The Philosophy of One Punch Man – Wisecrack Edition
One Punch Man’s Saitama isn’t your typical hero. He doesn’t struggle to defeat villains so much as he struggles to show up to the fight on time. What can Saitama and his bored lifestyle teach us about our own modern lifestyle? And what secrets lie in the show’s storytelling? Join us in this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of One Punch Man.
Written by: Kevin Winzer
Research by: Michael Luxembourg
Directed & Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Dean Bottino
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
The Philosophy of One Punch Man – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here and today we’re talking the ultimate one hit wonder, – One Punch Man. One Punch Man is unlike any anime you’ve ever seen. For one thing, the show parodies just about every trope in the genre. We might examine this in a future episode, so be on the lookout for that. Today, however, we’re looking at another way the show is unusual: there’s pretty much no drama. After you’ve seen one or two episodes, you know how practically all of them are going to end: with a big-a** punch and a yawn from the titular One Punch Man.
So how does the show remain interesting? Well, that’s where it gets pretty smart. Not only does it provide a hilarious take on anime but also a more subtle take on where humanity is going as a civilization. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of One Punch Man. As always, spoilers ahead. Our protagonist is Saitama. Once a disillusioned young man with a full head of hair searching for a job in business, he discovers a love for hero work that lights a fire in his eyes. But three years later, the thrill is gone, along with that luscious hair.
While he claims to be a “hero for fun,” Saitama doesn’t seem to be enjoying it much. That’s because he’s become so powerful that he can defeat any enemy with a single swing. Ever try to play Mortal Kombat against your mom? It’s not fun. That’s what it’s like for Saitama every time he fights. It would be easy to conclude from Saitama’s vacant expression and resigned demeanor that this is a show about boredom. Boredom is certainly a prevalent theme. But what the show really focuses on is conflict – specifically, imagining a world without it. In doing so it highlights the importance of conflict not only to a fictional story, but to human experience. The show’s abnormal story structure is key to understanding its message.
Conventional narratives, whether from a horror movie, sitcom, or action flick, are driven by conflict. In his book Story, screenwriting guru Robert McKee explains: “The music of story is conflict…as long as conflict is progressing and building in the story, it moves forward in time.” Without conflict, the characters aren’t motivated to do anything. Thus, in a typical narrative, there’s an overarching problem that gives the characters some purpose. Find the bomb before it explodes. Impress the girl who’s out of your league. Survive detention. Fix your troubled marriage. “Over the course of the story, the heroes of these tales meet obstacles that force them to change and grow. Each of these mini-conflicts drives the narrative forward towards the climax of the story.
We can illustrate this with countless examples, but let’s go with a classic: the original Star Wars trilogy. When we meet Luke Skywalker, he’s a courageous youth whose emotions get in the way of recognizing his true potential. He faces constant challenges – the death of Obi-Wan, the loss of his hand, finding out that the hot princess is really his sister. As he overcomes these obstacles, he reaches greater heights as a character, all in preparation for his showdown with Darth Vader. This kind of development doesn’t happen in One Punch Man because, well, Saitama is too damn strong. Unlike Luke, he decimates any conflict with one swing of his fist. Worse, he knows he can’t lose, so he doesn’t even benefit from the fear of defeat.
Absent any adversity, he has nothing to strive for. So, with the exception of a brief flashback to his origin story, he’s basically the same guy throughout the series. Even Saitama’s training regiment, usually an opportunity to depict a character’s mental and physical development, is just the same thing every day – there’s no progression. As superhero power sources go, it’s pretty pedestrian, which appears to foreclose the possibility that he has any secrets to reveal. Since Saitama is immune to conflict, the bulk of the episodes don’t really focus on him. He’s either not present during most of the big battles or he’s relegated to passive observer.
Instead, they focus on the supporting characters, establishing their backstories and placing them in challenging situations. Genos presents a classic heroic character arc: the wandering warrior with a chip on his shoulder convinces a reluctant teacher to impart secrets of great power, all so said warrior can tap his inner beast-mode and avenge past injustices. Think Karate Kid, or the Bride and Pei-Mei from Kill Bill, or again, Luke Skywalker. Even the villains’ motivations are developed – like Dr. Genus, whose dismissal by the scientific community compels him to spend 50 grueling years trying to unlock the key to humanity’s evolution, all for it to be undercut by one lackluster punch. Saitama’s motivations, in contrast, are mundane. He’s just doing all this for fun!
His powers don’t spring from some deep-seated pain in his past – he just did a bunch of exercise. The ease with which he reached superhero status robs the supporting characters of any meaning they’ve derived from their struggles. And they get pretty pissed off about it. Worse, whenever these characters get any kind of narrative traction, Saitama is there to whip the carpet out from under them. Just when Vaccine Man’s rage is at its peak, Saitama floors him with one punch, and all the dramatic tension built up over the last several minutes evaporates.
The same thing happens with Genos in Episode 2. As he fights Mosquito Girl we learn about his character. His desire to minimize collateral damage establishes him as a good guy. He perseveres, even when Mosquito Girl claims one of his arms. Despite the admirable qualities we’ve discovered in Genos, Mosquito Girl is too powerful for him. But Genos has one final move: he plays the martyr and prepares to self-destruct and save the city. We’re trained to recognize this as the emotional climax of the episode. But just as he’s charging up for his big moment, Saitama arrives, (and destroys the villain with ease,) rendering Genos’s struggle irrelevant.
