Japan and America both have a long history with the superhero genre but despite obvious similarities, the differences between the way the cultures have approached the genre make for some pretty different stories. One only needs to look at the Japanese Spider-man TV where our hero Tatsuya gets his power from an alien from the planet Spider, as well as a giant robot instead of a radioactive spider. Despite the massive differences between the way the two cultures treat the genre, there’s still an immediately recognizable core that makes a superhero. It’s something that makes My Hero Academia, the new anime adapted from the manga by Kohei Hiroshi and Hirofumi Nedi, a fascinating look at the evolution of the superhero genre as our fiction crosses borders at an unprecedented level. It doesn’t hurt that My Hero Academia also represents the best of what it means to be not just a superhero, but someone who loves them as well.
The story follows superhero maniac Izuku Midoriya -called Deku- who wants nothing more than to be a superhero, especially like the Captain America analogue All Might. Unfortunately Deku doesn’t have a Quirk, which are special powers that are so ubiquitous in this world that Izuku is treated as though he has a disability. Despite this, Deku is still focused on becoming a hero. One day, Deku is saved by his favorite hero All Might and asks the key question: Can he become a hero despite not having a Quirk?
It’s a deeply personal story about what it’s like to feel left behind, what it’s like to still want to leave your mark, and a push on the idea of ‘twice the effort for half as much’. All Might even speaks about the difference between getting powers from random genetic chance and actually earning them. After initially refusing Deku with the very reasonable statement that becoming a hero is too dangerous for someone without any powers, Deku proves himself in an unintended trial-by-fire that he is someone dedicated to heroics and even then all All Might can provide is the chance to become a hero, provided Deku is willing go through some grueling shonen-style training.
It’s amazing how many emotions the show can cover with its concept alone. Not only is there great action and comedy that always feels natural to a superhero story, but the first episode covers some legitimately heart-breaking moments, with Deku’s mother embracing him and sobbing upon hearing that her son lacks a Quirk, feeling as though her son can never achieve his dream, followed by the despair of Deku, thinking that he has been given up on by her mother. It’s heavy and personal in a nuanced way that few manga that cover similar themes rarely are.
The immediate comparison among manga for many will be One-Punch Man and it’s easy to see why. They both feature worlds where the explosive fights have become a norm and institution for the world and an unmitigated glee at the concept of superheroes and the kind of action they can do. One-Punch Man focuses more on the comedy of superheroes and action manga in general but it still goes out of its way to deliver genuinely cool characters and action, making it less of a parody and more just a superhero story that is really really funny. It never feels like it’s chastising fans for enjoying the action or ridiculous characters.
My Hero Academia initially feels like it could have this pitfall, particularly with All Might. It would have been all too easy to make him a buffoonish and arrogant fraud, but instead All Might shows himself to be the real deal. There is more to him to meet the eye and his attacks all have hilariously ‘all-American’ names like ‘Detroit Smash’ but he still repeatedly proves his dedication to protecting the lives of those around them. These characters aren’t parodies, they’re admiration through imitation.
The fact that Deku’s hero is the real deal makes us root for Deku all the more and it makes All Might’s plan to help Deku get into the prestigious hero school U.A. High and become an unprecedented hero makes us admire him all the more. There’s a dialogue about the difference between power given by the happenstance of genetics against having something bestowed upon you because you’ve worked for it and earned it. The show is taking on the idea of how inherited talent affects a person. There’s a discussion about bravery, intent, and inner nature that makes it ring far more true.
There’s a discussion to be had about privilege in the world of My Hero Academia as well. In many ways the world feels like the polar opposite of the X-men where the superpowered individuals are treated as social outcasts. A world where the person without superpowers is the one without the advantages is one that actually ends up feeling more like a realized world concerning advantages and privilege. The supporting cast is full of powered individuals that are made brash and cruel or even just oblivious thanks to their powers. Deku starting out quirkless makes someone who understands both what these powers mean and what not having them means in a way none of his eventual peers at U.A. High can.
It’s also fun when it needs to be. The action scenes have yet to reach the stylized high points of One-Punch Man, but they still fit the same criteria for those who love frenetic over-the-top action that has come to characterize both the superhero genre and anime. Even the third episode’s training montage captures a good deal of highs and lows of drama, with Deku endangering himself by overworking himself. It makes both All Might and the audience nervous -even if the audience does know that Deku will make it in for the needs of the story- because we know how much he wants this and his overwork and self-sabotage feeds into the desire that we have come to share with him.
The production values don’t hurt it at all. The anime looks beautiful and expressive, the mix of both American comic and anime visuals combines to make a world that looks larger than life in its aesthetic, action scenes, and even its emotions. There’s an understanding of how to make an event feel earth-shattering, even if it’s only personal. The music is also perfect, particularly All Might’s leitmotif which manages to both be inspiring and comical without either aspect cancelling the other out. There’s been a lot of push for this series stateside, particularly from Funimation, that is convinced it’ll be the next big thing among western anime fans
I find myself coming back to One-Punch Man repeatedly in this review because I find them both very similar in tone and the world they’ve created and I’m wondering if they represent a new trend in Japanese action comics. Will the new standard setting for anime and manga be these semi-self-aware world of superpowered beings who treat end-of-the-world crises as business as usual? There’s a part of me that welcomes this setting since it’s something that lends itself to really fun action setpieces without the need for extensive worldbuilding, but I also have a significant fear of seeing this format be run into the ground. Of course, knowing the natural order of fiction to mimic successful stories, either out of genuine admiration or simply desiring to get money from the same demographic, it’s more than likely we’ll get more stories like this.
My Hero Academia was such a surprising gem in this season of anime. Initially I was simply set to enjoy this as another of the enjoyable enough shonen-action series that come out every now and then, only to find it to be a surprisingly personal story about ambition, desire, and working for what you love. The addition of American superhero influences blending with modern Japanese standards for the characters makes it feel all something incredibly new while also feeling comfortable and familiar.