Part of my husband’s job is finding things for us to watch on the computer because at night I just want to shut down and rest. His track record is pretty good, with an occasional big hit. Many of the hits have been anime, actually. But just recently we’ve started watching “One Punch Man,” which at its surface seems like it couldn’t possibly be good. A guy who can defeat any enemy with a single punch. How boring. In fact, the character himself is bored because he wants someone to challenge him and it’s always a disappointment when – as the rest of us expect – he destroys his foe with a single punch.
check out a promo for the anime here
Winning and Losing – Belts and Recognition
But this is part of what’s so satisfying about the show, Saitama’s boredom and disappointment at never getting a good fight. What a brilliant way of exploring the concept that it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about growth and challenge. In fact, Saitama ends up joining the Hero Association, which is a registry of mostly-normal men who go about the city doing kind of mundane hero things like rescuing balloons out of trees for kids or thwarting equally low-level criminals and thugs. Human against human kind of stuff – like police and firemen kind of heroes. But when supernatural creatures with villainous intentions threaten the city, it’s the higher-level heroes who are called in for the job. The heroes are sorted into class and rank and can work to climb the hierarchy. Humorously, Saitama, who is literally undefeatable, as a nube is a very low class and rank – his physical tests broke all records, but he didn’t score well on the “essay” portion of his hero application, there is lots of humor like this. He doesn’t seem to care very much – about anything really, he just does hero stuff because he wants to, rather than some kind of big ethical calling – but reckons he ought to try to improve his position because he’d like some recognition, but more so because his own apprentice – a passionate, if long-winded Ronin cyborg – is much higher ranked than he is, which is a little embarrassing.
The whole hero ranking business, and its satire feels to me, as a viewer and a fighter, like the ranking of fighters for titles and belts. A completely amazing hero gets no recognition at all and is even called a fraud while defeating some of the most dangerous villains the city has ever seen. There are so many Thai fighters out there who are absolutely amazing and will never be “ranked” or appreciated via the belt-game. I’ve had many mornings with Pi Nu, just the two of us in the gym and me hitting the bag while he sits on the edge of the ring, reflecting on his life. His whole life has been Muay Thai, from being a fighter for years and then “retiring” into being a trainer and raising up the next generation of fighters. He’s the best Muay Thai instructor I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve had some very good ones. He swings his legs like he’s sitting on the dock of a lake, leaning his head back as he thinks to himself. A few times he’s lamented to me that he never became champion. He fought for titles but never won them; a couple of those were unfair losses due to politics. In fact, he has a title belt for “second place” that doesn’t say 2nd place on it, which was a consolation to being robbed at the final of a tournament to crown a champion. They literally gave him the belt as an apology, but not the title. It’s hard to tell exactly how he feels about this, but I’m not sure he has a clear feeling anyway – part of him knows that he was a very good fighter regardless of any belts, but part of him definitely feels that lack of recognition. For female fighters I think this is especially true, as belts and titles are a way to validate ourselves in a game where it’s very hard to be taken seriously. That’s a part of being a fighter – truly living as a fighter and identifying as a fighter – that “One Punch Man” really gets and expresses through its parody of the hero rankings – fans, like keyboard warriors, show up at his spectacular victories, immediately (and hilariously) casting doubt on his accomplishments when he defeats a monster that blew through all the other heroes…”…they just tired him out, they did all the work”, or “It’s very suspicious how he is rising through the hero ranks so fast…”. It’s pretty funny. One Punch Man is not just about being a fighter, but also dealing with the social dimension of being a fighter, balancing recognition and true challenge or accomplishment.
There’s something in the illustration as well. Saitama is drawn differently than all the other characters and his face about 99% of the time is overly simplified. He looks like Charlie Brown or something that a kid drew (above, left). He’s always kind of bored and dopey, which we know hasn’t always been the case because we almost see his origin story, when he goes from looking like a regularly drawn fellow to what he is now. He’s become this way, as a result of finding his super hero powers. Being generous, his visage implies simplicity, almost in a Taoist, uncarved stone way. But it’s also his everyday boredom, and lack of focus. But when he fights his face changes and he’s drawn with detail; he looks like a badass Manga hero. This is so brilliant because that’s what he feels when he’s fighting, like everything comes into focus and his confidence carves him out into this handsome hero. That’s what it feels like when you’re in the ring, when our confidence is up and you’re fulfilling your dream and your purpose. That’s why Saitama wants a real challenge, so he can focus into this righteous warrior hero. And that’s why I hate watching my fights, because how they feel in my memory and how they look when I actually see them is so different. In my visceral memory, I look like Saitama when he’s all detailed out and badass; when I watch them, however, and just see my mistakes and stiffness, it’s like looking at the uncarved, rough-outline of Saitama’s bald head.
As fighters, we are always looking for ways to define ourselves, just as Saitama’s face is looking for definition, moments we can be utterly clear and focused. We struggle to find the right opponents, not opponents we can beat, but the opponents within us, opponents we lose to regularly but who we sharpen ourselves against. Not only in the fighting ring, but in the training room, on the pads, in road work…and at home, in our quiet time, and when we talk to others. There’s an incredible moment in the anime [SPOILER ALERT, though I haven’t finished the season yet] where Saitama is forced to divulge the “secret” of his superhuman, undefeatable power. He is revealing it not only to his apprentice, who is very eager to learn this golden secret, ready to devote himself to it entirely, but worrisomely in the presence of an incredibly powerful foe. What he says, with absolute sincerity is a list of basic strength training exercises, and he says it with ferocity and belief. His apprentice responds enraged, his master is keeping the true secret from him. But the truth is, the fighter doesn’t even know the source of his (or her) own power. We are all like this: caught between an incredible power within us, which we don’t understand, and the search for opponents which will make us better, as persons. So do you pushups and your situps and your squats!