No this isn’t about who would win in a fight between Superman and Goku. Specifically this is about a particular mainstream Japanese hero character I see over and over again in Shonen action based Anime / Manga and how it compares to mainstream American super heroes. Of course I don’t mean to say there aren’t characters on both sides that break the mold, only that the type I describe seems interestingly prevalent in modern mainstream media.
For me, the biggest difference is that Japanese super powers are based around a growth mindset. The hero must train hard to unlock his hidden potential. Even if he is the chosen one of some kind or come from another planet, it doesn’t come for free, it takes hard work. Most American super heroes were born with their powers or gained it all at once through some happenstance beyond their control. They will usually go through an awkward period of learning how their powers work, but it will be more about discovery than training.
The most obvious direct explanation for this difference is the cultural importance of martial arts in Japan and other Asian countries, as well as a more strict work ethic. Most of the super powers imagined are centered around martial arts and notion of building Chi. Many Anime have their own names for this force. Chakara, Haki, Nen, Raetsu or Spirit Force, just to name a few. These forces are brought out through training and will power. Characters are at their most powerful when put in desperate situations and they are forced into a fit of rage, protecting the ones they love. I might suggest that American superpowers are looked at like property, or even like winning the lottery. Japanese powers are more like the inextricable essence of a person, perhaps not unlike a Samurai referring to his sword as an extension of his soul.
Magic VS Science
Japanese powers seem more often based in magic, the powerful life force inside us all. That or at least the laws of the universe are different from our own. For example, “Full Metal Alchemist” takes place in a world where alchemy really works. American powers are way more often science related, and rooted in our own universe, or at least a universe that is very similar to our own. Unfortunately those powers are often based on unrealistically huge breakthroughs and severe mishaps, since that’s the only way to go from the ordinary world to something so amazing. Also the scientific explanations are usually so flimsy they may as well be magic. The fact that these Manga superheroes likely exist in an alternate world yet American ones are grounded in this one, is interesting to me. I wonder if this means that Manga superpower stories are a deeper form of escapism. Even if American heroes take part in a world unknown to us, it usually is supposed to exist in parallel, somewhere under our noses, hidden from the notice of us ordinary people.
Dynamic Power Ups
The ability to power up when they need to defeat a stronger opponent isn’t in and of itself isn’t unique, but some Japanese characters take this to a whole new level. Some even quantify their power ups by calling them gears or levels. The prime example is Dragon Ball Z. The idea that you can turn these various states of power at will like shifting gears on a car isn’t something I can ever remember seeing in an American character, with the exception of when a character somehow borrows or steals another characters powers for a particular fight.
This Japanese hero is not very bright, but somehow always does the right thing when it matters. They are ruled by powerful and accurate intuition. As in the way of the Samurai, all decisions are made in the space of seven breaths, or much less. Because of this their decisions sometimes seem rash to those around them, though over time people grow to have faith in them. American heroes will often struggle with the right thing to do. Also, the main hero in Manga always seems to have simple powers, simple attacks, compared to the other characters in that world anyway. He may sometimes use them in a clever way, it is much more likely for the villain to have complicated or tricky powers. I think it’s somehow related to honor, that simple powers befit an honest hero.
Care Free Attitude
This is related to their intuition I think. These Manga heroes tend not to spend a lot of time worrying, and may even seem careless. They have been know to randomly fall asleep at inopportune moments, and accidentally say the wrong thing at the wrong time. They have an innocence about them. After all they usually are teenagers. This quality may also be related with the way of the Samurai, treating matters of grate importance lightly and small matters with the utmost seriousness.
Strength From Friendship
Unlike a lot of American heroes, they are not usually tormented loners, forbidden from personal relationships. Often their friends and family have lesser powers themselves. They focus very heavily on being able to protect their loved ones, but often have faith in them to take care of themselves. American superheroes always seem to be carrying around a grate weight on their shoulders, like their power is burden. Anime / Manga characters usually seem to treasure their strength, their ability to protect people. For them, the ones they love ARE their strength, instead of their weakness. They often reach a new level of power up through the rage of a loved one being threatened or hurt. The American superhero is surrounded by ordinary humans. They are infinitely more capable than everyone around them, so they are infinitely more responsible and isolated. It also makes me wonder if the American mindset is that it’s only worth having power if it is far far greater power than anyone else. The Japanese hero is surrounded by other super powered people. They don’t start at the top. There are always more powerful people who drive them to advance and become the best.
I really have no Idea about this one, but quite a few of these Manga heroes seem to be able to eat an absurd amount of food. I guess they need the energy to fuel all those power ups. The most extreme examples of this are Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, and more recently Toriko, which is largely based around eating.
This isn’t necessarily a difference, but the Manga heroes seem to be very pure hearted and noble even if they seem brash on the outside. Plenty of American Supers are noble, but there seems to be slight distinction in my mind. American heroes are either totally super noble like Superman or Captain America, or they have some kind of character flaw that they must overcome to rise to the heroes call. Their Japanese counterparts flaws aren’t usually flaws at all. They don’t get in the way of them being a hero, they are part of their personality and may actually make them better at what they do. They don’t seem to be in conflict with themselves. Their apparent character flaws are a product of their innocence instead of their corruption or weakness. Again this may have a lot to do with their relatively young age.
I can’t really say what this all adds up to, or even why I felt compelled to TRY and quantify it, only that I think it is interesting to see the kinds of fictional characters that our very different cultures idolize. I enjoy superheroes on both sides of this analysis, but I find that they access different feelings. I think the Manga hero archetype is a more joyful and passionate, where as the American one is more about wish fulfillment, with a bit of “Careful what you wish for.” thrown in.
Update: Just responding to some comments on reddit that there should be more specific American comics references. I admit it is a bit one sided in that regard, but I kind of figured if you’re reading this in English you probably know more than you care too already about popular American superheroes from the many Hollywood movies of late. Maybe that was a mistake. This wasn’t supposed to be an unbiased essay, just some observations I made that were interesting to me. I do have more interest in Anime in recent years, but I’m definitely not trying to convince anyone of anything. I don’t have an agenda, I don’t think. I’m not trying to bend facts to suite an argument, however I will fully concede to the possibility that I may be seeing patterns where there are none, or looking too deeply in too narrow a spot. Humans are particularly good at this in general. In the end I’m just surprised people actually wanted more information on this. I always assume people will find these posts long winded. Anyway, criticism taken.
Update 2: Okay, I don’t think I have the patience to expand this into a full essay with citations equally on both sides. I did adjust a few minor phrases to be a BIT more specific and disclaimatory, if that is even a word. So I will just list below the particular hero characters I was referencing between the lines. Apply what you know, maybe that will clear this up a little. Not every point I TRY to make applies entirely to each character, but hopefully they hold generally true. Generalizations definitely aren’t the only thing important in an analysis, but at least initially, they can be the only way to see a pattern. Of course I know they can also be used for evil. With great generalization come great responsibility. Now, I don’t want to think about this ever again.
Goku – DBZ, obviously, really seems like the precursor to the next 5.
Monkey D Luffy – One Piece
Natsu – Fairy Tail
Gon – HunterXHunter
Naruto, Shippudden or otherwise
Elric Brothers – Full Metal Alchemist, mainly just to exemplify an alternate world with different rules. Not as many similarities to the others.
Batman, probably the most growth mindset oriented of the group