Anime may have developed a loyal and feverish following outside of Japan since the dawn of high-speed internet but in reality, fans will likely always have to contend with looks of bemused, quiet judgement when their grandparents ask why they’re watching “those funny Asian cartoons again”.
Now and then however, a series will come along with crossover, mainstream appeal that seeps into western pop culture and introduces a new generation of viewers to the world of anime and manga. Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon and Pokémon all found homes on international T.V. Channels, and even casual television watchers are likely familiar with at least one of those franchises, if only because of the “it’s over 9000!” meme. Likewise, it’s no coincidence that Hollywood is currently in the process of churning out live-action versions of Death Note and Ghost In The Shell whilst rumours of an ambitious Akira project continue to swirl. More recently, Attack On Titan has succeeded in attracting anime newbies and connoisseurs alike with its brand of gore-centric action sequences, intriguing mysteries and fist-pumping soundtrack.
And now another title is vying to be added to that elite group: One-Punch Man.
As with many anime productions, One-Punch Man is based on a manga series. Drawn by Yusuke Murata and written by a person simply known as ‘One’, the publication began life as a webcomic , becoming an overnight viral hit and was soon brought to a wider audience by the Shonen Jump company responsible for many of Japan’s biggest manga series. Naturally, the anime adaptation soon followed, first airing in Japan during late 2015 and, as with its source material, found virtually instant popularity.
The story chronicles the adventures of Saitama, an inconspicuous-looking, bald twenty-five year-old who, after struggling to find a regular job, decides to fulfil his childhood ambition and become a superhero. As you do. After three years of not-really-that-intense training, Saitama finds he has become outrageously strong, able to defeat any enemy with a single punch and when the series begins, we find Saitama extremely bored with the lack of challenge his enemies pose.
Our protagonist’s frustrated existence is soon invigorated by the arrival of Genos, a revenge-seeking cyborg who witnesses Saitama’s overwhelming strength and seeks to become his loyal and diligent student, much to our hero’s dismay. Though the series initially takes on a monster-of-the-week style format, it doesn’t take long for a world of shady organisations, crazy professional superheroes and maniacal alien monsters to reveal itself and really crack the world of One-Punch Man wide open.
Given such a description, it’s difficult to see how One-Punch Man would stand out in such a saturated industry. Indeed, with the strong, morally-conscious protagonist, a conveyor belt procession of villains for him to fight and an inherently untrustworthy organisation in authority, you’d be forgiven for initially writing the series off as a generic fighting anime constructed using a mould hundreds of others have previously utilised.
It’s perhaps worth mentioning at this point then, that One-Punch Man is as much a satirical comedy piece as it is an action one.
Indeed, perhaps the series’ greatest strength is that it sets up a generic hero vs. monsters premise and then takes great joy in gleefully manipulating and aping each stereotype and convention. The show does a marvellous job of satirising both the action-anime and superhero genres and has an incisive, unpredictable and self-aware sense of humour that transcends any language or cultural barriers, turning a seemingly unoriginal premise completely on its head. This unique yet utterly effective hybrid is perfectly encapsulated on the cover of the manga’s first printed volume: a brooding and dramatic Saitama, with a defeated beast writhing in pain behind him, one fist emitting smoke as the result of a recent punch and the other fist… clutching a shopping bag full of groceries.
Indeed, much of One-Punch Man’s comedy comes from its ever-humble and overly relaxed lead character, as well as artist Yusuke Murata’s renderings of his hilariously dry facial expressions. For instance, when villain Lord Boros delivers a typical “I’m going into my final form!!” speech, more or less every anime stereotype box is ticked. But Saitama’s blank-faced, unaffected response of simply “Ok.” is One-Punch Man at its cliché-busting best, taking a classic genre trope and showing a protagonist respond with the same apathy and cynicism as many veteran anime viewers would.
