O4 Commentary: One Punch Man and Self-Determination

In O4. Earth Explodes the Hurricane decides it doesn’t need the rest of humanity, and destroys it. One well-aimed projectile obliterates our planet.

That’s enough of an excuse to talk about One Punch Man, a webcomic/manga/anime about an eternally bored superhero named Saitama who can obliterate any monster in one anticlimactic punch. It’s a satirical take on action anime, though I’d argue it occasionally gets bogged down in the tropes it tries to mock. (The anime does a great job tightening it up.)

Although One Punch Man is a comedy with an invulnerable hero who can’t be physically threatened, it strikes serious tones with tact; any fan could tell you how Saitama dirties his own name to preserve the public image of other, more vulnerable heroes.

One serious theme which I haven’t heard discussed is One Punch Man‘s take on identity and self-determination. The most interesting monsters in the story are those who used to be human themselves.

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In One Punch Man humans aren’t transformed into monsters by chemical spills or radioactive spider-bites. Monster-hood might be granted just by obsessively repeating mundane actions. (Remember to read manga right to left.)

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These examples suggest (to me) that humans turn into monsters because they feel outcast. “Incarnation of Electric Light String” redirected impotent anger at inanimate objects, and their newfound power lets them act out in public. Crablante became a crab-monster when they ate ‘too much’ crab, as if their body warped out of sheer contempt for social bonds. Who knows if Crablante actually ate a disturbing amount of crab—what matters is Crablante felt alienated because of his diet.

Even when mad-science is involved, the transformation from human to monster aligns with the monster’s former vices.

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Meanwhile Saitama says he never wanted to be a salary-man…

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Saitama attains this awesome power not by gamma ray bombardment, but with physical training.

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On one hand, this is absurd; you can’t gain infinite power through calisthenics. Even other characters in One Punch Man call Saitama ridiculous. On the other hand, if boxing the string dangling from a light-fixture turns someone into a monster, why can’t exercise make someone a hero?

Another path to becoming a monster is introduced later in the series: if a human eats a “Monster Cell,” they become a monster themselves.

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This provides insight into why humans might seek monster-hood.

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These stated motivations (the last in particular) reinforce the idea that humans become monsters to ignore boundaries in pursuit of their own interests. “Man, it feels so good to admit this” is exactly Crablante’s motivation: “yeah, I eats lots of crab,” says Crablante, “I’m a crab-monster! Whatchu gonna do about it?”

There’s power in becoming the monster society perceives us to be (or the monster we think society perceives us to be). Some people wear insults like jewelry. If you decide “yeah, that’s right, I am an asshole, and that’s the way I like it,” you spontaneously free yourself from all social constraints at the cost of revealing yourself as the asshole everyone knows you are.

In contrast, Saitama’s self-declared rival, a ninja named Speed-of-Sound Sonic (really), desires strength but can’t stomach their Monster Cell uncooked. Cooking the cell deactivates it. You can’t achieve monstrous freedom without accepting the monstrous burden of discarding decency.

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While One Punch Man‘s monsters enjoy grotesque freedom, Saitama’s only goal is to be the best hero, and so, through repetitive exercise, he achieves this. The only difference between heroes and monsters, then, is the direction they aim themselves. Both humans and monsters are warped by their self-image, into their self-image.

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Saitama’s face is iconic and simple, which I attribute to the simplicity of his goal. While monsters are often complicated and detailed, Saitama gains power through straightforwardness. The only character with a face simpler than Saitama’s is Watchdog Man, one of the most powerful heroes in the series.

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This shows how Watchdog Man surpasses Saitama, not in power but in purity of ambition. Saitama was motivated by attaining power and now his power bores him. Watchdog Man gains power and contentedness from his self-assigned duty of protecting his city. Watchdog Man shows what Saitama could achieve someday in terms of devotion to heroism; for now, Saitama is distracted by desire for catharsis in battle.

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Anyway, I hope that sheds more light on the Bishonen Line that I talked about last month. The Hurricane gave up its humanity long ago. Now that Lucille has no Earth to restrain her, we’ll witness the scope of her vengeance. See you next week!

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