Every creative writing student learns early in their education to avoid this kind of narrative bail-out. It’s called a deus ex machina, a plot device whereby a character, object, or event swoops in to solve a problem that had appeared unsolvable. For example, in War of the Worlds, a seemingly unstoppable alien race decimates the Earth for the entire film, only to drop dead en masse at the very end because they can’t handle Earth’s bacteria. Saitama is a human deus ex machina – when the situation is at its most dire, he pops in to save the day with his unbeatable punch – over and over again. When a conflict fizzles out like this, we don’t only lose the narrative momentum. We’re also deprived the opportunity for catharsis.
Catharsis is the emotional release of repressed emotions, and it’s a big part of how we relate to stories. We connect emotionally to narratives. We celebrate the hero’s victories and commiserate at their defeats. By the time we get to the climax of the story, we are set up for a big emotional payoff. Did you tear up when you found out Quill’s mother called him her little Starlord? How about at the end of Toy Story 3? Of course you did – you’re not made of stone!
We respond emotionally because we relate in some way to the character or the predicament they’re in.
In his essay “Narrating Pain: the Power of Catharsis,” philosopher Richard Kearney discusses how story permits us to “repeat the past forward.” Through the actions and personas of characters we can revisit our own lives and past experiences. We feel sympathy for Genos, whose sad story may remind us what it’s like to lose a family member. Our feelings of encouragement for the Mumen Rider may stem from our own experience trying to measure up to someone that’s bigger, smarter, or stronger than us.
We don’t simply feel empathy for these characters, we’re working out some of our own issues too. We see particularly good examples of this in Japanese media. In post WW2 Japan, for instance, the father of Japanese professional wrestling, a guy named Rikidozan, would fight American wrestlers styled as cheaters and villains. Watching Rikidozan struggle, persevere, and ultimately beat the American fighters allowed the Japanese to release some of the emotions associated with the war. To some extent, kaiju movies such as Godzilla, which depicted mass devastation akin to the havoc wreaked by the atomic bomb, served the same function. And it’s not just a Japanese thing. Following 9/11, American cinema produced numerous films that tapped into the emotions associated with terrorist attacks – such as Batman Begins or the Star Trek reboots. One Punch Man is precisely the opposite – it’s the anti-catharsis.
Sure, it LOOKS like some of those Japanese kaiju movies on the surface. But since Saitama can destroy any enemy with minimal effort, we don’t feel the drama of those threats in the same way Japanese filmgoers did when they watched Godzilla stomping all over Tokyo. We just shrug it off, like Saitama does after destroying the meteor. The show has a lot of fun playing the role of emotional spoiler. It goes out of its way to push our buttons, priming us for a big release…then depriving us of it. We root for the Mumen Rider because he’s an earnest underdog, clearly less powerful than the big bad S-class heroes. I mean he rides a bicycle for god’s sake. When he works himself into a lather before a crowd of cheering onlookers, and attacks a powerful foe despite the inevitability of his failure, we’re supposed to root for him too.
When the Sea King beats him down, instead of some recognition of the drama of the situation, we get. Totally anticlimactic. Of course, all this is supposed to be funny, and it is. But the show isn’t just playing for laughs. It’s highlighting what’s missing in a life without conflict. Japanese theorist Masahiro Morioka has observed the way our civilization’s drive to minimize pain and discomfort has actually drained value from our lives. By and large, life is easier than it’s ever been. On the surface, it may seem that our ability to reduce pain is good, because it’s enabled us to increase our pleasure and comfort.
But to Morioka, in doing so we gradually “lose the opportunity of experiencing the joy of life that comes from encountering an unwanted situation and being forced to transform ourselves to find a new way of thinking and being…” The show provides a great illustration of Morioka when Saitama recalls his first battle against Crablante. The win means something to Saitama because he has to struggle to achieve it. Flash-forward three years, and we see Saitama considering some pre-packaged crab at the supermarket. This juxtaposition perfectly depicts how modern life has managed to iron out hardships. Clearly, Saitama would prefer to work for his seafood. Through the lens of Morioka, we see that Saitama’s frustration stems not only from boredom, but from his inability to change and progress through failure and pain. This is clear from the first episode, when Saitama defeats Vaccine Man and experiences not triumph, but frustration.
Without any meaningful hardship, his life has become devoid of purpose. Just as a story requires conflict to progress, so does a human being. The idea that ease detracts from life’s value is articulated again when Saitama reacts to the Paradisers’ manifesto. For these villains, paradise means success with no effort.
Saitama has this, and he thinks it sucks. Morioka agrees, writing that “a civilization without pain and suffering seems to be the ideal of the human race. However, I wonder if people might end up with losing sight of joy, and forgetting the meaning of life, in a society pervaded by pain reduction mechanisms and filled with pleasure.” In the final episode of season 1, it appears that Saitama may have finally met a genuine challenger – finally, an enemy who can take a punch! Even multiple punches!
But it turns out that Saitama’s been holding back the whole time. Yup, life’s still meaningless. And so, in the dead fish stare of Saitama perhaps we find a warning: don’t get too comfortable. Be grateful for your failures, and embrace your pain and suffering, because without it, life has no meaning.