I’ll be the first person to admit that I wasn’t sure just what to expect from One Punch Man based on the first episode. While Madhouse delivered a very slick looking premier, there wasn’t a lot to grab on to really in terms of a series structure, plot, or even character development.
It didn’t take long to get that OPM was parody of both the shonen genre, and Western comic book mythologies, though. Not the kind of parody we usually see, either. Rather than the absurdist take common in the Scary Movie franchise, OPM was more interested in shining a light on how silly the things it was lampooning really were by presenting things as straight faced as possible, while still making fun of them.
This is no easy task, and at any point, the entire thing could collapse into an unfunny mockery, or worse, begin to take itself too seriously. Series creator ONE walked that fine line with all the skill of an expert trapeze artist, however, and as a result, the series is both funny, and thought provoking at the same time. Comedy writers the world over are green with envy, I’m sure.
Yet, the real heart of the series doesn’t lie just in the common storytelling devices that both the shonen genre and Western comics trade in like they are Pokemon cards. Instead, what makes OPM such a unique and special creation is the main character, Saitama, and his many facets. This is again a rather amazing feat, as a character like Saitama is far too easy to get wrong, and almost impossible to get right.
The first time we meet Saitama, he’s a hero for fun, seeking someone who can give him a fight worthy of his absurd strength and ability. He is buried deep under what at first seems to be total ennui, bored with everything, and frustrated that every monster he faces, no matter how big and powerful, falls to him with but a single punch. Even worse, no one seems to notice that he’s constantly saving the day, which just serves to make him wonder if there’s really any point to anything he’s even doing.
As the series progressed, more and more layers of Saitama were revealed, and we got a better, clearer picture of who he was, and why he did the things he did. Saitama’s drive to become a hero was based in the most pure ideology, the desire to protect others, and as such, most of his depression stemmed from the fact that nothing he did seemed to have any real effect. It was if he had become this incredible hero, and not only did no one care, nothing he did really stopped more and more villains and monsters from appearing.
While he did want a fight that was truly worthy of his might, it went beyond just that, and was about Saitama proving to himself that his life mattered. His goals weren’t to be the biggest, most amazing, most awe inspiring hero the world had ever seen, but to prove he lived, and in living, left the world a better place than he had entered it.
At every turn, we see this ideology in action, too. He takes the blame for the meteor strike on City Z, because while there may have been widespread property damage, everyone survived unharmed, and that was his real goal.
It was the same with the Deep Sea King, where he took on people’s scorn to preserve the integrity of the other heroes who had fought against the monster. He made their lives better, and the lives of those who treated him poorly. That was enough.
Most of all, though, it is evident at the end of the battle with Boros, where rather than gloat over having defeated him, Saitama tries to give him what he needs, the belief that it was a tough battle. He didn’t have to do it, but he did, because Saitama wants to be a hero in the ways that matter the most.
He wants to be the person that can give others what they truly need. Be it someone to blame, someone to hate, or someone to feel they measure up against. Whatever it is others need, Saitama tries to give it to them, because that is the kind of hero he truly wants to be.
Then there is Genos, how Saitama made his life better, and really, helped him become a better person. Not in offering him sage advice, which Saitama sucked at, but in stating things that to Saitama seemed obvious, yet never occurred to anyone else, Genos included. Really, though, that’s still touching on the same thing. Saitama is being the hero Genos needs when he does that.
Maybe that’s the thing, though. Saitama manages to be what others need, even when they don’t know or see it. Even when he himself doesn’t see it. All his attempts to actually give Genos advice were pulled out of his ass. It’s in the moments when he just says what he thinks that he makes the real difference. Just as it is when he simply does what he thinks is right.
We saw it many times, really. Other heroes taking the time to make sure lots of people saw them being heroic. Concerned with their standing and popularity, they would turn battles with monsters into a stage production, all for the sake of their ego. Not Saitama, though. He just got down to the business of beating whatever it was that faced him, and worrying about everything else later.
About the only real failing Saitama has is his social awkwardness, which is often seen more as a lack of concern with what people think than it is anything. Yet even in this, he manages to make it a strength, as it keeps him from getting caught up in the pageantry of being a hero. While others worry about how they are viewed, Saitama doesn’t care. There’s a lot to be said there about acknowledging your weaknesses and turning them into strengths, but I’m sure I don’t have to draw that picture for you.
In the end, Once Punch Man proves itself to be a hard show to talk about, as there is so much more to it than is obvious at first glance. Just as deftly as it explores the silliness of the shonen and Western comic genres, so to do is explore what being a hero really means, and not just with Saitama, but with characters such as Mumen Rider, and even the Class S heroes who fought against the alien invasion.
Which is one of the things I find I truly love about OPM. There is no one definition of what being a hero means. Different people approach it differently. For Mumen Rider, it is everything from helping fetch a balloon out of a tree for a little kid, to laying down his life to buy a few extra moments for more powerful heroes to save the day. For Puri-puri Prisoner, it’s about protecting people. For Atomic Samurai, it’s about being seen as strong. For Tornado, it’s about saving the day without needing anyone’s help. Sometimes, being a hero is about living up to your own image of yourself, and who you want to be.
Sometimes, that’s what others need to see you doing, too.
In the end, One Punch Man will no doubt go down as a shining star of what anime is capable of as a medium. It has presented us with both a parody, and an examination of, our own definitions of heroes, all while showing us that we can all be heroes ourselves.
Now, I had intended to add another post exploring both the webcomic and the manga next week. The main reason was because I expected it to be different. When I reviewed Gakkou Gurashi’s source material, the differences were many. With OPM, however, the anime is one of the more faithful adaptations around. Anime original content is kept to a minimum, and fits in so seamlessly, that there was a couple of times I was surprised to find it wasn’t part of the original story.
Such is the case with my favorite Tornado scene, when she executes Godzilla with a meteor she pulled from deep space with telekinesis. It’s just such a perfect OPM moment, I was honestly startled, despite being told it was anime original, to find that there was nothing even remotely like it in the original works.
Ah, well. I still adore Tornado for the bitchy, uberpowerful midget she is. She kind of reminds me of my little sister in a way. Small, but absurdly dangerous.
While the source material for the OPM anime may not be much different, both the original webcomic and the current manga are well worth a read. Which just leaves me with one final thought on the source material.
I enjoyed it as much as I did the anime.
It’s always nice when that happens.
Thanks for joining me for the One Punch Man recaps each week. It’s been a blast, and I look forward to seeing you all again when the Winter Season starts.