Disclaimer: The following post contains spoilers for My Hero Academia’s anime and manga. Proceed with caution.
PREAMBLE: MIGHT AS WELL (SHONEN) JUMP
Weekly Shonen Jump is one of Japan’s most popular comic anthologies, and a part of book publisher Shueisha Inc.’s line of Jump magazines. These books have hosted a number of stories since 1968, including Mazinger Z, Dragon Ball, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and Naruto. Shonen Jump’s most popular stories most known for being about hot-blooded youngsters – namely young boys or men – fighting to achieve some kind of lofty goal, whether it’s defeat an ancient evil, become king of all pirates, or rise among the ranks of pro basketball players.
Many Shonen Jump titles are also characterized by young people with super-powers kicking the tar out of each other. They follow the formula of a gung-ho protagonist setting out on a quest for glory. Said protagonist is typically driven to succeed by choice or circumstance and is often (but not always) something of a goofball or at least incredibly rambunctious. They make plenty of friends and allies along the way – some of whom are their former rivals – and are often accompanied by a weaker but somewhat plot-relevant character. That latter character’s purpose is generally to tag along and narrate what the hero’s up to during their battles, to be left dumbstruck by their opponents’ skills, and then to be wowed by the way the hero turns things around.
Outside of a small handful of titles, few have tried to mess around with that format, but those that have managed to produce some very compelling results. Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia is one such title.
PART ONE: SUPER-DUPER
In the world of My Hero Academia, 80% of the world’s population has a Quirk that they can pass on to their children. Quirks range from your garden-variety super-power (such as pyrokinesis or phasing through matter) or to being born with the physical characteristics of an animal (such as being born with the head of a bird, or possessing the tongue and jumping power of a frog). Our protagonist, Izuku Midoriya, is part of the 20% of the population that isn’t super-powered, but is passionate about Quirks and idolizes the many superheroes (known simply as “heroes” in this universe) that have come to populate his world – particularly the strong and stalwart symbol of peace All-Might. Heroes themselves are licensed professionals similar to firefighters or police officers, and Midoriya wants to become a hero to help those in need, but his lack of superpowers keeps him from achieving that dream.
One day, he’s visited by his idol, and becomes selected as All-Might’s successor after proving himself in a battle with a tenacious sludge monster. All-Might’s Quirk, One For All, is a Quirk that not only greatly increases one’s physical strength and speed, but can also be passed on to other people. This nets Midoriya the chance of a lifetime, and he begins his hero training at the illustrious UA High School, alongside his former childhood friend Katsuki Bakugou, a temperamental and prideful boy who can make things explode by converting his sweat into nitroglycerin (don’t ask).
The reason why Bakugou and Midoriya are at odds is simpler than one might think. When Bakugou’s Quirk manifested, everyone from his peers to his teachers praised him and treated him like he was special while Midoriya was essentially ignored and mistreated by those around him. This led to Bakugou pushing his friend away because he saw a world of Winners and Losers, and saw Midoriya as one of the losers. Conversely, Midoriya saw something else entirely; he saw, in his own words, that not everyone was equal, and these are two very different things.
Midoriya sees the people in need and the people who can help those in need. When Midoriya sees his friends and comrades suffer, his first instinct is to jump in. This is a strength that he taps into before he inherits One For All, and it’s what makes him a candidate to essentially become the next All-Might. This is because Midoriya sees gaps that need to be filled, and that people should step in to help others even if they’re not qualified or trained to do so. With Bakugou, this couldn’t be any more different. Bakugou believes in a hierarchy where the strong are to be praised and supported by the weak. Bakugou refuses to let anybody help him, because not being able to stand up for himself or get by using his own strength is, in his mind, something that will hobble him.
In Bakugou’s world, he is not just bound to be a hero but also the hero, the protagonist, and that we are reading his story.
PART TWO: PROTAGONIST SATURNALIA
In any other manga or anime of this type, My Hero Academia’s protagonist would have been Bakugou, and Midoriya would have been his plucky Quirkless sidekick who provided colour commentary during battles such as Manta from Shaman King, or would be superpowered but ultimately ineffective in battles like Krillin from Dragon Ball Z. We can see that in Bakugou’s design, as he is already a composite of several other leading lads from other popular manga series. His appearance immediately brings to mind the title character of Naruto and Natsu Dragneel from Fairy Tail. Both are series led by hot-headed, spiky-haired youth looking to be respected and revered by those around them, heroes who breeze through their challenges with relative ease, steadily getting stronger and gaining more allies along the way.
