One Punch Man and the Journey for the Self

With One Punch Man now airing on Toonami, I'm sure a lot of you tykes are enjoying all the punching and explosions (and they are certainly beautiful punches and explosions), but I doubt you were there when the anime started airing and debate grew over what the series was actually about. While the manga was a celebrated cult thing, the anime has grown into a very decisive topic because of new audiences examining how the show treats its cast, and there's definitely a lot of criticism to detail. To properly engage with this debate, it's important you all understand some of the core ideas and themes of the series. Of course, to figure out what those are, we need to examine the titular character himself, Saitama.

Life Goals

The hook of the series is that its lead character is so strong that he can defeat anyone with a single punch, thus the title. The joke is that Saitama, this all mighty hero, doesn't really do what he does solely for the good of others, but for his own enjoyment. Without a sense of challenge, he's stuck living a mundane life and wishing for a villain even a fraction as tough as him would come around for a good fight. His back story shows that he wasn't much different before he got his powers, in that his job left him completely unfulfilled, and possibly mildly depressed.

As strange as it sounds, One Punch Man is less interested in heroics as it is in artists and enthusiasts. Hear me out. The series creator, ONE, has an interest in frustrated prodigies. Where characters like these are the aces of other tales, or maybe some sort of rival for the main character, ONE deconstructs them into flawed, confused people who are too defined by their own abilities to have any sort of identity beyond that (not unlike Danganronpa, actually). Mob Psycho 100 explores this much more openly, as Mob tries to improve himself beyond his powers to be a more interesting person. Being defined by his incredible psychic powers has left him unhappy and lonely, so trying to improve more mundane aspects of himself is far more important to his own goals than becoming more powerful.

I Got 99 Problems But The Physical Personification Of Nature's Rage Ain't One
Saitama is similar, though his wants are very different. Where Mob sees the wall and tries to walk around it, Saitama hit it hard and has stopped bothering to figure out a way to overcome it. Saitama wants to define himself as a hero because doing something heroic was the one time in his life he felt like he was actually doing something fulfilling. He's just so good at it now that he can't find any satisfaction in it anymore. He worked hard and accomplished his goal ...and didn't really think any further than that. Where most characters like him get a happy ending at the end of a story, we're at the beginning of Saitama's, and it's now about what you do once you've finally made it.

The series isn't a reflection of ONE's past success (this was the guy's first manga, as far as I can find, and it started offf ugly as sin), but more like him musing on what it's like to be seemingly accomplished. One Punch Man wasn't originally a published manga, but a web manga. It was released for free on the internet in ONE's spare time, and only got picked up once a far better artist started remaking it into the more read version, which lead to the anime. Where the art angle comes in is how Saitama approaches his hero work, and where a lot of the debate on the shows themes start coming in.

During an arc where Saitama destroys a meteor but fails to stop the rubble that results from the act, a bunch of people chew him out in the aftermath, and he gets upset. It's hard not to draw comparisons to the god awful Zack Snyder DC films, with this development mirroring the Man of Steel destruction in a lot of ways, but the intent is very different. This scene establishes that Saitama is doing this because he wants to, not because of popularity or a moral obligation (though that is partly a motivation, he doesn't get hung up on failures). He's “made it big” in the sense that he's become the strongest of the heroes, but he doesn't care about his reputation. What he cares about is his own sense of satisfaction. Of course, you may also realize this stinks of the philosophy of objectivism.

Objectivism is a junk philosophy that values one's own accomplishments over helping one's fellow man. One Punch Man trips into this idiotic way of thinking, but not as much as you'd think. Fellow hero Mumen Rider, for example, is an actual selfless person who's just trying to do the right thing, and despite how goofy many of the heroes are, and how corrupt certain others are, we do see them doing the right thing for the little guy when the chips are down. Even if many of these characters do care about validation, that doesn't define how they think or act.

I want to protect that smile.
Where Saitama differs from most objectivist thought is that he wants others to do well and doesn't view them as competition. He becomes fast friends with Mumen Rider because he recognizes the guy's pure heart, and while he half-asses being a mentor, he honestly values his friendship with Genos. Despite how detached he's become from the world, in no small part because of his own cynicism, he doesn't buy into a selfish narrative as much as you'd think. So, what is Saitama? Well, he just seems to be an enthusiast.

