When the first season of Japanese webcomic-turned anime One-Punch Man made its debut on American shores back in 2016, it took the animation world by storm, packing a sense of raw strength and charisma to match its impossibly powerful protagonist. American audiences fell head-over-heels in love with the series, which centers around a “hero for fun” named Saitama who lives in a series of cities constantly under threat from various monster and alien invasions, and follows his journey to become an officially costumed (and popular) superhero. The always-present gag: Even in a world of superpowered beings, the goofy and rather boneheaded Saitama has become “too strong,” to the point where no enemy can threaten him, and all encounters end in “one punch,” much to his own dismay.
From the start, I was also taken with the simplicity of the central conceit, being a clever satire on the very concept of “overpowered” anime characters and heroes. I am by no means any kind of anime expert, or even a very regular anime viewer outside of a handful of series. But like so many others, One-Punch Man struck a chord with me. I greedily devoured the first season, both in sub and dub format, in awe of the incredible animation and cool characters, before settling in for the long wait for Season Two.
When it arrived, however, it didn’t take long for the fan backlash to arrive along with it. Following the departure of Season One director Shingo Natsume, and the move of animation studios from Madhouse to J.C. Staff, even the earliest get hyped footage of One-Punch Man Season Two left many perceptive viewers feeling like something had changed for the worse. From the basic textures to the level of drawing and animation detail, it seemed like something had been lost in translation.
The Animation of One-Punch Man
With Season Two now having come to a close, we can say a few things about it. For one, those who complained about the drop in animation quality? Well, they weren’t exactly wrong. Suffice to say, Season Two of the anime has evolved in such a way as to minimize more detailed animation, compared to Season One—much more often, the animators now suggest action rather than explicitly showing it. Still frames are often used to convey impacts. Punches and monster deaths often happen offscreen, such as the giant bird that Saitama obliterates (offscreen) in Episode 1, “Return of the Hero.” In general, the series is missing the crazy levels of detail and hyperkinetic sense of motion/extreme speed that is conveyed in the best fight scenes of the first season. Nothing here visually compares to Saitama’s fight scenes with the likes of the Subterraneans, Carnage Kabuto, The Deep Sea King or Boros, even if the new season has had a few flashes of brilliance as well.
Why is this? Fans are quick to point to the change of animation studios, but it’s the change of director that is likely more paramount. Shingo Natsume is an icon in Japanese animation, and he draws the best artists and animators into his gravitational field, because there’s prestige in working as part of his staff. Anime fans who know far more about the subject than myself have pointed to Natsume’s departure as the primary reason for the visual decline of One-Punch Man, because when he left the series—for scheduling conflicts, it seems—he took many of those elite animators with him, people who may have been working for below industry standard pay in order to produce the best possible product. It’s not that Season Two of the show has been reduced in budget, then. It’s that it doesn’t have access to the extreme level of talent it had before. There simply wasn’t any way to reproduce those visuals to the same level a second time.
However; It bothers me, reading discussion of One-Punch Man Season Two online, to see that many viewers, and even fans of the series, seem to have written it off entirely because of the decline in its animation quality and detail. This is casting the series aside needlessly, while ignoring what we should be focusing on, which is how ably the show has evolved its premise and improved in other areas. One-Punch Man Season Two has beautifully expanded its character lineup and its setting, and along the way managed to solve some of its most difficult narrative problems from Season One. We shouldn’t just bemoan its animation, we should celebrate the growth of its narrative.
The Storytelling of One-Punch Man
The first season of One-Punch Man plays a bit like a running joke. After first showing us how strong Saitama is, and establishing that he has become bored and despondent due to the lack of any challenge in his hero work (and the fact that his strength is unrecognized by those around him) it settles into a pattern. The show spends the time frame of a few episodes establishing a new threat, and implying that perhaps this monster or that antagonistic force will be strong enough to pose a threat to Saitama. And indeed, it does this very ably; monsters such as Carnage Kabuto, The Deep Sea King and finally Boros are all shown to be phenomenally powerful. Their over-the-top strength just serves to make each punchline funnier, as Saitama effortlessly destroys the majority with a single punch. The show succeeds in fooling you multiple times with the same trick, which is quite a feat.
