What does it take to be a hero? It’s an age old question that’s been asked just about as many times as it’s been answered, by many different people and from many different perspectives. To some, being a hero means putting the needs of others before the needs of ones self, which can range all the way from the literal sacrifice of one’s life to the offering of ones’ time to help the less fortunate. To some, being a hero means standing up for what’s right and taking whatever measures are necessary to correct injustice. To a certain man of a rather ironclad constitution, being a hero is a series of four or five moments where you’re offered the opportunity to do something right, especially when doing so is difficult. To those who call themselves heroes, it’s considered a passion… A calling to altruism, an irrefutable compulsion to put the talents or abilities God gave you to good use for the betterment of humanity.
To Saitama, a lesser known hero living on his own in a tiny studio apartment, being a hero is a job… One that lost it’s luster over time, and one that’s become boring and repetitive as he’s outgrown whatever challenge it might have originally presented him. He’s not getting paid for his heroism… I’m honestly not sure where he’s getting the money to live off of… He does it as a hobby. See, when he was a few years younger, he was inspired to take relentless efforts to become the strongest hero of all time, and it paid off, but to his detriment. Gone are the days when he could find excitement and purpose in fighting the forces of evil, and in their place are the days when no villain, big or small, can survive the force of a single punch from this blase bald brawler. When his exploits gain him the attention of an altruistic cyborg named Genos, who draws him into the official hero registration, will things finally start looking up for Saitama, or will he never find an enemy challenging enough to make him feel alive again?
Studio Madhouse is known primarily for sticking to characters with more or less realistic proportions, with diversifying exaggerations that swing more toward caricatures then what you’d normally consider an anime aesthetic. That’s not to say that they’ve NEVER put out shows full of color-coded girlies and moe tropes… They are, like any other production company, a slave to the mangaka on any given project… But the trend is still very noticeable, as most of their work is more lifelike than cartoony. One Punch Man, on the other hand, is a jaw-dropping marriage of both aesthetics. It’s no coincidence that Saitama looks more like a real, average person before his transformation and a balloon with overly simplified facial expressions afterwords… the separation between realism and surrealism is used very specifically to mark show’s use of both tones, as the story tends to skew between one part slice of life comedy and one part supernatural waking dream. The juxtaposition can be jarring, because it’s absolutely intended to be.
You may notice, in conjunction with this visual choice, that characters become more and more exaggerated and strange depending on just how deep they are in that separation. A simple citizen may look completely unremarkable… In fact, with the sole important exception of a young Peter Griffin looking boy who helped Saitama become a hero in the first place, they all look unremarkable. As you rise in the ranks of the superhero registry, you may notice a few characters who look like Yugioh cosplayers(Shout-out to anyone who spots the Meiko Tsunami clone), as well as ordinary people in day clothes. Rising further in the ranks, you’ll notice VERY anime-like designs, particularly with regard to the most powerful hero we meet being a little green-haired loli. But what’s especially interesting is the design of each and every villain you meet through the series. They don’t last long, for obvious reasons, but they pretty much all leave an impression on the viewer through their memorable designs and backstories. There is not one character in the show that feels uninspired in the least.
And speaking of inspiration, what can I say about the animation itself without losing my sense of eloquence? Screw the eloquence. The animation in this show is like waking up on a dreary morning to find a bright shiny gift-basket on your table, and inside of it is nothing short of pure effort. I’ve praised shows in the past for having smooth, flowing animation quality with occasional corners cut for the sake of conserving the budget, but with One Punch Man, those corners are apparently non-existent. The animation is fast and balls-to-the-wall during action scenes, as it should be, but it never stops, even when it appears to be slowing down to portray more menial actions. There are moments involving frozen key frames, but they don’t feel like budget cuts… They’re used primarily for comic effect, with the original web comic aesthetic being used as a sight gag, or they’re otherwise used for the sake of mood, with extensive and beautifully drawn shots of destruction, environmental grit and the occasional corpse. Superhero battles are fast and intense, the gore and destruction at the end of said battles is graphic and exquisitely detailed, and speaking of detailed, every inch of background must have taken the blood, sweat and tears of the show’s art crew. Nothing less than maximum effort all around, to the point where I can’t even tell if it had a low or high budget.
