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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Composing Space in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I've always loved The Legend of Zelda, and yet writing about video games often felt out-of-bounds in school. Not anymore!

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has established, among many things, a sense of wonderful expanse. From the initial panorama of the open world, to the player’s soaring departure from the Great Plateau, the world is a constant place of possibility.

The opening title screen of a new game. Photo credit: zeldaspalace.com

The music in Breath of the Wild is like the game––it’s open, sometimes sparse, and its details slowly emerge as you proceed through it. For longtime fans of the series, one might be disappointed at the lack of indulgent scoring throughout much of their adventure. What music is present comes by way of glimpses, whispers, and quick flourishes in tandem with heightened action. Far from an orchestra sounding just off-screen, notes unfurl into the ether where they dissipate like passing rain. It is somewhat obvious to say that the soundtrack to Breath of the Wild participates in world-building. It does so not only by accompanying the player’s actions, but also by wandering as aimlessly at times as the player themselves throughout Hyrule. It is their traveling companion.

Like the player, this music holds fast to its memories. Hidden within the soundtrack, there are further allusions to the mythology of the series. Take, for instance, the music that plays at the Temple of Time. In ruins, the structure stands in stark contrast our proud and nostalgic recollection. Speed up this music, however, and we find that the Temple of Time is set to, of course, the Song of Time.

The Song of Time emerges from the broken fragments of melody that flutter amidst the ruins. Its presence is known mainly through extended time milling about. Veiled, it lives on in vestiges of its former self that surface from moment to moment. Only in contemplation do we consider what we’ve heard. Even more, only in compression and transformation can we return it to its original state. (This is particularly near and dear to the hearts of fans, as it reminds us that controlling time is central to the Zelda mythology.) In this way, the music is directly mapped onto the space to which it has been intimately bound over the years.

I see resonance here with Michel de Certeau’s ideas of place and space. A helpful summary comes from Marc Augé’s Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, where he writes that “place [is] an assembly of elements coexisting in a certain order and the space [is the] animation of these places by the motion of the moving body” (Non-Places, 64-65). By moving through the game’s world, we are participating in the construction of meaningful anthropological space. The technique of map-making in the game suggests this; most locations are revealed and given names upon discovering and exploring them. This focuses the player on ordering space as an anthropological arena of non-player character (NPC) and enemy interaction.

For Augé, “place” carries with it immanent possibility. “Space,” on the other hand, is considered far more abstract and open—an expanse either geographically or temporally that must be traveled. The movement of the traveler, then, is central to ordering and understanding your environment. This is clearly true for a video game, whose boundaries allow the travelling player to eventually uncover the possible game space in its near totality; there comes a point in-game when exploration no longer yields the possibility of new space. (This is practically untrue in reality, where travel and transitional spaces form the crux of Augé’s philosophical idea of the “non-place” as spaces meant to be passed through and which depend on contractual anonymity.)

Alone, we might think of Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack as part of the geographic place—an element that contributes to our order and understanding of the spot where we hear it. Location-specific music further suggests this. And yet, within these locations, there’s a sense of movement about the music. It wafts, trickles, darts in and out among the ambient noise of wildlife and weather. But the music also presents a sonic space, an expanse of time and sound that we must aurally travel. Upon listening, we identify what we hear. In that moment, we tether the music to its place—our associations binding it to the power of presence.