ByAn Nguyen, writer at Creators.co
College student studying English who knows more about the Batman mythos than he'd like to admit.
An Nguyen

NAs with other art forms, anime and manga can serve not only as conduits of storytelling and media to entertain the audience, but as tools of self-examination and critique as well. In 2009, a relatively unknown manga artist by the name of ONE self published a rather poorly drawn web comic called One Punch Man on his own website.

Original One Punch Man art by ONE
Original One Punch Man art by ONE

Quite plain looking to be sure, but this web comic soon became a viral hit, and was soon remade into a hit manga, in turn receiving a popular anime adaptation and eventual critical acclaim. A big a hit with the fans and the critics, what was the appeal of a bald-headed superhero who could simply destroy things with one punch?

On the surface level, one could attribute the success of One Punch Man to a winning mix of great storytelling, interesting character designs, and expertly timed humor. However, the innate appeal of of One Punch Man runs to a much deeper level, and in order to understand its impact and popularity, we have to understand what Shonen manga is, and its current state. One Punch Man ultimately resonates with readers because it is as much a product of the Shonen genre as it is a parody/commentary of it. It simultaneously tells a great story and incorporates elements that make Shonen popular, and runs these elements through a self-critical lens that ultimately attempts to dissect the genre and bring to light its core values. One Punch Man is a beautiful work — artistically, literally, and metaphorically — and in this article, I will try to examine, illustrate, and justify the ways in which One Punch Man is a magnum opus of this generation.

A History Of One Punch Man

The work itself centers around an unimpressive bald man wearing a yellow jumpsuit who runs around protecting his city from the dangers of monsters, meteors, and all other manners of hazards. The catch? He's bored with his life and seeks a challenge because unlike other heroes, he's never been pushed to his limits before, since he destroys everything with only one punch. The story quickly became a viral hit, with ONE's website receiving 7.9 million hits from One Punch Man views alone. Veteran manga artist Yusuke Murata, known for his work on Eyeshield 21, became intrigued with ONE's work and proposed a collaboration where he would redraw ONE's web comic and the two would ready the series for serialization.

With ONE behind the writing and Murata heading the art, One Punch Man became serialized and published under Shonen Jump, unarguably the most popular manga magazine in Japan. One Punch Man quickly became one of the most popular manga of 2012, and soon after, it received a critically praised anime adaption as well. Needless to say, One Punch Man cemented itself in the annals of Shonen Jump history.

Shonen As A Genre: Elements And Tropes

Now why did/is One Punch Man, a comedy manga at best, quickly become such an iconic manga from a company that headed staples such as Dragonball Z, Naruto, One Piece, and Bleach? Well, the aforementioned titles are all a part of the Shonen genre, a genre that targets young boys and teens. The manga under these genres usually feature strong protagonists struggling against absolute evil while bettering their own strengths through perseverance and the power of friendship.

Goku vs Frieza from Dragonball Z
Goku vs Frieza from Dragonball Z

The battles featured in these stories are usually on the Earth-shattering scale, with fighters being able to split the land with a mere punch, energy beams the size of cars being thrown around like frisbees — you get the idea. The important elements/ staple tropes of Shonen that are universal across all of the titles are:

  • A protagonist that grows throughout the story, but ultimately becomes the strongest due to endowed supernatural strength.
  • Unimaginable evil that must be vanquished no matter what.
  • An emphasis on optimism and never giving up hope.
  • Long drawn out fight scenes that feature spectacular environmental destruction and quick-paced action.