Arguably the best thing about this anime… And that is in no way an attempt to take down the rest of the anime, it’s just a matter of comparison… is the opening, which has to be the most exciting and adrenaline pumping opening that I’ve seen since Attack on Titan. The main lyrical content almost seems like it’s song by a full on greek choir, singing about the main character and his exploits, albeit with the passion and force that he likely had when he was just starting out and aiming to be the strongest. This takes place over a rock and roll beat that features outstanding electric guitar work and a percussion you can easily bang your head to without even realizing it. The OST itself is a perfect marriage of rock and roll with the more traditional orchestrations that you’d hear with each epic turn of an anime action series, and this is especially evident in the show’s frequently used main theme. Even so, there’s still room for diversity, as it’s perfectly able to slip into an electronic theme when the Cyborg Genos is the focus. Surprisingly, the ending theme follows absolutely none of this, turning in a more traditional female pop start tune that begins and ends with shots of Saitama’s apartment, as if to remind us that in the end, this is all just a job for him, and he does have to turn in afterwards.
The English dub is still in it’s infancy at the time of this writing, and so far, it’s kind of hit or miss. In all fairness, I haven’t seen very much of it… Nobody really has… but from what I’ve seen so far, there are some positives and negatives to point out. To start with the positives, Saitama’s dub voice is pretty damn good. It’s obviously not going to touch the Japanese performance, but I would go out on a limb and say that it’s about as good as an American interpretation could reasonably be. Max Mittelman is a relative newcomer, and he’s gotta be doing something right, because out of the few roles he’s played, Doraemon is the only show that doesn’t have him listed as a major character. He was beyond outstanding in Your Lie in April, the only performance of his that I’ve seen before now, and with Saitama, he brings forth a lack of enthusiasm so deep and cutting that pretty much every time he emotes, you can tell he’s faking interest in whatever’s going on.
Another positive would be the enemies we’ve seen so far, with several Bang Zoom outsiders showing up for cameos and pouring the darkest parts of their souls into playing some of the most deliciously evil villains they’ve ever had the chance to touch on. I’m not sure how Viz Media got Chris Cason and Chris Sabat to sign up for this show, but I’m glad they did, because their rough, chain-smoker voices sound like they were tailor made to play maniacal supervillains like a human embodiment of pollution and a giant enemy crab. A slightly more familiar voice can be heard in Cristina Vee, who plays the villain Mosquito Girl in episode two, an insectoid matriarch who’s thirst for blood gives her voice an almost subversively seductive edge, and Vee fits so well into the role that I almost thought she was Michelle Ruff the first time I heard her. As for the negatives, we have Zach Aguilar as Genos, and he’s pretty disappointing. Yeah, the Japanese voice had a flat and robotic tone to it, but it still held more personality than Zach’s performance does, and personality makes all the difference with characters like these. He sounds almost like me, and I have Asperger’s syndrome, so that should tell you a lot. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the dub over the sub, but then again it’s really too early to judge the over-all product, so let’s move on for now.
It should be no secret to anybody at this point that One Punch Man began as a web comic by an artist named ONE, and that it was drawn quite a bit more crudely than your average online comic. now, obviously there’s no rule stating that crudely drawn web comics can’t be awesome… Little Monster Girl is a prime example of this… But the original One Punch Man was so simple in both concept and design that you’d be forgiven for wondering why it took off as well as it did. In fact, a close look at Saitama says a lot about the shortcuts that went into it… He was probably bald so the artist wouldn’t have to draw hair as often, his suit was plain and generic so he wouldn’t have to do too much design work, etc. Even the monsters and other heroes looked more like Hellsing sight gags than proper manga characters. The concept was the kind of thing a grade school kid could come up with… I mean, it’s a superhero who destroys everything with One Punch. Before a person grows enough to develop basic story-telling insights, that’s about as complex as a narrative can get away with being. So why did it explode the way it did? Why did it get picked up for a proper manga and crowned the unanimous best anime of 2016 in less than 6 years?
