As the superhero genre become increasingly popular in America, so too has its influence spread to other cultures. In the past few years, there’ve been multiple anime series that took cues from this style of Western media. Well-known shows like ONE-PUNCH MAN and MY HERO ACADEMIA are obvious examples, although there are several others. Even if the characters aren’t from Marvel or DC, one look at the colorful outfits makes it clear what these series are trying to be. However, there is one show that has more in common with the American genre than any other superhero anime. That honor belongs to the 2014 sci-fi horror series known as PARASYTE.

Parasyte
Image: Crunchyroll

PARASYTE is about a young man by the name of Shinichi Izumi. The seventeen-year-old high school student is one of many victims of an alien invasion of parasitic life forms. These creatures survive by burrowing into the brains of their prey, turning their new “heads” into horrendous shape-shifting masses, and cannibalizing other members of their host’s species. Fortunately for Shinichi, as he was wearing headphones, the parasite was unable to crawl into his ear. Unfortunately, it managed to burrow into his right hand instead.

The unlikely partnership of Shinichi and “Migi” (self-named after the Japanese word for “right”) forces the pair into life-or-death battles against hostile parasites. One fights to protect his species and those he loves, while the other only cares about survival. In this odd little series, one will find the growth of a surprisingly nuanced superhero. There aren’t any costumes or codenames, staples of the style though they might be, yet PARASTYE manages to tick off all the remaining boxes in the genre checklist. From character signifiers to major moral dilemmas, Shinichi’s journey demonstrates that he has more in common with Caped Crusaders than one might assume.

Warning, spoilers for PARASYTE are below!

Would It Be A “Sidepunch” In This Case?

Parasyte
Image: Crunchyroll

Like any new superhero, Shinichi had no idea what was happening to him as he discovered his superhuman abilities. Fortunately, the source of his powers also talks, so he isn’t exactly twisting in the wind. At the beginning of PARASYTE, Shinichi’s parasitic partner saw him as more of a burden. While Migi was initially able to handle most threats on his own, he eventually requires Shinichi’s aid due to the appearance of increasingly dangerous foes.

In this respect, Migi served as a mentor figure to his host. No man is an island, and even iconic superheroes like Nightwing had to be trained by someone. For instance, when the psychotic Mr. A attacks them, Migi protects Shinichi while coaching him on how to land a lethal blow.

However, as the show progressed, their relationship changed. After bonding further with Shinichi in order to save his life, the high-schooler began to gain abilities independent of his literal right-hand man. Although faster and stronger, these newfound powers came at a cost. Migi now had to rest for four hours each day, leaving Shinichi vulnerable to other parasites.

Parasyte
Image: Crunchyroll

As Shinichi became more independent, he proved capable of handling fights without relying on his partner. At one point in the show, Shinichi ordered Migi to watch his back as he punched a hole clean through a parasite’s chest. The high school student even beat one of the series’ major antagonists by himself.

With the reversal of this dynamic duo, Shinichi’s heroic journey truly began.

Origin Story

Shinichi Izumi was once a normal high school student. After being bitten by a strange creature and almost killed, he woke up with superhuman abilities. Upon the death of a loved one, Shinichi vows to protect his city from all kinds of bizarre threats, all while hiding his double life from those he cares about. Also, every girl he meets is inexplicably attracted to him despite the fact that he’s somewhat self-absorbed.

Parasyte
Why does that sound so vaguely familiar? | Image: Marvel Entertainment

Shinichi’s life practically reads like an instruction manual on how to build a superhero. Everything from the escapist fantasy to the pathos brought about by loss and isolation are elements commonly associated with American comic book icons. At the beginning of the series, Shinichi is so mild-mannered he would’ve given Clark Kent a run for his money. He’s so quiet and awkward that he’s barely able to interact with even those he’s already close to. However, by about midway through, Shinichi became a champion strong enough to fight monsters that even Batman would find horrifying.

Parasyte
Image: Crunchyroll

On The Other Hand

Unfortunately, PARASYTE also features some of the more negative tropes of the genre. Shinichi’s primary motive for fighting the parasites is the death of his mother. How original. It doesn’t help that the other female characters exist to either play damsels in distress or fawn over him. Although it can be difficult give complex characterizations to an entire cast in only one season, that’s no excuse for a significant number of characters to act more like clichés than actual people.

Harem Anime: What’s Up With That?

This problem isn’t exclusive to the supporting cast. Major antagonist Reiko Tamura, one of the more interesting characters outside of Shinichi and Migi, finds redemption through motherhood. At the start, she’s essentially a parasite scientist, who only became pregnant solely because she was curious what the child would be like. Yet, not long after it was born, Reiko began experiencing emotions we often associate with motherhood. All Reiko had to do to develop a conscience was shoot out a kid, which is more than a little trite. While it’d be inaccurate to say overall her arc isn’t beautiful in its own way, it was still fairly predictable compared to what could’ve been done with her.

