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One Punch Man: Mythological Dismantling of the American Dream

Updated: Jan 9

Typical Japanese anime, such as My Hero Academia, Black Clover, Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, follow the hero’s journey myth; a young boy's transformative journey to become stronger and wiser, in simple terms, to achieve one’s goals or dreams. This journey begins with the protagonist's origin story, their reason for wanting to become a hero. Then, the hero undergoes trials and tribulations in which they continuously surpass their limits and grow stronger. The anime One Punch Man parodies this typical anime plot, directly ripping off character tropes, powers, and designs from iconic anime franchises. The One Punch Man, Saitama, does not have as exhilarating of an origin story as the typical protagonist. Saitama is an unemployed businessman who happens to find himself at the scene of a fight between a monster and a child. Ironically, like the typical hero protagonist, Saitaman has his moment, the moment where one's body reacts before their brain, and he saves the child. He then decides to become a hero for fun, because what else is he going to do while unemployed?

In the usual hero anime, a training arc proceeds the origin story in which the protagonist is pushed beyond their limits through treacherous training. While other protagonists are put in life or death situations for training, Saitama’s swift training process involves exercising every day; simply running miles and doing pushups. His training works, and Saitama joins the ranks of the Hero Association.

This training apparently worked too well, because Saitama is able to kill any opponent with one punch, thus where his hero name originates. While it takes protagonists in other hero anime years and seasons of training, Saitama is seemingly done. Each episode of One Punch Man consists of Saitama searching for the battle, a battle against a worthy opponent who won’t be killed with one punch. Despite Saitama’s unmatched strength, he receives little recognition for saving each day. This lack of challenge and recognition causes Saitama to become bored, increasingly sarcastic, underwhelmed by opponents, and depressed.

Saitama certainly showcases an unfamiliar side of being a hero. He makes being a hero look seemingly easy, especially in comparison to his counterparts within the show. In a typical episode of One Punch Man, the lower ranking heroes, heroes who usually have insanely corny character design and weak powers, first attempt to fight a monster and chicken out or get defeated instantly. Saitama eventually, sometimes accidentally, arrives at the scene of the battle. Given the monster's previous success against the lower ranking hero's, and Saitama’s underwhelming attitude, presence, and lack of fear, the monsters always boast about how powerful they are before Saitama defeats them, making his one punch kill even more hilarious and embarrassing for the heroes and monsters who’ve failed in battle. Evidently, Saitama ironically invalidates the hard work and journey of the typical hero.

Before we draw mythic comparisons to further develop our argument as to how One Punch Man is a mythic dismantling, we believe there is one more crucial cultural truth value being satirized here -- not only the hero’s journey myth of achieving one's goals, but also of the American Dream. The American Dream, the ideal that equal opportunity is available to all Americans and immigrants to achieve their highest aspirations, is a highly advertised fallacy. The American Dream encourages people to believe they have agency in their life without considering double determination, the extrinsic influence from powerful institutions and figures, such as government's capitalistic, consumerist control of the masses.

The creators of One Punch Man hint at this satire by illustrating Saitama as an struggling, unemployed businessman before becoming a hero, a job he takes up for fun after a tiring amount of failed job interviews. Now in the hero world, Saitama has arguably achieved the American Dream. His training and determination has deemed him practically immortal -- he easily saves entire cities and populations from monsters. Unfortunately for Saitama however, he’s beginning to reach a depressing point in his hero career. He’s a successful hero, but he is again unhappy. Saitama took charge of his life by working hard to become the One Punch Man, yet being the strongest hero now controls him. This is exactly how Saitama dismantles the myth of the American Dream as well as the hero’s journey. Achieving one’s dreams by following the rigorous path of hard work will never satisfy a human living under capitalism because humans under capitalism will always want more, whether that be recognition, saving more lives, or finding a worthy opponent. Disguised by his humor and sarcasm, Saitama nonetheless raises the questions and provides a depressing answer about what would happen if our favorite heroes like Deku or Luffy swiftly achieved their goal of becoming overpowered.

The Ancient Roman poet Ovid took a similar approach to dismantling myths by contrasting cultural truth values and genres with a parody. One of Ovid's critiques of epic is how Gods are almost always portrayed as heroic and honorable. In Metamorphoses, his best-known work, he tends to make the Gods look foolish. Jupiter is a primary example of the God's tendency to make ill-advised conclusions. Jupiter deems all humans immoral and deserving of punishment based on a single rotten interaction with a human, Lycaon, while failing to remember any pleasant human interactions he’s indeed had.

“Thus fell one house, but not one house alone deserved to perish; over all the earth ferocious deeds prevail,—all men conspire in evil. Let them therefore feel the weight of dreadful penalties so justly earned, for such hath my unchanging will ordained.”

Ovid comically and dramatically suggests how the Gods can be compassionless and dangerous despite their usual glorification. On an even deeper level, when we consider the historical context of the creation of Metamorphoses, it is evident that Ovid is not only parodying the Gods, he is also equating these dramatized Gods to political figures, specifically Augustus, who was the reigning Roman emperor. Jupiter’s poorly made decision that all humans are evil parodies Augustus tyrannous politics. Augustus too is compassionless and imperious. This similar logic is found in One Punch Man. The creators of One Punch Man take the cultural truth values of the American Dream and the hero’s journey genre and parody them with the comically depressing Saitama. In doing so, consumers are encouraged to question the validity of these cultural truth values and those who uphold these values.

The contrast of One Punch Man’s parody can be best appreciated when we compare it to the dichotomy of the mythic figures Dionysus and Apollo. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche placed Apollo and Dionysus in opposition; both as Gods of music, but different styles of music. Apollo represents civilization and clarity, whereas Dionysus is a God of ecstasy, confusion, and wildness. As multiplex as it sounds, Euripides uses them to argue that wildness is essential for civilization. The American Dream is absolutely a necessary evil of civilization in preserving capitalism. In challenging the American dream and parodying the hero's journey, One Punch Man is certainly wild like Dionysus. Saitama sarcastically provides an alternative truth of the cultural values we uphold: the American Dream is unrealistic and we unnecessarily glorify our heros. In doing so, Saitama suggests through his own experiences that the facets of our culture that we believe keep us civilized, actually make us confused and wild. From Ancient Rome to 2023, humor has continuously provided a space for writers and artists like Ovid, Euripides and the creators of One Punch Man to question such cultural norms and genres and offer something more realistic in return.

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