One-Punch Man, or “Muddling Through”

Who said Netflix had to be a distraction? I've been thinking a lot about productivity and self-worth, and a lazy Saturday night helped refocus some of those thoughts.

Shingo Natsume’s One-Punch Man (2015-) is a refreshing and fun anime of the likes of Space Dandy (another Nastume project), Kill la Kill, and Tenga toppa Gurren Lagann. Its humorous mood emerges from the interplay of action and apathy that characterizes the main protagonist Saitama, a man whose commitment to fighting crime seems precariously based in personal whimsy.

Saitama, in superhero garb, carrying groceries.

No doubt Saitama exists as a contrasting foil to the archetypal hero of so many narratives, and his haphazard sense of duty sheds traditional attachments to valor and altruism in favor of indifference. Much of the show’s humor revolves around parrying expectations with the protagonist’s own apathy. We can add to this a healthy dose of self-awareness through a playful collage of shonen manga tropes such as intense discipline, a sense of duty, physical power, and male camaraderie. All of this is brought to life in the sheer audacity of the characters that populate a universe steeped in hyperbole. From the very beginning, One-Punch Man takes upping the ante to new and ridiculous heights by always pushing onward and upward into pure absurdity. And it’s lovely.

Transforming the mundane into the fantastic is precisely what brought me to One-Punch Man on a Saturday night. Having shirked my grad school responsibilities for another twenty-four hours, I was ready to escape the sense of crushing responsibility radiating from my neglected to-do list and dive into fantasy. There it sat, in privileged position in my Netflix suggestion queue. One season—a paltry twelve episodes—was lean cuisine in the culture of binge-watching. My weekend followed suit.

Saitama’s superhuman abilities stem from some frustratingly human places. Pressed one too many times for the secret to his strength, Saitama reveals that he owes it to intense training over a period of three years.

It took me three years to get this strong. One hundred push-ups! One hundred sit-ups! One hundred squats! Then a 10km run. Every single day! And of course, make sure you eat three meals a day. Just a banana in the morning is fine. But the most important thing is to never use the A/C or heat in the summer or winter so that you can strengthen the mind.

Both the characters and the audience spot the obvious disconnect between a basic fitness plan and Saitama’s otherworldly power––a superhero known for his ability to settle near any battle with a single punch. But this training routine gets at the heart of the protagonist. He is superhuman in his novel abilities only. Otherwise, he is the picture of pedestrian. His greatest strength, then, is his obliviousness to any and all personal limits. In the codes of shonen manga, this translates into limitless power.

I expected amusement. I expected to lose track of time. What I didn’t expect was to learn something––to see something of myself in the unfolding action. Early on, Saitama channels his superhuman abilities into becoming a hero. The Hero Association exists to organize and coordinate heroic duties, and Saitama enters into the rankings at the very bottom. We know he outclasses the rest, but Saitama must work his way up––a source of narrative thrust in the series. Much of his early participation in the organization is as a C-Class hero, requiring a weekly quota of heroic activities. From thwarting petty theft, to small acts of bravery, C-Class heroes thrive on quantity over quality and the small accrual of local fame. Quotas soon become the bane of Saitama, who sets his sights on a promotion to escape them.

In episode seven, a meteorite threatens the very future of humanity. The highest level alert is sounded, and heroes from across the region are called to service. As you might suspect, none are prepared to handle the task, and most seek shelter instead of attempting to face the meteorite head-on. For Genos, the trusty cyborg disciple of Saitama, he musters every ounce of computing power calculating the best response. Partly his robotic nature, and likewise a character flaw stemming from his perfectionist anxieties, calculation only leads to frustration and roadblock. For a clearly impossible task, nothing could prepare him. It is here that another hero steps in. He is Bang (“Silver Fang”), a legendary S-Class hero in the tropic form of a martial arts sensei. His is clear when he addresses Genos,

You are far too young to be worried about failure. When your back’s up against the wall, just muddle through. The outcome won’t change, so that’s what is best.

Bang’s words speak to anxiety, self-doubt, and perfectionism. Whether they be countless small tasks or intimidating large ones, we often find ways to engineer hardship and failure. To me, Bang is reminding us of the importance of deprioritizing doing things right versus doing them at all. One-Punch Man reflects key themes of productivity and the outward image of success. Few characters throughout the series recognize Saitama’s obvious strength and heroic potential. Those that do fall into reverence and support, while those that don’t cast dispersion. Saitama remains indifferent to all of these, however, choosing instead to follow the path of the hero simply because he wants to. There’s a kind of self-satisfaction that Saitama is chasing after, one that seeks to feel something meaningful in the triumph over insurmountable challenge. The tragedy of Saitama is that no such thing exists for him. But for us, a single punch will never be enough. And that’s okay.

“You just have to keep doing it, no matter how hard it gets,” says Saitama to a desperate Genos. But he was also saying it to me. Hard training over many years can produce results, so long as you learn to forgive and embrace failure along the way. Sometimes—heck, maybe most times—you’re going to have to just muddle through.

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4 thoughts on “One-Punch Man, or “Muddling Through””

    1. I can see that! One-Punch Man is, by definition, a one-trick pony. Narratively-speaking, it can’t sustain itself forever. The main thing that kept me engaged (besides humor) was my total love for kaiju and monster enemies. It’s always fun for me when there are weird characters thrown into the mix. But, like Gurren Lagann, it feels like there’s a natural limit to “let’s see how much further we can push this… into the cosmos? Outside of our plane of existence??” We’ll see what happens, I guess! Nothing wrong with short and sweet, though. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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