Trash & Treasure is a miscellany of monthly opinions on SFF, fandom and general geekness from Foz Meadows.
Over the years, I’ve had what I’d a call an on-again, off-again relationship with anime. My tastes are fairly scattergun, and I’ll sometimes go through long periods where I don’t watch or keep track of the genre at all before suddenly re-immersing myself, as I’ve just done this month. After seeing it crop up endlessly online, I decided to put my shiny new Hulu account to use and try out My Hero Academia (aka Boku no Hero Academia, aka BNHA) and somehow ended up mainlining all three seasons – or most of them, anyway; the third is still updating – in a week.
Set in what is either an indeterminate near-future or an alternate present, BNHA posits a version of our world where, several generations back, human beings started manifesting superhuman abilities called Quirks, which are now an accepted part of everyday life. While the majority of the population develops some sort of Quirk, only a select few grow up to become heroes: government licensed protectors who assist the police in taking down villains who use their Quirks for evil. Enter Izuru ‘Deku’ Midoriya, a teenage boy determined to follow in the footsteps of his idol, All Might, the number one hero hailed as the Symbol of Peace. The only problem? Midoriya is Quirkless – and without any superpowers, he has no chance of being accepted into the hero course at UA, All Might’s alma mater. But after a fateful encounter with All Might, Midoriya is given a chance to realise his dreams. Unbeknownst to the public, All Might’s Quirk isn’t an inborn talent, but one he was chosen by its previous wielder to inherit. Impressed by Midoriya, All Might agrees to train him and pass on his Quirk, which earns Midoriya a place at UA. But using All Might’s power takes a terrible toll on Midoriya’s body: in addition to butting heads with his rageful childhood friend/rival, Katsuki Bakugo, Midoriya has to learn to use his Quirk without destroying himself.
And that’s just the first few episodes.
When I set out to watch BNHA, my expectations were fairly low. I figured it would be a relaxing, trashy anime that I could dip in and out of; what I got was a narrative, premise and characterisation that sucked me in and made it difficult to stop watching. On paper, there’s nothing particularly original about BNHA – neither superhero narratives nor stories about schools for teens with special powers are in short supply at the moment, and this is a show that manages to combine both. The conceit of an ordinary, hardworking boy elevated to specialness by a famous mentor is likewise nothing new, especially in anime; and yet BNHA manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Though archetypal in some ways, Midoriya nonetheless makes for a compelling protagonist: what he has, he earns through sheer bloodyminded determination and hard work.
The supporting cast is similarly engaging, with characters developing in unexpected ways. All Might in particular is a fascinating trope subversion: as Midoriya discovers in the first episode, an unpublicised battle some years ago left All Might badly injured. His muscular ‘hero form’ is revealed to be, not his regular body, but a shape into which he transforms – now, though, he can’t maintain it for more than a few hours. His regular body is hollow-eyed and skeletal, dwarfed by too-big clothes, a mass of scar tissue scrawling over his abdomen where his stomach was removed. In a setting where superheroes don’t need secret identities, All Might is nonetheless forced to live a double existence, hiding the extent of his weakness as he trains Midoriya to replace him; while Midoriya, in turn, is forced to conceal the true source of his Quirk. This enables a neat twist on the traditional superhero arc of living a double life: both All Might and Midoriya are publicly known as heroes, but the private nature of their intertwined strengths and weaknesses dovetails neatly with the larger themes of self-sacrifice, the cost of hero-work and the balance between self-belief and egotism.
Also fascinating is the focus on tactics. Though there’s plenty of visual spectacle in terms of how various Quirks are used, the limitations on Midoriya’s use of power, which literally breaks his bones, means that a great deal of attention is paid to thinking through problems creatively. This combines with the range of Quirks in the setting to create some truly engaging battle sequences. Ordinarily, the tendency of anime to intersperse inner-monologue voiceovers with grandiose actions during fights can get a little wearying; in BNHA, it suits the context perfectly. One great fight sequence in Season 2, for instance, shows a face-off between two students: Ururacha, whose Quirk is Gravity – she can make anything she touches float – and Bakugo, whose Quirk is Explosion – he sweats nitro and can use it to create fireballs, among other things. In addition to constituting a moment of great characterisation for the two combatants, the ways in which they utilise their abilities against each other is genuinely compelling. (I’d say more, but I’d rather not spoil it!)
