One Punch Man is an anime/manga/web-comic about a superhero so powerful he can end any fight with one punch. It's the best. I am going to try my best to explain why. But the truth is — I don't really understand it myself.
Like any good anime hero, I'll do my best. Ganbare Yo!
Halfway through the second episode of One Punch Man there's a pivotal scene.
Our bald protagonist Saitama listens to Genos, his Cyborg sidekick, reveal his reasons for becoming a superhero. Exposition central. The swirling music spirals, his tragic backstory is revealed: line after line after line of cliche-ridden dialogue.
I've watched scenes like this before, we all have — in Bleach, in Naruto, in Hajime No Ippo, in... well, take your pick really. Every Shonen manga/anime ever made has a scene like this. But in One Punch Man it's different.
This time the protagonist isn't sombre, understanding. Quite the opposite. Saitama's face contorts into a grimace. He is bored, much like the audience. Stop talking. Stop talking. Bloody hell, stop talking!
Genos will not stop talking. Saitama's face gets worse. The exposition gets worse.
Eventually Saitama explodes! Enough is enough, no more of this backstory bullshit. 20 words or less!
20 words or less goddammit!
This is the joke — this One Punch Man's one joke, essentially. But holy shit is it a good joke.
If, like me, you've read a bunch of manga or watched way too much anime, you understand the satire. You've watched many a sidekick, many a super villain spend 50% of an episode bearing his soul. "I'm only evil/powerful because a ninja/robot/pirate/monster killed my parents/brother/family and now I'm out to be strong/get revenge/kill bad guys." You understand how deep rooted that cliche really is.
One Punch Man says no. One Punch Man says 20 words or less.
One Punch Man's joke is that it subverts everything. Nothing else is important. Kotaku Australia ran a review of One Punch Man, it was a very good review — a positive review in fact — but it kinda missed the point. It broke One Punch Man down into different parts, criticised the lack of drama, the fact that the battles have no tension because the protagonist can end all battles — as the title informs us — with One Punch.
But um... that's the joke!
That's the joke. That's arguably the one joke, but One Punch Man is utterly incredible at telling that one joke and continually finds new ways to tell that joke.
Here's how the joke works: Saitama approaches an enemy. That enemy discusses his power, his years of training, his reasons for going down the path of evil. Oh my God, could this be the one, the audience asks — the enemy that finally cause Saitama to break a sweat.
Bam. One Punch. Nope.
How many times have we watched mangas and anime develop a weird obsession with that same old shit: power levels, endless training arcs, endless fights with zero consequence that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Fights that end in stalemates, fights that drag out for episode after episode, fights with flashbacks. Jesus wept...
Bam. One Punch. Nope.
It's incredible. It's an incredible joke, and it has layers.
Shonen Manga — you know the story, you know the drill. The hero has to work hard. Hard work beats talent. "I WILL NEVER GIVE UP." "GANBARE YO!" Success comes from training, from training arcs to be more specific. Naruto, for example, learns his Rasengan through the force of sheer will and uses it to defeat a previously unbeatable enemy. That's not how One Punch Man works.
Another perfect scene:
Saitama's sidekick Genos watches as another seemingly unbeatable enemy falls with one punch. Genos begs Saitama — how did he acquire this power, this strength? Dramatic pause, I will finally reveal to you my secret training, says Saitama.
100 push ups, 100 sit ups, 100 squats, 10 kilometre run. Every single day!
The sheer beauty of it — Saitama thinks this regime is super hard. He thinks he is undergoing the type of training you might see in Naruto, Dragon Ball Z or Bleach, but it's just a... regular training session. Pure genius.
It's just a joke that sort of rips the carpet from underneath and I don't know why, but it never really stops being funny.
One Punch Man is funny I think, because of how cliche-ridden Shonen manga is — how dependent it is on certain plot structures, certain character types. Place a truly original character like Saitama into that universe and literally everything he does is funny. His mere presence in this space is satirical. It's incredible because it's so simple, but it works.
The joke — Saitama's overwhelming, stupid strength levels — it just works. And after years of being completely bored with anime, its just so much fun to watch as One Punch Man tears it all to shreds.