With great power comes…what, exactly?
City Z isn’t the easiest place to live in. Supervillains, monsters, and monsters controlled by supervillains rampage through the city on a regular basis. Sure, there’s heroes around (what giant metropolis in fiction doesn’t have them?), but there’s some threats that even the members of the all-powerful Hero Association can’t handle. Who do they call when the chips are down and all hope is lost?
No one, actually. They’re the ones who get called in these kind of situations, so if they’re out, there’s not much anyone can do. But usually, a certain someone comes along to save the day. A man with unlimited power in the palm of his hand. A man with the ability to tear his foes asunder with a single blow. A man of unparalleled strength and equally unparalleled boredom.
A man who’s just a hero for fun.
If you’re into anime and you have an internet connection, you’ve probably heard of One-Punch Man at some point over the past year. It’s the show that sparked a thousand “who would win in a fight” debates on forums and message boards, the show that had that one really cool fight scene that all of your animation major friends wouldn’t stop talking about, and the show that spawned endless reaction images and countless gifs all across the internet. Almost a year after its Japanese television debut, Toonami has begun airing an English dub of the show, giving fans and newcomers alike a chance to experience the series anew.
Spoilers for the first episode lie ahead.
The series’ premiere episode, The Strongest Man, gives us a day in the life of Saitama, a superhero with enough raw power to turn his enemies into giblets with just one punch. Oddly, his superhero backstory isn’t what’s tragic about him. Once an average salaryman with a series of failed job interviews under his belt, Saitama decided to become a hero after saving a kid from a giant, murderous crab-man and getting one hell of a thrill out of it. No, the tragedy comes in the end result: he got exactly what he wanted. Saitama trained so hard and for so long that he’s practically unstoppable. He also lost all of his hair, which is just insult to injury.
We get a few different examples of Saitama’s strength throughout the episode. In the show’s cold open, a creature known as Vaccine Man wreaks havoc throughout the city, presumably killing a good number of civilians and racking up lots of yen in property damage. Saitama shows up and rescues a young girl the monster was about to kill, and offends Vaccine Man by claiming he’s just there as a hero for fun. Vaccine Man launches into his own “superior” backstory: he was created from Earth’s pollution, and it’s his duty to cleanse the Earth of its human disease. As Saitama looks on, Vaccine Man morphs into an even more monstrous form that looms over the hero, mocking the hero for facing him for such a pathetic reason as “for fun.” Before the creature can even finish his speech, however, Saitama’s put a massive hole through him and saved the day. You’d think he’d be happy about this, but the poor guy just falls to his knees in despair, bemoaning the fact that all it took to beat this massive monster was one punch.
Saitama is in a bit of a rut. No matter what he does, no matter who he fights, it’s never a challenge. Giant monster rampaging through the city? Bam. Done. Weird car/human hybrid? Pow. Done. As he puts it partway through the episode, “Having overwhelming strength is pretty boring, actually.” He ends up just going through the same old motions he did before he became a hero: wake up, eat, brush teeth, get groceries, go home, eat, bathe, and sleep. All he’s done is add “defeat a bad guy” to the to the daily grind.This all changes when Saitama wakes up one morning to find his apartment destroyed, along with a huge chunk of the city and a large amount of the human population on the planet. Mole Men from beneath the surface have come to take their rightful place as the true inheritors of the Earth. To make matters worse, they are powerful enough to withstand a blow from Saitama’s fist and send him flying.
Did I say “worse?” I meant “absolutely fantastic.” At least, that’s the case for Saitama as he proceeds to run wild on the Mole Men. He brawls with more passion and purpose than he’s ever felt in his entire life, hitting the monsters with everything he has. Hell, he’s actually fighting! For once, it’s not over in a split second! As the Subterranean King of the Mole Men rises from the depths, Saitama charges forward, finally getting the thrill he’s so desperately longed for.
…and then his alarm clock goes off, bringing us back to reality.
