Superhero stories are dime a dozen in our media landscape today, but few if any tackle the genre with a perfect balance of penetrating satire and loving tribute the way One-Punch Man does. In a genre where physical feats or high ideals (or the lack of the latter) so often take center stage, here we have a show that subverts its conventions with a novel idea: a strong man in search for meaning.
The world of One-Punch Man, as conceived by webcomic creator ONE and lavishly recreated by mangaka Yusuke Murata (Eyeshield 21), is a Japan where people are trying to live their lives even though a particularly insane episode of Power Rangers seems to be going on every week. Criminals, wannabe terrorists, and monsters ranging from absurd to truly fearsome are a constant threat, and the first line of defense keeping everyone safe is the hundreds of men and women financed by the independent Hero Association. Some are just average joes in a flashy costume, while others have genuine superpowers. But none compare to the hero Saitama: a formerly aimless youth who became extremely motivated to train to become a superhero after saving a trouble-making youth from a monster. His efforts somehow work all too well, rendering him bald and bestowing such power that one blow can fell any opponent and no attack seems able to hurt him. But what seems to be a blessing inspires not pride or joy, but boredom. When a self-described “hero for fun” is more fantastic than the fantastical and he knows it, can the world seem anything other than ordinary?
One-Punch Man engages in playful mockery of storytelling tropes that have been driving superhero media and action anime for generations. Saitama has Superman’s power without his purpose, the competitive spirit of Dragon Ball‘s Son Goku without any challenge to aspire to any longer. Every story arc follows a familiar pattern where new threats appear and some number of eclectic heroes fight them with limited success until Saitama meanders his way into the (anti-)climax. Invariably the key players involved have some motivation to explain or at least a detailed explanation prepared about why they will prevail, none of which ever matters to Saitama, who is charmingly happy-go-lucky in his best moments, and passively nonchalant in his lowest. The attitude of the show is aptly summed up when one exceptionally long-winded backstory speech is allowed to stretch on and on, only for Saitama’s temper to finally explode in the demand for “20 words or less!”
It might seem detrimental that the very premise of the show renders every storyline a foregone conclusion, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not so different from the conventional superhero media we’re all used to. There are exceptions, of course, but in general we take for granted that evil will be defeated or at least kept at bay and that heroes will keep on doing what they do. What really matters and separates the good stories from the forgettable ones is what happens along the way, and there’s more than enough virtue in One Punch Man to merit many repeat viewings. As action animation it’s a tour de force of fabulous panache and savvy direction, where battles of spectacle and clashing powers are the rule and the threat of a falling meteor gets the scale and detail and sense of doom that it deserves. The show also gets considerable mileage from Saitama’s aspiring pupil and sidekick Genos, a strait-laced cyborg who hangs on Saitama’s every word and flexes his considerable physical and tech-based energy abilities against fearsome threats. Genos would be the coolest hero around in just about any other story, although in One-Punch Man he’s often in the role of the one used to establish just how nasty a major threat really is. Yet every setback only makes Genos more determined to try harder, and his earnestness is such that he comes off as genuinely admirable and not just a punchline.
Genos’ nature, in fact, touches on the heart of what makes One-Punch Man appealing beyond the bombast and absurdity on the surface. Saitama starts the show as a simple loner hero perturbed by his boredom and the fact his superheroics seem to go unnoticed until Genos turns up and all but imposes himself upon Saitama’s life after witnessing his strength. At that point, Saitama confides that “no one knows who I am” is a serious problem for him. Only after joining the Hero Association is a costumed crimefighter considered not eccentric and acknowledged by the media, but upon doing so Saitama and Genos soon find that it’s not so much a Justice League as an all-too-human organization with its own hierarchy and unspoken rules, where unaccountable authorities at the top judge the deeds of heroes and assign them to class rankings based on their perceived achievements and talent. The so-called “Class S” and “Class A” heroes are practically celebrities and generally gifted, while the hundreds occupying “Class B” or “Class C” near the bottom are full of less powerful or normal people jockeying for position and compelled to be diligent just to stay certified. In short, the hero business in One-Punch Man is literally just that: success is often about meeting the expectations of society and superiors that don’t necessarily understand you or the way things work, which is precisely the kind of situation Saitama sought to avoid by pursuing his childhood dream rather than the life of a respectable but unremarkable Japanese “salaryman.” This reality is made even rougher by the fact that so many of the strongest heroes, particularly in “Class S,” turn out to be among the most self-centered or eccentric, while the less powerful seem the most likely to take risks for each other and their fellow man. Yet for all that, and for all that we know about Saitama’s self-proclaimed quest for satisfaction, when push comes to shove Saitama’s pride and ego constantly come second to the job well (and easily) done and the unspoken but palpable respect he shows for the underdogs doing their best to make a difference. Where they are is where Saitama came from, and all the boredom in the world has not and cannot make him forget it.
VIZ Media’s release of One-Punch Man offers the complete 12-episode series in pristine and vibrant native HD video quality, in addition to six OVA episodes as bonus material that were dubbed for the release and not broadcast on television during the show’s prior runs on Adult Swim’s Toonami block. Each installment amounts to half the length of a standard TV episode, and can be considered “side stories” tangential to the main storyline. These are largely played for humor, most notably in the second OVA, where Genos’ penchant for long-winded explanations tests the patience of an antagonistic mob boss. I was particularly entertained by “The Excessively Pushy Bang”, wherein the elderly Class S martial artist Silverfang takes notice of Saitama and Genos and awkwardly struggles to find a way to get the younger heroes interested in joining his failing dojo. But the highlight of the bunch that I’d recommend to any fan is definitely “The Sisters With Too Much Going On,” a worthy vignette that includes Genos and a plot to bomb a train but is really about the inferiority complex harbored by the Class B psychic “Hellish Blizzard” and her far stronger sister in Class S. Despite her hangups and being shown up yet again by her sibling Blizzard nonetheless finds herself making a difference in at least one person’s life, granting her a much-needed lesson that being a hero is about example and beyond just personal achievement.
One-Punch Man doesn’t rewrite the book on superheroes, but it certainly works as a first-rate case of action animation and it merits credit for the irreverent attitude that it shows toward the genre’s conceits even as it celebrates all the crazy things that make it entertaining. It’s certainly possible, if not easy, to view and accept it solely and strictly as entertainment where crazy things happen. However, the discerning viewer can also find a protagonist to both laugh at and empathize with, and a narrative that takes on the conventional idealization of strength and success and at least asks what really matters beyond them.
(All images copyright: ©ONE, Yusuke Murata/SHUEISHA, Hero Association HQ)