About halfway through the first season of the viral anime series One Punch Man, the titular hero’s sidekick, Genos, stands on a rooftop looking up at a meteor about to destroy the city. Genos worries whether his arm cannon will be enough to destroy the meteor—and if it is, what about the parts that break off? Will his internal engine explode? Will…
An older, more experienced hero interrupts Genos’ doubts. “When your back is against the wall,” he says, “and the outcome will not change, the only thing you can do is muddle through.”
This statement encapsulates much of the heroic ethos at play in One Punch Man, an ethos that runs counter to the world’s expectations, but which shares much with which Christians can identify. Throughout the anime, many heroes fight, and many heroes fail. Yet the series judges them not by their failures or victories, but by their fights–whether they “muddled through,” and gave it their all, regardless of the outcome. This caused me to pause and think whether I consider myself defined by the results I achieve in this life, or simply take joy in fighting the good fight with everything that is in me.When your back is against the wall and the outcome will not change, the only thing you can do is muddle through.
One Punch Man parodies anime—and superheroes—in hundreds of ways, even in its very title, meant to echo the popular Japanese series Anpanman. Instead of a complex, conflicted hero with an emotional backstory, Saitama, the series protagonist, is a bland and apathetic young man who is only a hero for the fun of it. He is a “minimalist” hero, whose motivations are simple, secrets are bland (his training regimen consists of jogs, pushups, and squats), and whose fights are over before they even begin. Saitama is so powerful that he can defeat any enemy in a single punch, which has the unfortunate result of making his fights enormously dull.
With such an overpowered main character, most of the show’s drama comes from its secondary characters, who often find themselves supremely outclassed by the same foes Saitama defeats with ease. The show takes place in a world where heroes are tested, registered, ranked, and deployed by a managing organization. Many of these heroes are quite powerful–indeed, Genos, Saitama’s insistent student, is an S-class hero capable of leveling buildings. Yet he—and many others of varying power levels—is consistently defeated, sometimes battered into a barely recognizable pulp. Despite their respective abilities and strengths, they are all equally helpless against the threats they face.
In another show’s hands, this would become laughable, a mockery of so-called powerful “heroes” who make no real impact except on the television screen. Yet One Punch Man takes a different tack. The point is not, the show makes clear, how much of an impact is made, or indeed whether any impact is made at all. A hero is not simply one who wins; a hero is one who fights.
The purest example of this is Mumen Rider, the Cyclist of Justice (or “the Unlicensed Cyclist,” depending on the translation). Mumen Rider is a C-Class hero, a man whose only abilities are bicycle riding and possibly karate, leaving him qualified to battle little more than muggers and vandalizers. However, Mumen Rider directly challenges any threat, however powerful—including power-suit wearing mobs and giant sea monsters. Invariably, he gets defeated, but this never seems to dampen his willingness to fight.
Again, in any other show, Mumen Rider would be a slapstick character, the perpetually outclassed idiot who receives a hilarious beating and then vanishes. But in One Punch Man, he is the most heroic figure of them all—a man who fights knowing he will lose. In his battle against the Deep Sea King—a monstrous fighter who has defeated much more powerful heroes—Mumen Rider cries out:
“No one expects much from me. I know that. I’m weak. I know that much. No one has to tell me I have no chance of beating you! I already know that! And yet, I must try! It’s not about winning or losing! It’s about me taking you on, right here, right now!”
Mumen Rider is not a hero because of how hard he can punch, or because of how many monsters he can defeat. It is not his ability to achieve results that make him a heroic figure—indeed, the Deep Sea King beats him to a pulp. It is Mumen Rider’s will, his commitment to challenging evil wherever he finds it and fighting against it with all of his being, that makes him a hero. Saitama, arriving on the scene, tells the battered Mumen Rider, “You did good. Nice fight.”
Saitama says this because he has been in the weaker hero’s shoes. His origin story depicts a similar scenario when a much weaker Saitama made the choice to challenge a monster he had no hope of defeating, simply because it was the heroic thing to do. Thus when one of the rescued civilians falls to mocking the battered Mumen Rider for losing, Saitama defends him by pretending to have accomplished very little himself. He glorifies the others and makes himself appear smaller—because to him, they deserve credit simply for trying.
To the world, this idea seems ludicrous. The others did nothing. They did not win. They did not achieve results. All they did, in fact, was fail dramatically. Are they really heroes? The Hero Association, in the One Punch world, ranks heroes on the battles they win, not on the effort they put into it. It seems simply logical to judge people based on results. The secular world demands results; people do not visit doctors or elect politicians who “try really hard” but always fail. Rewarding people simply for making an effort is not in any way a worldly notion. It is simply not practical.
And yet, this is an idea that has strong resonance with the gospel. We are told to fight the good fight, to finish the race, but winning either is never mentioned—we are not the victors in the story. What is important is “keeping the faith.” We are flesh and prone to failure; we are not gods, or even superheroes. God is not interested in our “results.” As the Parable of the Talents makes clear, it is not the return on investment that pleases the master, but the impulse to do something, the urge to try, rather than simply burying the money. We are not commanded to defeat the world, simply not be afraid of it, or resist it with all our soul. The battle is in the hands of another.
This is the same attitude One Punch Man takes. In the show’s finale, the greatest heroes are gathered to fight off an alien ship. Yet one of the strongest heroes, King, refuses to fight, saying the ship is flying and he will be of no use. The other heroes rightly call him out on this and say he is “pathetic.” Genos, meanwhile, volunteers to join the fight, even though he admits he “does not know how useful he will be from the ground.” Internally, he reflects that there is no real cause for alarm—Saitama has entered the ship, and “there is no evil that Master cannot defeat.” Results are unimportant when the battle has already been decided. All one can do is join in.
This is the final comfort of the Christian. We can rest assured that the weight of the world does not rest on us, that it is in much stronger hands, and that all we need to do is stand with the strength we have against the evil we meet. When the outcome will not change—when all will happen according to God’s plan—the best we can do is simply “muddle through” and pour our utmost into the struggle against sin and the devil in the time that is given to us.