May 8, 2017

Let’s discuss One Punch Man.

It’s worth noting right off the bat that I watched the entirety of One Punch Man -- well, the first season of its anime, anyway -- in its official subtitled form on Viz’s website.  I’m at peace with that.  I don’t regret it.  With that said, I have seen clips of the dubbed version.  As someone who’s always had an appreciation of dubs, I’m glad that One Punch Man got the treatment it did.  I know that it’s easy and common to hate dubs, and there are legitimate reasons for it.  But they aren’t bad by default.  And when they’re done well, they bring something special to the table.

Doing that post the other day on Mumen Rider (the best hero) got me thinking about subs versus dubs.  Obviously you want to stay true to the source material/creator’s vision, so taking the anime in as “pure” a form as possible is 100% understandable.  But seeing the cyclist for justice take on the Deep Sea King in both the original Japanese and the alternative English highlighted the potential both have -- namely, that they’re two different yet valid interpretations of the same moments.  In the Japanese version, Mumen Rider sounds like a professional hero -- someone who knows what he’s getting into, but ultimately starts letting the cracks show and his emotions spill out when things get desperate.  In the English version?  He starts by sounding impassioned, desperate, and even scared -- but the end result is that the emotions that come out hit with the force of a tsunami.  One scene, two interpretations, both valid and enjoyable in their own way.  That’s rad.

…This is a weird way to start a post on One Punch Man.  Maybe that’s because I’m tempted to write about Mumen Rider again.  So let’s start again -- and start off right.

(Gives me chills every time.)

Here’s the setup.  The story follows Saitama, a “hero” who’s only going up against monsters, aliens, crooks, and terrorists for fun.  When he’s not doing that?  He’s watering his plants, looking for good deals at the local supermarket, chilling out in front of the TV, and just plain lazing around.  The catch is that despite his low-key lifestyle, Saitama is actually on a power level that breaks the scale.  Having taken up a strict yet simple training regimen a few years ago, he went from being an out-of-work nobody to someone who -- true to the title -- can beat virtually anything in one punch.

It sounds like a dream come true, but it ends up becoming Saitama’s worst nightmare.  There’s no challenge or thrill in his daily life, and it’s basically left him as a stoic shell of a man who usually can’t be bothered to care about anything.  But bit by bit, that starts to change; once his strength convinces the cyborg Genos to become his pupil, Saitama gets more and more involved in the world around him.  It’s all in the hopes of finding a way to feel alive…even if it means throwing himself into the fray.

But who cares about that?  This anime is an audiovisual delight, and nobody can say otherwise.

I know that video above is cheating because it’s been rejiggered to move at 60FPS, but it still doesn’t change the fact that OPM has some of the slickest fights the anime world’s had in ages.  And just imagine how absurd of a statement that is; we’re talking about a series where the main character can kill anything in an instant, potentially faster than the human eye or high-speed cameras can detect, and yet it routinely throws out animation that blows away even the possibility of rivals.  How the hell did this anime even happen?

And that goes double when you consider that this didn’t even start as an original anime.  It’s based on a Japanese webcomic that ended up getting adapted to manga format -- and while said manga (by Eyeshield 21 creator Yusuke Murata) has some strong visuals, the OG source material looks like the doodles pulled out of a sixth grader’s spiral notebook.  And on the surface, OPM as a whole kind of reads like one.  “So there’s this guy that’s the strongest hero ever, and he can beat all the bad guys with one punch!”

But I guess that’s where the brilliance comes in.  Or, alternatively, a twist of fate.  Maybe the story evolved into what it is today because the hypothetical sixth grader kept getting called out on his shit whenever he tossed out his premise (and nothing else).  “Okay, so he’s the strongest ever.  What next?” someone might have asked.  And because he’s put on the spot, the kid’s forced to toss something -- anything -- out there.  “Well, he’s the strongest and nobody can beat him, so…uh, I guess it’d be really boring for him.”  And the questions keep coming, and the answers (however impromptu) keep coming.

