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One Punch Man (known affectionately by its portmanteau Wanpanman) is one of the more recent post-modern works in Japanese animation that has been met with critical acclaim and commercial success.
The show, recently added to Netflix, is not only a brilliant, laugh-out-loud, action comedy, but also a razor-sharp satire of modern life and contemporary entertainment. Its set-up is deceptively simple: mild-mannered Saitama has left behind his previous life as a salaryman (white-collar worker) to focus on his new hobby of being a superhero (“Just for fun,” he repeatedly points out). As luck would have it, he just so happens to have the ability to defeat any enemy of any size with a single punch, regardless of their powers. The show has become such a hit that even US comedian Bill Burr has admired its merits.
Adapted from the best-selling manga, the anime’s creative chops are so versatile that it has something to offer everyone, whether you have a predilection for Japanese animation or not. Here are eight reasons why just about everyone will be able to find something to relate to in Wanpanman. Caution: mild spoilers ahead.
One Punch Man is set in a fictionalized Japan, where cities are marked by letters in the alphabet, and all of them are overseen by the supposedly all-powerful Hero Association. Like so many organizations in Japan, it adheres to bureaucratic dogma. When Saitama enters its ranks, he is placed among its lower echelons, despite being the single most powerful individual the group has to offer. Worse still, he finds himself repeatedly at the mercy of a rigid adherence to protocol, a distinctly Japanese business trait, whereby the rule book must be followed at all times, even at the cost of efficiency and common sense.
As one might expect, Saitama’s status as a powerful being on Earth is not without its complications. His despairing cry of “DAMN IT!” is uttered more than once throughout the show, as an eagerly-anticipated tussle with a super-powered baddie is over in mere seconds, ended with a single punch. Saitama lacks a daily sense of challenge and purpose, and this can often plunge him into jaded disillusionment.
A big part of One Punch Man’s comedy comes from the fact that, for all Saitama’s god-like powers, he is at heart an inveterate slob. When not out saving the world, he spends his downtime lying around his apartment in a tracksuit, drinking green tea and reading manga. Occasionally, he scratches himself and picks his nose. Even his erstwhile sidekick/protege Genos finds himself at a loss as to why his sensei is so utterly rubbish at certain aspects of the superhero lifestyle. In one especially hilarious interlude, Saitama’s earnest internal monologue pauses mid-battle to react in dismay to the realization that he’s missed a sale at his local supermarket.
Midway through the show’s first season, a slew of top-tier heroes find themselves unable to stop the fearsome Deep Sea King. Only Saitama can stop him, and does so, but only after the aquatic villain leaves a sea of bodies and destruction in his wake. Saitama’s reward for dispatching the creature is to find himself denigrated by a random chubby-faced blowhard, his face contorted in the prototypical Internet troll sneer, who points out to a crowd of onlookers that Saitama arrived last minute and triumphed only because his peers had worn down the adversary for him. The crowd, suitably sheep-like, turn on our bald hero, and he finds himself having to abandon the scene, a not-so-subtle commentary on modern-day mob mentality via the internet.
One of the One Punch Man’s strongest elements comes from its roasting of superhero media, taking potshots at everything from Dragon Ball Z to Attack On Titan and even Western superheroes (the Hero Association can be seen as a not-too-subtle riff on Justice League). There are a lot of super-powered individuals in the show’s world, from the slightly naff Mumen Rider, who rides a bicycle and doesn’t do much else, to the flamboyant Puri-Puri Prisoner, who sprouts angel wings and goes fully nude when he powers up. Most times, the heroes spend an awful lot of time bickering and trying to one-up each other with displays of prowess. Anyone who finds themselves rolling their eyes in exhaustion at the latest Marvel or DC juggernaut will find plenty of satirical meat to feast upon.
While One Punch Man is sometimes ruthless in the ways it lampoons its inspirations, it also pays a fond tribute to them. Otaku will have the proverbial field day checking off the many, many seminal titles that the program references, directly or otherwise. Keep your eyes peeled for nods to JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, Case Closed, Superman, Kamen Rider, Tekken, old chanbara films, and much, much more. Even its shortened title of Wanpanman is a direct reference to a certain beloved children’s cartoon character.
All the satire and knowing homages in the world mean nothing if a show doesn’t have the ability to enthrall and delight. Alongside its subtexts, One Punch Man is simply huge fun to watch and devotes itself to making sure the viewer has the best time possible, while being unafraid to challenge preconceptions of what a shonen anime is capable of. The show has high production values to match its creative ambition: legendary studio Madhouse handles production duties and utterly nails the tone of absurdity mixed with eye-popping spectacle. Wanpanman’s animation-style moves between the expressionistic and the conventional with ease, and some of its fight scenes simply have to be seen to be believed, especially the climactic, Earth-shaking confrontation between Saitama and alien overlord Lord Boros.
No memorable anime is complete without a signature theme tune, and One Punch Man is no different. Step forward anisong supergroup JAM Project, who deploy an appropriately over-the-top barrage of power-metal with the song THE HERO!! – a rousing ditty if ever there was one. Playing us out very nicely is Hiroko Moriguchi with the far gentler Hoshi yori Saki ni Mitsukete Ageru, a fitting audio accompaniment to the show’s montage of daily life winding down in the big city. Here’s the full video of the song: