Predictably, Wanpanman is quickly rising in the Stalker rankings, starting to take on the air of the commercial success so many (including me) assumed it was going to be (tellingly, all of the back issues of the manga have re-entered the charts too). Things are falling into place, the series becoming the one I was hoping we were getting based on my limited reading going in. It was never less than good, but it’s as if the first few episodes were only revealing a small slice of the pie – it’s only now that we’re beginning to see what this show is really all about.
I don’t want to overstate the case, but I truly believe ONE is playing at a pretty high level with One Punch Man. He’s clearly a very thoughtful writer and a keen observer of the culture in which he lives (and of human nature in general). The plot of OPM is a clever construct, but it’s really a cover – a way for ONE to stealthily comment on the state of Japanese society today (especially for young adults) in entertaining fashion. And it’s not an especially flattering picture he’s painting.
This week’s episode continues the trend of the comedy sliding into a supporting role, and as funny as this series is, I think this is more the true face of OPM. Collateral damage was played for humor early on, but now it’s a deadly serious and integral part of the story. A meteor is headed for City Z (I can’t help but wonder if the offhand explanation that it “suddenly changed direction” is significant) and the Hero Association has sent out an SOS to all its S-Class members, begging them to help. It says a lot about the folks calling themselves “heroes” that only two of them show up – and about Saitama’s ironic place in their hierarchy that the Association doesn’t call the one hero who could actually do some good.
One of the heroes who answers the call is Genos of course – he’s as loyal as Old Yeller. The other is Bang (Yamaji Kazuhiro), a noble old martial artist who refuses to leave his city and his dojo behind, even though he knows he can do nothing to help. Bang’s cynicism is an intentional contrast to Genos, of course, but also one of the most striking things in the episode generally. He’s under no illusions about the true nature of his colleagues (or anything else) but remains true to his ideals even so. There is one other “hero” who shows up – Metal Knight, real name Bofoy (the always great Tessyo Genda), but he’s not interested in helping – he just wants to test his new weapon. And he does it from a safe distance, using a drone to actually put itself in harm’s way.
What happens in trying to stop the meteor is important, but it’s what comes after that’s the real story of the episode. Both Bofoy and Genos are helpless against it (though one of the rare comic moments of the ep is Bang momentarily imagining Genos is doing some good) but fortunately Saitama shows up at the last moment. He truly is overpowered, but it’s okay because that’s all part of the joke – it’s only the most basic level on which the character operates, but he is a spoof of overpowered DBZ-styled protagonists. Even a meteor is no match for One Punch (and Madhouse’s relentless sakuga), but with only a few seconds until impact not even Saitama can prevent the fragments of the meteor from causing catastrophic damage to City Z.
It’s easy to see where this is headed, but the genius is in the way it plays out. The S-Class heroes get much of the credit, but Saitama does rise all the way from 342nd to 5th-place in the C-Class rankings. But the mood of the public is sour, because they can’t see the forest for the trees – they only know that after OPM got involved, much of their city was wiped out, and don’t care to accept that it would have been annihilated (and them with it) if he hadn’t done what he did. And it’s clear in ONE’s writing that they actually know the truth – it’s just human nature to want to blame someone for what’s happened. They’ve had their lives wrecked (though to be fair, I would have bailed on City Z long before this), and they want to lash out.
There to take advantage of this are the buttmonkey Tank Top Tiger and his (slightly) cleverer and stronger B-Class “aniki” Tank Top Black Hole. They’re pissed that Saitama “cheated” and jumped the rankings so quickly, and Black Hole sees an opportunity to incite the mob against Saitama and both wreck his pride and reputation and goad him into a fight he assumes is a sure win. These zaku are detestable, but they’re an essential element of Wanpanman – they’re what the bulk of the Hero Association is. Of course they’re no match for Saitama in any sense, as he quickly proves, but that’s not what’s important about this exchange. What is important is the way everyone reacts.
It would be easy to label OPM as a pretty misanthropic and bleak affair, and there’s no question ONE pulls no (one) punches, Bang reflects that he hates to see Saitama “waste away” in the Hero Association, which is clearly not good enough for him. But in spite of his jaded perspective Bang is still here, and still fighting. Genos remains steadfastly loyal to Saitama through everything, seeing the truth of what his master is. And most telling of all is the response of Saitama himself – he doesn’t defend himself from these spurious charges with righteous indignation. He simply calls out the mob for the easily-led sheep they’re acting like, and declares that he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about their approval – he just does what he does because someone has to do it. I think it’s Saitama’s finest moment so far, and this whole sequence is a curiously hopeful one somehow – in the midst of infuriating injustice and stupidity, OPM feels like a series that believes something better exists.