~ an essay on One-Punch Man anime & manga (2012-Present).
One-Punch Man originates the story of Saitama, a hero for fun. The final hero. Author ‘One‘ builds out a fantastical world of high-powered and flamboyant heroes and monsters doing battle in uniformly destructible cities, alphabetically signified for simplicity sake. All of the superhero + Shōnen power fantasy tropes are here – the capes and swords, the shadow organizations and the dark underground armies of daemons, the plans-within-plans and the philosophical monologues, the power-hungry overlords, the anti-heroic ninja, the god-tier martial artists that transcend humanity with imperturbable personalities… But they are mostly there to be subverted, to be satirized and played with. Namely via the protagonist’s inexplicable existence, this complex world is circumscribed unto its endgame Übermensch in Saitama, already progressed past every limit. One-punching Saitama is the final hero within this kind of story’s formulation – an invincible fighter for good. But he is also bored because of it. He is anticlimactically punching out dark and evil gods from the jump. And though he wins every time, he feels nothing.
Overwhelming strength is … boring. Because of course it is. Saitama, or “Caped Baldy” as he comes to be known to the Hero Association, and his unstoppable combat ability afford him victory against every opponent he faces. But it happens instantly, without any strategic analyses or physical rigor, without any semblance of potential failure. Every battle is decided before it’s begun, because he is already the best. Naturally, he feels nothing approaching thrill or joy or gratification during the course of his work as a hero.
His strength, though comically rarely sighted by the other S-class heroes, does draw suitors and manipulators, various allies and an apprentice in the form of the prototypical young hero, Genos. But Saitama is not interested in playing politics or climbing the ladder within the hierarchy of the Hero Association; he is not cognizant – or simply doesn’t care enough – to grasp how his abilities might be used to advance himself materially. He cannot actually help Genos achieve his ‘destiny’ teaching as a sensei; he cannot comprehend his own, if he believes in such a thing. Saitama does not even understand the true source of his own great strength. And as a hero, as a symbol of justice within the world, he is not cut out for helping the world with any performative inspiration or rhetoric through a valiant sense of duty or protection of any specific persons or places. Saitama is truly a hero for fun. His fight is general, impersonal, void of drama. He fights simply because he can, because it is the role that he has somewhat arbitrarily chosen for himself, and because he is effective at it. His thinking seems to go no further, and nor does he want it to.
The world of OPM is meta, in that its characters are aware of the tropes and the personae that heroes and villains take on. Saitama watches anime. King reads manga. Garou grew up watching hero cartoons. The heroes taking part within the narrative are aware of the exemplary narratives within media like their own and it contributes to the forging of their worldview. The Hero Association is a corporation, with a hierarchy and a public relations arm. Heroes are marketed and judged internally and in the populace’s minds; those at the top (S-class) are afforded undue benefits and expectations while those at the bottom (C-class) have to fight for work to survive. Genos and Saitama get fan mail and hate mail, respectively. A character like King, more than any other, is extremely online and seems to be aware of the kind of story he inhabits. Genos lives out the tropes of the tragic, hyper-serious protag to the T, while perhaps remaining unaware of this fact.
Whether he realizes it or not, Saitama is the anti-Shōnen hero. There is no grand purpose to his cause as a hero. No dead family, we don’t even know who his parents are. No dramatic, fated origin borne of special blood or a gift from the stars or the gods. His face is usually expressionless, his personality nigh emotionless. He has no hair! There is not a complex philosophy within his heart or mind for why he is punching, there is not even that much enthusiasm for these punches. Saitama living out his perfunctory catchphrase of being a “hero for fun” is the ultimate parody of power fantasy. He does not care. In fact, he’s kinda depressed. And yet – he is a God.
In a deeper, Lacanian analysis of Saitama’s character, the secret to his power yet might be in his strange origin. An utter inverse of prototypical hero origin stories, Saitama, The One-Punch Man, is borne from absolute obscurity.
