I am generally not a huge fan of anime. I don’t usually have strong feelings for the medium. Back in college I was urged to try out some particular shows and found myself repeatedly disappointed in stories that ended with a sudden influx of fantasy elements and deus ex machina. Of all the collected animation on my shelves, I think the anime section is comprised of Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, and FLCL (and arguably Avatar and Korra). I just want to set up a little context for when I say that One-Punch Man is really good.
I entered into this show nearly blind. I’d seen a few reviews cross my news feeds but it being anime, I glossed over them. Then a co-worker recommended it to me when he was about three episodes in. Being the TV binge watcher that I am, I finished it in a few days.
The concept is a man, Saitama, decides to quit his job and become a hero after a chance encounter with a monster. He lives in a world where creatures just show up to wreak havoc, and there is a formal organization that tests and ranks heroes to respond to these threats. Saitama trains (poorly1) and shortly finds himself to be the strongest person in the world, able to dispatch any foe with a single punch. Saitama is a true anti-hero in that he is completely dissatisfied with his lot. He’s bored and disinterested, showing little regard for the people he saves. He shows up to battle these monsters in the hopes of a challenge more-so than actually helping anyone. Saitama seems to be a thoughtlessly written character created to showcase a one-note joke about power.
Actually, the show in general is, too. His protegee, a cyborg named Genos, has a pretty generic back-story, his co-heroes are all tropes, such as psychic, machinist, samurai, karate master, street fighter, and so on. The monsters that show up sometimes remind me of characters from other anime. I’m sure that were I a bigger fan of anime I could catch more references. There’s a global conspiracy that’s completely dropped partway through the show. It all seems like it should add up to a fairly uninspired satire.
And yet it doesn’t.
Somehow the show manages to weave actual characterization into all of the jokes and parody. The heroes are ranked, in order of lowest to highest power, as C, B, A, and S class. Genos is instantly placed in class S among the rest of the top-tier heroes, while Saitama has to work his way up from C. It’s done for laughs, as he’s already more powerful than anyone else, and also gives the show a chance to introduce a bunch of non-powered heroes.
Of course, eventually there’s a big bad for the hero. He comes in the form of Lord Boros, a DragonballZ-esq fighter who constantly reaches new power levels along with physical size. Like the rest of the villains, he’s less of a character and more of a force. Lord Boros is enough to bring together nearly every hero shown throughout the season to help survivors of a massive attack, as well as fight back. This is when this show becomes worthwhile. All along these sometimes silly, sometimes stupid elements have been shuffled around but during this final confrontation each character suddenly snaps into place. The C list heroes go from jokes to laudable characters as they place themselves in danger, jumping into a situation that clearly outclasses them. The disparate cast of Class S heroes form a functional team. Sure, this plot development still fits into the tropes that show is built on exploiting/parodying, but it’s done so well that the depth seems to come out of nowhere. It is a very well played long-con.
The whole thing reminded me more than a little of FLCL. Both shows are parodies and the thing that they are trying to parody. It uses constant allusions to quickly build a world the viewer is somewhat familiar with, only to slyly weave new characters and development in.
My only major complaint, and it is a major one, is one of the S Class heroes named Puri-Puri-Prisoner. He’s flamboyantly gay and it’s hinted at that he assaults or even rapes attractive criminals, which is why is is a hero who operates out of prison. In a show that generally seemed light-hearted and good natured, this character comes across as so hatefully homophobic that it really did take away from the show. I’ve since read that this is yet another anime trope, just one I wasn’t familiar with. It’s still off-putting as the show never subverts anything. He comes in as a grotesque and stays one, and his appearance is enough to make me shift my recommendation from whole-hearted to conditional.
Notes [ + ]
When I say that his training regimen is lacking it’s because all he does daily is:
That’s not a bad routine, but it certainly won’t get you buff enough to punch aliens out of the sky.