In the west, comic books were long considered the domain of protracted adolescents and simplistic superheroes. Obviously, this stigma has fallen off in recent years with the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – but the simple fact that serious comics are still separately designated as ‘graphic novels’ tells you that the situation hasn’t entirely changed yet.
In Japan however, things could not have been more different. From the very start, some of the most successful and widely read mangas of modern times deal with deeply complex and philosophical issues. From the merits of transhumanism and the very modern struggle of man vs machine, to the destruction of narrative conventions, forms of power and postmodern pastiche – these popular mangas have tackled some of the biggest questions and ideas known to philosophy.
One Punch Man, Narrative Subversion & the Meaning of Conflict
Right from the outset, One Punch Man sets itself apart from your usual superhero fiction. The titular One Punch Man, aka Saitama, literally defeats any enemy with one punch. That’s it. This gives the manga some extremely interesting philosophical themes to work with. How does Saitama deal with his ultimate power? If every fight is easy to him, they all become meaningless. This can be seen as a commentary on consumer ease in modern life creating a spiritual void in our lives.
For example, the villainous Paradisers terrorize society in order to achieve some sort of communist utopia where no-one has to work for food or shelter. ‘Sounds boring to me,’ says Saitama before heading out to beat the evil overlord of the plot. With one punch. This low-effort one punch finish to practically every episode, also allows the series’ pseudonymous creator One to invert narrative structure. A bold warrior trains tirelessly under Saitama to confront his enemy, only to get beat down at the first opportunity – before Saitama waltzes in and destroys the bad guy with, you guessed it, one punch.
In this way One Punch man messes with and reflects on traditional methods of storytelling, such as the Hero’s Journey which has been a staple of human literature for thousands of years.
Transhumanism and Man vs Technology in Ghost in the Shell
In our modern society, technology rules all. People can already access a huge majority of our collective knowledge at the click of a mouse or the tap of a screen. Some of us already even have artificial organs and limbs. But, in the (not too distant) future, when our rocketing technology takes us far beyond the potential we can see at the moment – what will technology mean for our identity, our souls?
Ghost in the Shell looks at these questions through the story of an advanced AI known as the Puppet Master who can ghost hack the mind of augmented human beings. She is being investigated by a cyborg detective called Major Kusanagi. The plot closely mirrors the kind of ideological conflicts that 18th century German philosopher Hegel proposed drove the world forward – what he called Dialectics. Through these physical and mental conflicts Ghost in the Shell explores the complicated relationship between man and machine – and the contradictions inherent in what being alive really means.