This is a great clip that illustrates these elements working together in conjunction with one another:

In this clip from the popular anime series Dragonball Z, Goku is facing off against Frieza, an intergalactic dictator hellbent on universal domination. At this point in the battle, Goku has absolutely exhausted all of his resources — he is drained, but still willing to fight despite Frieza's upper hand. Frieza decides to toy with his opponent even more, and kills his childhood friend, Krillin (Kuririn in the Japanese version). With the death of his friend weighing on his conscience and absolutely insurmountable odds, Goku's only choice is to find the strength within him to pull through. Moreover, the pressure of saving the universe and avenging his friend's death ultimately results in his transformation into the Super Saiyan, an unlocked form of great power that eventually allows him to destroy Frieza and save the day. The clip illustrates how through sheer willpower and hope to succeed, a protagonist can accomplish anything that they desire, and that everyone possesses the strength within them to win as long as they persevere.

These elements also arise as a result of Shonen's adherence to Carl Jung's "Hero's Journey" archetype storytelling cycle.

A typical Hero's Journey template for storytelling
A typical Hero's Journey template for storytelling

However, with Shonen there is an emphasis on lengthening the ordeal (8) to drag out the conflict, and therefore inflating the reward in order to bestow immense power on the protagonist. And since Shonen manga are serialized series, once a story arc ends, a new threat arises again that dwarfs the protagonist's new power so that a new story can start again from the beginning of the journey cycle. This results in Shonen protagonists exponentially gaining power over the course of their respective series.

Goku's different powered up forms
Goku's different powered up forms

A prime example of this is, going back to Dragonball Z, Goku's different Super Saiyan forms. Every time he defeats a new enemy, he unlocks a new stage of Super Saiyan, going from Super Saiyan 1–4, and now currently he is a Super Saiyan God. Many authors utilize this form power-up motif to allow their series to continue and create more opportunities for stronger villains to defeat the protagonist's new form and act as a catalyst for growth.

The Fall Of The Big Three: Bad Habits

Manga From left to right: Bleach, One Piece, and Naruto
Manga From left to right: Bleach, One Piece, and Naruto

In recent memory, there have been three Shonen Jump titles that have dominated the charts in terms of popularity, fanbase, and sales:

Bleach by Tite Kubo,

One Piece by Eiichiro Oda

and Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto

One Piece and Naruto respectively have sold 380 million and 220 million copies of manga alone, and Bleach follows with 82 million. What cements these series as the big three was their concurrent running alongside another in Weekly Shonen Jump and their adaptations into long-running anime series. Recently, Naruto ended its story with 72 volumes, and is about to reach it's conclusion at 474 episodes of anime. Bleach is also soon to reach its conclusion in the manga, and One Piece is going still strong with 72 volumes of manga and 755 episodes of anime.

Now, while Naruto is continuing with its spinoff series Boruto, One Piece is still running, and Bleach is reaching its conclusion, the current state of Shonen is that there is a little power vacuum caused by the loss of two popular series. More so than that, public opinion towards Shonen has become quite different, as many fans have gotten tired of "filler" chapters and episodes that don't progress the story, but rather fulfill the quota for a week as a side story or a long fight scene. As a result, these series have become long-winded. They have spent years building up their protagonists to unreasonable heights of strength, and this sets an unhealthy precedent for popular Shonen series. However, this precedent is not simply indicative of the Big Three, but for Shonen as a genre across the board.

'One Punch Man' To Save The Day

So how does our bald-caped hero fit into all of this? Saitama himself is very plain looking in comparison to the bright, spiky-haired protagonists of typical Shonen stories. It even appears that he was created specifically to spite them.

Super Saiyan God Goku vs....regular Saitama
Super Saiyan God Goku vs....regular Saitama

While Goku's hair is indicative of his power level, Saitama's bald head is consistently shiny and unchanging. In fact, the entirety of Saitama's character design seems to be a parody of Shonen tropes. Whereas many protagonists gain power throughout the series, Saitama starts off the series already being the strongest in the universe, decimating foes with one jab of his fist. In itself, this is remarking on how many protagonists gain their power exponentially throughout their stories, and then at some point gain enough power to overwhelm everything else in the universe. However, Saitama explains that his immense strength was acquired by simply trying hard and maintaining a consistent training routine.

