor.

What follows is a dramatic dance with the lead ballerina, now freed from her chains as well, in which their full majesty allows them to literally lift into the air.

At this point Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, walks into the studio and shoots them both with a shotgun.

The story ends with Harrison's parents forgetting what they've just experienced.

The easy reading of this story is that it's taking a stand against Social Justice Run Amok and so on. This reading would put it in the company of narratives like that of The Incredibles, narratives with a weirdly Ayn Rand-tinged sense of exceptionalism. "When everyone's exceptional no one will be" right? In a sense The Incredibles is Harrison Bergeron but without any coherency whatsoever, since like Syndrome's actual business plan itself seems like a net positive for humanity all things considered. At least the equalizing techniques of the Handicapper General are overtly monstrous... what the heck is the actual problem with what Syndrome is doing outside of writing him to conveniently be a murderer, in the same way that the dude in Arrow who's trying to literally bring an end to death itself conveniently is a murdering, torturing sociopath? In the absence of any actual moral authority for the heroes, the villains have to be conspicuously, outrageously villainous in ways that have nothing to do with their ultimate ideology. In this sense, at least, "Harrison Bergeron" is a story that at least has the courtesy to present the equalizing strategy itself as monstrous, if absurdly, implausibly so.

But let's look at the actual content of "Harrison Bergeron" a little more closely. The title character is a 14 year old kid who upon breaking free from the Handicapper General immediately declares himself the fucking Emperor and promises to make a bunch of random musicians feudal lords. This might sound reasonable if you're Mencius Moldbug, but if you're Mencius Moldbug you also think Steve Jobs should be CEO King of California so it's fair to say you're way outside the realms of coherent political thought. Harrison comes off as what he is: a petulant child drunk on his own power. If nothing else, surely someone worthy of being the Meritocratic Emperor of the World should've been able to predict some woman with a shotgun. Adrian Veidt could catch bullets, after all.

There's some argument to be made (and it has been made) that this society is not a serious depiction of equality gone mad but an absurd parody of what bourgeois capitalists perceive as "equality." And even if we are to take it seriously, it's undeniable that Vonnegut has given us no good alternatives here. He's presented two equally absurd and terrible alternatives.

Now we can talk about Mob Psycho 100.

Mob Psycho 100 presents a kind of equality not of ability but of intrinsic worth. We can see this in things like the relationship between Mob and his brother Ritsu. Much of the conflict is tied up in the difference between these two brothers. Ritsu is conventionally successful in school and social relationships but lacks psychic ability, while Mob is a gifted psychic but sucks at just about everything else.

Personally, I read Mob as neurodivergent, and while some of this is his psychic ability, I think it's reasonable to consider that a comorbidity rather than a kind of reductive single cause. Mob doesn't seem to quite grasp conversation with other people or understand how to perform affect properly, on top of a general flatness of affect born of his need to contain his psychic powers. As such, Mob looks up to his socially adroit younger brother, while Ritsu bitterly envies his brother's psychic abilities.

The two brothers are thus profoundly unequal without existing on a single sort of axis where people can be ranked in terms of "greater" or "lesser"--neither is a superior Harrison Bergeron (or Adrian Veidt, or John Galt). These are simply alternate states of being that are not intrinsically in opposition, but each character wishes they had qualities of the other. It's notable I think that when Ritsu awakens his own psychic powers his great strength comes not from those powers per se but from his existing intelligence and his ability to work with others (specifically, a bunch of low-level psychic kids) in order to escape the evil organization that opposes Mob in the latter half of the narrative. Ritsu is not Mob, he thinks through problems radically differently than Mob, and this is fundamentally fine.

What's important is not that Ritsu and Mob are incredible, though that does drive the narrative. What's important is that they are human, and that they have strengths and weaknesses like any other human, and none of that impacts their intrinsic worth.

This idea is articulated by Mob's mentor Reigen. Now, Reigen is a con artist, a crook with a heart of gold, a Moist Von Lipwig if you will. Reigen is not an exorcist, despite running an exorcism shop. He's got no talent whatsoever psychically. But what he does have is a brilliant mind for persuasion and a sense of actual care for his customers, who also for the most part don't really have psychic complaints but just need things like a good massage, which Reigen can provide.

During the climax of the first season Reigen sort of accidentally poses as the head of the villainous organization "Scar," and the result is that he spends an entire episode basically berating an entire villainous organization for... being a villainous organization. What's really notable though is the message that he keeps expressing to the mooks of Scar: the psychics in Scar are not better than anyone else just because they have particular talents.

In the ultimate battle, backed into a corner, Mob opts not to explode with power but to cede his power to Reigen. This sequence is hilarious: at first Reigen doesn't realize what's happened and thinks that the reason the enemy psychics' attacks aren't working on him is because they are con artists just like him. Reigen ultimately uses the opportunity given to him by Mob to talk the enemy psychics down. A lot of his message boils down to, essentially, "get over it": yeah, psychic powers make these people different, but they're not superior because of that.

