What is it to be the strongest in the world? Not an ego trip or a desire for power, just plainly and obviously the strongest in the world, maybe even the universe? That’s the conundrum facing Saitama whose astonishing training technique has rendered him able to defeat any enemy in one single punch.
Saitama is bored and looking for a challenge. All the posturing, chest-thumping monsters he happens across and who threaten total destruction are enraged by his unblinking disinterest in their might. In practice, this makes for a wonderful contrast to the usual ‘big muscle big shout’ anime style because you know that no matter how huge and all-powerful the threat, Saitama will just pick his nose and then one punch them into a bloody porridge all whilst musing over what he should have for dinner.
The world of One Punch Man is set on some Earth like planet but with huge cities forming the entire population centers. From a visual point of view, there is no difference between ‘City A’ or ‘City Z’ but of course these places are really just backdrops for mass destruction. Where the animators have really gone to town is the threats that attack each metropolis. Be it the imposing Deep Sea King, the maniacal Carnage Kabuto, or the frankly ridiculous Crablante, the imagination on screen is always a feast for the eyes. Doubly so when huge punch ups elicit sonic booms or mass fireballs with dramatic aplomb.
One Punch Man works best when it is satirising the body suffocating muscle mass genre it apes. It takes the Dragonball Z style and flips it on its head by removing the threat, and making the heroes mostly a collection of joke parodies. Saitama, frustrated that he receives no praise for his efforts, enrolls in the Hero Association in which heroes are ranked at C through to A, with ‘S’ for the elite. This cues an eclectic mix of oddities, such as the arrogant Tank Top Tiger, or noble (if completely weak) Mumen Rider who bikes in at speed but is practically useless on arrival. The laughs come from puncturing the pomposity of most animes, backed up by Saitama’s clear (if unrecognised) superiority.
However, as the series goes on the parody lessens somewhat. The threats get bigger and focus shifts to the colourful heroes and their internal squabbles. The series has to essentially keep Saitama away from any fight for a good length of time because obviously he can instantly win in any scenario. By making him preoccupied with promotion within the heroes there is some good comedy mileage, but for decent chunks of the second half, One Punch Man more or less becomes the kind of show it is poking fun at.
Regardless, One Punch Man is a fun dose of absurdity. It arguably still only appeals to fans of the genre it satirises because the jokes hardly cross-over into the mainstream. But for those fans the comedy is delightfully on the nose. This is especially when it comes to Saitama’s secret for his strength (hint: it’s nowhere near as impressive as you’d think). One Punch Man may be a one-trick pony, but it does its trick with such colourful cheekiness that anime fans will enjoy seeing the fragile masculinity of the punch up genre having its bubble popped with a one finger punch.
Words by Michael Record