I’m not mad about it.  It’s helped put the story on the brightest timeline instead of the darkest.

I’ve always thought that a story can be a good opportunity to provide the answer to a major, yet simple, question: “What if?”  You start with a scenario, and work your way out from there through the plot, characters, setting, themes, and the like.  If you’re doing your job right, then the answer to that question will be pretty much everything that follows in your story.  Granted no one will dock points if you’re missing a thesis statement or topic sentences, but you get the idea.

So does OPM, all things considered.  “What if there was a superhero that could beat anything in one punch?”  The answer is Saitama, and every single circumstance surrounding his life.  That dopey, cartoonish face he’s often wearing is a reflection of how detached he’s become, and how nothing really fazes him.  He’s out for stimulation, but he’s failed to grasp it so many times that he’s just content with living his day-to-day life.  That is, until he finds out about the Hero Association -- which, if nothing else, will give him something to do.  And possibly fame.  And possibly fortune.  And possibly respect.  Possibly.

You’d think that Saitama would’ve heard about (or cared about) other heroes well in advance, buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut I’m working under the assumption that he’s kind of an asshole, so it’s not hard to see him shrugging off myriad agents of justice.

I get it, though.  Saitama is basically Anime Superman in terms of general power rankings, i.e. they’re the “gods among us” who normal characters in their universe would have trouble toppling.  Of course, the man of singular punches is a tier above Superman; we’re talking about a guy whose climactic fight against the would-be dominator of the universe ends with him taking some minor scrapes and getting his clothes torn up a little…itself following a punch that could split the heavens.  Plus it’s not like he has any specific weakness like glowing green rocks (as far as I know), so as far as the first season of the anime is concerned?  He’s basically unstoppable, and the only way to survive against him is to avoid ever getting in contact with him.  It’s not impossible, given how late he shows up to the scene/disaster in the making, but we’re talking about fiction here.  You’re gonna get punched.

I guess that opens up a big question about OPM’s storytelling conceits: how far can you get on a single joke?  He’s a guy that’s totally unstoppable, which on a base level sounds like a betrayal of storytelling in general; you would think that any story that doesn’t feature the hero struggling to overcome challenges would be an instant fail-state.  Yet here we have Saitama, a guy who steamrolls everything and everyone on the road to nowhere.  The ultimate evolved creature; the ruler of the deep sea; an alien warlord who wore armor just to seal the majority of his power away; all of them fall, one by one.  The only thing keeping them alive is the fact that it takes a while for Saitama to get to them and/or throw his punch.  Where’s the tension when there’s no chance that the hero will lose?

That was rhetorical.  Don’t answer it yet; I’m workin’ here.

In theory, Saitama has to deal with the ennui and existential dread of being a superhuman beyond superhumans.  In practice?  I’m not so sure.  He makes a big deal about it in Episode 1, but following that?  Depending on how you read the scenes, it looks like he’s just going through his daily life with no worries or concerns besides staying well-fed and keeping his home in order.  And while that changes once he becomes an official hero, I wonder if it changes enough to have a genuine impact on him.  Has the Hero Association and the battles he’s faced so far -- even at this early stage in the source material -- sparked an evolution that audiences crave?  Has there been forward momentum, and stuff to absorb besides some cool-looking fights?

I can see people saying that OPM is the most insightful and thoughtful piece of satire the anime industry has seen in years…but I can also see people saying that it’s overrated, shallow, and not nearly as smart as you think.  It might as well be Your Mileage May Vary: The Animation, because what’s in here isn’t guaranteed to win over the hearts of every single person on the planet.  I know that for a fact; I’ve tried and failed to get my brother into the show, likely because he got a look at Saitama’s dope-face (or costume in general) and noped the hell out.

