Mob vs. Saitama: How ONE’s protagonists are inversions of each other

With the critically acclaimed second season of Mob Psycho 100 currently airing, and the highly anticipated second season of One Punch Man on the way soon, I decided to give myself a refresher and re-watch the first seasons of both, but to try to do so in an unconventional way: by alternating between individual episodes of each show, while also trying to do the same with the manga. It was kind of an attempt to get into this guy’s head, this guy meaning the mangaka behind both stories, who goes by the moniker, ONE.

He’s written both these stories and I think many people will probably be able to tell this just by the similarities in the art style, the shared comedic tone, and the related storytelling themes, not to mention a preoccupation with scrotum-chinned side characters…

Okay… but why?

There are two things that makes ONE distinctive in the field of manga: (1) the fact that his skill at drawing is amateurish at best; and (2) the fact that the first point is rendered completely irrelevant due his relatable and engaging characters and storytelling. The thing about authors, particularly the good ones, is that they tend to repeat their themes often in subsequent works (did Dickens ever stop writing about social/class stratification?). The same is true here. Both manga/anime are stories about circumstances that happen far too often in real life; when truly remarkable individuals fall between the cracks, because of the indifference and/or obliviousness of society, and sometimes even due to the personal faults of the individuals themselves.

So let’s get the obvious similarities out of the way; both of these main characters are unconventional heroes, who don’t necessarily have heroic motives, but are heroes in spite of themselves, due to their actions; they are both ridiculously overpowered, to the point that they never face any real threat from any of their adversaries; and lastly, that they are either under-appreciated and/or virtual unknowns in their respective societies/universes. What makes ONE‘s writing really interesting is how the two similar characters subtly contrast with each other, and if this was actually the author’s intent, then it’s blindingly clever.

1) Unrecognized ability vs. recognized (but shunned) ability

I’ve written previously about One Punch Man, and the phenomenon that an individual can become so efficient at their craft that they effectively become invisible. The society Saitama lives in is constantly under threat from potentially city-leveling super-villains. However, Saitama disposes of these threats so quickly and effortlessly, that the general public quickly forgets about them, the circumstances of the potential disaster avoided are not even considered long-term, and then it’s on to the next one. When problems vanish effortlessly into thin air, so, seemingly, do the problem solvers.

Saitama continues the trend of slipping under the radar when, later on, he takes the Hero Association’s entrance exam, has a perfect showing in the physical segments, yet gets relegated to a low-ranking C-Class hero because of his poor performance in the written test. This guy just can’t get a break.

On to Mob. It’s evident to a lot of people that this kid is an extremely powerful psychic. But it’s not like they’d let other people know about it, as that would go against their interests. In the various arcs, it becomes a recurring plot point that the people aware of his talent try to use and exploit him to serve their own agendas; first it’s charlatan extraordinaire Reigen, then the ‘Telepathy Club’ trying to lure him in to ensure their own school perks and survival, then the shifty cult leader Dimples plotting to possess him, and so on. It’s also an interesting story inversion that the one group of people who genuinely don’t want to use him, but help him, are the stereotypical high school jocks, the Body Improvement Club.

His family has become accustomed to Mob’s powers to the point of being unimpressed, and considering it as an actual nuisance, all while he unwittingly bends spoons at the dinner table, as if he were one of the ‘potentials’ from The Matrix. Mob himself isn’t enthused about his powers either, considering them a liability and a potential danger to others, and so he plays them down. He’s also come to the conclusion that they do nothing for him, or at least don’t play into his goals and ambitions. Speaking of ambitions…

2) Goals unrelated to powers vs. no real goals at all

Mob is a hormonally compromised high school adolescent, so it comes as no surprise that what he cares about most in the world is to woo his crush, Tsubomi, and if possible, to become more popular by working out with the Body Improvement Club. A big part of why he’s so ambivalent about his powers is that they failed to hold her attention when he demonstrated them to her. It’s not like he thinks they’re completely useless though, or he wouldn’t be pursuing after-school on-the-job ‘training’ from Reigen.