While ONE could have simply left Saitama's strength unexplained, he chose to add that Saitama simply maintained a rudimentary exercise routine for many years, and that he gained unlimited strength as a result of this. The inclusion of this backstory makes Saitama a parody of the Shonen protagonist, but also makes him a participant of the genre. Often times sheer willpower and optimism allow protagonists to overcome their obstacles, and it's no different with Saitama.

The early focus of One Punch Man actually dealt with Saitama's lack of a worthy adversary, and his attempts to find one.

However, each time he became excited to face off against increasingly strong-looking foes, they would be simply eviscerated by one punch delivered by a blank-faced Saitama.

Eventually, he gives up and simply recedes to domestic life, as there really are no threats, and the anime proceeds to continue illustrating his menial day-to-day existence — a nod at the ever familiar habit of putting in filler episodes in order to bolster anime run-time.

In addition, ONE and Murata explore many facets of Shonen stories that other authors often gloss over. They explore the after effects of world-ending cataclysmic events and what it truly means to be a hero in the face adversity. This is first and foremost illustrated during the Meteor story arc.

Simply put, a meteor headed towards Earth that would have resulted in worldwide catastrophe and suffering. All the heroes of Earth were pushed to their limits and it seemed like there would be no stopping this threat. Out of nowhere, Saitama leaped up into the sky and obliterated the meteor into smithereens, averting the threat and saving the world.

Most conclusions would have then proceeded to start the next story arc, however, ONE makes sure to expose Saitama to the aftermath and consequences of his actions.

In this clip, several heroes jealous of Saitama's strength and doubtful of his true ability confront him and attempt to turn public opinion against him. Typically in-between story arcs, Shonen protagonists are lauded as heroes and saviors, but this confrontation calls out how many authors don't explore the aftermaths of the battles. Many protagonists participate in wanton environmental destruction but suffer little to no repercussions for what they've done.

Saitama being berated by the public he just saved
Saitama being berated by the public he just saved

Having public opinion turned on him and faced with the aftermath of his actions, Saitama is in a position to simply crumble under the pressure or lash out. These aren't overwhelming odds against evil, but arguments put forth by the common people, by common sense and by his own disregard for the safety of others. This setup is unprecedented in terms of how uncomfortable it is for the protagonist and the audience. It exposes both Saitama and the viewers/readers to the nihilist mindset that no matter what is done, there will always be naysayers and those looking to find a scapegoat for tragedies. He then delivers a haunting speech on the virtue of what it means to be a hero and doing so not for fame or fortune, but for the sake of protecting what is valuable.

As an act, this outright rejects the very idea of One Punch Man. Saitama was originally a hero without a rival — a warrior hungry for an opponent who doesn't exist. This resulted in him becoming disillusioned with his life, questioning his own existence and why he possesses immaculate strength without a match. But the appeal of One Punch Man comes from Saitama indulging in the genre that he parodies. He's bored with his life as a hero but continues working to protect his city and the Earth because that's inherently what is right. He doesn't become wrapped up in the idea that there is no point to all his strength and that there's no reason to try, but he still upholds all the ideals of justice and the superhero way, despite his demeanor and his attitude.

Underneath One Punch Man lies a story full of likable characters and heart. A reader could laugh at a gag where Saitama would accidentally nudge an assassin in the loins sending him into a spiral of slapstick,

and the next page could send you into tears with Mumen Rider's (the local powerless hero who still tries his hardest to protect everyone) attempts to stand up and face an insurmountable evil that everyone else has given up on.

Stripping away the self-references, the satire and the humor lies a story of heart and perseverance. One Punch Man is a synthesis of everything wonderful and appealing about Shonen with a dash of meta-commentary that examines why readers all over the world still make this the go-to genre, and indulges in it as one of the best stories to come out of recent years.

I hope this article has been enlightening / informative to you, and thank you for reading.

Check out how else anime has influenced genres (and Hollywood in general) in the video below:

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