One Punch Man Season 2
Episodes 1-2

by Steve Jones,

How would you rate episode 1 of
One Punch Man (TV 2) ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
One Punch Man (TV 2) ?

Welcome to One-Punch Man season 2! It's been over three years, so in case you need a refresher, let me get you up to speed. Saitama is the titular single-hit guy, a former hobbyist hero now turned semi-professional. He has a strict workout regimen, he has no hair, and he's perpetually chased by boredom because he can defeat any enemy with—you guessed it—one punch. His roommate/best friend/young ward is Genos, a cyborg who's serious about moving up the ranks of the hero organization and avenging his tragic backstory. The two of them live in a modest apartment, in a world suffused with superpowered good guys and bad guys, fighting in a neverending chaotic struggle for supremacy. Also, Saitama has a hoodie with boobs on it.

In case you haven't been following the behind-the-scenes news, it's essential to understand up front that this sequel is not being handled by the same creative team responsible for the first season. Director Shingo Natsume and a bevy of incredibly talented animators from Madhouse and beyond turned the first season into a veritable sakuga-fest. OPM season one will stand the test of time as one of the craziest animation exhibitions ever televised, and under no circumstances can the same be expected from this season. One-Punch Man was an aberration, not the norm, and the unfortunate result is that the new crew at J.C. Staff led by director Chikara Sakurai are stepping into shoes that nobody should be expected to fill. This is going to understandably disappoint many fans, but I'll try not to harp on the animation downgrade too much, and I'd encourage other fans not to blame the animators for decisions made by producers on a much higher rung of the ladder.

Still, the show does not look great.

Honestly my biggest peeve with this premiere didn't have anything to do with the lack of expressive or experimental animation. It just looked dull. The colors are all desaturated, so it feels like there's a grey pall over the city despite the promise of fun and irreverent superhero adventures. Also, the shiny texture they went with for the metal on Genos' and the big bad robot's bodies does not blend at all with the rest of the scene. It looks like something out of the digipaint era, and it somehow got even worse in the second episode. I compared some screenshots between these two seasons, and it struck me how much more the colors popped there. I can forgive average animation, because that's a matter of time and manpower—both of which are extremely limited for most anime productions. But things like storyboarding and color design can be more easily controlled through a creative vision, and if those fundamentals are lacking, the entire production is affected.

So without the visual delights of the first season, it seems likely that this anime will have to rely on the appeal of ONE's writing to keep itself afloat, and that can be a mixed bag. One-Punch Man began as a series of riffs on the same basic joke—that life would be pretty boring for an all-powerful unstoppable superhero. It's since expanded into what I'd call an irreverent take on My Hero Academia (I know OPM predates MHA but the comparison stands), exploring the politics of a hero organization and the ways that heroes would interact with a society that's constantly under attack from bizarre monsters. Contrasting all that are Saitama's simpler goals of moving up the ranks and getting a little recognition for his efforts. I didn't get as much narratively or comedically out of the first season, but I absolutely loved ONE's later work in Mob Psycho 100. Even that story started out on uneven footing, but at the end of Mob's first season and throughout its second, ONE honed his strong voice with moral complexity and emotional clarity. One-Punch Man is more firmly rooted in parodying superhero genre conventions, so I don't expect Saitama to turn his egg head around and suddenly capture my heart on the level that Mob did right away. But I'm nevertheless eager to see how ONE will take this story into new directions. After all, you can only tell the same joke so many times.

The premiere episode gives us a potential indicator of where the story might go with its introduction of King, and it's a fairly decent new direction. Whereas Saitama is an omnipotent punching machine with nary a fan to show for his hard work, King is the complete opposite: a completely normal human who nonetheless found himself becoming one of the top-ranked heroes via circumstance, with all the fame, fanfare, and action figures that come with the life. Unfortunately, he doesn't want any of that; he'd much rather live a quiet otaku life playing visual novels than get wrapped up in the disasters that plague the city (and who could blame him?). However, he's also played into this charade for so long that he doesn't have a viable exit strategy, and being stuck between these two worlds has filled him with indecision and anxiety.

Saitama figures out King's secret, but rather than get mad or expose him, he casually inserts himself into King's life and gives him some advice: just make a decision. If King doesn't want to stop being a hero, then all he has to do is put in the work to become one for real. It's actually a lesson reminiscent of Mob Psycho 100's themes, that there are no shortcuts to improving oneself. You just have to commit to the effort and do the work. I also like that you can read this as a metaphor for impostor syndrome, with King's arc ultimately acting as an example of “fake it 'til you make it”. He still comes out of the episode feeling like another joke character, but that hint of emotional depth gives me hope for the future. Plus, it's nice that Saitama is making more friends!

Unfortunately, the second episode is much more rote and leans heavily on action set pieces that the production can't pull off with much flair. With the Hero Association desperately recruiting even villains to combat the surfeit of monster threats, Garou emerges as a powerful adversary who allies himself with the monsters, chewing through both high-ranked heroes and villains alike. This is where One-Punch Man finds itself in a strange place narratively, because it's hard to care about hyping up the threat of a new villain when they can just be blown away at any time by Saitama. Sure, that last-minute subversion of expectations is part of the joke, but when it happens frequently enough, the subversion becomes the expectation.

Meanwhile, Saitama finds himself entangled in some Hero Association inner politics. The only way to move up a letter rank is to be the top ranked hero of the previous letter. In this case, that means Saitama will have to go past the current #1 B-class hero, Hell Blizzard, on his way to S-rank, and she's keen to assert her position at the top. She's a powerful enough hero, but in her mind it's better to rule in B class than serve in S class, which is another example of the kind of complacency that ONE protests in his stories. Saitama may be laid-back, but he at least possesses the initiative to keep moving forward, and of course he outmaneuvers Blizzard without a sweat. Genos also shows off some of his new tech as he battles the interminably (yet lovably) obnoxious Sonic. It's a C-plot that feels tacked on for the sake of giving Genos something to do, and it doesn't accomplish much else beyond that. The main thrust of the episode is the absurdity of the hero ranking system, where a B class like our Caped Baldy can mentor an S class like Genos, or where a respected S class like King is actually a total fraud. It turns out meritocracy is a complete sham, just like in real life!

One-Punch Man is back, but it no longer possesses the pugnacious power to blow its audience away with the force of Saitama's fist. It's disappointing, but I try to be a glass-half-full kind of person, so maybe the new crew will be able to drag something fresh out of the source material, or maybe the narrative will swerve in some surprising directions. I mean, ONE was able to garner a huge following with his undeniably rough (but expressive!) art, so there's something intrinsic to One-Punch Man's appeal that extends beyond its visuals. As long as season 2 can home in on that strength, we can still be in for a fun time. And even if it continues to be a shadow of its former self, at least they got JAM Project back to do the OP!

Rating:

One-Punch Man Season 2 is currently streaming on Hulu.

Steve does 100 push-ups, 100 crunches, 100 squats, runs 10km, and watches 1,000 hours of anime every day. You can read all about it on his Twitter.


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