Reviewby Nick Creamer,
One-Punch Man (Episodes 1-12 Streaming)
Saitama always wanted to be a hero, and through strict training and dedication, he has achieved his dream. Facing evil with his trusty fists, he lets no monstrous experiment, wild colossus, or angry god stand in his way… but there's just one problem. Saitama is just too dang strong - every opponent he meets, he blows to pieces in one solitary punch. And as it turns out, when you get too good at heroing, you kind of lose the taste for it. And so Saitama trudges through melancholy days, buying groceries and doing chores and halfheartedly destroying terrifying beasts with a single punch. Maybe one day something will happen to bring joy back to his life. For today, he's gotta remember to bring in the laundry.
Like many great heroes, One-Punch Man seems to have grown into its powers throughout its lifespan. Starting out as a barely-drawn webcomic by barely-artist ONE, it initially got by purely as a gag comedy. “What if there was a hero so strong he could defeat everything in one punch, and thus his life was actually boring?” is the basic premise, and the story fiddled around and extrapolated on this idea in a variety of ways. When adapted into a digital manga with art by Yūsuke Murata, the stakes changed - now, on top of its original comedy, the story had some of the most precise and impressive art around. In fact, when One-Punch Man was announced for anime adaptation, one of the major concerns was “how can they possibly match the beauty of the original manga in motion?”
Fortunately, One-Punch Man wasn't quite finished powering up.
Brought to life in fully animated glory, One-Punch Man is an action animation extravaganza. The show is directed by Shingo Natsume, one of the two directors behind Space Dandy (and likely the more hands-on director, compared to Watanabe's supervisorial role), but this isn't really “just” his show so much as it is the communal baby of many of the best animators working in the industry. The show isn't “consistently animated,” and does not try to be - scattered between relatively mundane everyday sequences, each episode is brought to life by beautifully animated action sequences, fights that demonstrate anime's wondrous potential to show stuff being punched extremely hard.
One-Punch Man's first episode demonstrates basically everything about the show at its best. A traditional superhero setup is undercut by the nature of protagonist Saitama's powers, and deadpan jokes about either his boredom or his invincibility form the scaffolding of an episode primarily dedicated to letting Saitama smash face. The episode manages to find a good number of ways to set up what's essentially the same joke (Saitama's too strong and this is boring), and even offers a hint of pathos and general thematic relatability in the way Saitama's ennui reflects the common disappointments of adulthood. There's a lot to love in that first episode.
Unfortunately, the show doesn't do that much to expand on those first ideas. New fights come hard and heavy, but that one first joke just keeps getting repeated, and even drawn out to fill more and more airtime. Most of One-Punch Man's non-action material is devoted to traditional gag comedy, and as a gag comedy, it's not the most impressive production. What jokes don't fall into that single “Saitama is too strong” bracket are generally either simplistic (Saitama punches a guy in the junk) or straight-up unpleasant (one later recurring character is basically just a gay panic stereotype). The action remains stellar throughout, but the humor can often drag.
Beyond the jokes getting stale, the premise of the show also inherently works against dramatic investment. Because Saitama can never lose, the show's fights often lack any sense of tension - it's always going to end the same way, and so everything up to the punchline is sound and fury building up to an anticlimax. A new enemy bellows and brags, Saitama stands there and accepts it, and then the fight ends with one single, massive punch. There's rarely any emotional engagement or sense of danger, and so fights are generally just one hundred percent visual spectacle, basically never leading to character truth or facilitating narrative momentum.
Which, considering Saitama himself leads an unfulfilling life, might be something of the point. But that meta-joke doesn't really make the fights more satisfying from a viewer perspective.
One-Punch Man does find some ways to escape Saitama's kinda boring shadow. The supporting cast is actually far more interesting than Saitama himself, and the show's slow elaboration of a hero ranking system offers both more narrative tension and some cynical jabs at the inherently false and unfair nature of an alleged meritocracy. The show's most satisfying moments embrace the thematic and emotional riches that can be mined from this idea, with heroes who have barely a fraction of Saitama's strength still demonstrating heroism in their own way. But these are small moments in a story that is mostly dedicated to gags and fighting - overall, One-Punch Man's story is far less compelling than its aesthetics.
Fortunately, those aesthetics are excellent. As mentioned before, it's easily the animation that's the standout here - nearly every single fight manages to impress in a new way, and highlights like the first episode's ending or the final episode's entire first half have to be seen to be believed. One-Punch Man legitimately depicts the kind of larger-than-life battles that most anime can only aspire to, or dance around. It is a wonder to behold.
These fights are very diverse in their visual style, with the show often coming off like some kind of dueling-guitar-solos venue for individual superstar animators. Battles between overpowered hero Saitama, his cyborg disciple Genos, and all manner of fiendish monsters range from weighty and dynamically framed to smear-heavy and interpretive. Some fights triumph through momentum and the visible kinetic energy of bodies colliding, others simply stagger with beautifully depicted explosions and other effects. Some fights (okay, most fights) are heavy on impact frames and palette-shift flourishes, others are rich in detail and visual dimension. Your animation preferences might dictate which fights work better or worse for you, but there's enough diversity in their approach that at least some of the battles are sure to entertain.
The main caveat I'd offer regarding the battle animation is that it is all one-sided spectacle - in spite of the fundamental quality of the animation, it is almost always depicting a simple display of one character's power, and not generally conveying a back-and-forth between interestingly matched opponents. There are few dynamic exchanges of blows, and virtually no displays of strategy to add any spice to the fights. That, combined with the general emotional flatness of the battles, means that even the visual spectacle can get stale over time. But overall, the consistently impressive animation on display here is still something worth seeing.
The direction and art design are somewhat less inspired than the animation, and mostly just get the job done. The character models are crisp and distinctive, but the show's color palette feels a little too subdued for such a larger-than-life production, and it often feels like there's a too sharp energy gap between the dynamically framed setpieces and bland everyday scenes. The direction isn't the best at creating tension, but is quite good at creating a sense of scale - both Saitama's power and the enemies he faces feel appropriately massive, which is a credit to the show's shot framing. One-Punch Man's music is mostly just simple, interchangeable guitar riffs, but the opening song deserves mention. Produced by the ever-rocking JAM Project, it provides an appropriately tongue-in-cheek hair metal intro to a very silly show.
Overall, as far as strict action animation goes, One-Punch Man is in a league of its own. In spite of their often one-note construction, its fight scenes are wonders to behold, essentially best-in-class in pure animation. However, those fights are rarely supported by truly compelling storytelling, and Saitama's fundamental nature means that even those beautiful fights can sometimes feel a little empty. I ultimately found myself feeling weirdly disappointed with One-Punch Man - the fact that it was so beautifully animated meant I wanted to care more than I did, but the writing too infrequently gave me a reason to. No matter how beautifully animated a fight may be, it will always hit much, much harder for me when there's an actual emotional weight behind the punches. But either way, One-Punch Man's clear strengths make it easy to see why it's become such a phenomenon. If you have any love in your heart for heroes punching evil in the face, it is definitely worth a look.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : A
Art : B
Music : B
+ Has some of the most gorgeously animated fight scenes you will see anywhere in anime period.
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