Well, to start, let’s examine the seemingly simplistic concept. At first glance, it’s extremely difficult for a viewer with any grasp of literary standards to get behind a hero who faces no real challenge or apparent threat. The term Mary Sue gets thrown around if a character is too OP, with a prime example being Kirito from Sword Art Online. He is the quintessential Mary Sue; He’s stronger than anyone else he meets on a fair basis, everyone has a high opinion of him, and all the ladies throw their virtual panties at him. This has drawn a serious backlash against his show, which begs the question; Is it possible to write an invincible character that people can relate to and get behind? Does a hero have to have challenges to be compelling? Can you truly stay interested if you always know what the result of every conflict is going to be? Speaking as someone who doesn’t watch alien invasion movies anymore because the humans always win, I can say with some certainty that this is an incredibly difficult thing to pull off, so let’s look at two financially successful cases that almost pulled it off.
Depending on the kind of things you’re into, there are two characters you’ve probably compared Saitama to… Superman, the OG superhero who eats Goku sandwiches for lunch and Batman burgers for Dinner, and John Cena, the professional wrestling golden boy who’s foiled more pushes than the guard rail at the edge of a subway platform. They’ve both proven their staying power, even though they’ve each been the target of criticism about how bland and uninteresting they are. Personally, I’m not a fan of either, but I do understand their appeal. Superman, as it’’s been very expertly explained by the Death Battle people, is interesting because even though there’s no suspense in regard to whether or not he’s winning a fight, there’s still intrigue as to whether or not he’s doing the right thing, which is something we’ve all faced at one time or another. John Cena, another boy scout in his own right, is reviled for burying the careers of countless promising wrestlers just by beating them and bringing their relevance into question, but I just can’t hate a loyal company-minded performer who has a passion for his sport and, according to rumors, will stand in the rain for hours to sign autographs. I don’t personally like either character… I don’t love anything Superman’s name has been on, and I’ve never gotten excited during a Cena match unless I was rooting for his opponent… But I get the appeal.
However, Saitama is more of an enigma because isn’t really bothered by whether what he’s doing is right or wrong, nor is he some passionate role model. He doesn’t possess the qualities that make those two characters almost interesting, so what does he have that makes him so compelling? The short answer is his outlook. Saitama cannot lose… He can’t kill anything with less than a punch, and while most heroes would be accepting of this accomplishment, Saitama is bored by it. He is constantly disappointed by every single powerful looking enemy he comes across, and how no matter what they boast, no matter how many people they’ve killed, no matter how many heroes they defeated before he showed up, he can instantly one-shot them. Considering how hard he worked to become a hero, and how doing so saved his life from the doldrums and uncertainty of being an unemployed salaryman, he should be happy about this, but he’s not. What should have been a dream job for him has become the kind of job that most dream jobs eventually turn into… A boring, mindless slog through the same old routine with the same old results to show for it. This is appealing to most grown-ups who’ve had to leave their dreams behind and settle for something more practical, but it’s also insidiously relatable to anyone who’s ever found themselves bored by a John Cena program or a Superman video game; You hate seeing interesting villains dispatched without any real fanfare, and so does Saitama, the person doing it. For the first time with this kind of story, you want what he wants; A challenge.
