Is One Punch Man’s ‘Saitama’ a Parody or Homage of Super-Strong Heroes?
It’s much more complicated than homage or parody; more a brilliant subversion of the comic/superhero genre.
After watching so many people attempting to “Quantify the Mythology” (the expression I use to describe the Internet Fandoms’ obsession with comparing different superheroes from different media in battles to determine who is the strongest) surrounding Saitama and how he relates/compares to other superheroes, I decided to reveal why I think the hero Saitama and the manga/anime One Punch Man is such a success.
So many people confuse his story or attempt co-opt the character in ridiculous ‘versus battles’ are missing the most central theme of Saitama’s story.
The manga/anime is not about Saitama’s power(s).
Like Superman, Saitama is as powerful as he needs to be to win. It’s not about his training or his development, his power was already the best when we come into the story and, unlike Goku, he doesn’t need to evolve in his powers. Saitama’s struggle is an internal one. It’s about his quest for a meaningful connection to humanity.
Saitama is not a parody per se, he is more of a subversion of the trope of the Ultimate superhero, the same way Goku and Superman are in their respective cultures.
To get why the series is working you have to understand a form of narrative shorthand called a trope. To help us with the definition, we are going to the curators of tropes, the collectors of trivia, the wizards of trope wrangling, and the masters of temporal inversion (the shorter your intent of going there is, the longer you actually end up staying — this disclaimer is necessary for any trip to TV Tropes; you have been officially warned) for an answer:
- Merriam-Webster gives a definition of “trope” as a “figure of speech.” In storytelling, a trope is just that — a conceptual figure of speech, a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.
- Above all, a trope is a convention. It can be a plot trick, a setup, a narrative structure, a character type, a linguistic idiom… you know it when you see it. Tropes are not inherently disruptive to a story; however, when the trope itself becomes intrusive, distracting the viewer rather than serving as shorthand, it has become a cliché.
- On this wiki, “trope” has the even more general meaning of a pattern in storytelling, not only within the media works themselves, but also in related aspects such as the behind-the-scenes aspects of creation, the technical features of a medium, and the fan experience. The idea being that storytelling is not just writing, it is the whole process of creating and telling/showing a story.
Any story of any genre is composed of both new story ideas and narrative shorthand called tropes which give readers familiar with the genre, references to events, styles of stories, or genre conventions which give the reader information they already understand in a shorthand format.
For example: In the Superhero genre, and highlighted in One Punch Man, one of the accepted tropes is that super-technology far beyond the realm of normal Human tech exists, but only works in the creation of super-mechs, cyborgs or unique spacecraft. Somehow normal people rarely benefit from any of these technologies in their society. In the Marvel Universe, Reed Richards, Tony Stark and Doctor Doom create advance technology every day and yet the world looks pretty much like the one you and I live in, with the exception of superbeings using technology right out of science fiction stories.
These tropes are very common in superhero stories and comprise much of the background of the One Punch Man universe. So much so, the writer doesn’t even tell us anything about the world itself. He leaves it up to us to decide which tropes are enacted and why. Then he pulls a subversion and turns the story on its head. Saitama is not a hero because its the right thing to do. He introduces himself as a “hero for fun.”
Excuse me? This is where things get strange for our readers/viewers. Enter the Subverted Trope.
- Basically, this is playing bait and switch with a trope. A work makes you think a trope is going to happen, but it doesn’t.
- But how could people know a trope is going to happen? Well, tropes live in the minds of the audience. As such, sufficiently Genre Savvy (or Trope Savvy) audience members can predict a familiar trope coming based on the hints dropped by the writer. So when the writer decides to build on this expectation, only to reveal that the expected “trope” was a Red Herring while an entirely different situation results, you have a Subverted Trope.
- Phrased another way, the work is ultimately revealed not to be using the trope at all, but in the meantime was played up to look like it was. This is one method of leveraging a trope to give a story texture. It certainly isn’t the only way.
- A subversion has two mandatory segments. First, the expectation is set up that something we have seen plenty of times before is coming, then that set-up is paid off with something else entirely. The set-up is a trope; the “something else” is the subversion.