However, rather than be a carbon copy of those characters, Bakugou is instead depicted as an entitled dirtbag who treats everyone around him like competition, even when they’re being nice to him, but also doubts himself in his darker moments. Character traits that would normally be endearing or quirky (for lack of a better term) in any other series are shown from another angle. We see Bakugou as a brash and insecure firebrand who wants people to see him as the guiding light for the world to follow. Bakugou is undeserving of a rag-tag team of weirdoes to help him achieve his dream because he’s a mean-spirited and divisive bully.
This is where his dynamic with Midoriya gets interesting. Midoriya undergoes a transition from observer to participant, opting out of becoming another Krillin-type character early on. He’s not satisfied with merely cheering people on from the sidelines, and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. In fact, one could argue that one of Midoriya’s superpowers is his power of observation. Being “The Krillin” or “The Manta” on some level not only helps him understand how his friends’ and foes’ Quirks function, but he’s able to apply that level of observation to the people around him, reading their emotions and being able to motivate people to succeed or be better people by being heroic rather than “being the hero.”
What also makes Izuku Midoriya so interesting is that, compared to other Shonen Jump protagonists, he doesn’t breeze through his trials unfazed, and yet even his failures make him a better person and are even inspiring to other characters. See, Midoriya’s driven by a need to help others but is also hindered by the power he’s inherited. Because Midoriya’s a tiny teenager, he has to train constantly in order to keep One For All from essentially killing him. Even then, he runs the risk of breaking all the bones in his limbs if he doesn’t measure himself – and often does. In fact, the first time Midoriya uses his Quirk is to take down a giant robot, but doing so destroys both his legs and shatters his punching arm from knuckles to shoulder. There is a school medic who can miraculously heal people, but her powers can’t help him every time, and so Midoriya has to learn to control what he has.
Meanwhile, although he does experience setbacks, Bakugou is significantly powerful and formidable, walking away from battles relatively unscathed, and yet everyone still resents him. A great example of this is the tournament arc in the second season of the TV show, which also took up a sizeable chunk of the original manga.
PART THREE: THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP
Normally, tournament arcs are defined by the major players in the story fighting their way through hordes of jobbers until everyone finally squares off with each other, normally with the protagonist coming out on top. Furthermore, it’s during the fights between the more significant characters that we learn more about their motivations, and usually they end up finding common ground among our main characters. Some characters during these arcs even become series regulars and fight alongside our heroes later on.
In My Hero Academia, Izuku Midoriya doesn’t even become one of the final four combatants. In fact, he gets knocked out in the second round of matches, which is virtually unheard of for a series like this. However, it is in that second match that he ends up fighting with another hero trainee, Shoto Todoroki, who has been played up from the start as being a Pretty Big Deal.
Todoroki is the stoic son of the powerful but abusive hero Endeavour. He possesses both his father’s fire powers and his mother’s ice powers, but refuses to use the abilities of the former out of pure spite. In their match-up, Midoriya convinces him to use both his powers at once through a seize-hold-of-your-destiny speech. This results in Midoriya losing the fight but winning a friend and trusted ally, as well as the respect of his peers and elders.
When Bakugou and Todoroki have their fight, which is the last match of the tourney, Todoroki refuses to use his fire powers because he needs to process this change that’s come over him, and in doing so ends up losing. Bakugou wins the tournament, but it’s a hollow victory. Midoriya robbed him of what should have been a character-building moment for any major Shonen Jump protagonist. While there is no way Bakugou would ever be able to get through to someone in the same way Midoriya does, the fact that someone who would have normally been relegated to the support role in an SJ narrative made one of the more powerful trainees at UA doubt himself has left Bakugou vexed.
This, among many other moments in the series, leads to the already-tense relationship between Midoriya and Bakugou becoming further strained and tested.
FINAL WORD: ANIME MAGNETISM
Writing this all out makes me wonder whether or not the rivalry between Midoriya and Bakugou is actually somehow talking about Shonen Jump protagonists themselves. Midoriya is not just the Krillin/Manta/Sakura character, but has also inherited the silly charismatic strategist side of your bargain-bin Shonen Jump protagonist, while Bakugou is very much a manifestation of the relentless fighting machine side of those same characters.
Perhaps this is truly why they are at odds with each other. Imagine if someone like Kenshin Himura or Monkey D. Luffy was divided into two characters and they were forced to interact with each other; there would be endless animosity. They would not be able to stand the sight of each other, but the former would be drawn to the latter by their need to be friendly to others.
It would also be why Midoriya and Bakugou will eventually need to mend things. Midoriya needs Bakugou’s fighting spirit in much the same way Bakugou needs Midoriya’s empathy and intelligence, and when forced to work together, they can achieve great things. Their past friendship and time together as classmates means that they understand each other, even if one clearly despises the other. Whether they want to admit or not, despite their differences and incongruities, they need each other.
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