The hit anime One Punch Man just finished its U.S. premier of Season 2 a few weeks ago, which streamed one episode at a time on Hulu (and probably other places too, but that’s how I watched it). I’m not a huge anime watcher, though I do appreciate the genre. However, One Punch Man has quickly become one of my favorite animated shows in general, and the titular character is definitely my second favorite bald, red-and-yellow clad protagonist. (If you can’t guess what the first one is, this post should give you an idea.)
Why is it my favorite? Because there is some damn good storytelling going on, that’s why.
I’m going to focus mainly on the first season, mostly because the second one just came out and I don’t want to give too many spoilers. Also, I think the first season is better than the second, though both are definitely worth watching and it is not much of a downgrade between the two, I assure you.
So let’s give this the old one-two punch. Oh, wait…
a brief summary
One Punch Man follows the exploits of Saitama, a 25-year-old, unemployed(?) man who claims to be “a guy who’s just a hero for fun.” His backstory: after realizing life in an office wasn’t for him, he swore to become the strongest hero and trained relentlessly for three years… until he went bald, in fact. The catch? He became too powerful. Now all it takes is one punch to kill any opponent, and it’s no longer gratifying. He’s bored, unmotivated, and in desperate need of a challenge.
Enter Genos, a 19-year-old cyborg boy who has also vowed to become strong (after his family was brutally murdered). He sees Saitama in action and begs to be his disciple. Saitama begrudgingly takes him on as a protege and together they tackle the biggest monster of them all: bureaucracy. A.k.a. the Hero Association, a pseudo-governmental organization that evaluates and deploys “registered” heroes.
You get introduced to a bunch of characters this way, most of whom are hilarious. There’s also a big baddie that gets built up through the season, culminating in an EPIC SHOWDOWN.
Sounds a lot like things you’ve seen before but not, right?
Same here. But oh, is it not.
deconstructing the superhero
Deconstruction is a fancy-shmancy literary theory you learn about in college English classes, and basically it deals with the idea that words always defer to other words, therefore, meaning is uncertain and concepts–especially binary concepts, like good vs. evil–can be broken down, examined, and found to ultimately affirm their opposites.
Most, if not all, literature can be deconstructed, so why not pop culture, too? Strap yourself in, because it’s big brain time.
Saitama, I would dare argue, is a deconstructed superhero, though not in the way you might think–he’s not actually the villain or anything, though he’s definitely complex, and he’s definitely not 100% innocent. He doesn’t really care much about anyone or anything, after all. That’s pretty problematic in itself.
But more than anything, he’s his own worst enemy. He is simultaneously strong as hell and weak as all get out. This is because he can’t seem to care about anything, yet he cares immensely about having a purpose. The great irony of his life (aside from the obvious) is that he only evaluates himself according to his ability to be challenged physically. Yet there are scenes where he fails at other things: a written test, killing a fly, and (in season 2) playing a simple, multiplayer video game (where he consistently picks the strongest-looking character and gets his ass kicked every time by his smaller opponent. Coincidence? I think not).
Yet, none of these things motivate him to grow as a person. In that way, he is stuck, a character who is both wickedly strong and surprisingly weak. You, the audience member, expect a story about him encountering an opponent who is stronger than he is, since that’s a major driver of the plot. But that never happens, because that’s not what the story is about.
What the show is actually about, I would argue, are the ways that strength can actually be a weakness, and how the things you think make you weak actually make you strong. You see this in Genos as well as Saitama, and if I went back and rewatched it, it’s probably in other characters’ arcs, too.
So there, deconstruction. I think.
beautiful, ridiculous parody
There’s a really awesome YouTube video by Wisecrack about the difference between parody and satire. You should totally watch it as a preface, because in it, they compare One Punch Man (parody) with Watchmen (satire). Two very different reimaginings of the superhero genre, but why?
As Wisecrack argues, it’s because the former loves its genre even as it’s making fun of it, whereas the latter is critical of its genre and wants to point out its flaws.
One Punch Man is, in many ways, over-the-top ridiculous. The villains, the side characters, even the way the action scenes are animated and paced are all overly exaggerated. But it’s all entirely on purpose and the writing is very self-aware. You’re not supposed to take it seriously–it’s poking fun at itself at every turn.
At the same time, and with (in my humble opinion) a level of mastery, it does take itself seriously. It especially takes the characters seriously. The conflict is real. The stakes are real. It’s not just a harmless romp–in this world, crazy, over-the-top monsters are a real threat, and people die. Saitama acts as the “straight man” who points out the wackiness he encounters, but in the same moment, he delivers his one punch and saves the day.
Which is, in itself, over-the-top ridiculous.
the fantastic vs. the mundane
I have to credit this phrase to a podcast called The Cine-Files, which reviews great films and talks about what makes them so great. In their episode about Pixar’s The Incredibles, they talk about how it so impressively intertwines the fantastic superhero world with the mundanity with everyday, domestic life, showing how the two conflict/coincide.
So, too, I would argue, does the world of One Punch Man.
Intertwined with the theatrical, out-of-this-world monster battles is the utterly mundane happenings of everyday life: grocery shopping, eating noodles, getting frustrated, getting tired, wanting to go home, wanting someone to stop talking, playing video games, reading manga, failing a test, having tea… the list goes on. There’s quite a few scenes dedicated to the seemingly mundane. And it’s awesome.
Because not only does it fit with Saitama’s tone and energy, it’s where much of the character development happens. Yeah, the action sequences are badass, but it’s in the everyday minutia of life that you get to know these characters and connect with them. It’s in the mundane that you learn Saitama’s real problem and that the characters interact on realistic levels.
This show is surprisingly good at balancing character with action, especially in the first season. Like I said at the beginning, the second season focuses more on side characters, but it develops them as they come and go, too. Some of these zany heroes you thought were there just for laughs or to parody the genre actually become human beings with their own sets of problems and limitations. Even the villain in Season 2 gets to be three-dimensional, to the point where by the end, you kind of feel sorry for him and want to see him change his ways. I have no idea what direction they’re going to go in Season 3, but I’m excited to find out.
So, One Punch Man. An absolute gem of an anime and, I’m sure, of a manga, too–though I think I’ll just wait for the next season. With nuanced character development, badass, over-the-top action sequences, and enough humor to keep it honest, there’s so much to learn from the writing and to enjoy about the show’s fresh, expectation-defying take on the superhero genre.
have you seen this show? what do you think? what other animes would you recommend for someone who sometimes watches anime? i await your comments!
Featured Image courtesy of gamenguides.com