- To put this another way, a trope of the form “X are often Y” is not subverted by every X you can think of that isn’t Y. If someone is murdered and there’s a butler around, but he didn’t do it, that’s not automatically a subversion of The Butler Did It. But if the writer makes it look like a typical example of The Butler Did It, then reveals he didn’t, that’s a subversion.
The major difference, the core of the subversion, as it were, is Saitama starts the story as the most powerful character with no real dispute in sight.
Rather than being an example to other heroes, he has barely any recognition, none of the respect AND most importantly, none of the satisfaction of being the most powerful hero on the planet. One of the most recognized and beloved heroes doesn’t even have any powers. See: License-less_Rider (無免ライダー, Mumen Raidā)
This undermines the training motif common in the DBZ series and makes a parody of Superman whose writers make all sorts of pseudo-scientific claims about the origins of his powers. Saitama is a perfect subversion of the Ultimate Hero because the fame he wants, despite his power will continue to elude him.
- His lack of intellectual rigor and desire for recognition means he is the worst example for anyone to follow, yet the amazing cyborg Genos is shown idolizing him, hoping to garner his secrets.
- Saitama at least has the insight to recognize he isn’t able to teach Genos anything, thus we are able to understand Saitama’s powers are something even he doesn’t understand.
- To make matters worse, Genos is mostly cyborg, more machine than man, yet he has more emotional connection to humanity than any of the other heroes. His desire to gain more power seems almost bizarre given his phenomenal abilities already.
- The Ultimate Hero (Saitama) is completely divorced from his connection to humanity and the Ultimate Transhuman (Genos) is more Human than anyone around him. It is this subtle interplay of the characters where this anime shines. When you see Genos and Saitama training together, you wonder why either of them thinks they need MORE power…
Only the ancient chi-master Bang (Silver Fang), is old enough and wise enough to see who and what Saitama really is:
- He recognizes the path Saitama must take due to human nature’s mercurial attachment to their heroes and what they believe heroes are supposed to be.
- Saitama is the hero the world needs, but cannot accept. Saitama has a gift no one has and yet has no appreciation for it. Through some unknown hand of Fate, Saitama has been labeled a cheater of the system and now must work within the system lest it fall apart out of fear leaving the world defenseless.
- Saitama needs to grow but instead of growing in terms of his physical ability, he needs emotional and intellectual growth to take place, almost the complete opposite of the superhero genre’s underlying theme.
Saitama’s misadventures in One Punch Man are the perfect mixture of homage, parody and subversion of the Superheroic genre. It has all of the pathos of a genre comic: evil geniuses, terrifying genetic monstrosities, terrors from beneath the sea, and alien invaders from space. It also has a varied collection of egotistical and perhaps frightening beings who believe themselves to be protectors of this future Earth.
Yet beneath all of the egos, powers, and tropes, this is not a journey of power-gathering but an exploration of a man’s need for love, acceptance and his growth into a fully-realized Human being. The final episode of One Punch Man, Season One, teases us with what Saitama could become if he falls to a darker fate.
This fusion of love, need, and growth is Saitama’s heroic journey and what makes him and all of the other superheroes of his world so damn fascinating to so many.
This essay first appeared on Quora. If you liked what you read, be sure to hit recommend at the foot of the page, and to follow Panel & Frame for more emerging voices in Comics, Film, Literature, and Art!
Want More Superhero Action?
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Thaddeus Howze is a California-based technologist and author who has worked with computer technology since the 1980’s doing graphic design, computer science, programming, network administration and IT leadership.
His non-fiction work has appeared in numerous magazines: Huffington Post, Gizmodo, Black Enterprise, the Good Men Project, Examiner.com, The Enemy, Panel & Frame, Science X, Loud Journal, ComicsBeat.com, and Astronaut.com. He maintains a diverse collection of non-fiction at his blog, A Matter of Scale.
Thaddeus is a popular and well-read writer on the Q&A site Quora.com in over fifty various subjects. He is also a moderator and contributor to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange with over fourteen hundred articles in a four year period.
He is an author and contributor at Scifiideas.com. His speculative fiction has appeared online at Medium.com, ScifiIdeas.com, and the Au Courant Press Journal. He has a wide collection of his work on his website, Hub City Blues. His recently published works can be found here. He also maintains a wide collection of his writing and editing work on Medium.