If you grew up some time between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, chances are you remember watching a particular type of Japanese anime (animated series) on TV. What we thought of as simply ‘Naruto’ or ‘Dragon Ball Z’ in fact came from a grand anime tradition known as ‘shōnen’ (meaning ‘few years’; i.e. anime which is targeted at the lucrative 8-18-year-old male audience). Shōnen anime experienced a golden age in the West in previous decades, with popular series proving themselves able to transcend their native culture, earn millions of young fans around the world and turn what was once a niche interest into a multi-million-pound industry. In recent years, however, anime has arguably retreated back into its Japan-centric bubble, becoming increasingly impenetrable to the average outsider, with the consequence that very few new titles make it big abroad (with some notable exceptions, such as the epic Attack on Titan). However, there is one new shōnen anime which I feel is essential viewing. That series is One-Punch Man, animated by the studio Madhouse. Yes, it is still very weird (and very, very Japanese), but self-consciously so. It is a hilarious deconstruction of both itself and other series of its ilk which skewers the quirks of the genre with such skill that I believe it earns the title of first truly postmodern anime. On top of that, it has some of the best, most mind-blowing action in any animated show ever, putting much of its Japanese competition – as well as almost every other Western cartoon – to shame.
Anime fans will argue over the most essential ingredient for a shōnen series. Some will say it’s the camaraderie between the characters, or the themes of hard work and self-improvement, but one thing which unmistakably defines the genre is its bombastic, over-the-top action. Whether they’re telling the tale of a mysterious teenager seeking revenge for his tragic past or a plucky team of heroes facing overwhelming odds, shōnen plots generally function as excuses to pit the characters against each other in dramatic bouts of fisticuffs to see who is the strongest. One-Punch Man’s central conceit takes the shōnen genre’s action fetish to its logical extreme: what about a hero who is so overwhelmingly powerful that no foe could ever take more than a single hit from him? The answer is obvious: it’s pretty boring! The dilemma facing our titular hero, Saitama, is the crushing pointlessness of being the strongest being in the universe with no enemy strong enough to validate his existence. “But where does the conflict come from, then?”, you may ask. It comes from the fact that Saitama is a loner and a nobody, whose origin story is that he’s just a hero for fun and is hilariously unaware of the goings-on of the rest of the world around him.
Of course, it helps that this world is visualised brilliantly. First of all, it recognises the importance that American superhero comics had on the formation of the shōnen genre (face it – Goku’s backstory in Dragon Ball Z doesn’t even try to conceal its Superman influences) to the point where the worlds of anime such as Dragon Ball Z or One Piece are essentially overrun with superheroes fighting each other. The world of One-Punch Man actually institutionalises such heroism, making the role of ‘hero’ a proper occupation in the defence and government of the world, which is managed by an enormous organisation called the Hero Association. To fight crime and earn adoring fans, you need to register with the board and take a rigorous exam, where you’ll be assigned a rank and pitted against appropriately-ranked threats. Every secondary character in One-Punch Man conforms to these traditional shōnen concepts of climbing ranks and improving their skills, blissfully unaware that the presence of Saitama, who only registers as a hero several episodes into the show, renders their entire existence meaningless. It’s a stroke of genius which creates some genuine moments of drama – since Saitama is isolated from the rest of the world, no-one believes his achievements, considering him a hoax who takes credit away from his fellow heroes – as well as comedy: Saitama is constantly exasperated by the overcomplicated origin stories of his fellow heroes, ordering them to limit their exposition to just a few words.
Indeed, the comedy is perhaps the greatest weapon of the series. With his bald head (a result of him training so hard his hair fell out) and hilariously deadpan expression, Saitama is a glorious comic creation who is unintimidated by the most horrific-looking foes but devastated when he misses a sale at the supermarket. Crucially, much of this comedy is intertextual in nature. Saitama’s guffaw-inducing moves mock the shōnen cliché of shouting dramatic titles before each attack with distinctly anticlimactic nomenclature (“Consecutive Normal Punches”, take a bow). Even Saitama’s hero name and design is itself a reference to a classic anime character, Anpanman, who has been ubiquitous in Japanese culture since his creation in 1973. This is the definition of pop-art: appropriating and inverting mass culture in an ironic, postmodern light. But while this, along with other references (it also pays homage to other anime such as Hunter x Hunter and Neon GenesisEvangelion), may not be picked up on by most Western viewers, they never distract from the more universal postmodernist inversions of concepts and characters, or indeed the incredible visuals.
What is perhaps most interesting about One-Punch Man is that the series comes from very subversive beginnings. Rather than being an adaptation of a manga (comic book) series created by a professional artist, One-Punch Man was based on a manga which was itself adapted from an amateur webcomic by an internet user named ONE, for whom drawing is just a hobby. This is the ultimate example of the triumph of the fans: comic-book nerds who have come to find themselves dictating the future of the industry they grew up consuming, and thus end up making loving critique of the shows they watched as kids part of the DNA of their very own series. Hopefully, anime studios will be even more willing to take on ideas from unestablished, off-the-wall writers such as ONE in the future – surely only a good idea considering the passion and clear affection for the genre that drips from every frame of One-Punch Man.
These post-shōnen elements are certainly intriguing, but ultimately they won’t be the deciding factor of One-Punch Man’s reception (especially if the series hopes to endure for hundreds of episodes as the greatest anime have). It remains to be seen if One-Punch Man will be able to create sufficient emotional stakes and a connection with its viewers to last for additional seasons as more plot-heavy series, such as One Piece, have. But, in the meantime, here is the best series the genre has produced for years; one that reignited in me memories of running down to watch the latest episode of Astro Boy on CBBC every morning; and, even better, one that might just make you want to dust off your old Dragon Ball Z VHSs and watch them again, this time with a more adult, more critical, more postmodern perspective.