Saitama doesn’t enjoy life.
He used to. Three years ago he set out to become a part time hero, saving people to get an adrenaline rush that would let him shake off boring everyday life and really live, if you know what I mean. Problem is, after three years Saitama has become so good at fighting evil he always defeats it in a single punch. It just isn’t satisfying anymore.
Then he bumps into the cyborg Genos while swatting a mosquito (long story) and suddenly finds himself with an aspiring apprentice. Like most people suddenly faced with unexpected responsibilities, he tries to walk away. The problem with people (or cyborgs) is that they can follow along with you.
One Punch Man is the story of Saitama’s search for fulfillment. After three years of winning difficult fights against every stripe of evil you’d think he’d have made some progress on that front, but nope. He’s still living in a small, rundown apartment by himself in a mostly abandoned part of town. He joins a hero team and chases fame but satisfaction eludes him. The fights still aren’t challenging and most of the other heroes are jerks. Saitama gets that being a hero means fighting to protect people but he doesn’t seem to grasp why that’s important, just that it is.
The heart of the story, the moment when Saitama starts to see a glimpse of what’s wrong, comes with the appearance of the Sea King. It’s a neat bit of symmetry, we first got a full understanding of why Saitama was so frustrated in his brief encounter with the Earth King, now the Sea King offers us the solution to the problem, but I digress. The Sea King could serve as a master class in how to build up a villain, as most of his story arc is dedicated to his ascendancy, but the part that’s important to us comes at the very end of his story.
The Sea King has defeated heroes of every type and level of power and is about to wipe out a shelter full of bystanders when he’s brought up short by Mumen Rider. Basically an over glorified bike cop, Mumen Rider is technically Saitama’s superior, although the only category Mumen might outclass him in is book smarts. The chances that he could defeat the Sea King are nonexistent. Mumen fights anyways, throwing everything he’s got at the Sea King. In turn, the Sea King brushes him off like a gnat.
As Mumen falls to the ground Saitama catches him and lays him out gently.
Of course, with Saitama on the scene the fight is essentially over. The Sea King is defeated between animation frames with a punch so hard that it blows rain clouds away and the day is saved. The twist comes after the villain is dead.
Remember that Mumen Rider is considered to be a better hero than Saitama, although the only aspect Mumen is ahead of Saitama in is book smarts. In all other categories Saitama is, by the rules of the story, the most powerful being in existence by a wide margin. As a result, Saitama’s easily defeating the Sea King makes Mumen Rider – and all the other, much more powerful heroes who confronted the Sea King – look pathetic. So Saitama throws himself under the bus, saying that the Sea King seemed incredibly weak after fighting all the other heroes in rapid succession in order to salvage the reputation of his fellow heroes.
Later, Saitama gets his first piece of fan mail, thanking him for saving the anonymous sender’s life. With it comes a couple of other letters, calling him a fraud for stealing glory from other heroes who did all the work for him. Later, Saitama stumbles across Mumen at a food stall and we learn that Mumen Rider was the source of Saitama’s one piece of positive mail. The two heroes, one the best of the weakest the other the best in the world, pause to share a moment of camaraderie and for the first time in a while Saitama finds something he’s been missing – a sense of satisfaction.
Many young people set out to do something for their own satisfaction but the fact is, most humans find satisfaction not when they’re focused on themselves but when they’re focused on others. Fiction rarely tackles the challenge of showing how that particular aspect of a coming of age comes about. But under the over-the-top action, slapstick humor and biting satire One Punch Man tackles that question with surprising gusto. While the evolution is by no means complete it is an interesting story to watch.