As Saitama wakes up, he hears the Mole Men declaring their invasion outside his window, and rushes out to fight like in his dream. Unfortunately, he lands directly on top of the Subterranean King, squishing him in an instant. Nonetheless, he challenges the Mole Men to face him. They immediately surrender, and Saitama-his passion deflated-decides to go back home. It’s just another day in the life.
That is, until an after-credits sequence shows a mysterious man with black and gold eyes standing in a field of rotting cow corpses, staring out towards City Z…
This is one of the best first episodes of an anime I’ve seen in a good while. In a lot of shows nowadays, their first episodes try really hard to sell you on either the premise or the plot, with the character introductions either being a supplement to the plot of the pilot or sidelined for future episodes (Concrete Revolutio’s convoluted opener comes to mind). One-Punch Man instead chooses to focus on Saitama and his struggles in day-to-day life, with the only “plot” being a few disconnected fight sequences.
This mostly works in the show’s favor as the perpetually blank-faced superhero is the real heart of the show and one of the most compelling characters to come out of anime in a long time. Saitama’s no Superman, someone dedicated to fighting for justice and truth as he defends the people of his fair city. He’s just like anyone else; he wants to find something that can really get his blood pumping, something he can get truly passionate about. He thought becoming the most powerful hero around would give him the thrill he was searching for, but all it’s done is…well, make him the most powerful hero around. When there’s nothing in the world that can stop you, why bother doing anything? Max Mittelman’s voice work really sells the character; keeping Saitama’s voice at a dull, disinterested monotone for the majority of the episode makes his occasional emotional outbursts extremely powerful. It leaves a very strong impression that sets up the stakes for Saitama’s growth going forward.The animation in this episode is top notch, with everything from Saitama’s shifting facial expressions to the aftermath of each one of his punches flowing near seamlessly. There’s a good amount of gore in the show (seeing Saitama rip out the crab man’s eye was unsettling as all hell, to tell the truth), but it’s all animated so stunningly that the creepy factor is outweighed by the “holy crap, how did they do that?” factor. The simultaneously detailed and simple nature of the art style (with designs based specifically on Eyeshield 21 artist Yusuke Murata’s manga adaptation of the original web comic by the artist One) adds greatly to this. The fight scene with the Mole Men especially utilizes a thrilling mix of animation styles and does a great job of building up to the sequence’s punchline. This is aided by one hell of a soundtrack that uses a lot of heavy-metal inspired guitar riffs and a kicking drum track that amps up the tension to eleven, leading into a soaring, violin-heavy climax.
That’s not to say the episode is perfect, however. As great as it is to see an episode so dedicated to its protagonist, it doesn’t leave much room for any kind of real tension. The episode meanders through its obligatory plot in order to get to the dream sequence, as great as a payoff as that is. Saitama’s backstory sequence is also a bit too long, spending a bit too much time on a joke about a kid with a weird chin and on spelling out Saitama’s personality through clunky exposition dumps that could’ve been used to insert another monster fight in the present day or more time with the Mole Men. The aforementioned gore is also unsettling for people who might be jumping into this from the just-as-violent-but-not-as-messy Dragon Ball Z Kai that leads into the show. As well, people more used to a three-act structure will come out of this episode feeling like they just watched half an hour of build-up to what would normally be the first episode of another show. They’re pretty minor complaints overall, but they’re noticeable issues nonetheless.
The Strongest Man, despite its flaws, is an extremely strong start to the series. It demonstrates what the show will be about through the strengths of its protagonist rather than an over-complicated plot (which hinders the show as much as it helps). Add in some stunning animation, a head-banging soundtrack, and the promise of more adventure (and comedy) to come, and you’ve got a pretty damn good premiere.
The Japanese-language episodes of One-Punch Man can be streamed in full at Daisuki and Hulu. English-dubbed episodes air every Saturday at midnight on Toonami. The English-dubbed premiere can be streamed here.