Friday, April 19, 2024

My Hero Academia Appeals Even to Anime Haters Like Me

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I’m sorry! I know it’s increasingly traitorous in the Western geek world to not like anime, but anime has never appealed to me. I’ve tried the classics numerous times and walked away almost every time. The only exception was Cowboy Bebop, which easily makes my top 10 all-time favorite show list and mainly because of how different it is from the others. Full Metal Alchemist? Bleh. Death Note? Amusing, I guess. Bleach, Naruto, yada yada yada no thank you. Dragon Ball Z is fun, I guess.

I avoided My Hero Academia (MHA), despite its popularity, because nothing about it suggested it would change my mind. If anything, it fell in line with the very things I don’t like about anime. High school drama? NO. Shonen-style? Not unless I’m playing Kingdom Hearts. Why would I like this one of all anime?

Yet here I am, almost 30 episodes into season 2 and loving every second of it. Why?

my hero academia hero lineup

It Has a Fantastic English Dub

Let me be clear that I don’t have a problem with watching subs over dubs. I prefer 99% of subs over dubs. You’ll never see me advocating for Yakuza games in English, ever, for example. I’m one of the 5 Americans who like subbed Cowboy Bebop over the dubbed version.

That being said, my goodness does My Hero Academia’s dubbed version rule. With the exception of Midoriya’s voice, I absolutely love everyone’s performance, and even Deku isn’t bad. It’s just a preference issue regarding his voice.

Some of the performances here will stick with me forever. I can’t imagine anyone beating the English performance of All Might. Tsuyu’s froggy inflection is one of my favorite things ever. Bakugou’s pure, constant rage is always awesome. Even outside of my favorites, I can’t think of a single bad performance that sticks out. No overly weird voice that feels out of place. If anything the voice actors consistently elevate their scenes. Hatsume’s sales pitch during the UA Sports Festival could have been stupid. Instead I loved every second of it because of the delivery of her voice actor. Iida would typically bore me to death. Instead he almost always entertains me.

I think a big part of this goes not only to the voice actors, but the translation. My Hero Academia does a fantastic job capturing the spirit of the characters and their dialogue without the weird translation issues that plague most dubs. Too often they go for the exact translations that just don’t sound right in English. Here both the dialogue and the delivery strike at the right compromise.

It’s really a perfect blend of wonderful voice acting and the right adjustments to the exact Japanese translations. I don’t need a dub to enjoy anime, but I won’t deny it helps with My Hero Academia.

The Superhero Craze

Anyone who reads our trailer write-ups can probably tell that, like most of the movie-going audience these days, I love superheroes. I’ve read comics for basically my entire life. This current craze has made many dreams come true I once thought impossible.

I know My Hero Academia isn’t special when it comes to anime and superpowers. Many of the classics involve superpowers, heroes, and such. Do any of them outright involve superheroes in the classic DC/Marvel sense, though? And if so, can someone please start naming them in the comments for me?

My Hero Academia’s world is one that strongly appeals to the current superhero craze, and certainly does for me.  It’s not just that it has superheroes, either, but the way it utilizes these superheroes. It’s fun to see all the UA students and pro heroes focus on the sillier aspects of the genre as if its serious business, because in this story it IS serious business. Your costume really matters. Your name matters. Good luck making anyone care if you don’t know how to publicize yourself. You could be the strongest hero in the world and it might not matter.

Even better, by making superheroes common and a business, My Hero Academia really strikes at the real-life success of superhero stories and the struggle to sell them in the current over-saturation throughout the entertainment world. Class 1-B might as well be the DC’s movie arm compared to Marvel’s class 1-A. Deku’s inheritance of All Might’s power can easily be viewed as a reboot struggling to justify its existence compared to the legacy of a predecessor. Some students come in with high expectations they don’t quite meet, while others surprise with their success.

I don’t know how much of this is intentional. Perhaps someday I’ll start checking out creator interviews to see whether My Hero Academia is meant to be interpreted this way. If not, I’ll stick by it, and I can’t pretend this interpretation doesn’t go a long way in drawing me further into the story. It also helps create a connection between me and the characters, because I recognize so much of both comic history and the current battles for attention in modern pop culture.

Consistent, Strong Character Arcs

Let’s talk All Might. Basically the Superman of this universe, All Might is the number one ranked pro hero of My Hero Academia, an ultra-powerful and muscled man who damn near everyone looks up to and who truly enjoys being the role model to young super-powered children everywhere. He’s impossibly strong, impossibly fast, and damn near unbeatable at his best.

He’s also one of the most vulnerable and relatable people in the entire show. An old wound limits his ability to use his powers, and events throughout the series further limit his time. Knowing his time is short, he must find a successor. He finds a connection Izuku Midoriya. He’s everything right about a Superman character, and a great example of the consistently fun and engaging character arcs in this show. The balance between his earth-shaking power and his humanity is excellent, and he’s not alone.

Now, let me be fair by saying strong characters are not special to My Hero Academia among anime. I’m not some asshole who thinks that just because I didn’t engage with other shows, it means the characters or plot sucked. However, I do think MHA does a particularly good job of focusing episodes around a big cast of strong characters. Much of the classic anime I’ve attempted before focuses too much on awkward expositional episodes that over-complicate things. Others will focus too much on a single character or two I don’t find particularly compelling. My Hero Academia, however, remains consistently character-focused even at its most plot-heavy, and with so many characters here, it’s hard to imagine you won’t find some you connect to.

It helps when MHA has such a wide range of character arcs. Midoriya in most ways is your usual shonen protagonist; a young, underpowered underdog whose power creep defines the arc of the series. However, the nature of his inherited powers creates a theme of sacrifice and dedication, where the damage done to his body forces hard decisions about how hard he wants to push to achieve his dreams.

