Behind the comedy, through which One Punch Man redefines the world of superheroes, lies the exaltation of the willpower of man

Born in 2009 as a webcomic published on the blog of the Japanese cartoonist known as ONE, One-Punch Man is a manga that has achieved a great success thanks to its book adaptation serialised since 2012 with the drawings of Yusuke Murata, as well as the anime adaptation which counts two seasons so far, broadcast in 2015 and 2019. I will focus on these latter ones in particular. 

One Punch Man between shonen, superheroes and comedy 

In the backdrop of a world periodically threatened by mysterious beings, the young 25 year-old Saitama is a hero as a hobby, but his activity is everything but satisfying. For instance, he has been trained hard for 3 years to the point of losing his hair, and he built up such a strength to defeat each villain with only one punch (this is the origin of the title of the work); this aspect makes every fight of our hero unbearably short and unsatisfying. 

The merciful gap between the protagonist’s power from the one of his unlucky rivals deprives of meaning, first of all, the obsessive attention for the ability levels of the characters which is typical of the shonen: it is a  genre of manga/anime focused on martial arts addressing a teenage audience of boys . The world-famous Dragon Ball has been the symbol of this genre for entire generations.

However in the eyes of the western audience One Punch Man challenges even the traditional representation of the superhero which the American cartoons have made us know and love. More than the pursuit of noble ideals, as a matter of fact, the boredom and the frustration rising from his unemployed status push Saitama into becoming a hero. Then, once he has reached the maximum level of strength, it is again the escape from monotony that gives sense to his heroic deeds, that he performs primarily in the hope of meeting his matching opponent, a character  who can rouse in him the adrenaline of a fair match. 

Given these characteristics, One Punch-Man gained the tag of parody product, definition that finds support in the comedy with which the work proposes again the typical cliches of the shonen and of superhero cartoon: from the to say the least grotesque aspect of the suits of superheroes who protect the planet, to the usually ridiculous appearance of monsters who threaten human existence, the hilarity peeps out on the scene also during the most dramatic moments, filled with apparently out of the context jokes . 

However, this irony has not to be always  intended only as a product of the vision through which ONE wants to redefine the concept of “superhero”. Behind it, indeed, sometimes the author seems to hide deeper considerations on the nature of the human being. 

The superpower of the willpower 

The episode in which Saitama reveals the secret of his strength represents, in this case, the most significant case: for three consecutive years, in every single day of the year, he executed 100 push ups, 100 bends on the legs and 10km running, abstaining himself from the use of air conditioning to temper his spirit. The scene is internationally comic and plays on the epic atmosphere with which the protagonist describes a totally ordinary training program, which has nothing super. Nevertheless, Saitama’s speech seems to me to be going out pure and simple parody. 

You that play with evolution to create new humans will never arrive to this level. Our strength is succeed in changing ourselves”

In this sentence, pronounced at the end of his speech, the hero encloses not only the secret of his strength, but also the one of every person: if you truly want it, with constancy and dedication it is possible to overcome your own limits and improving yourselves. Simple revelation, anything but obvious, with which the anime overthrows the canons of superheroism to praise purely human qualities, and it is precisely Saitama’s humanity that renders the message even more meaningful. 

He is in fact a normal guy, not particularly attractive, whom primary worries are to eat leeks to make his hair regrow, reading manga and play videogames. The fact of having been incredibly powerful only thanks to an iron will it does nothing but enhance, even if in a paradoxical form, the strength of his normality. 

From here, also the place where the hero finds himself having to reveal his secret is rich of symbolic importance: it is the “House of the evolution”, site of a crazy scientist eager of creating a new normality through complex genetic mutations, that calls to mind the origins of many US superheroes. In contrast, exalting the major force of will of the man, Saitama’s speech reduces these experiments to a mere metaphor of the ineffective shortcuts that, while sparing us from the fatigue, do not allow us to reach our goals. 

Stan Lee (Stan Lee – Wikipedia) declared ( : 

In order to be a superhero, you need a power that is more exceptional than any power a normal human being could possess” 

The world of ONE, to the contrary, it’s an acclaim to ordinariness. After all, the great majority of his heroes except for rare and isolated cases it’s consisting of normal people who have made of tenacity and strength of will their only superpowers, putting them on disposal, even if often in clumsy and ridiculous ways, for the safety of common good. An example between many is Spatent Rider, the hero without drivers license who fights evil riding his bicycle and that has nothing super if not the determination with which he faces every danger. 

Spatent Rider in action (screenshot from episode 08, season 1 of the anime)

One Punch Man transmits then a teaching simple but precious: becoming superheroes means, at the bottom, having the courage to punch our limits, to aim to give the best of what we can be.

*cover image: screenshot adapted from the opening of the first season of the anime

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