At a point when United States cinema and print try to make superhero narratives grounded in reality, it is at the cost of what makes those stories so super–not only the fantastic powers, plots, characters, and settings, but also an idealism and hopefulness that defies believability. My Hero Academia returns the superhero narrative to the fantastic without compromising its characters: it identifies an emotional core to each one and, in the process, addresses very real issues about bullying, depression, and disability.
Spoiler Alert: While this review focuses on the original Japanese broadcast and English dub of Episode 1 of My Hero Academia, it will also refer to events in subsequent episodes and content from the original manga.
I have not been a fan of the school of thought that superhero stories have to be grounded in reality: there is something disappointing to go into an Iron Man film and have everything be reduced to just two guys in robot suits duking it out. For me, I want something more fantastic, even if that means the two guys in robot suits are actually in gigantic robot suits, fighting kaiju, like Pacific Rim. The Marvel films (which I’ve been analyzing for a long time) opt for having a more realistic approach. Sometimes that practice is successful: Thor’s integration of science with magic enriches both Kirby’s original stories and the film’s universe, and Steve Rogers’s confrontation with his bodily transformation address topics such as ability and disability (relevant to what I have to say about My Hero Academia, too). Then other times, Marvel is much less successful: bending-over-backwards to explain the strain on Phil Coulson’s spy agency and terrigen fish oil pills in Agents of SHIELD feels like a step in the wrong direction, obsessing over how realistic an international spy agency is when, really, the MST3K mantra is a better approach to take.
Kohei Horikoshi does not have that problem. The creator of the manga My Hero Academia (僕のヒーロー・アカデミア Boku no Hero Academia), Horikoshi throws readers into a fictional world where 80 percent of the world’s population already have superpowers–and that is an established fact already by the beginning of Episode 1, “Izuku Midoriya: Origin,” in its animated adaptation that premiered last month in Japan and the United States. The story focuses on adolescent superheroes who undergo training at a school for the empowered, training under established superheroes. The protagonist, Izuku Midoriya, alias Deku, recently gained his superpowers and tries to navigate through the school and learn from his mentor, the super-muscular All Might, what it means to be a hero.
Before the animated adaptation of My Hero Academia premiered in Japan last month, it would not be surprising that the series would be popular with viewers in Japan and abroad, quickly securing a license for distribution in the United States by producer Funimation, which is premiering episodes online within hours of their Japanese broadcast and debut and already dubbing them into English within a month of broadcast. With animation by Studio BONES (Space Dandy, Fullmetal Alchemist, Ouran High School Host Club), the series would have mainstream appeal and largely inspire confidence in anime aficionados that the animation would be able to tackle the full range of the series, not only the superpowers but the comedy and emotionality.
And BONES matches those expectations: the animators approach this series fully intending to show the range of superpowers, mixing and matching character traits, appearances, and even powers to show the extent of stretching, elemental manipulation, size manipulation, and speed, mass, and strength all in the first episode. In particular, the episode’s introductory fight, focused on someone who looks like the offspring of Groot and Mr. Fantastic, has fight choreography evocative of the high-flying action seen in The Legend of Korra. Coupled with excellent acting in both the Japanese- and English-language broadcasts, including a fitting musical score and doses of humorous dialogue and character reactions, the show hooks viewers from the very first episode.
The buzz surrounding My Hero Academia a month since its premiere owes in part to Funimation, which already has a record of largely well-handled distribution and dubs, maintaining quality even as its English-language dubs are being produced before the series has reached its sixth episode. Justin Briner as Izuku shines in drawing out the character’s sadness but also his joy over superheroes, while seasoned actor Chris Sabat, already a powerhouse talent as Zoro in One Piece and Vegeta and Piccolo in Dragon Ball Z, portrays All Might in a way my ears have not heard, sounding so unlike himself while obviously drawing upon some of the same beats in his performance as Armstrong in Fullmetal Alchemist.
In addition to having its credibility in terms of its production, My Hero Academia is as typical as a superhero story or an anime can be. The series approaches the superhero in terms largely drawn from United States conceptions: capes, costumes, superpowers, stopping bank robberies, protecting bystanders from threats that are caused by humans, supervillains, or nature itself. At a time where Marvel’s cinematic interpretations of the superhero dominate theaters around the world, that conception has a global resonance. Marvel is aware of the popularity of its characters in Japan, having recently commissioned mangaka Hiro Mashima (Fairy Tail) to produce artwork in marketing the release of Captain America: Civil War.
And this is not to ignore earlier bi-directionality in United States and Japanese understandings of the superhero, obvious in Cyborg 009, Super Sentai, the Toei Spider-Man series, Tiger and Bunny, or the animesque style employed in the plots, character designs, and panels in current United States comics.
My Hero Academia, obviously from its name, also has that anime standard of being set in a school, where adolescent superheroes learn safe use of their powers under the tutelage of experienced superheroes. This tactic draws not only from United States comics like Avengers Academy but also Japanese series like Blue Exorcist and Soul Eater, in which superpowered teenagers contend with their powers in ways similar to how almost any person contends with entering into adulthood, the gaining of superpowers functioning as a metaphor for puberty.