Before becoming a hero, before fighting his first monster in Crablante, he was a nameless working class failure. A salaryman-to-be with no accomplishments. As a result of his unemployment and apparent lack of progress thus far in the job search, Saitama states simply that he no longer “cared about anything.” He becomes a hero on instinct; he doesn’t really know what he is doing or why when he saves the kid from the crab. His on-the-spot rationale for the fight is irrational, arbitrary, hilarious.
~ “Wait a second. With the birthrate so low, I can’t let you kill that kid. And I remembered something else. I wanted to be a hero when I was little.”
From out of that lacking of role and responsibility, originated out of a void of ambition or conviction in “anything” within the world of the Real, perhaps Saitama’s instantaneous leap to god-like power emerges from within his vast, singular, dormant and personally untapped Unconscious: extremified by nothingness at every front, with nowhere to go but to the antithetical, One Punch Man is born. “Zero to hero.” An enlightened God burst from the bonds of his humanity, who has broken through the limiters of his mortal flesh by harboring no Real desire…
In this sense, as the storyline within OPM progresses, Saitama comes to serve as a contextualizing force within the narrative and amongst the other, more orthodox, heroes and heroines. He is something every other hero within this world of heroes must be necessarily compared to; he is the benchmark for what is possible, though his strength feels impossible. He is like a force of nature, like time or space or a tempestuous storm on the horizon, that exists somewhere out there within the universe, eternal and indestructible, and ultimately unavoidable. Saitama is a force that the other mortal, ‘normal’ characters of consequence have to deal with, bounce off of, try to ally with or oppose, always to no avail. Consistently, they converse and conflict with him abruptly, entertainingly.
The arcs in OPM, fairly standard within action manga/anime, follows the martial conflicts of monsters and villains and factions destructively arising to the attention of the heroes charged with protecting the world from their dominating plots. Information is gathered, investigations into attacks are made, explorations of environments are traversed, and finally, epic battles between the heroes and their foes are commenced. However, this is happening for every hero that is not Saitama, who is usually sitting at home playing video games, reading manga, or scrolling fansites online. He does not have to do the ancillary work that a hero normally does, because he can just kill everything with one unstoppable punch… There is no more progressions for him to make as a hero. The dichotomy between every hero vs. Saitama in actions and their results, in the training, preparation, and guile all paling in comparison to his static, seemingly effortless godhood is strikingly amusing. While S-class heroes struggle to defeat Dragon-level threats to the world, the heroic God-level hero takes his time to even realize that a fight is occurring and finally show up.
As this Force, un-beholden to any faction or emotional disturbance, Saitama is the dispassionate boogeyman waiting at the end of each arc, the finale presence of resolution to the narrative’s progression (whether anybody knows it, sees it, appreciates it or not). The people’s and his peer’s continuous ignorance of his efforts, or revilement of his role as a thief of valor reflect him into a tragic and comedic light. Regardless of that fact, every arc within the anime and manga (thus far) is essentially a countdown to when our one-punch man will arrive and efficiently end it all…
~ Saitama vs. Carnage Kabuto
~ Saitama vs. The Deep Sea King
~ Saitama vs. Boros
To the heroes around him, who have seen him in action, Saitama is a paragon of strength. Naturally, they yearn to emulate him, to be trained by him, or simply be near him when the shit hits the fan — i.e. Genos, Suiryu, King. To those that have not seen him work, he is a joke in a bad costume with no charisma and no flash. Throughout his meandering journey, he obtains a hopeless rival in Speed-o-Sonic Ninja, and a genuine friend in Mumen Rider. Despite his misgivings unto the actual responsibility of being his sensei, Genos is allowed to stick around because he is willing to pay rent. They all gather around Saitama without his design or discretion, they are simply interpersonal accumulations, passively drawn up from either circumstance or the indirect results from his work as a hero. He does not particularly care about their fates, and he does little for them. Far afield from the pride and glory and the potential Avengers-style teaming with other supers, Saitama sees hero duty such as defeating the monster-of-the-week as clock-in, clock-out work. And he truly does not work for anyone but himself. This differentiates him further as a force of nature – portraying him as detached from worldly concerns, even enlightened.