The other main strength of BNHA? It never quite does what you expect it to. No sooner is All Might shown to us as the archetypal perfect hero than the narrative subverts him into a wry, decaying man whose optimism, while sincere, is elsewhere expressed in very different ways. By the same token, though the first few episodes set up Bakugo to act as Midoriya’s primary foil and bully, their transition to high school quickly shows Bakugo his own comparative lack of importance. For years, Bakugo has been a big fish in a small pond, his bullying of Midoriya encouraged or ignored by those around him; but at UA, he’s instantly recognised as an asshole by their classmates, while his arrogance and temper start to have an adverse impact on his abilities. This makes Bakugo a weirdly fascinating character even when you want to strangle him: though we’re only given a tiny glimpse of his homelife and history to explain his frequent cruelty and aggression – his mother hits him, calls him weak and shouts at him, just as Bakugo does all these things to Midoriya – the whys of his actions are ultimately less significant to the narrative than his status, not as an antihero, but as someone self-obsessed and self-driven to the point of total blindness.
Because even though Bakugo bullies him, Midoriya has never quite stopped thinking of them as, if not friends-now, then certainly friends-once. On multiple occasions, Midoriya’s heroism is explicitly shown in his desire to save Bakugo – from others; from his own hubris – in a way that contrasts sharply with Bakugo’s relentless egotism. Yet by Season 2, there’s another angle on things: as Midoriya starts up a healthier, more emotionally invested and friendly rivalry with Shouto Todoroki, the son of the world’s second best hero, Bakugo is not only forced to re-evaluate his importance to Midoriya, but is explicitly shown in contrast to Todoroki’s father, Endeavour. Through Todoroki’s chilling narration, we learn that Endeavour is monstrously abusive: a man who monetarily engineered marriage to a woman with a powerful Quirk in order to try and breed even more powerful children with her. With Todoroki the only such child to show suitable promise, Endeavour ‘trained’ him from a young age, hurting both his son and, when she protested, his wife, obsessed with the idea that, if he couldn’t be stronger than All Might, then it would have to fall to his son. His cruelty culminated in his wife having a mental breakdown: she harmed Todoroki and was hospitalised for her actions, and has remained there ever since.
Just as Endeavour is obsessed with besting All Might, so is Bakugo obsessed with besting Midoriya, whose relationships with Bakugo and Todoroki mirror each other in turn. With Endeavour’s cruelty showing us the darkest possible version of Bakugo’s future – one in which his need for public praise and status as a hero turns him criminal in private – we’re also shown the contrast between Todoroki and Bakugo: two boys whose relationships with Midoriya are pivotal to their development, but in radically different ways. Whereas Todoroki accepts Midoriya’s help and uses it to push back against Endeavour, Bakugo fiercely resists his every effort and suffers for it – and yet, when the League of Villains, the recurring bad guys, try to recruit Bakugo to their cause, pointing out how his teachers and classmates are thwarting his desires, he refuses to be swayed.
My one complaint about BNHA – which is, both sadly and in fairness, a complaint I have about almost every anime I’ve ever seen – is the fanservice: unnecessarily sexualised female characters and costumes, especially on characters who are meant to be teenage girls, and the seemingly mandatory inclusion of a gross creeper male character, Mineta, whose predations are called out as such in the narrative, yet never sufficiently to outweigh the offensiveness of his inclusion in the first place. There are still some great female characters – Ururacha and Tsu are my favourites – but, yeah: it’s not without certain traditional flaws. Even so, I’ve quickly become addicted to it, and despite the occasional sour note, I really want to know what happens next. You should give it a try!