PARASYTE
Mother of the year she is not. | Image: Crunchyroll

One could argue that portraying the genre warts and all gives PARASYTE a more authentic superhero feel. Even if we could be certain the show was deliberately mimicking the genre in question, that wouldn’t make these elements any less disappointing. As it stands, these are just the aspects that prevent PARASYTE from transcending the style it’s most similar to.

Faster Than A Speeding Bullet

There’s one trope of superhero stories that PARASYTE manages to subvert. It also happens to be something at the very core of the genre.

After his mother’s killer fatally wounds Shinichi, Migi’s efforts to revive him bonds them on a much deeper level. However, his friends and loved ones also notice that Shinichi became colder and less emotional. Shinichi’s so numb to the horrors around him that his father asks his son if he’s “made of steel.”

Parasyte
It’s not even subtext at this point. | Image: DC Entertainment.

It’s a common trope in the superhero genre that gaining powers comes at the cost of the character’s humanity. The critically acclaimed KINGDOM COME, for instance, was a cautionary tale of what happens to superheroes when they become consumed by their own “godhood.” This is definitely the angle PARASTYE seems to be tackling at first. However, near the end of the series, the show subverts this trope in a brilliant way.

With Absolute Power

When Reiko tries to meet with Shinichi in a park, the police ambush the maternal parasite. In order to convince her enemy to protect her child, Reiko uses her shape-shifting power to take on the appearance of Shinichi’s mother. With the child in his arms and Reiko dead at his feet, tears flow down Shinichi’s face for the first time since his injury as he finally comes to terms with his mom’s death.

Shinichi never lost his humanity, he was just in shock the entire time.

Parasyte
Image: Crunchyroll

If the “made of steel” line is any indication, it’s entirely possible PARASYTE was in fact inspired by at least the progenitor of the superhero genre. For Superman, his humanity and empathy are his most important traits, and this series affirms the importance of these elements in a beautiful way.

Comes Greater Morality

Another aspect of the superhero genre that PARASYTE does differently is how its protagonist struggles with ethical quandaries. For most vigilantes, they operate in a world of black & white where killing is always wrong. Those perceived as being morally complex simply boil down to “it’s okay to commit murder when I do it.”

ZEBRAMAN: Japan’s Surprise Superhero

PARASYTE’s unique setting allows it to explore issues of right and wrong that few other superhero series can. When Shinichi’s war with the parasites goes from one of survival to revenge, Migi points out that his host is willing to murder sentient beings in cold blood.

Throughout the show, a decent case is made for the parasites’ right to live. Many of the alien creatures, especially Reiko, point out how humans are essentially a blight upon Earth. We kill and consume animals without thought, all while irreparably harming our planet. Even the human mayor is swayed by the parasites’ rhetoric, and seeing people abuse animals or dump garbage illegally makes it easy to understand why. Knowing this, if we can still consider our own lives precious, how can we not also find value in something that treats us the same way?

Putting The “Human” In Superhuman

This may seem like just a twisted environmentalist guilt trip, but PARASYTE has something far more clever up its sleeve. Near the end of the show, Shinichi stands over the mangled form of the series final antagonist, Gotou. For a moment, even though the creature stated his only purpose is to kill people, Shinichi considers sparing him. He buys into the idea that humans have no right to impose their values upon other sentient creatures.

Parastye
Image: Crunchyroll

Shinichi’s ultimate decision is too fascinating to spoil it here. What we will say is that, upon later reflection, Shinichi finds renewed optimism for his people and their role on this planet, best summarized in this quote:

“…it’s hypocritical for us to love Earth without loving ourselves” (Shinichi, PARASYTE # 24).

Parasyte Would Actually Be A Pretty Good Codename

Parasyte
Image: Crunchyroll

PARASYTE can be a tough show to watch. It’s occasionally bogged down by frustrating problems common to both anime and the superhero genre, such as how it utilizes its female characters. It’s exceptionally gory and maybe more than a little bit pretentious at times. Although fairly entertaining from the start, it still takes a little while for the series to get going.

Yet, if they can stick it out, viewers will uncover a story that affirms the value of humanity and its intrinsic relationship to heroism. While he might not wear a costume, Shinichi would fit right in alongside the likes of Wonder Woman or Captain America. The questions he faces and the trials he overcomes only makes Shinichi’s heroic journey all the more fascinating to witness. Although far from perfect, any anime wanting to tell superhero stories could stand to learn a thing or two PARASYTE.

Featured image courtesy of Crunchyroll.

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