Mob’s somewhat muted optimism about his prospects can be contrasted with Saitama’s straight up cynicism. This is understandable, since Saitama’s a working-age twenty-something, who’s seen some of actual real life, most of it unappealing, dull and repetitive. He isn’t trying to save the world. He’s totally the kind of guy to end an epic high-stakes battle early, just so he can head to the supermarket for ‘Bargain Day’. This is why, if he has any goal at all, it’s just to have fun, and if possible to have that fun using his powers… which is where the problems come in…

3) Frustration vs Nonchalance

The central premise, or one could say ‘running joke’, of OPM, is that the virtual invincibility of the main character, instead of being fulfilling, or a point of pride, is instead unrewarding and frustrating. If Saitama’s true goal in this is stimulation and fun, you won’t get much of that if the outcome is always predictable.

On the other hand, when Mob gets rid of frighteningly powerful spiritual miscreants with the snap of a finger, he then asks his ‘mentor’ Reigen when they’re going to get to the ‘serious stuff’. Mob is, to put it delicately, clueless. This is what make him so easy to take advantage of, but also what makes him so ambivalent about his own abilities, and the impressive results they afford. Eliminating super-powerful spiritual entities is just part of his day, and he has no feeling about this one way or the other. This level of power is just in his nature. Which raises the question of if or how nurture is involved…

4) Natural Power vs. Work Ethic

One of the defining moments of One Punch Man is when Saitama finally reveals the secret to his immense strength, revealing one of the central messages of the entire narrative:

It’s ridiculous, and it’s meant to be, but the message comes across crystal clear: work ethic is what matters in the pursuit of success. Flashbacks, expanded upon in the manga, show that Saitama began as a relatively unremarkable individual, even getting his ass handed to him by bullies in high school (incidentally, when he was Mob’s age). It was incremental improvement and cumulative training that made him an all-powerful, unbeatable force to be reckoned with. The fundamental question for Saitama is, what’s next after you’ve accomplished this?

This is a complete inversion of Mob’s character arc. Mob is just naturally a powerful psychic. Part of the reason this power does not fulfill him is that he never had to work for it; as a matter of fact, this leads him to the belief that he is lacking something fundamental, which is why he seeks (questionable) advice and mentorship through Reigen, and others (the cult of LOL, for instance). He eventually finds a path to further self-actualization through intense and challenging physical training with the Body Improvement Club, thus interestingly putting him on Saitama’s very path.

Funny how it’s the company both characters choose that dictate what they will do, and what they will ultimately become…

5) A Willing Student vs. an Unwilling Teacher

Saitama maybe isn’t as clueless as Mob is, but he’s pretty damn clueless in his own way. He’s saved entire cities from complete annhilation, yet he thinks nothing of the significance of his actions, or their positive impact on others in society, or what they say about his abilities relative to anyone else’s. Which is why he can’t, for the life of him, fathom why Genos would regard him so highly, or would want to train under him as a student. As a matter of fact, it initially freaks him the hell out.

Much like Genos, Mob doesn’t even need a mentor, and certainly not one as incompetent and morally questionable as Reigen, but is convinced that he can learn something from him (which, ironically, he eventually does).

Even these side characters seem to be polar opposites when compared to each other: Genos, driven by a tragic past, and seeking vengeance against an evil cyborg, is willing to oppose any and all evil simply by default, a much more standard motive for a ‘heroic’ character than Saitama’s. He’s also earnest, stalwart and super-serious to a fault. Compare this to Reigen, who the manga immediately sets up as comic relief, simply because of how he’s so simultaneously slippery, underhanded and yet charismatic; strangely, he turns out to be quite simply one of the most likable con-men in fiction.

6) One to 100: Power Escalation vs. Permanent State

It’s pretty obvious that OPM is a satire of American-style comic book superheroes; Saitama walks around in his ‘hero’ getup, cape and all. Which is why his character mimics the stereotypical Superman-type power level; it never goes up and down, it’s just always at full capacity.

Mob’s powers follow the more typical shounen-style dynamic of fluctuating power-levels, in this case fluctuating between 1 and 100, depending on his emotional state (hence the name of the manga). With an accumulated emotional state of 100 percent, he loses emotional control and essentially goes ‘super-saiyan’ (or turns into the Hulk, if you want to tie it back to American comics). We see a glimpse of this in the very first pre-credits scene in the anime, where he’s just vaporizing spirits left and right; also is it just me, or does he look an awful lot like a full-power out-of-control Gon in this scene? Perhaps that was intentional?

With all the talk of powers, I can’t help but wonder what a team-up would look like between Mob and OPM: c’mon ONE, make it happen!

Published by dirksblogposts

My name is Dirk O'Brien. I'm a graphic designer by profession, and have had a lifelong interest in comics and animation.

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