Perhaps the most eagerly awaited series of 2015, One Punch Man is the tongue-in-cheek story of a tough yet lackadaisical superhero, quietly yearning for an adversary to equal him.
In a fictionalised, futuristic vision of Japan, Saitama, a freshly redundant salaryman, steps in to try and save a young child from an enormous mutant crab, only to find that he has a hitherto unknown knack for fighting, leading him to take up costumed heroism on a whim. Three years of training later, he has gone completely bald, but gained superhuman strength that allows him to take down any opponent in a single punch. Unfortunately, Saitama is still unemployed, but a chance encounter with a vengeful cyborg leads him to join the ‘hero association’, an official body for the superheroes tasked with protecting the country from the growing threat of monster attacks.
Starting its life in 2009 as a crudely drawn webcomic by amateur artist ONE, One Punch Man became a huge viral success in Japan, garnering such popularity that a licensed remake manga soon appeared, boasting new artwork and official support from the Jump magazine line, with that second version forming the basis of the anime. While it’s refreshing to hear of an outsider shooting to fame in the manga industry, the storytelling does lack the focus that one might expect of a professional production; rather it’s the art and animation that are One Punch Man‘s main attraction.
Not to say that the story isn’t enjoyable – far from it, in fact. From its bombastic, Jam Project opening theme onwards, this is essentially a throwback to old-school baddie-battering, with overt reference to Dragonball Z in the art design, and what I thought was more than a whiff of The Guyver in some of the bloodier confrontations with the parade of gruesome, sentai-style creatures attacking the city.
Saitama himself is also an entertaining character to watch; terminally laconic, always mildly amused and riding into battle in his homemade costume, he is about as much removed from angst-ridden fighting-series archetypes as you could imagine. His cyborg friend Genos is far more like the protagonist you’d expect, with the typical murky past and determination to get stronger, but the fact that this isn’t his show is just another part of the joke.
Yet, while he enjoys helping others, Saitama often seems to be driven by little more than boredom at having never met anyone he couldn’t defeat with the greatest of ease, meaning just about any fight he is involved with has a foregone conclusion. To the series credit, this feels far less repetitive than it should have, but there’s a frustrating lack of depth to it, and the plethora of other heroes and villains that Saitama encounters offer little story we haven’t heard before. The series also strikes at least one sour note as it begins to grow its cast, with the only openly gay character portrayed as a ridiculously camp, predatory stereotype. I think he’s unlikely to cause genuine offence, but it would be nice to think the mainstream manga industry had moved past the level of Are You Being Served? by now.
The real strength of the One Punch Man anime is definitely visual, with studio Mad House having absolutely gone that extra mile and throwing what seems like every animation trick in their book at the screen in the pursuit of making this show look good. Every frame is not a painting, but the series is so consistently handsome and frequently stunning that it would shame many feature-film productions.
At a mere 12 episodes, it’s also very easy to digest. Unsurprisingly, a second season is more or less assured, but this is a compact and reasonably self-contained series that does not outstay its welcome. At present, One Punch Man is only available for legal streaming in the UK via Daisuki, but for such a striking and quintessentially accessible show, Netflix and the broader audience surely beckon.
Art and Animation – 5/5
Story and Characters – 3/5
Overall – 4/5
A feast for the eyes, if not the brain, One Punch Man is a well-intentioned beat-em-up with enough visual clout to prove that you needn’t visit the cinema to see something a bit special.