So to go back to my earlier question, how far can you get on a single joke?  It’s not as if OPM only has that one joke/setup, but it is important to think about whether or not it’s truly effective in the long run.  For me it is, and even if it wasn’t there, stuff going on parallel to it that makes for a stronger series (which I’ll get to in a bit).  Still, it doesn’t change the fact that some of the other stuff doesn’t hit quite as hard.  There’s a running gag about how Saitama doesn’t want people to keep expositing to him, to the point where he demands them shortened to 20 words or less.  Fair enough, but it still doesn’t mask the fact that OPM does its share of exposition dumps and blathering on backstories.  Likewise, how long will it be until we stop having characters gawk in awe of Saitama’s power?  Yeah, yeah, it’s early in the series, but still.

And that begs the question: was there enough meat in Season 1 to justify its existence and conclusion?  Yeah, kind of.  Characters are set up and the world-building is laid down, but when you have a superhero series where every single conflict is rendered into an inconvenience that overstays its welcome -- despite the massive amounts of property damage and (presumably) death on display -- then it forces people to decide if they’re OK with that change in the formula, or if they prefer a more traditional take.  Moreover, this series ended with the thrashing of Boros, the alien invader who’s just as hungry for a good fight as Saitama and wields almost as much destructive power.  Now he’s dead.  How do you escalate from there?  How do you have his presence take on meaning when he’s just a stepping stone to the next “epic” battle?  How do you keep the joke fresh time after time?

The simplest answer that I can come up with -- the one that OPM provides if you think on it long enough -- is that you don’t treat it as a joke.  You take the farce as seriously as possible.

Again, your mileage may vary on this, but I think that what makes the show shine is the fact that it isn’t just about Saitama.  I’d even argue that the show isn’t about Saitama at all, at least not in a significant manner.  No, it’s everything and everyone else that helps to elevate OPM into something legitimately interesting and entertaining.  As I’ve said before, characters create opportunities -- and while Saitama’s godlike status is worth a lot, it’s the interplay of everyone else that makes for a stronger series and, arguably, a stronger statement.

Mumen Rider is my favorite character in the story by a country mile, but he’s not the only one worthy of praise.  Even if Genos’ constant inability to beat anyone has morphed into a running gag, I still like him a lot -- partly because of what he brings to the table.  We’ve only gotten a glimpse of Metal Bat in the anime, but damned if he’s not one of the coolest characters to date -- and someone who brings something to the table with his presence alone.  Silver Fang, Atomic Samurai, Amai Mask, and more; they’re all characters who elevate the story by being entwined with unique ideas and perspectives.  They’re the texture, the depth, the je ne sais quoi.  I’d even say that a huge number of the side characters could be main characters of their own stories.  But since they’re not, we have to deal with what we’ve got.  And really, that’s a sweet deal.

Like I said last time, the Hero Association (and the threats they tackle) are organized into different classes.  In the former’s case, it’s Class S, B, A, and S, in ascending order.  That’s how the heroes are ranked, contacted, and dispatched accordingly -- and presumably kept under control/within their bounds.  But again and again, the ranking system gets broken over its knee by the presence of our heroes.  Saitama’s poor results on the written part of the hero examination lands him at the bottom of Class C, even if he’s got story-breaking levels of power.  He works his way up, naturally, but only by doing bit jobs on the streets.

But he’s not the only hero that’s got extenuating circumstances.  Two S-Class heroes are willing to skip out on important summons by the Hero Association, even when the planet is facing an extinction-level event; conversely, C-Class Hero (and the best hero) Mumen Rider is willing to put his life on the line to battle against the Deep Sea King, AKA someone who took out B- and A-Class heroes pretty handily.  Amai Mask is strong enough to be S-Class, but purposefully takes the top slot in A-Class to make sure no dregs get above him and take slots they’re unworthy of.

It leads me to believe that OPM goes beyond the “power levels are bullshit” argument.  In fact, depending on how you look at it, the show might have one of the most positive and life-affirming messages around.