To the villains on the receiving end of his punches, Saitama is a terrifying force of nature to be feared, one that they cannot rationally understand. He is small and slight of build, full of openings, and apparently without any coherent technique. And yet, when in the arena against them, their instincts inform them of their impending death at his hand. His aura of strength elicits the flight response within the psychological dyad; to monsters capable of assessing his strength during their bouts – before they are inevitably punched into oblivion – he becomes death incarnate, an instinctive force of a cosmic horror ironic to their own role within the world against humanity.
To the audience, Saitama is the signifier of the end of a quintessential protagonist hero’s myth. He is the natural end point, given a trajectory of infinite growth in power & purpose after a set of serial victories against each arc’s villains that a mythic story demands. The satirization comes in Saitama’s tedious complex of purposeless morose directly at the hands of this power being achieved; we see that winning without the prospect of loss makes his position meaningless. And he feels that nothingness. As we watch primary characters such as Genos and Garou painstakingly progress in ability and aspiration against equal foes they can surpass, one cannot help but see the disparity versus the meaningfulness of their singular conflicts: mentally and physically challenging, philosophically compelling, and full of life-or-death stakes. One despairs and laughs at Saitama’s relative post within the hero hierarchy – his unreal strength reserves for him a kind of reverse-Sisyphean fate: that of instantaneous victory after victory, the stone easily lifted and every hill depleted unto meaning-destroying flatness.
No set of panels better depicts the philosophical quandary at the center of OPM than these musings by Saitama and his resulting conversation with King in Volume 15:
~ “I never thought being a hero could be so lonesome.” / Saitama is alone because all the other heroes to which he might relate are experiencing meaningful struggle, striving to grow stronger and fighting against their limitations and their fears. They can still learn, they can still be defeated. He cannot relate. For Saitama, none of those things are present. Even if he’s allying with them, getting to know them, he is alone. He has no true peers.
~ “What is the pinnacle of heroism? Until you can answer this question, you can’t afford to worry about something as trivial as tedium… If you have what it takes to truly live as hero, that is!”
King’s rousing speech about adopting newfound challenge, journeys trumping destinations, fighting for something greater than yourself – trying to find a purpose beyond strength – is endearing and inspiring. King ascends and becomes your new favorite character. Even Saitama is affected. And yet, at the end of his passionate words, we find his thinking is actually just ripped off of manga, somewhat undermining the message… 😂
Ultimately, I love One Punch Man because it is an entertaining and wide-ranging mythos, a beautifully drawn saga that meditates on the nature of power while also making fun of everyone that might chase it. It is full of interesting characters and bombastic fights, while also taking the time to present simple, soul-nourishing moments of companionship and profound philosophical slants alike.
To conclude these meandering thoughts on the series, I wish to speak on my absolute favorite character – the true G.O.A.T. of the series – in Mumen Rider!
Mumen Rider is the top C-class hero. A helmet-wearing bicyclist with a good heart and practically no martial talents, he is the true Sisyphean of the story. He is counterpart to Saitama’s strength, his tedium, and his inner void in doing the job of hero. A simple man, a good person, he is truly concerned with the well-being of his community; selfless, and despite his lack of prowess in battle, he takes the duty of being a hero seriously. And he does whatever he can. He helps evacuate, he informs other heroes of the situation, he gives Saitama a ride into the maelstrom of battle against the Deep Sea King on his pegs.
Most importantly, like Sisyphus, Mumen knows that he is weak, and wholly ineffective as a fighter. And yet – he still tries. He still goes into combat with foes greater than him. He gives everything he has, and he is more than willing to die in the line of duty. Mumen Rider stands in solidarity with the common man, and he is righteously admired for it. He is a champion of the people and for the people. He is a cinnamon roll too good for this world, too pure. He is exactly the kind of hero this wretched world doesn’t deserve.
To me, more than any other character within the universe of One Punch Man, Mumen Rider is the essence of a hero.
~ Here’s to Mumen Rider, Cyclist for Justice, wholesome counterpart to Saitama, a true existential hero of Sisyphean proportions!