Kageyama Shigeo just wants to be a good person.
Shigeo — better known as Mob — is the protagonist of Mob Psycho 100, an anime adaptation produced by Bones and directed by Tachikawa Yuzuru, based on the webcomic of the same name by ONE, the creator better known for One Punch Man. The series, which started its second season last month, follows the powerful psychic middle schooler Mob as he navigates a confusing world full of psychics, spirits, bullies, and grifters, works part-time for con man Reigen Arataka, and tries to get his crush to notice him.
That might sound like the setup for an average shounen experience, where the standard anime coming-of-age action has a psychic flavor this time. In that version of the story, the hero would be an obnoxiously confident hothead whose main goal is to beat up anybody who comes between him and becoming the most powerful esper in the land. But that’s not Mob. In fact, Mob would prefer not to fight at all. He’s usually too busy trying to improve his social skills, moral outlook, or physical health, trying to actually, you know, grow up and come of age.
The World’s Strongest
To understand the themes of Mob Psycho 100, you have to understand Mob. A short, nondescript boy with an exceedingly blank stare, he appears at first glance to be cut from the same cloth as the protagonist of One Punch Man, Saitama. Both hold immense power belied by an unimpressive, placid demeanor. But Mob’s similarity to Saitama ends after his affect and his power.
Saitama is much closer, in terms of personality, to the prototypical protagonist of shounen anime, a genre that usually focuses on a plucky main character who gradually becomes better and better at punching things. Like these shounen boys, Saitama craves a good fight against an evenly-matched opponent — but the perennial joke of the series is that he’s so strong that he can’t find anyone to withstand even one of his Serious Punches.
To put it simply, Mob does not share this desire. Fights do not matter to Mob, let alone how well they are fought. He never gets an urge to join the fray just to flex his psychic muscles or because his opponent annoyed him. This is in part due to his immense power — it’s hard for him to care about psychic battles when most of them end up with him obliterating his opponent in an instant. But it’s mostly thanks to a different set of values, predicated on his boss Reigen’s central guiding tenet: it is wrong to use psychic powers on people.
Fights Are Boring
Mob wants two basic, relatable things: to be a good person and to be popular. In the first season, Mob repeats again and again that psychic powers don’t make a person smarter than anyone else, more popular than anyone else, or better than anyone else, especially if they are used to hurt people. That might sound obvious, but it’s so antithetical to the normal shounen outlook on strength that it feels like a revelation.
Mob is not motivated when he is attacked — even as he is brutally beaten by an adult man in the eighth episode of the first season, his explosion counter (an onscreen gauge of Mob’s emotions, with 100% representing a psychic explosion) hardly moves. When that same man attacks Mob’s brother Ritsu, however, the counter spikes. Mob only ever goes against his pacifist nature when his loved ones stand to suffer.
Thanks to Mob’s outlook, even though Mob Psycho 100 delivers several excellent action sequences, it never mistakes character development for learning to fight better. The show frequently skips fights that would be episode climaxes in a lesser series, because the true emotional climax for Mob comes when he decides which club to join or stands up for a friend when bullies rip apart her novel.
Mob’s Sexy Boss
Perhaps because he is the loudest, funniest member of the main cast, Reigen has been the focus of the majority of critique exploring Mob Psycho’s themes. These essays are quick to point out that Reigen is the archetypal scammer, a con man whose only superpower is the experience to see through other people’s scams, but they usually also shine a light on Reigen’s true purpose in the first season: Mob’s moral compass. He may be the ultimate “do as I say, not as I do” teacher, but he’s a good teacher nonetheless, instilling in Mob a desire to be kind to others, and to never use his god-like powers against them.
This angle of critique works well for the first season, where Mob’s moral dilemmas largely stem from figuring out how to adhere to Reigen’s teachings while still resolving the show’s conflicts. The season one climax brings this relationship to the forefront, as Mob is wracked with indecision between his friends imploring him to fight, and Reigen telling him to run away. Mob ends up taking a clever middle road, passing his powers to Reigen and allowing the adult to take control of the stressful situation.
But the currently airing second season has shown the limits of this dynamic, denying Mob access to Reigen as a safety net. Reigen no longer seems like such a perfect embodiment of the show, because Mob is thrust into situations where Reigen can’t help him or even actively antagonizes him. Reigen aggravates a stressful situation for Mob in the third episode, nearly pressuring him into exorcising a family of peaceful ghosts begging Mob to spare them. He goes so far as to belittle Mob in the sixth episode, causing him to quit his job entirely. The tension in these scenes doesn’t come from Mob going against ghosts or asshole clients, but from Mob going against his beloved master, as he resists orders from Reigen that he knows are wrong.
Going Your Own Way
As we grow up, we are forced to realize that we cannot rely on others to make the big decisions for us, no matter how much we trust their judgment. Even the smartest mentor has a limited perspective, and it was inevitable that Mob would outgrow Reigen when his master not only can’t see the spirit world that affects every aspect of Mob’s life, but also manipulates him for the sake of his business.
Whereas the first season had Mob reconciling Reigen’s teachings with the world at large, the second season sees him growing past Reigen’s reach and deciding his morality for himself — sometimes having to reject Reigen’s words to do so. The opening song proclaims the slogan “Your Life Is Your Own,” as the whole season builds toward Mob solving his problems without relying on Reigen’s advice, and even standing up to him.
This is, of course, a terrifying concept for Mob, a nervous boy who hates confrontation and initially would love nothing more than to hand his problems off to a capable grownup. The second season builds off the first by staying true to what matters to its protagonist: Mob wants to grow as a person, and that means confronting his fear of his own power. The power to make a meaningful decision without the help of an adult can be scary, and Mob shies away from true agency because he dreads screwing things up and hurting someone.
Coming of Age
Ironically, Mob’s breakthrough in this regard comes from a fight — a pitched battle with a dangerous evil spirit that used to be a hugely powerful psychic, Mogami Keiji. Mob, trapped in an alternate reality where he has no powers and is constantly bullied, almost loses himself before his spirit sidekick Dimple barges in and reminds him of his friends and loved ones on the outside.
The result of this breakthrough, however, isn’t better psychic abilities, because the series implies that Mob’s powers lay dormant within him all along. No, what Mob gains is the confidence to stand up for himself and his loved ones, showcased when he is able to assert himself after the fast-talking Reigen insults Mob’s friends. Mob’s powers are immense but relatively static, meaning that all of his character development has to come from his actual personality.
Having psychic powers does not make Mob great, but he can use them to do great things. Like anything else in life, they only matter when they are used in service of others. Reigen was a good teacher because he protected and guided Mob, but growing up means making choices without someone telling you the right answer.
Mob Psycho 100 stands above other shounen series as a coming-of-age story because its protagonist actually matures in ways that don’t involve hurting anybody. Maybe that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but if it leads to more kids copying Mob instead of the standard shounen protagonist, it might just make a difference.