Something has undeniably been lost in the transition to live-action, but Netflix’s Mob Psycho 100 is still a funny, irreverent and clever piece of work that is all too easy to overlook and misinterpret.
Arriving today on Netflix in twelve 20-odd minute episodes is Mob Psycho 100, the live-action adaptation of the psychedelic Bones anime series that put in work for the shōnen subgenre a couple years back. Coming from the same addled imagination as 2015’s viral anime One-Punch Man, Netflix’s Mob Psycho 100 looks to recapture its source material’s irreverence for convention, and repackage it for the world’s largest streaming platform – and, let’s be frank, for a Western audience.
Netflix is no stranger to anime or live-action adaptations of the same, which makes the platform as good a home for Mob Psycho 100 as any, even though it’ll likely split the show’s audience into those who are familiar enough with shōnen staples to recognise they’re being satirised and subverted, and those who aren’t. For the latter, Netflix’s Mob Psycho 100 will be a tough sell, at least in the first few episodes, when it isn’t entirely clear what the series is up to.
“Mob” is the nickname of Shigeo Kageyama, a pudgy-faced middle-schooler with a terrible bowl cut and, as it happens, psychokinetic powers. He’s an “Esper”, full of spoon-bending and demon-exorcising tricks tied into a percentage that episodes keep track of. (I hope the title is starting to make some sense.) Upon reaching 100% Mob goes berserk, or some variation of it, but the percentage isn’t representative of his “power level” or anything like that – it’s a literal display of how much he allows himself to feel a particular emotion, having walled himself off from such things and developed a complex around them due to an incident in his past. Mob Psycho 100 is and is about lots of things, but one of the major ones is recognising the inherent danger of unchecked emotions, particularly those new, confusing ones that crop up during adolescence.
Mob works somewhat unwittingly for a charlatan psychic, Reigen, who employs unusual and often hilarious methods of demon dispatching from aggressive massages to the throwing around of regular, unblessed salt. He’s a conman, but through his self-assured bluster he has managed to convince Mob that he’s really so absurdly powerful that he’s beyond comprehension; hence, Mob does his exorcism work for him. The contrast between them is obvious: Mob has unquantifiable power, but he’s also an awkward teenager; Reigen is perfectly ordinary, except in his abundance of charisma. It’s a trite theme, inverting the mundane and the extraordinary, but Reigen never stops working as Mob’s foil.
Besides, Reigen is arguably the embodiment of the entire show’s ethical architecture. He might start out as a one-note comic-relief character (again, I must stress that you persevere beyond the first couple of episodes) but he’s quickly repositioned as Mob’s legitimate mentor, and the mouthpiece through which Netflix’s Mob Psycho 100 can extoll the virtues of adult responsibility vs. childish maladjustment. Epic super-powered battles here are presented explicitly as the playground shenanigans of emotionally-stunted man-children; a very anti-shōnen sentiment, and a very welcome one in a story that is almost entirely about growing up as a young boy.
Because Mob Psycho 100’s humour is so overt, it’s often easy to mistake actual character moments and thematic beats for thoughtless gags, such as a bit in the first episode when Mob is asked to join the school’s Esper club but instead joins the weight-lifting “body improvement” club. The easiest read is that he’s trying to impress through conformity; that he believes to be bigger, stronger, and more athletic is to also be cooler and more popular. Except that’s a shallow way of looking at Mob’s decision to improve himself through hard work, rather than just waiting around for cool stuff to happen. It’s mirrored, too, by the overt entitlement of the Espers, who believe their powers afford them too high of a status to put in actual effort; the world should move for them. By rejecting that notion, Mob is also rejecting the longstanding shōnen tradition of power conferring status, rather than the importance of accepting one’s weaknesses and desiring self-improvement. What’s the point, Mob wonders, of being an all-powerful Esper if he can’t even impress the girl he has a crush on? It’s a typically adolescent anxiety, which is what makes it relatable.
Despite a few minor changes here and there, Netflix’s Mob Psycho 100 follows the same broad structure as the anime, so it inherits some of its problems when it comes to pacing and the condensing of certain character arcs. There’s a tendency to provide important context after the fact or not at all, and once again Mob’s brother, Ritsu, suffers the most for it. There are some attempts made to smooth his various transitions, and to key the audience into his mindset ahead of time, but it still doesn’t land in the way it should.
A problem unique to Netflix’s Mob Psycho 100 is that something is undeniably lost in the transition to live-action; that absurd blend of everyday life and outlandish imagery, which so adroitly visualised the show’s underlying themes of contrast and contradiction, just isn’t there anymore. Odd, too, is the abundance of performances which feel like those you’d find in an anime – not just the overly-dramatic voice work, which was part and parcel of Mob Psycho 100 anyway, but actual physical performances that are crying out for an animated makeover that never arrives. It’s a bizarre effect, an impression of an abstraction, and one that won’t be tolerable for everyone.
Still, quibbles aside, Mob Psycho 100 is a smart and thoughtful bit of work that is all too easy to overlook and misinterpret. For a certain type of kid, or even a certain type of adult who once was that kid, the show’s insistence that being good is better than being special, and being normal is quite okay, can’t help but feel resonant and atypical for the genre. It might not be perfect or even as good as it’s source material, but Netflix’s Mob Psycho 100 is well-worth getting worked up about.