Season Two, on the other hand, knows that you can’t keep up that sort of format for long. It wisely does away with the “is this antagonist stronger than Saitama?” pretense by making it immediately clear to the audience that none of them are. None of the antagonists, in fact—not Garou, not the Monster Association—seem to represent nearly as powerful a threat as Boros did at the end of Season One, which tells us, the audience, that Saitama is never truly in danger. None of these guys are ever going to punch him all the way to the goddamn moon, as Boros did. Rather than this being a let-down, though, it accomplishes something else. It affirms Saitama’s supremacy while simultaneously allowing him to recede further back into the narrative. Instead, we focus on the more genuinely interesting and vulnerable heroes in the Hero Association, as well as a bunch of new characters outside of the hero format, such as Suiryu. And yeah, we know that Saitama will be there when he’s needed, whether for comic relief or to explode something with a punch. The show loses nothing in having his role reduced.
This is the brilliance of Season Two: It’s made Saitama a true supporting character, rather than the series protagonist, which goes a long way in solving the inherent problem of having the central character of a series like this be “too powerful.” The more sympathetic characters come forward to shine in the meantime, while the nature of the narrative becomes “How do all the characters, heroes and villains alike, increasingly react to the presence of someone like Saitama, who is such an overpowered anomaly?” As a character, Saitama has become the impetus for everyone else’s growth and change, whether it’s protege Genos, or Fubuki, Suiryu, or antagonists such as Garou.
Still waiting for more details on that whole “who destroyed my village?” subplot, Mr. Genos.
And speaking of Garou, his character has been more effectively and interestingly built over the course of Season Two than any of the antagonists from Season One. This isn’t Dragonball Z, but to borrow a bit of the parlance, Garou’s “power level” at introduction and throughout Season Two was expertly calculated for maximum narrative interest. An anime audience—especially one who has seen a show like DBZ, in fact—is conditioned to assume that any villain who emerges will immediately be far more powerful than all of the characters other than the main protagonist. This is the way these stories tend to be written: Powerful bad guy arrives, the lesser heroes fail to conquer him, and we all have to wait for “the Goku” to show up and save the day. It’s so common that it becomes a knee-jerk expectation.
Garou, on the other hand, is something entirely different. He’s powerful, sure, but he can’t effortlessly deal with his foes. Even “A” class heroes get some good licks in on him. Against “S” class heroes, his fights are drawn out, as he suffers serious injuries at the hands of Tank Top Master and Metal Bat. Later, he’s legitimately defeated by S-class hero Watchdog Man, a character to whom we’ve barely even been introduced, which serves to humanize Garou even more. We spend so much time with him, in fact, coming to understand the way his mind works as he trains and prepares to conquer all the heroes, that in Season Two he often feels like more of a “protagonist,” or at least an anti-hero, than Saitama does. This season makes Garou so interesting that you almost find yourself on the villain’s side. Each time he’s swatted aside by Saitama, without the hero even realizing who he is, we want to see him grow into a more worthy foe. And we know he’s motivated enough to do exactly that.
EDIT: The final three episodes of season 2 have only made this all the more clear: Garou, despite being the Hero Hunter, is also the de facto protagonist of the second season, inheriting the role from Saitama and to some degree from Genos as well. He approaches his obsession with a warped interest in “fair play” that absolutely makes him the hero of his own story, and the structure of fights like his confrontation against Death Gatling’s squad are calculated to portray this supposed villain as a serious underdog, compelling empathy on the part of the audience. The whole thing is straight out of a pro wrestling booking rulebook: Put a character against impossible odds, and the viewers will start to root for him.
The simultaneous nature of the “Monster Association” arc, meanwhile, also works in Garou’s favor as a character, because it means he doesn’t have to bear the burden of being the season’s sole antagonist. Instead, he occupies some kind of middle ground. He wants to be a monster, but one gets the sense he’s more human than he’d like to admit. Would he accept a “monster cell” if offered one, taking the easy route to becoming even more powerful? Or would his sense of honor dictate that he achieve his goals through a more personal means? It remains perhaps the biggest narrative question hanging over the character, and I can’t wait to find out the answer (keeping in mind that I haven’t read any of the comics).
Regardless, it should be clear by this point where I’m coming from. Yes, the animation of One-Punch Man Season Two does suffer in comparison with the first go-round. Sure, I wish I could see how some of these fights would have looked, as drawn by the team led by Shingo Natsume. I’m sure they would have been appropriately epic. But am I about to stop watching One-Punch Man because of it? Hell no. Animation isn’t everything, even when that’s the name of the format. If anything, the more complex plotting and narrative of the second season have me more hooked on Saitama’s world than ever. Let’s just hope this season’s arc manages to finish strong, and that the wait for Season Three ends up being a bit shorter than it was last time.
And if the animation wants to right itself in the meantime? Well, that would be fine too, but it’s not the deal-breaker that some make it out to be.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.