It strikes me, not for the first time, that there’s a fundamental contradiction at the heart of One Punch Man. Every time the protagonist gets into a fight it’s an anti-climax, which would normally be a huge narrative problem – but that anti-climax is effectively the central pillar of the premise. It’s a very clever device around which to build a series, a chance to defy expectations in quite a novel way – and it once again makes me respect the creativity and daring of ONE.
But does it work? Is it a huge narrative problem? I suppose that’s a question every viewer (or reader) has to answer for themselves. For me, the best I can say it that sometimes I’m bothered by it and sometimes I’m not, and this was an instance where I kind of was. I really liked the buildup with the Deep Sea King – part of it was Koyama Rikiya’s spectacularly histrionic performance, no doubt, but for me he was the best villain of the series so far. And his face-off – and subsequent beatdown – of Genos was a cracker in every way.
But then, just like that, it was over. Because that’s just what Saitama does – it’s the whole point. I get that what really matters isn’t the punch but rather the aftermath, but I still felt a little let down. Seeing Genos brutalized the way the DSK did was powerful stuff – and it raised some hopes. But Saitama is so ridiculously overpowered that any normal rules, narrative or superhero, seem to apply. He’s apparently incapable of taking damage, and unable to impart anything less than a fatal blow if he has killing intent. RIP, Deep-Sea King.
None of that is to take anything away from that aftermath, which was fully up to OPM’s very high standard. Genos fulfilled his role beautifully, even taking a spitwad of acid to save a little girl. Mumen Rider had his glory moment at last, arriving just in time to save Genos. And the point here, folks, is that he did save Genos, even though he wasn’t remotely able to worry the DSK in any way. Just by being a distraction – buying a few minutes by becoming the Sea King’s punching bag – he kept Genos alive long enough for Saitama to arrive and save the day.
I wasn’t sure just how ironically ONE intended us to take Mumen Rider’s bonding moment with the crowd, complete with sentimental strings – at least a little, for sure – but there’s no question the guy truly is admirable in his steadfastness despite having no apparent powers whatsoever. I think the point is that integrity and courage is a power in its own right, and has value in battle (though not as much as Saitama’s punch). But the ultimate bro moment in the episode is reserved for Saitama himself. Surely, we think, the charade is over – with hundreds of witnesses to what’s happened, Saitama is finally going to get the recognition he so richly deserves (maybe this is even the moment when we see the birth of his hero name).
But in One Punch Man, things aren’t ever that straightforward. The capacity of the masses for stupidity is seemingly limitless, and ultimately one jackass is able to convince most of the survivors that the true meaning of Saitama’s success is that all the other heroes are weak (interesting revelation – the Hero Association is funded by donations). Rather than allow that perception to stand, Saitama sets himself up as the caricature that’s been painted of him – a cheat, a credit-stealer. It’s irritating as hell for the audience, but it seems that Saitama truly is a guy who doesn’t do this for the credit – he just wants to do what only he can do.
It’s a pretty ugly world ONE has created here. Miyano Mamoru’s Amai Mask is an image-obsessed pretty boy who’s the anti-Saitama – he’s mastered the art of manipulating public opinion, and it’s his top priority. The public are ungrateful sheep, eager to be lied to and demanding to be protected. But there are always moments of clarity, of nobility – Saitama’s act here, Genos’ relentless loyalty. And the fact that Saitama did get one kind letter among the stack of Genos’ fawning and hate mail – a simple “Thanks”. And it came from Mumen Rider, who was clearly conscious even after his beating by DSK. It takes a bit of the sting away knowing that at the very least, there are a few out there who know the truth about Saitama – and the Association itself is learning it too, albeit slowly.