For starters, the idea of rankings and classes and being slotted into certain positions ends up getting thrown into a dumpster.  Hero after hero does his or her part to put stress on the system; Saitama’s the chief example of that.  It leads me to believe that it wasn’t an accident, or me reading too deeply into what might as well be the animated equivalent of a popcorn flick.  Yes, it’s important to have rules and regulations because they make life smoother (not to mention safer).  But they aren’t the be-all and end-all.  They shouldn’t lock people in without a hope of escape.  They should be flexible -- but more importantly, so should the people who live with and observe the rules.  Mumen Rider may only have the power of a C-Class hero (if that), yet he transcends his weakness and becomes S-Class worthy through pure valor alone.

So given that, I’d go so far as to say the true core of OPM -- the central premise, the idea that needs to be proved -- is the importance of broadening one’s horizons.  Saitama didn’t have anything going for him and would’ve spent his days penny-pinching at convenience stores, if not for Genos forcing him to get more involved with the world around him.  And because Saitama ends up becoming a more renowned figure, it forces others to readjust how they see the world and themselves -- to say nothing of the heroes stunned by his godlike prowess.  But because Saitama is forced to come in contact with other heroes, he’s driven to change -- however slightly -- for the sake of being a hero.  I’d like to think that seeing Mumen Rider give it everything in his climactic battle was the spark.  But I could be wrong, though.

(But I’m probably not.)

And all of that is predicated on a curiously optimistic note for what might as well be a satire on superheroes: it doesn’t matter who you are, what you can do, or where you came from.  You can accomplish great things.  I mean, there’s no guarantee that you will, but just look at what these guys have done and become.  Saitama went from failing another job interview to becoming Earth’s mightiest hero, just by (as far as he’s convinced) sticking to a basic athletic program.  Mumen Rider brought hope back to a slew of survivors, however briefly and regardless of the odds.  Metal Bat made his way up to being an S-Class hero, despite seemingly just being a delinquent with a bat and a bad attitude. 

Some characters hit the jackpot with their natural abilities (Tatsumaki) or received their gifts from fortunate sources (Genos), but in the former’s case, that means they’re in a prime position to deliver something fantastic.  In the latter’s case, it means that there are people -- with or without powers -- whose skill and perseverance created heroes (and villains, on occasion) who can impact the world in phenomenal ways.  Hell, just look at the Hero Association in general; it’s a system with flaws, but that doesn’t stop it from being a system that at least tries to keep its heroes under control.  The alternative?  Probably a complete disaster.

And in the end, I suppose we owe all of that -- all of the best parts of OPM, of which there are many -- to Saitama.  I know I called him an asshole earlier, and I stand by that; he’s not an altruist by any means, even when he’s out to do the right thing (eventually).  Still, it doesn’t make him a bad character.  IT makes him interesting.  Despite his slipshod nature, he’s actually a pretty interesting, likable guy to follow through his exploits.  He’s funny, savvy, and full of surprises, not to mention he’s more than capable of helping out when the chips are down.  It kind of makes me think that Saitama is what a person with his skill set would actually be like, instead of a virtuous Boy Scout like Superman or Captain America.

But I digress.  The important thing is that he’s fun to follow, and that carries over to his show in general.  I’m hard-pressed to think of a single anime that’s managed to make me so antsy and expectant for a second season; given all of the groundwork laid in the first season, I’m licking my lips in anticipation of a massive pop-off.  The stage is set for a break in the system, and hero-versus-hero clashes in the streets.  No telling if that’ll actually happen, but I’m looking forward to it if it does.  Or I could do myself a favor and read the manga.  Then again, it’d take out the excitement of seeing it all play out in color and with sublime animation.  Man, tough choice.

Still, the medium of choice doesn’t change the simple fact of the matter: One Punch Man is a great series that’s worthy of its fandom and accolades, and I can’t wait to see more.  Because I can’t think of a single superhero anime that could possibly do it better.

Holy shit.

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