Let’s Talk About One Punch Man

One Punch Man is one of those things that I’ve seen floating around the internet on and off for a few months, but I figured it would pass on out of my sphere of notice and right down the memory hole.  Instead, its first season got added to Netflix just in time to coincide with my spring break, and because I am an inveterate home body who prefers to stay in rather than go out and, y’know, do things with my free time, I binged it.

One Punch Man

Most of the series’s major players. (Image credit: MyAnimeList)

Generally, I like the show’s premise.  Doing a parody of a superhero universe where you have one guy who has become so powerful that he’s bored with the superhero life but keeps doing it anyway is a lot of fun.  The main character Saitama is extremely flawed in ways that make it clear he’s not someone to admire, but he has just enough moments of virtue that I keep cheering for him to succeed anyway.  He exists in a world that’s inherently ridiculous, and when you just accept that the way things work is bonkers, it’s a lot easier to go along with what’s happening.  Saitama’s self-proclaimed disciple, Genos, serves as a nice anchor point since he clearly exists as the protagonist of a much more earnest story who has somehow ended up in the wrong show without realizing it.  You keep waiting for him to realize that Saitama’s just a doofy guy who has inexplicably stupendous strength, and he never does, and somehow that’s okay.

I feel like a lot of this series allows for meditation on the tantalization that comes in storytelling from offering a character an opportunity for success, and then yanking that opportunity away repeatedly, often for incredibly stupid reasons.  This is a frustrating move to make in serious drama, but it honestly never really bothered me that Saitama had all these setbacks; I suspect this is due to the series being essentially a parody of action dramas.  It would be nice to see Saitama fail for a reason other than his laziness or indifference to simple solutions, but the fact that the joke never changes is generally okay with me in this instance.  It’s probably because we do see him gradually failing upward through the superhero ranks.

Now, for all the delightful parts of the show, there are a few flaws, mostly to do with specific characters.  I’ve complained in the past that Japan has a much more conservative, patriarchal culture, and that’s reflected strongly in a couple of highly problematic characters.  The first is the superhero Tornado (I think that’s her name).  She’s the second highest ranked superhero in the Superhero Association, and an impressive telekinetic.  She also looks like a child and wears a black dress that’s slit up to her thighs.  The show goes to pains to mention that she is older than Genos at one point in the final episode of the season, thus making her legally an adult, but this is a fig leaf to cover up the fact that she’s meant to be a sexualized child.  That’s a really uncomfortable trope to play in any situation, but its really irritating in this instance (especially when the show is such a sausage fest in general, and Tornado is just about the only significant female character in sight).  Japan, you’re gross.

The other character that’s really problematic is the superhero Puri Puri Prisoner; he falls into the anime stereotype of the burly gay man, but with exaggerated femme features like long eyelashes and pink lipstick.  The reason he’s a prisoner is because he’s a convict; his explicitly stated crime is sexually assaulting men that he finds attractive.  This portrayal of an openly gay character who can’t resist his sexual impulses is obviously pretty horrific in terms of representation.  We see straight male characters express visible discomfort in Prisoner’s presence as he makes unwelcome advances towards them, again reinforcing stereotypes about gay men and their implicit threat to heterosexual masculinity.  It’s highly upsetting, and it’s not the only instance of problematic depictions of sexuality within the show.

By virtue of the series’s premise, villains don’t last longer than an episode or two before they get obliterated by Saitama.  The tension is designed to arise from situations delaying his decision to punch his enemies rather than any sense of uncertainty about various showdowns.  Understanding that, it’s fair to say that the characterization of villains on the show is generally less detailed than that of the heroes.  Still, at least two of the villains in the show suffer from the same problems as Puri Puri Prisoner.  One is the Mosquito Lady, who falls vaguely into the vampire/succubus trope, but with a mosquito motif instead of some other blood sucking creature.  Her gender and sexuality are distinctly established as threats to the social order of the world, as her insatiable appetite for blood gets equated with her libido when she exhibits intense pleasure from absorbing the blood of a man her mosquito swarm has sucked completely dry.  In her fight with Genos she gradually loses her insectile limbs, but her secondary sex characteristics remain unscathed.  She’s both a sexual object for the presumably straight male viewer and a threat to the patriarchal order.  The other villain is the Deep Sea King, a humanoid sea monster who attacks in the same episode where Puri Puri Prisoner is introduced.  Deep Sea King has two forms: one where he resembles a human body builder, and a second, monstrous form that he acquires when he becomes sufficiently wet.  In humanoid form, Deep Sea King displays characteristics consistent with the burly gay man trope as well, including painted lips, a leering smile, and heart shaped nipples.  The threat he poses to the heroes is much more explicit and never played for humor like Prisoner’s sexual assault of other men is, but the two characters are of a kind on the show.

These characterizations, while relatively brief, are really troubling, and I can’t casually set them aside as minor flaws in an otherwise highly entertaining show.  They’re not direct affronts to my identity as a straight guy, so I don’t feel qualified in this case to say that you’ll find something really fun in One Punch Man if you can just overlook these few characters.  They’re clearly problems with the show, and if they happen to be of the sort that you find deeply troubling, then there’s not a whole lot that’s being missed by skipping the series; the idea can be done without the problematic elements, and likely has been in other media that play with superhero fiction.

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