In an era where the anime industry is swamped with shows that always seem to be set in a high school and pander to the audience, One-Punch Man is a refreshing celebration and subversion of the shonen genre. While shonen is a genre of anime aimed at a younger male audience, One-Punch Man’s world building and humor are impressive enough that it doesn’t limit itself to a single demographic.
Originally a webcomic by amateur manga author ONE and directed by Studio Madhouse (Death Note, Hunter x Hunter, Parasyte), One-Punch Man was one of the most popular animes of 2015. Set in a modern world just like our own, cities are divided and classified by their respective letters, with the story taking place in City Z. The One-Punch Man world has the Hero Association recruiting and deploying superheros as its main source of fighting crime and passing down justice to deal with specific threats. Each hero has a specific rank (from C-Class to S-Class) and number (the lower the number, the stronger you are within your letter rank).
Now, you might think this standard anime setting would make for your standard anime show, but One-Punch Man proves itself to be unique once our main character, Saitama, comes into play. As the eponymous hero of the series, Saitama can literally beat anyone with a single punch.
One-Punch Man has a strong awareness of what it is: a parody of all the shonen clichés you would expect from other animes. While this aspect of the show might turn people off, it is actually the reason One-Punch Man works so well. In this world, the power of friendship, the speeches of villains gloating about their temporary dominance over heroes and the heartbreaking backstories that justify their evil actions are usually played for laughs. One-Punch Man is conscious of how animes make their plots and characters overly complicated so that they’re compelling. So, this show has our heroes reacting to such overdramatic plots in a carefree manner, similarly to the way viewers watch an anime and point out all of its absurdities.
Another reason why One-Punch Man works is the humor that comes with the story. In the shonen genre, the heroes usually need to overcome overwhelming odds to beat their enemies, and the moments where the heroes and villains “power-up” to use their special attacks are what makes shonen moments memorable. But Saitama is so physically strong that it instead becomes hilarious to see him “fight” by offhandedly punching things, even though his foes are always screaming for blood in a more serious, aggressive tone. This subversion of shonen tropes drives the story forward. Even though Saitama usually beats his opponent quickly, it never really gets boring because the reactions of other characters to Saitama’s power are unique and amusing, particularly when he is pitted against an especially impressive villain.
One-Punch Man features a wide cast of characters, and it excels not only in making Saitama very likable, but also in making secondary characters from the Hero Association memorable and hilarious. As a protagonist, Saitama might seem like an average run-of-the-mill character. He doesn’t fit the standard, expected image of a superhero by being an average-looking bald man in his 20s wearing an unimpressive jumpsuit and a cape. Even his motivations for being a hero aren’t pure — it’s just a hobby. But we soon see there’s more to Saitama than meets the eye.
Though One-Punch Man does not follow the shonen pattern of protagonists gaining strength, we still root for Saitama because of his carefree attitude. He is so comfortable with who he is and what he can do that viewers keep rooting for him to succeed. And when he does, he represents the average man doing amazing things without ulterior motives in a way that inspires others. He is as straightforward as a character can be, and it works to the show’s advantage.
Genos, our other main character, is a cyborg teenager with a tragic past. He represents everything that a proper shonen show should have. Disciplined and hot-headed, Genos strives to become stronger, and thus becomes Saitama’s student to try to gain more power. The interactions between Saitama and Genos are fun to watch, as the two characters act as foils to each other. Instead of allowing Genos to constantly win and become stronger, the show takes his development in another direction. Under Saitama’s tutelage, Genos learns to relax and understand the morality of being a hero, even though Saitama’s lessons are often unintentional.
Even with Saitama and Genos at the forefront of the show, One-Punch Man still spotlights the other heroes, all with unique abilities and backstories. It explores the idea of heroism and what it means to have power, conveyed through the spectrum of heroes in the organization. Does someone without special powers who fails to save people count as a true hero if he tried his utmost best? One-Punch Man leaves that question for viewers to answer.
One-Punch Man’s flaws are few, but one would be its limited number of episodes. There are only 12 episodes, so the pacing is off at times. Some episodes are slow and comedy-based, and others are chock-full of action. All episodes before the season’s halfway point are episodic, merely introducing different characters and concepts within the universe. However, these episodes are by no means boring to watch; it simply shows that One-Punch Man pauses within the action to give us some lighthearted moments and humorous plotlines.
The villains themselves aren’t very memorable, except perhaps their designs and their motives (which are often mundane or stereotypically ridiculous). But they do their jobs within the show by acting as obstacles that other heroes struggle to beat and by providing Saitama the chance to react to the often flawed logic of their evil plans.
Like most of Madhouse anime, the animation is top-notch, partly due to the company’s dedication to producing high-quality anime and partly due to artist Yusuke Murata’s drawings. Even though the show is finished, thanks to the anime being a smash hit, it is likely that the show will have another season eventually. Because One-Punch Man is a simple, light-hearted parody of the popular superhero genre, it is a show that’s easy to get absorbed into, especially for those who are new to anime. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a fun time with plenty of humor and action, and a main character that will never let you down, always saving the day by punching things in the most epic way possible.