But even the best of character studies need the support of a good story, and true to form, One Punch Man has no shortage of enjoyable plot lines and story progression. In only the second episode, Saitama meets Genos, a heroic cyborg whom he just barely saves from literal self-destruction. In most hero stories, Genos would be our main character… He’s idealistic, self-sacrificing, dutiful, and dealing with a mysterious tragedy in his past, and he proclaims himself Saitama’s disciple so that he can become stronger under his new mentor’s tutelage. Having him so close to the central plot adds a richness of depth that, were Saitama alone, would have been sparse. We still go through the formula of Saitama wasting villains left and right, but now we get to see him meeting and battling them under constantly fresh and innovative circumstances. He also drags Saitama into the Hero Registration, which is kind of like a Superhero Tryouts sort of thing, that grades passing hero hopefuls with a grade and rank based on their physical attributes and test scores… And while this is a bit of a spoiler, Saitama bombs the test portion, leading him to be ranked class C, despite his own disciple ranking in the highest echelon of S class.
Now there’s a lot that happens from there that I can’t really get into, you sort of have to experience it all for yourself, so you’ll have to trust me when I say that Saitama’s story never gets boring, nor does it ever seem to drag on. Everything builds, everything intensifies, and for someone who’s life is tragically devoid of challenging enemies, Saitama deals with challenge after challenge in terms of his responsibilities, his public reception, and the idea of what his place in the rankings means for the reputation of the Hero’s Association, as well as a climax that beautifully showcases the duality of his biggest conflict by showing us how the struggle for a worthwhile and satisfying challenge can affect a being of much less pure moral fiber. The series is unfortunately unfinished, and while that does leave a lot of questions unanswered, an issue that can only be resolved with the inclusion of a second season that has yet to be announced, I’d be hard pressed to say it was my only problem with the series. There are tons of interesting character designs that make up the S class heroes, but you never see more than half of them outside of a meeting room, which doesn’t do any of them justice.
Also, this is yet another series that portrays gay men as over-the-top drag queens with predatory tendencies towards straight men, and that’s been REALLY getting on my nerves lately. Tiger and Bunny did something similar with Fire Emblem, and while I guess that guy had at least SOME semblance of awesomeness to his identity to make up for it… Like, he was the only hero rich enough to afford his own sponsor company, and that ain’t nothing… But seriously, Puri Puri Prisoner is introduced after he breaks out of prison, where he was serving time for literally sexually assaulting people. I know the anime medium IN GENERAL isn’t kind to LGBT folk, but that doesn’t make the resulting material any less painful. This is unfortunately a negative side effect of the show’s absurdist comedy style, which is otherwise impressively fresh and inventive. Also, there are a handful of recurring side characters that, without having anything to do with the climax, feel kind of wasted in the end, like Saitama’s ninja rival and a much beloved bicycling superhero. As I said before, a second season could fix all of this… Minus all the homophobia bullshit… Until one actually comes out, I can’t really call this show the masterpiece everyone says it is, but that’s not gonna stop me from watching it again a few more times.
One Punch Man is available from Viz Media, although a stateside physical release has not been announced as of yet. It can be viewed legally at Daisuki.net and on it’s own website, Onepunchman.me, as well as on Hulu. The English dub is currently airing on Cartoon Network’s late night Adult Swim programming block, a brilliant acquisition on their part. Physical media will likely be released after the dub finishes airing, so there’ll likely be no news until then. The original web comic is still ongoing, although it’s a little difficult to find translated versions online. The follow-up manga is also ongoing, and actually is available stateside from Shonen Jump Manga, with the first seven volumes currently available and with more forthcoming.
One Punch Man is, quite frankly, a miracle. It’s one of those anime that shouldn’t, by all logic, exist, but it somehow does because all the planets just happened to be aligned at the right time. The fact that it’s the adaptation of an adaptation is already highly unorthodox, but the fact that it’s turned out to be a series so multi-layered that critics with their brains turned on and casual viewers with their brains turned off can enjoy it on virtually equal footing is what’s so miraculous about it. I’ve heard some people complain that it has an uneven tone, because it takes itself too seriously to be a parody yet still feels too goofy to be a satire, but I honestly just see it as a strongly written show that’s able to stand on it’s own while examining it’s characters and themes from differing levels of sincerity, possessing the confidence to poke fun at itself without losing steam or breaking pace. A second season will probably be enough to elevate it to the status that it deserves, but until then, I give One Punch Man an 8/10.