One Punch Man has been the hit show of Fall 2015, a fairly unsurprising fact People love this show for a lot of different reasons. Sakuga nuts adore the care and attention that the animation staff clearly takes with OPM. Some probably dig that a solid meat ‘n potatoes shounen fighting series is on TV again. Both of these points resonate with me, but neither conveys what I chiefly enjoy about the show. For me, OPM works on two separate but interdependent levels, and this is possible because the show takes itself quite seriously.
No one in OPM seems fully aware of how ridiculous their situation actually is. Earth is under threat of one huge disaster after another. How many monsters, mutants and aliens can come out of the woodwork, looking to take over our planet? Fortunately, there is a hero association whose ranked members protect the citizenry. Yet, Saitama, possibly the strongest human being to ever live, is ranked near the bottom of this organization. The most naturally gifted hero, the man most capable of saving Earth from its many enemies, is subject to weekly good-deed quotas, menial tasks, due to the faulty measurement systems of the one institution meant to protect the people. This whole scenario is played straight, despite its obvious absurdity. Everyone seems to believe in the system and takes its judgments as matters of fact. Well, Saitama doesn’t so much ‘believe in it” as he does put up with it, since the association is ultimately just a distraction for him.
Members of the hero association initially ranked higher than Saitama include Tank Top Tiger, a tough guy wearing–you guessed it—a tank top; and there’s Mumen Rider who, as far as I can tell, is simply a very determined cyclist. Little kids know these dudes and adults cheer them on. It’s all treated as perfectly normal. There’s no consistent in-universe voice shouting “Isn’t this silly?” Saitama reacts in a humorous manner to certain situations, but he doesn’t ever step back and judge the structure of the hero association itself. The fact that it’s all so serious allows the audience to be the ones to say to themselves, “This is fucking duuuuuumb.” And, that is why so much of OPM is funny. That and Saitama’s face.
At the same time, because the heroes of OPM are taking themselves, their duties, and the association’s structure so seriously, the show can create some characters who are actually pretty unironically cool and also give them interesting character development. The standouts here are Genos, a cyborg singularly focused on increasing his strength in order to protect the weak, and Speed of Sound Sonic, a crafty ninja who is overcome with childlike glee in battle. Though each of them have a relationship to Saitama which is primarily comedic, the characters are still struggling to achieve their goals and move forward. You enjoy seeing them fight, and you grow attached to them. They are behaving as shounen action heroes normally do, only within the confines of this absurd structure. There are extremely high stakes, but the dramatic tension lies in how much the secondary characters can achieve before the anime enters the Saitama cheat code. Again, the characters aren’t acting absurd themselves; they are just kind of stuck in a world that gives rise to a lot of ridiculous situations.
The upshot of all of this is that OPM is working on multiple levels. Because its characters unquestioningly take the political structure and rules as given and behave so seriously, the show can build them up and allow them to have p dope moments; however, it is exactly this straight-laced nature of the characters that make us chuckle at the show’s often anticlimactic outcomes and its disproportionate dispersal of praise and blame.