As an artist, a lot of what Saitama says and thinks feel familiar to me. When he felt something when he did his first heroic deed was a similar description to me writing my first opinion piece outside the suffocating confines of high school. When he tells off the crowd, it reminded me of how I feel when people say what I do is meaningless or pointless. One Punch Man does play with ideas of heroism with the rest of the cast, but it seems more interested in using that as a backdrop to explore being an enthusiast. You do something because it's fulfilling to you, no matter how pointless or ridiculous it seems. You may realize how silly the endeavor is, and everyone else will certainly say so, but you do it anyways because it matters to you.

An arc a lot of characters go through in this series is realizing how pointless trying to be great can be at times. Sometimes, just settling with the here and now and finding something in that is more than enough. Saitama, to the rest of the characters, is the reality check that comes storming in and making them realize just how truly insignificant they are in the grand scheme of things. But Saitama understands that about himself as well. They all realize being the strongest means little, but doing something because it is fulfilling to you can be freeing. That message is drenched in nihilism, and the series tends to become too cynical for it's own good sometimes, but I love just how perfectly it captures the feeling of being an artist, just one type of enthusiasts.

And no, the series is NOT perfect. Where we start running into problems is how the hero theme clashes with the major themes. Superheroes are beings capable of inspiring people, and the series makes use of this a lot, but they also are defined by how they restrain their power and use it responsibly for the good of everyone. Because the series is so focused on self-satisfaction, it has a bad habit of delivering problematic messages when characters use force, such as suggesting that might makes right or that the naturally stronger are just better. Saitama is a pathetic character, but how people react to him mixes that a bit, and thus we hit a big knot of thematic confusion. It doesn't help crowds of civilians are commonly populated entirely by jeering assholes. The series deeply rooted cynicism is a cause of most of these issues, sacrificing heart and humanity for gags that don't really mesh well with the themes at play. Saitama's detachment from others because of his incredible power is also an issue that leads to some great dark humor, but it doesn't mesh with the commentary and themes that well. I get why this is, as it's easy to start viewing the public as people who don't just get what you do, but the context provided is disgusting, and that viewpoint is a toxic one that can hurt one's art and personality if embraced too heavily. This may be why the Sea King arc ends with the heroes trying to protect the crowd as Saitama is still making his way there, undercutting the constant civilian deaths from earlier gags and signaling that the series would be going in a more human direction as Saitama would become more of a plot device than a lead for most arcs. A little too late for many, which is understandable.

There also a ton of issues here with the portrayal of women and queer characters. The two major female heroes are an obnoxious brat mainly defined by how she eventually looks up to Saitama, and her sister that exists solely for cheesecake shots and to be another jab at people looking for validation from others in a pretty sexist way (seriously, personality is almost entirely make-up and posturing). The first gay character we meet is a goddamn prison rapist, coded as feminine buff in a comedic way, and is also mentioned to be a stalker. He's basically a collection of gross gay stereotypes, and unfortunately stays around after the initial arc because of his high ranking status in the heroes association. It really hurts the series possible appeal, especially with so many queer and female artists out there. I mean, we do get thrown a bone with Speed O' Sound Sonic being completely nude for most of an arc, but that's not enough.

He should be nude all the time. Please sign my petition for an entire arc where Speed O' Sound Sonic runs around trying to murder people while naked.

The later made Mob seems to be ironing out a lot of these issues, thankfully. It may make for a great successor. As for One Punch Man, it's a really intriguing case study, and I'm really interested in how the manga will wrap up and possibly improve on a lot of these issues. ONE's understanding of frustration with society and desire to live happily is deep, and he explores those ideas well. He just needs to keep learning to self-reflect more, or else it risks becoming a pig-headed preacher.


  1. interesting read! Really helps me further understand what the point of this show is. thanks Jonathan

  2. I think most of your analysis is wrong, and fairly myopic. You also don't seem to have a very deep understanding of Japanese shonen tropes that ONE is parodying, or the Japanese cultural perspectives that inform the work.

    1. Care to elaborate? I'm sure Jonathan would love to hear where he boobed...


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