Rather than an escalation of conflict, then, this becomes a deescalation and diversion from the expected climax. Mob upon reaching his breaking point doesn't go super saiyan but instead abandons his powers, giving them to someone he thinks of as a good person, someone capable of using Mob's powers as a vehicle for his REAL talent, which is... talking to people and persuading them not to fight.

This is mirrored in some of the content of Diamond Is Unbreakable. While previous arcs of JJBA revolved around the title Jojo as the protagonist who defeats evil, this arc shows Morioh as a place, as a network of relationships and histories and shared experiences, acting in concert to defeat evil. It is the joining together of a whole group of heroes that allows for the defeat of the enemy. I assume. I mean the anime isn't over yet, I'm freaking the fuck out honestly and just hoping my favorite characters make it out alive, I have no idea where this is gonna go, but thus far it really does seem like the day is being saved largely by a bunch of assholes with relatively minor powers.

The folks adapting the longrunning comic into anime form seem to have a solid sense of this, judging from their title sequences at least. I could write a whole series on the opening titles of JJBA honestly, they're so densely detailed and fascinating in their artistic references and symbolism. The titles for Diamond Is Unbreakable emphasize Morioh as a location and showcase the wide cast of characters in the city. The end titles in particular depict Morioh slowly becoming more and more populated by the various characters in the show, the town expanding in complexity and vibrancy with each episode. 

This suggests a model of heroism and of heroic storytelling that challenges the protagonist-centered morality of things that I covered in My Superpower is Manpain. These characters are heroes because they are working together, and there's not a strong division between The Hero and Everybody Else. 

The characters who set themselves up as Harrison Bergerons are the villains of Mob Psycho 100, and arguably of Diamond Is Unbreakable as well. Every single one of the enemies in Mob Psycho 100 in particular thinks they deserve to be emperor just because of their psychic powers. The show's narrative reveals this as delusion.

Perhaps the best thing about Mob Psycho 100 is that we spend a whole lot of time with people who seem on the surface to be unexceptional compared to Mob. There's a group of bodybuilders, for example, who recruit Mob for their club, and Mob makes a real effort to improve himself with their guidance despite being totally unathletic. These characters have their own code of honor and care quite a bit about Mob's wellbeing. Their existence really fleshes out the world because while these are not superpowered people they are people Mob seeks to emulate. That's the point, after all: these people ARE exceptional in their own way, they just happen to not be exceptional in ways that lend themselves to superheroics. Superheroes are just people with certain specialized talents and beyond that they are just normal people, and the existence of people like Reigen and the body improvement club flattens the world in a really remarkable way, just as the presence of characters in Diamond Is Unbreakable who simply use their stands to cook miraculously curative food or perform radical beauty treatments dramatically expands the sense of Morioh's reality.

If these shows might be described as post-shonen in some sense, then, it might be in the way that they break down the very idea of the central hero. The shonen hero solves conflicts via imposition of will, typically through escalating violence. The post-shonen hero might solve conflicts via reconciliation based on a shared sense of humanity even across difference. The post-shonen hero might give us a way out that Harrison Bergeron doesn't, a third ideological frame for understanding difference in ability that does not presume difference in merit.

In this understanding, rather than crude pseudo-meritocracy where the incredibles of the world "naturally" rise to the top, we might construct narratives, and social systems, where the buckshot weights of grinding poverty, illness, and systemic oppression don't hobble so many in their own quests to self-actualize. We might even consider the world as a series of ensemble cast productions rather than self-perceived heroic narratives, productions in which we are like Mob, or part of one at least.

The Company of Heroes

Pacific Rim, Iron Man III, and Cloud Atlas come together to fight for the power of ensemble casts!

I Want To Connect (But It's Hard To Understand)

For an anime all about connections, Sarazanmai, the new anime from the director of Revolutionary Girl Utena, can be pretty obscure. But its obscurity gives it power, and a space for us to form connections with the show... and with each other.

My Superpower is Manpain!

Featuring revised versions of my articles on The Dark Knight Rises, Arrow, and Grant Ward from Agents of SHIELD, My Superpower is Manpain! explores the idea of the male superhero and his power to warp the narrative and the ethics of a story around himself.

Post Shonen Maybe Sorta

This week's podcast started out being about Mob Psycho 100 and then just sorta sprawled more and more.


  1. Could we have a spoiler warning next time? I haven't watched Mob Psycho yet.

  2. I understand there's a shift in manga from stories about people trying to become stronger (a la Dragonball) to shows about people trying to gain recognition for the talents they already possess (a la Shokugeki no Souma). I have to wonder whether it's symptomatic of and underlying trend in Japanese culture.

  3. Nice post mate, keep up the great work, just shared this with my friendz pendants

  4. I wanted to thank you for this excellent read!! I definitely loved every little bit of it. I have you bookmarked your site to check out the new stuff you post. haunted stories


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