(This is Part Two of my analysis of the deconstructive elements of One Punch Man; click here to see part one.)
(WARNING: Contains manga/webcomic spoilers for those who have only watched the anime. Consider yourself warned)
A couple of moons ago, I made a post outlining some of the key features that made manga creator ONE’s signature series, One-Punch Man. This superhero parody took the anime world by storm when it premiered, launching a loyal (some might say rabid) fandom and inviting endless questions about how we’re supposed to approach it: Is it merely a parody? A straight send-up? How seriously does it take the archetypes and tropes it plays around with so ruthlessly? In the last post, I pushed forward the argument that One-Punch Man, far from being a “gag manga,” is a pretty effective deconstruction of both the superhero and shonen genres, despite being a seinen series. In this respect, it is a close elder cousin of My Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi (an excellent series in its own right, which demands an examination all of its own) in that both are popular takes on the superhero convention from a Japanese perspective with some deconstructive elements thrown in. But while the generally straight-shooting and optimistic MHA uses deconstruction as a tool to shore up narrative weaknesses in the shonen paradigm and create a stronger and more original storyline, One-Punch Man, at least initially, definitely aimed for ridicule and and a rather cynical take on what happens when heroism becomes a commodity.
But things started shifting a bit after the Boros Arc. True, the concept of heroism as a cash-cow business still gets a merciless skewering, and by ways sharper and more vicious than even MHA at its darkest. It also continues to make Swiss cheese out of some standard superhero tropes, like the superhero team-up, or even the power of anger/drive/love/whatever to turn the tide of a battle. But as a whole, One-Punch Man takes a somewhat kinder and more generous approach to the idea of heroism itself after awhile. This is different and indeed, the inverse from a series like My Hero Academia; there, the general shonen archetypes are followed, with the occasional dark deconstruction thrown in to shake things up and spur on character development. The value of both heroism and the nature of heroes, meanwhile, is taken as granted, with the question “What makes a true hero?” posed only by characters who are murderous and/or hypocritical. For One-Punch Man, though, the heroic luster has clearly rubbed off, while the nature of the hero business is rot and corruption, with glory hounds and sharks all vying for the public eye.
But acts of heroism itself are still held up favorably by the narrative, and I suspect that ONE is trying to get us to see heroism in a different light; not as a business, or even as a vehicle for exploring the drives and passions of youth, but as an act performed for the benefits of others. He employs this via a gradual shift away from Saitama’s perspective and towards those of other characters in the story, thereby maintaining the deconstructive parody, but giving flashes of light which help to reconstruct heroism as an ideal, if not necessarily a profession or reality.
The Deconstructive Elephant in the Room
Of course, our stalwart “hero” Saitama hasn’t changed much; he remains the same lazy, lackadaisical, brutally-efficient parody force he’s always been. He seems to have drifted a bit towards a more ideal hero as the webcomic goes by and he gets more comfortable with actually instructing (however unintentionally) the people he encounters. But his main purpose remains to mock and destroy any semblance of conventional hero and/or manga tropes the fall within his languid reach. His character has all the dynamism and spontaneity of static cling, but that’s not a bad thing at all in this case. Rather, it gives the other characters in the series a stepping point as well as a benchmark by which they can measure their growth and see how closely they approach the ideal of heroism. Remember: the primary marker distinguishing One-Punch Man from something like My Hero Academia - rooted in the demographic difference between the two - is the degree to which cynicism entwines itself into the plotline of the former, while remaining only a necessary but avoidable element in the latter. And Saitama, our lazy, destructive little protagonist, points to a rebuilding of these hero tropes just by standing in contrast to the small but steady trickle of optimism slowly seeping into the story.
Meaning of a Hero
I brought up the Deep Sea King arc in part one, but it’s worth revisiting here to get a sense of how the reconstruction of the story builds up even at this point. That arc was a first glimpse of what would be a recurring pattern for the series: a bunch of heroes gain tremendous amounts of resolve, trudge through dung heaps of doubt, before finding the will to fight on - and get utterly curb-stomped for their efforts before Saitama swoops in and cleans house in his own lazy way. While an obvious knock against the whole hero paradigm, it also quietly opens the conversation on what, exactly, makes a hero. The fat heckler towards the end had his own opinions, of course; a hero beats monsters, and anyone who can’t doesn’t deserve the moniker. But Saitama begs to differ, for despite his lackadaisical nature, he grasps more than anyone in the crowd what makes a hero: the willingness to fight, not because you’re guaranteed to win, but because of the dire consequences if you do nothing at all.
