Tuesday 16 July 2019

Anime REVIEW: One Punch Man Season 2

One Punch Man season 2
One Punch Man season 2 is available in streaming form via Crunchyroll

Every so often a show rolls around which doesn't just strike a chord with existing anime fans, it also inexplicably has that extra spark that pulls newcomers into the fold as well. Attack on Titan was one of those series, and 2015's One Punch Man was another. All of a sudden a somewhat crude but distinctly drawn web comic became one of the hottest animated shows on television, making its mark on the superhero genre with stunning visuals and simple but effective comedy. However much like Titan it then disappeared for years, with fans having to turn to the web comic and manga remake as they continued to hope for a second season. Four years later and that time has finally come, as One Punch Man season 2 arrived to continue the adventures of Saitama for a further 12 episodes. Sadly director Shingo Natsume and studio Madhouse are out of the picture this time around, replaced by Chikara Sakurai and J.C. Staff.

As Saitama continues to fail in finding a challenge requiring more than one punch, an encounter with King – the "Strongest Man on Earth", reveals that the S-rank hero isn't quite the person everyone thinks he is. As the two heroes bond over their love of video games, the Hero Association faces its own problems. Garo, the former apprentice of martial artist Bang, has arrived – defeating any hero in his path.

While Saitama disguises himself to enter a martial arts competition, Garo paves a path of destruction and Bang feels it's up to him to take him down. Meanwhile, the Monster Association also have their own plans to attack.

By all accounts One Punch Man is something that shouldn't have worked in any medium other than a gag manga. The concept of a hero depressed at the fact he's so strong any challenge only takes one punch is funny, but not one that seems like it offers much in the way of variety. But through a combination of fantastic animation, immediately likeable characters and perfect comic timing the first season worked perfectly – making that one time joke consistently work even when you knew exactly what was coming.

Season 2 however takes a very different and controversial approach however, shoving both Saitama and Genos to the background as it instead dedicates itself to world building and developing the other heroes in the One Punch Man universe. On the surface that by no means sounds like a bad thing – it's a big old world and not everything needs to revolve around the title character. However reducing his appearance to the point where he not only appears in episodes for mere minutes, but is also entirely detached from the main story, makes you question just why the series is called One Punch Man. Any interaction Saitama has with Garo is a (admittedly funny) split-second joke that neither character is fully aware of, and his main role in the show is to take part in a martial arts tournament in a funny wig. This didn't need to be a parody of shonen manga's long tradition with tournaments to be notable, but at least it would have done something interesting if it was. Instead it just plays out exactly as you'd expect it would, all while turning Saitama into the one-note punch line the previous season had done so well to avoid.

So if it's not about Saitama, who is One Punch Man season 2 about? The main takeaway of the entire season is the introduction of Garo, whose path is presented as a twisted version of what Saitama aspires to have. Garo hunts down heroes one by one as he looks for stronger opponents, but unlike Saitama Garo hasn’t reached the end of his journey just yet. While the show certainly conveys how strong he is, he also gets his fair share of near-misses and losses too. He’s on the kind of path Saitama would be on if this was a more straightforward hero story, but walks a very fine line between “antagonist” and outright villain. He’s a fairly engaging character, but despite the story trying his damn hardest to get the audience to sympathise with him but a wafer thing sob story doesn’t change the fact he’s a bad dude doing bad things to innocent people. In fact the whole point of Garo seems to be caught up in a very messy web of ideas, as its partly there to highlight the shadiness of the Hero Association but he takes it out on those who aren’t especially complicit in it. Not that any of it really matters, because even if you get engaged in Garo’s arc the main story just pulls him out of action at the very last minute - replacing him with a giant monster with very little build up.

However if you aren't too keen on Garo there are other characters that get their chance to shine. While all the familiar faces from the first season are still around, like Saitama most of them are skulking around in the background. Even Genos' time is limited despite doing far more in the main story than Saitama does. So instead we spend greater time with lesser heroes like Bang, Metal Bat and Fubuki – transforming them from forgettable extended cast members into supposed main players. However with the exception of Bang, the season isn't content to just stick with a handful of characters and introduces more and more forgettable heroes with each episode. The end result is a bloated mess, where the world feels sufficiently populated but barely anyone is properly realised. Metal Bat gets a good outing but it isn't enough, while Bang escapes relatively unscathed through the advantage of being one of the first season's more memorable characters.

Despite all the good done with Garo to salvage the series, it's telling that season 2's best moments are still ones revolving around Saitama. More specifically it's the moments that he shares with King, a hero who is in fact powerless and has been credited for most of Saitama's achievements thus far. The two effectively want what the other has, and though their friendship is mostly played for laughs one particular exchange really gets to the heart of One Punch Man. King is one of the few characters that truly gets Saitama, calling him out on the fact that despite lamenting the lack of a "worthy" opponent he actually does very little himself to find this. The show can say all it wants about the bureaucracy of its Hero Association, but this little nugget about Saitama's efforts to better himself are a very more engaging and relevant commentary for the series. In fairly typical fashion the subject is disappointing brushed aside with a joke and never brought up again, but moments like these are a glimmer of hope that One Punch Man still has something somewhat interesting to say.

But amongst all of season 2's flaws, the most talked about of them all is undoubtedly the downgrade in visuals. Even in the one-sidedness of Saitama's fights there was a high level of craftsmanship to the first season, with both Saitama's allies and opponents alike showing a dazzling array of spectacle to further emphasise just how powerful Saitama is. When Saitama finally found what he believed to be an equal adversary in the alien invader Boros, the finale pulled out all the stops to show just what our hero (as well as the production staff) was capable of. Though Saitama is sidelined for the majority of the season there's still that element of the other characters picking up the slack, but without that end punch line it just doesn't impress in quite the same way. Even Saitama's final faceoff in the tournament, where he humorously tries to dodge attacks while stopping his wig from falling off, fails to leave any lasting mark.

Instead much like the case with the narrative it's Garo that provides any sort of worthwhile interest, whose savage beatdowns of the heroes are the main source of visual flare. But even when the show is at its best, J.C. Staff struggle to rival anything the first season had to offer. Shingo Natsume's departure from the series also took several of the series' key animation staff, and it definitely shows. Calling it a bad-looking show would be an exaggeration, but it's serviceable at best. All of those detailed, flowing shots that the first season revelled in are replaced with shaky cam, still shots and in some cases even cutaways from the main action.

One Punch Man season 2 may expand things with new characters, new threats and a commentary on the state of its Hero Association, but it doing so it also loses a lot of what made the first season so loveable in the first place. Even if you were to disregard the significantly inferior animation, the limited focus on its title hero in favour of far too expansive world building does not do it any favours. Then for any good it does do with Garo, it just leaves things on a loose end so it can poorly tease the possibility of a third season. There's every possibility that a third season could get things back on track and right these wrongs, but after this One Punch Man has a tough road ahead if it wants to reclaim some of that former glory.

1 comment:

Ink'd Kaiju Dude said...

Wow, I haven't watched Season 2 yet, but to read that it focused more on the other heroes and less on Saitama is disappointing. Sucks that after making fans wait so long for season 2, this is the direction they went with.