Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes. The essay references One Punch Man’s Episode 8, “The Deep Sea King,” and Episode 9, “Unyielding Justice,” as well as Paranoia Agent’s Episode 11, “No Entry” and events from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Speaking of Paranoia Agent, the essay also borrows from musings I’ve written on Paranoia Agent before, linked here.
What makes a hero? A flurry of inquiries comes to mind related to the aforementioned question. What makes strength? Do heroes have to be strong? If they do, what kind of strength or strengths should they possess? In the context of a show like One Punch Man, or perhaps any media or literature that prominently feature superheroes, we may be tempted to say that heroes have to be strong, and that superhero strength has to be of some destructive kind. But are these assumptions true? Perhaps there’s a distinction between superheroes and heroes? And if there is a difference, are heroes the lesser in value for not being all super?
A look at One Punch Man, Episode 8, “The Deep Sea King,” and Episode 9, “Unyielding Justice,” asks these questions. While these questions were mouthed a bit on the nose, they certainly had me thinking of a post I wrote a while back on Paranoia Agent, Episode 11, “No Entry.” I staked a less obvious definition of strength then, of what it means to be strong, and who the strongest person was in that show. For this piece, I want to expand on that definition.
So what is strength? Defying what seems to me, anyway, to be the convention, I called Paranoia Agent’s Misae Ikari to be the strongest character out of everyone in the show, stronger than her police detective of a husband, and stronger than malevolent specter that was Shounen Bat. An old woman of frail constitutive health and past depressive bouts hardly seems like a winning choice, unless my award criteria was a consolatory firm-but-not-too-firm pat-on-the-bat for pathetic human beings surviving this long. Alas, by the end of the show, she passes away before her husband.
So it’s ironic for me to invoke Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote (not Kelly Clarkson’s song) “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger” when her poor ascribed health was what ultimately did her life in. I’m not talking about physical strength. I’m talking about a quality that she possessed that, without it, would have caused her to waste away much earlier. It’s a quality that can do in even a soldier, vomiting and trembling to the sight of incalculable craters and corpses. Without her guidance, it would have done in her burly-looking husband.
For a person who’s had trouble grasping why her husband has dutifully stayed with her over the past years, even while she’s dutifully failed to provide him the child he desired like all the normal housewives (because cultural expectations in Japan for married women are like that normatively), she’s confronted nihilism more than once. She’s contemplated killing herself more than once. But with despair on one hand and the means to end her life in another, her husband grasped both hands tenderly but firmly. He told her that it was okay . He told her that he still loved her.
She strove to be as good a wife as she could be, putting herself out there despite her physical fragility to provide her husband a clean house and warm food to return to in spite of his many late spells on the job (because cultural expectations in Japan for married men are like that normatively). So when Shounen Bat, who’s succeeded so far in whacking every mental person it has appeared to so far with its metal blunt, appears to kill Misae as well, she is untouchable. Physically frail unlike the rest of Shounen Bat’s victims, and yet the most emotionally secure of them all, her faith in her husband and in herself has made her, in my opinion, the strongest.
We turn back to the setting of One Punch Man and a cast of colorfully clad figures from the Heroes Association getting the flesh and wire stuffing beaten and torn out of them by the Deep Sea King at the shelter. Sans Genos, none of those heroes believed they had any reasonable shot in surviving a fight with the show’s latest villain by that point, much less beating it. But walking out of the anonymous crowds, scared to varying degrees of shitless and pissless, four heroes stood before the villain, taking the punishment to buy more time for the lives of the crowds behind them.
And then comes Mumen Rider, a man who, behind his green-rind helmet, brown-rind costume, and foot-powered two-wheeler, is as average in strength as the civilians he’s resolved at that moment to die protecting. Even Genos and his super-human powers of destruction proved unable to overcome the Deep Sea King.
He charges, gets beaten.
He charges again, gets beaten again.
He charges once more…
…and before the villain decides, as he loses consciousness, that he’s annoyed him just too many times, Saitama appears to one punch the villain away.
The civilian crowd would have otherwise erupted in cheers, but the victory against the villain was so abrupt after all that struggle that it left the crowd’s members flabbergasted. And then a particularly obnoxious looking (and sounding) fellow with the crowd suggests something aloud equally shocking to the rest of them: If one punch was all that it took to defeat the villain, then was the villain that strong to begin with?
As people accustomed to associating heroism with prolonged, dramatic engagements, this last fight not only appeared anti-climactic. It seemed suspicious. Based off of these observations, were the sacrifices of Mumen Rider and the other four heroes that fought the big bad all for naught? Were they even heroes since they seemed to lose so pathetically?
If you decide to define what makes heroes in a way that conflates histrionics with heroism, then sure. They weren’t powerful enough, so Mumen Rider and the others weren’t doing their jobs. They weren’t strong enough. They didn’t serve their utility. Therefore, they are not heroes.
I’m reminded about a similar train of logic invoked by Fuhrer Bradley, aka Wrath, in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. He confessed that he was infuriated by the visible grief at the deceased Maes Hughs. Soldiers dying on duty, after all, are what soldiers should be prepared do. The man’s utility was served.
I think of a man jumping into a building on fire, saving a trapped person but dying in the process. I’m trying to imagine what everyone’s reaction would be if, at the funeral, someone asserted that it was ridiculous to mourn for this guy when he knew the dangers of going in. The man’s utility was served.
Slain cops and expired firefighters, soldiers and good samaritans? Is utility all that matters when we consider what makes our heroes?
Is the strength to get the desired job done all that matters in the end?
In One Punch Man, physical strength in the form of destructive power is the specific utility in question in this case. So how about it? Should we believe that Mumen Rider and those four others do not deserve to be called heroes? If so, is them not being considered heroes something our consciences can stomach?
I came across an interesting line while scanning online forums that made a distinction in the context of this episode between the superhero and the hero. We can perhaps agree that both the superhero and hero require strength. We may associate the superhero with their destructive strength as well as their supposed goodness. It’s histrionics then. However, what does that leave us to associate with the hero besides their perceived goodness? What makes heroism?
Perhaps it’s fortitude.