“If the hero runs away, who’s left to help?”
All through the Deep Sea King fight, the titular antagonist racked up an impressive casualty count among the heroes. Much of his rampage served only to hammer home the problems and flaws of the Hero Association system, but amidst the darkness, a few flashes of genuine heroism came to light. The most well-known - and inspiring - of these is of course Mumen Rider’s famous Last Stand against the vile villain. I brought it up last time just to show how One-Punch Man knocks down the second wind archetype so often abused in shounen series against all logic and reality. But the C-Class hero’s speech while facing down the creature is what really sets it apart. On the surface, it’s just another defiant stance, a mental pep talk to set up the nakarma power-up that gets dashed by the show’s deconstructive railroad. But beneath the viciousness lies a resolve of heroism as, not a job or an ego boost, but an ideal: the act of giving your life for the safety and protection of another. Mumen Rider understood that it wasn’t about winning, necessarily, but buying time for the people under his watch. The same may be said for All Black Man, the cowardly hero in the evacuation dome. Though he’s probably best known to for pissing his pants in fright when the Deep Sea King showed up, he still braved the danger said villain presented, even if only bolstered by the false reassurance of three other heroes backing him up. No matter how hopeless the odds or impossible the enemy, these heroes and all the others who laid down their lives against old fish-face still rose to the challenge. Their courage and skill levels may have varied, but all still heeded the maxim Saitama himself stated just a few episodes prior: “If the hero runs away, who’s left to help?”
Giving Credit where it is Due
But Saitama doesn't just spout occasionally insightful nonsense; he actually walks the walk. He doesn’t sit back and pontificate the true essence of being a hero, but he puts it to practice, even at great cost to himself. After his signature one punch victory against the Deep Sea King and the heckling loser’s tirade against the Hero Association, our hero beats back the cynicism by playing the cheat, making the spectators turn on him to hoist the other heroes to a better light. In any other anime, this might have been a scene just to show a hidden faucet of Saitama’s character - to give the fans a glimpse of the man beneath the apathy. But in this case, it had a social function as well. The spectators, in turning against Saitama, developed a newfound appreciation for the weaker heroes who nonetheless put their lives on the line for them. And indeed, there’s more than a little truth in Saitama’s grandstanding; while his yarn on fighting the Deep Sea King in a “weakened” state is demonstrably false, many of the evacuees, and even some of the heroes, wouldn’t be there were it not for the defiant actions of Mumen Rider, Genos, All-Black and even Snake-fist Sneck, among others. Saitama, in effect, wasn’t giving credit to the others; he merely distributed the credit they deserved for their roles in protecting the peace and saving lives.
The Elephant Revisited
We come back full circle with a reexamination of Saitama’s unique and pivotal role in the deconstruction-reconstruction seesaw this series goes through. The Deep Sea King arc, as mentioned, merely lays the groundwork for what will become a recurring pattern in the series as it moves forward. Though mentioned earlier how Saitama often serves the roll of reluctant mentor while interacting with the other heroes, he just as often leaves the spotlight altogether, letting focus shift to the struggles of the other heroes. These characters go through a whole panoramic of character development while facing the arc’s villain: an initial arrogance or dismissiveness, followed by a big ole’ dose of humility and a resolve to become better - whether a better hero, or simply a better person. Saitama often plays no role in this development whatsoever; while his laziness often belies a tendency to dole out advice like some latter-day bodhisattva, sometimes, he really is just that lazy, and true to form, throws all attempts to paint his actions in a higher light out the window. He still usually saves the day in the end, but only as a sort of deus ex machina, sweeping in to mop up after the focal character has had his or her epiphany after their moment in the light. Even then, none of that diminishes what that character went through. For Saitama, it was just another boring battle; but for the other character, an eye-opening insight into what makes them tick - and, often enough, what makes a real hero.
The above ties the various threads of this series together. ONE created an almost textbook deconstruction of the superhero genre in the first part, where he keeps the focus on Saitama and his existential malaise, but after a while, he opens the floor a bit to let other players in. With the inclusion of folks considerably less overpowered and more introspective, the series shifts away from the deconstructive inclinations of a bald-headed demigod. Instead, One-Punch Man gently transitions into a look at what it means to be a hero through the angsts and actions of characters like Genos, Fubuki, and Mumen Rider - with Saitama playing the role of unlikely, and unintentional, facilitator. While Saitama's presence alone ensures the series never strays far from its deconstructive roots, and it certainly never reaches the optimistic heights of My Hero Academia, ONE shows that he’s not afraid to crack open a few windows in his snarky and cynical parody.