The twist for My Hero Academia is that it is a world where the gaining of superpowers is not met with fear or revulsion by others, as occurs with X-Men, Inhumans, or more recently Man of Steel, because Horikoshi adds a clever detail to his fictional universe: superheroes far outnumbered non-powered individuals, with almost 80 percent of the world’s population having superpowers, or “Quirks” as the series calls it. This detail avoids the pessimism and paranoia surrounding those with superpowers, as occurs in similar stories: it can be a bit too clean plot-wise, especially for only the first episode as a large dose of exposition explains that world governments turn superheroism into a for-profit enterprise, paying those heroes who do the best work at stopping crime by the superpowered criminals in that 80 percent.
In this regard, this world should be that ideal imagined by Syndrome in The Incredibles: if everyone gets to be super, then no one is anymore. It should be an egalitarian leveling of the talents, where everyone gets to be a superhero. I can hear the rumbling of readers that this sounds like a mockery of millennial culture, in which everyone gets to think they are special because of the abilities they possess. HOrikoshi injects much needed humor to avoid this kind of a bitter representation, however, with one character, Inko Midoriya, off-handedly mentioning that her and her husband’s superpowers–his fire-breathing, her levitation–are rather mundane compared to other superpowers. Such a setup creates a world where stratified abilities still persist, allowing for discrimination to persist even among superpowered people in a seemingly idealized setting.
And that discrimination is faced by Inko’s son, Izuku (Japanese: Daiki Yamashita; English: Justin Briner). A superhero fanboy, Izuku feels trapped in that 20 percent without superpowers, and it earns him the scorn of his superpowered classroom bully, Katsuki Bakugou (Japanese: Nobuhiko Okamoto; English: Clifford Chapin). Learning of his lack of power, Izuku is cast in the role not only of a minority but as if there is something wrong with him: the show flips the idea of disability as now referring not to the people with uncanny abilities but those who are otherwise considered normal.
The very first episode conveys Izuku’s feelings of depression upon learning this fact at age six: he struggles to ask his mother where, even without superpowers, he can still be a hero. When his mother breaks down crying out of sympathy for him and express how sorry she feels for him, Izuku, now 14, looks back at that moment with sadness, saying that was not what he needed to hear from his mother: he needed to hear her say that yes, he could still be a hero.
Both the Japanese and English version of Inko’s sympathy for Izuku make Episode 1 a powerful start for the series. As much comedy as there is to mine from Izuku’s adorkable nature–a freckled boy nervous around classmates yet brimming with intelligence, joy, and hope–the show does not treat him or his lack of superpowers as a joke. Instead, My Hero Academia identifies Izuku’s feelings of inadequacy and how they motivate him to continue to admire the selflessness of superheroes, research the extent of their powers, and demonstrate his shrewdness at imagining all that they can accomplish with their abilities.
In a darker tale, he would be the analogue to The Incredibles’ Syndrome. Instead, while not powered but obviously intelligent, Izuku is not deterred and persists with his goal to learn as much as he can about superheroes. A chance encounter with the most traditionally American superhero in this series, All Might (Japanese: Kenta Miyake; English: Chris Sabat), is the start for Izuku to get that answer he could not from his mother: can someone who is considered othered be welcomed as a superhero?
The very next episode will have All Might give that expect answer, and the series then persists in finding a way for Izuku to gain superpowers, in a way that seems less interesting to me. I’m not saying I want Izuku to become the Batman of this world, to the point of being a Creator’s Pet whose success is diametrically opposed to how lacking they are in superpowers, to the point of defying credulity. But it is a surprise to have his path be one to fit into the majority rather than work within his role as othered: it risks having him treat his lack of superpowers as a disability to remove from himself.
Still, subsequent episodes and the original manga do demonstrate problems with this idea, including addressing disability not only for Izuku but seemingly non-disabled characters, and addressing whether such body modification is at all possible. Rather than dissuade me from continuing with this series, the first episode had me marathon through the next four. My excitement is because, rather than shy away from questions about ability, even when My Hero Academia seems like it is going to sweep those topics under the rug, it directs keen focus to such issues. This confidence makes this series, with Izuku’s optimism, not only a hopeful superhero tale in stark contrast to the grimness of Batman v Superman, but one that does not let optimism ignore the realities of its own world and our own. Paradoxically, a series that is willing to have a world full of superpowers with amazing abilities is able to be more realistic about human desires and the limitations of their bodies than far less well-written superhero narratives.
Episode 1 of My Hero Academia is streaming on Funimation.com (subtitled is free; dubbed is for subscribers). Episodes premiere for paid subscribers Sundays at 5:00 AM.
- I can’t say enough about how well the English dub, directed by Colleen Clinkenbeard, manages to tackle this series, especially as it is being dubbed simultaneously to its production and release in Japan. I’ve heard enough dubs from Funimation to appreciate hearing an expanding pool of talent as well as some new voices and performances coming out of seasoned actors at the production company.
- There are details that can be annoying with this series, such as some needless fanservice involving a giant woman and her large backside. It mostly subsides in the next four episodes, but it’s a red flag I’m trying to keep an eye on.
- When in doubt, house the evil slime monster in an empty soda bottle.
- “I didn’t mean to get you caught up in my justicing!” When in doubt, verb it.
- “Sometimes I do feel like a failure, like there’s no hope for me.” And at that moment, Izuku broke the hearts of all viewers.