Mashle and the Difference Between Fighting and Self-Defense

In the past few years, I’ve developed a terrible interest in reading and viewing arguments about martial arts, from kung fu to MMA and beyond. There’s a combination of established knowledge, lost knowledge, myths and legends, fraudsters, hero worship, dick-waving, differing philosophies, and genuine curiosity that makes it a weirdly compelling shit soup. During these trawls, I occasionally see an argument that goes something like “If their kung fu is so great, why don’t they prove it in the ring, and also make a ton of money?” 

But what I was surprised to find is a response of sorts to that question in the pages of the manga Mashle—a series that asks, “What if Harry Potter was a non-magical himbo who overcame all obstacles through comically absurd physical prowess like Saitama from One Punch Man?” Not only does Mashle do a surprisingly good job of addressing the inequality inherent in its world, but it also cuts through expectations in other ways too, including how and why people learn to fight.

It’s important to note that con artists are a dime a dozen in the world of martial arts. It’s the realm of claims of supposed no-touch knockouts, poison fists, and chi energy. Even when you put such ridiculous “feats” aside, there are plenty of generic schools that are justifiably derided as “McDojos” or “belt factories,” essentially teaching nothing of substance. Because of this, many have reasonably become skeptical towards anyone who purports to fight with superhuman abilities. Asking for real proof makes sense, but ut there’s this peculiar jump in logic I see sometimes, where “prove it in the ring“ becomes “doesn’t everyone want to prove themselves?”

That’s where Mashle and its hero, Mash Burnedead, come in. During one of Mash’s most fearsome battles to date, his opponent says, “I’ve found someone who I can unleash my full powers against. I feel…invigorated. You must feel it too—the desire to fight even greater opponents.”

To which Mash responds, “Not really. I don’t want to fight stronger people. I don’t find it exciting at all. I still…just want to go home.”

This whole scene is a brief gag in a larger action scene, but Mash’s answer is a succinct counterpoint to the notion that everyone who truly learns how to fight has this killer instinct they need to unleash upon the world, whether for profit, fame, or to prove something. It actually takes a particular kind of person to want to willingly get in harm‘s way in order to show the world what they’re capable of.

One of the martial arts videos I‘ve watched (see above) is from an instructor on Youtube named Adam Chan, about the Hakka fist. As Adam explains, the Hakka are an ethnic group in China who were historically very poor and had to migrate a lot, and the various martial arts they developed came from civilians needing to survive against prejudice and xenophobia rather than as part of an army or in order to engage in duels. This is where Mash is: he didn‘t learn how to fight because of ego, bravado, a thirst for more, or because of a chip on his shoulder. He did it to protect himself and those dear to him. 

Within online discussions of martial arts and fighting, conversations end up getting geared towards “Whose kung fu is strongest?” in the literal sense. But Mash Burnedead represents the reminder that sometimes it’s the wrong question to ask. The desire to hurt others and risk getting yourself hurt in the process is not the only way to view things, even if there is a certain glamor to the idea of honing oneself into a human weapon. 

Mashle Is the Answer to Harry Potter (No, Really)

Harry Potter is synonymous with magical school fantasy, defining the genre for an entire generation. However, one criticism I increasingly see is that it’s more about maintaining/restoring the status quo rather than trying to effect a real and lasting positive societal change that goes beyond defeating evil. While it’s a bit unfair to pigeonhole the books in this way, it’s also hard to deny that Harry Potter eschews structural issues about the world it presents, and that this is not all that uncommon in similar fiction.

That’s why the last place I expected to see a more boldly progressive take on the inequities of a wizarding society would come in the form of a comedic shounen manga called Mashle: Magic & Muscles.

I want to be clear that Mashle is not some leftist manifesto that proudly announces its overthrowing of capitalist oppressors. Jack London’s The Iron Heel this most certainly is not. But when you compare how Mashle and Harry Potter tackle the same premise, the differences stand out.

Both protagonists, Harry Potter and Mash Burnedead, enroll in a magic school where they must deal with being outsiders while also being under the benevolent watch of the school’s wise, old leader. However, whereas Harry Potter at the start is simply inexperienced with wizardry but has potential for greatness, Mash is completely incapable of magic. In order to get through his classes and achieve his goal of becoming Divine Visionary (a motivation from the beginning unlike Harry’s initial uncertainty), Mash has to overcome his disadvantage through sheer physical power. 

The contest between Mash’s muscles and the occult abilities he contends with is generally played for laughs, but there’s another layer to that contrast. Sure, it’s funny to see his “magic” be activating different muscle groups and his “spells” amount to suplexes and punches to the face. Yet, because he is doing this purely through his human physiology, his victories over other students both read differently from Harry’s accomplishments and are received differently by the very mages he bests. By beating them without magic, Mash makes his opponents realize on some level that they are themselves victims—because they get drawn into the incessant and blinding obsession with hierarchy and power. The problem is not exclusive to any specific group of rogue ne’er-do-wells, it’s systemic.

Mash himself is not a sharp mind capable of bold leadership. He’s from that Goku/Luffy/Saitama lineage where thinking is not their strong suit. He merely wants to live a comfortable life with his grandfather, but he’s forced to attempt the impossible and become the top of a magical school because his world despises the weak. Mash defies his society in multiple ways: upending what strength means, as well as rejecting the notion that those with less deserve less.

Around Chapter 65, the “Voldemort” of the series is revealed, as are Mash’s true origins. While not quite the same as the concept of horcruxes relative to Harry and Voldemort, Mash and the main villain share a similar connection. Mash turns out not to be the everyman he assumed himself to be, but that doesn’t change the fact that he uses his particular skills to upend people’s preconceived notions. The difference between Harry discovering the magic within and Mash working to overcome the magic he lacks remains stark.

That all said, it’s hard to think of Mashle as being in the same league as Harry Potter when it comes to the ability to capture people’s imaginations. It simply doesn’t have that sense of wonder that makes Harry Potter so enduring; instead, it goes for lots of comedy, absurdity, and the occasional cool fight. Spiritually, it’s cut from the same cloth as Kinnikuman and early Dragon Ball, during the kid Goku era. I have trouble seeing children running around pretending to be Mash because Mashle doesn’t really provide for that.

Mashle and Harry Potter both operate under the idea that the power of love is in a category of its own. But where Harry Potter’s is either abstract in its sentimentality or all too literal, Mashle’s manifests in a grandfather taught the value of human life, and a grandson who strives to live up to that ideal through both word and deed.