Far from being a one-man show however, the supporting cast are as varied, colourful and insane as anyone could hope for. There’s the brave-yet-feeble Licence-less Rider, a low-rank hero who fights crime with his trusty bicycle permanently in tow and at the other end of the spectrum, the fan favourite Tornado of Terror, a powerful psychic with the appearance of a small child and a tongue sharp enough to send anyone’s ego crashing through the floor. With each of the primary cast being afforded moments of both hilarity and bad-assery, One-Punch Man is a rare example of a show in which it doesn’t matter which characters an episode elects to focus on, you know you’re in for a treat.
Aside from the genius humour and excellent knack for eschewing convention however, One-Punch Man still delivers in the action and drama departments. Despite being littered with great gags, the aforementioned bout with Lord Boros can stand proudly alongside any clash from Dragonball Z or Bleach in terms of pulsating combat and spectacular special moves. There’s even a subtle, yet affecting, emotional depth on occasion, such as when a certain fan-favourite character refuses to back down whilst taking a heavy beating or when Saitama’s efforts at saving the world don’t quite receive the appreciation they deserve.
In terms of attracting new viewers who are unfamiliar with the world of anime however, there is often more to consider than amazing content and an international appeal. The long-running series One Piece, for example, is generally considered by Japanese fans as one of the best anime series of all time, and its popularity has led to the introduction of entire shops dedicated to selling the show’s merchandise. So why is it that in the West, the show lags in popularity? Well a likely reason is that since its inception in 1999, potential One Piece fans would have over seven hundred episodes to catch up on.
Another issue is the infamous filler episodes that are unfortunately part and parcel of serialised anime. For those less familiar with the concept, filler episodes are story arcs not included in the original manga or written by the series’ creator. They are intended to pad a series out, either to play for time whilst more source material is produced or in some cases, to eke more money out of loyal fanbase. Of course, since these episodes can have no impact on the main story arc, they are often uninspiring and meaningless collections of utter guff. Some series such as the aforementioned One Piece get away with this practice largely by only doing so only when totally necessary, however others like Naruto and Bleach have both suffered massively due to the detrimental effect of large chunks of filler. Especially guilty of this is Naruto; the show is currently in its final stage of the main story, however is repeatedly shoe-horning in a variety of flashbacks, side-stories and pure nonsense in order to elongate itself now that its end is in sight and consequently there hasn’t been a ‘proper’ episode in this weekly series for a fair few months. It’s something that simply wouldn’t fly with a western audience; imagine being one week away from the season finale of The Walking Dead when suddenly AMC announce an additional ten episodes beforehand looking into the back-story of Abraham’s ginger beard.
Luckily, One-Punch Man succeeds in avoiding both of these pitfalls and immediately makes itself accessible to casual viewers in a way that doesn’t dilute the integrity of the series. The show’s first season consists of a brisk twelve episodes, each clocking in at just under the 25-minute mark. More significantly, each of those episodes contains only canon material with virtually zero filler rearing its ugly head. The run is lean and economical, following the manga almost scene-for-scene and spends minimal time on set-up and back-story, instead opting to plunge us right into the heart of the action. This approach allows viewers to decide very quickly whether to continue watching as, quite simply, if you don’t like episode one, you won’t get much of a kick from any of the others.
Those who do buy into the show’s unique brand of blistering action and visual humour however, will be relieved to learn that a second season is already on the way and scheduled to drop later this year. This will come as a particular relief to fans of Attack On Titan, a massive crossover hit both in Japan and the West. Despite that series’ first season concluding in 2013, there remains no confirmed release date for the still-in-production second outing, with fans instead having to make do with a bevy of mostly-rubbish spin-off media and the distant sounds of a cash-cow being thoroughly milked. As a result, much of the franchises’ momentum has been lost over the last three years, a considerable shame considering how many anime virgins the show was attracting during its peak.
Anyone who has read ahead in the One-Punch Man manga will know that there’s plenty of good material for the second season to cover and if the show continues its accessible, genre-spanning approach that refuses to take itself too seriously, western audiences could soon be hearing a lot more about Saitama, the man who’s just a hero for a hobby.