Most high school stories in anime go something like this: the protagonist transfers into a new school that is presided over by an all-powerful student council. There he joins a club, where he meets his best friends, and comes under the care of an eccentric but benevolent teacher. For the next three years they fully enjoy the fruits of youth, whether that be expressed through musicianship, solving mysteries, fighting demons from the spirit world or selfies. Finally they graduate, and weep bitterly at being parted. The story ends there, but the presumed narrative is the protagonist parties through college, gets a job as a salaryman and then never, ever leaves. That’s not to say that every life plays out the same way, or that the high school experience can be so easily generalized. After all, there are batteries of tests, cram sessions and social pressures we rarely see played out in anime. But there’s the sense that school really is the greatest time of your life, liberated from childhood but without the crushing responsibilities of adulthood. Reliving those days, whether on the page or on screen, is a powerful fantasy on its own.
Mob Psycho 100 is set in a middle school, and sells a very different fantasy. The eponymous Mob, who has phenomenal psychic powers but is terrible at everything else, transfers to a new school where he is ignored. He finds himself struggling to choose between the Telepathy club, run by an eccentric and her posse of slackers, and a Body Building club of intimidating fitness types (he chooses the latter!) The school is run by a student council that is corrupt and filled with insecure overachievers. And Mob’s most prominent mentor is a con man who uses the kid’s capabilities to his own benefit, because he has no psychic powers of his own. Instead of a nostalgic riff on past memories, the world of Mob Psycho reads like what a clever but bored student would scribble in the borders of his notebook, with character designs to match.
There are real dangers to this approach. If one side of the school fantasy is the fun times you have with your friends in a safe environment before you finally become an adult, the other is the belief that you are above it, and that your classmates and teachers have bought into a lie. Perhaps in another world Mob Psycho 100 may have been a revenge fantasy, about a bullied child reclaiming what is rightfully his. Perhaps ONE’s punk sensibilities could have been misinterpreted by the show’s creators as an endorsement of misanthropy. But it’s to the credit of Yuzuru Tachikawa and his staff that in producing Mob Psycho, they chose to highlight the humanity Mob shares with the rest of the cast, ONE’s menagerie of middle school freaks. All the Telepathy club wants to do is hang out in their club room and play video games, but we’ve all known people in our lives who find meaning in wasting time together. The Body Building club is committed to their workout routines, but they soon come to respect Mob’s drive for self-improvement and stand up for him every chance they get. The cruelest member of the student council is struggling to weigh his family’s ambitious plans for his future with his own capabilities. Even Mob’s conman mentor Reigen, while an irresponsible cheapskate, could be said to be Mob’s true moral compass, and the closest the cast has to a bona fide adult. He’s also fantastic at massage.
The villains of the series are characterized not by their wickedness, but by their great weakness. School bully Teruki has the student body eating out of his hand, but is paralyzed by how helpless he is without relying on his psychic powers. Mob’s brother Ritsu does some truly awful things due to feelings of fear and inferiority, but works to make amends as soon as he realizes his mistake. Even the superhuman organization Claw is revealed to be run by insecure older men who can’t bring themselves to accept responsibility for their lives. Like every good shounen hero worth his salt, Mob converts his rogue’s gallery to the cause of righteousness one by one. But he does so not by overwhelming them with power, or by ridding them of mind-controlling parasites (i.e. Jojo) but by helping them realize the fundamental lesson of the series: there are no shortcuts to adulthood. Mob himself goes through periods of extreme rage, grief and sadness, activating 100% of his psychic power–often with devastating consequences. But ONE plays these moments not as feats of strength, but as personal realization. The battles are often spectacularly animated, but more impactful are the moments when Mob uses his unleashed powers to rebuild a school he destroyed, or bows to a group of angry thugs rather than risk his brother being hurt.
ONE has not yet ended the Mob Psycho 100 comic, and I’m still unsure how the fantasy will wrap up. Will Mob become a mature young adult? Will ONE instead thumb his nose at convention and end on a fart joke? The anime series, in a moment that made it immediately clear to me the creators got it, ended with a vignette drawn in ONE’s notebook doodle style. The Mob Psycho 100 anime is sometimes crude, facile, and occasionally errs in compressing too much material into too small a space. But if you were ever a kid who couldn’t play the guitar, was no good at sports, hated tea and cake, and lived every day with your friends thinking that you fell through the cracks and nobody cared, and then grew up: Mob Psycho 100 is for you. I can’t speak for anyone else, and suspect others may think differently. But as someone who was once a shitty middle schooler, than a shitty high schooler, I found it powerfully nostalgic.