As his mentor and the source of Midoriya’s power, All Might constantly struggles with how to prepare Midoriya to wield his power, while also struggling with the increasing limits on his power. Fellow classmate Shoto Todoroki struggles between an abusive father and how this abuse influences his self-imposed limits on his power. Lifelong Midoriya rival Katsuki Bakugou is basically a Vegeta, wielding immense power and desire to prove he’s the most powerful of all the students, while struggling intensely with rage. Class representative Tenya Iida fulfills a lot of the overly serious class suck-up traits. He also has his own considerable legacy to live up to, the process of which accelerates after a villain attacks his brother.

My Hero Academia has such a wide range of personalities whose goals and motivations all intertwine in intriguing ways to form natural friendships and rivalries. The class feels like a real class of people you grow invested in. Each has their moments to shine. I’m constantly impressed by the way this show develops their strengths and vulnerabilities in interesting ways.

I also expect that my love for the cast ties back into the superhero craze and how they riff on powers and arcs I’ve loved throughout my comic life. All Might’s Superman/Shazam riff, Tsu’s Toad, Midoriya’s inheritance of power and its legacy seen in heroes like the Blue Beetle, Momo’s item creation which is like Green Lantern’s…hell you could compare Bakugou’s struggles with rage to heroes like The Hulk.

It hits a lot of very popular and familiar beats while throwing a really fun, unique Japanese spin on them.

Female Characters and Friendships

The My Hero Academia fans reading this might have noticed scarce references to female characters. To them, trust me, I love them, too. To those who might not have seen it, this does not mean the women and girls of the show are lacking, rare, or bad. In fact, they are handled better than most anime I’ve ever tried to watch, and stick out considerably for it.

Like before, I’m not going to sit here and pretend MHA is special somehow regarding women in anime. It’s not the best, it’s not the most representative, and it does fall into many of the objectifying tropes of the medium. Mineta’s constant pervert behavior gets old kind of quick. From what I’ve seen so far, Midnight only exists to be ogled and make sex jokes. Ultimately they have not gotten the attention the guys do.

Still, I can’t help but compare it to other anime and feel it does a really good job. The main reason ties back to My Hero Academia’s wide range of personalities among its cast. The girls of the class are varied and interesting. Ochaco is very much Midoriya’s counterpart as the lead female character of the show, his best friend and an earnest young woman with strong morals and such, but she also has a considerable drive to succeed. Tsu is an intelligent, analytical girl who can be a bit too blunt. Mina Ashido is the bubbly cheerleader type who wears her emotions on her sleeve. Momo Yaoyorozu is a highly studious and capable person, in large part due to her creation powers, who holds herself to high standards and beats herself up when she doesn’t meet them.

No matter what you’re looking for, as I mentioned previously, My Hero Academia almost certainly has someone to draw your interest.

Add in characters like the attention-driven pro hero Mt. Lady or the bubbly and endlessly creative student Mei Hatsume, and you have a lot of cool women and girls to root for. I can’t wait to see who else enters the show, because you can’t look at anything MHA without seeing names of characters I have not seen yet and their popularity. I also can’t wait to see how characters so far underutilized might feature in future arcs.

Another highly appreciated feature of all these girls is their relationships with each other. Much of the anime I’ve tried tends to feature few women; most have the Smurfette member of the main crew, and often she’s second fiddle to the main cast of boys. These characters have unfortunately little interaction with other women. Faye Valentine rules, but she’s kind of the odd one out on Cowboy Bebop.

My Hero Academia passes the Bechdel Test early and often, and while not as deep (yet) as I may hope for, there is a consistent camaraderie and friendship among the girls in Class 1-A. Maybe this wouldn’t matter as much if they all had similar personalities. That so many different personalities not only coexist, but genuinely get along, pleasantly surprised me. The only “romantic” rivalry isn’t much of one, and actually ends up inspiring Ochaco to forge more of her own path.

This isn’t the best example, but when all the girls in the class are tricked into wearing cheerleader costumes during the Sports Festival, it’s nice to see the girls who hate it stick with it to support each other. It’s even nicer that they don’t insult the girls who like it. They also stick by each other in much more serious situations such as personal troubles and fights against villains.

My Hero Academia pleasantly surprised me with its female characters, and still is.

The Avatar Connection

Yes, we love Avatar. We’ve written enough words about The Last Airbender and especially The Legend of Korra to make that clear. We see connections to these amazing shows everywhere. It shouldn’t surprise anyone when said connections draw us further into a story.

On the scale of shows reminding me of the Avatar universe, My Hero Academia is a solid 8 out of 10. I won’t deny its influence on how much I’m enjoying it.

All Might and Deku’s All-for-One power is highly reminiscent of the Avatar cycle. It passes down through generations and, while I haven’t seen it yet, carries all the power of those who wielded it previously. During the Sports Festival, Midoriya breaks a psychic character’s power in thanks to the unconscious shared power of All for One, and even sees shadowy figures of previous wielders. Will there be a Raava-style source of this power? It won’t surprise me. Ultimately MHA is even about Midoriya realizing the full extent of his power, like Aang needed to in The Last Airbender.

Probably the most obvious connection comes from Todoroki. Tell me if this sounds familiar: he has a fire-wielding abusive father obsessed with his children inheriting his legacy. He wields fire himself. An abusive incident scarred his left eye. He has a complicated relationship with a mother who hates his father. Could Todoroki be more Zuko? He’s a broody teen. Really the only major difference is that the power he wields is more in line with Azula than Zuko.

Kylie talks about the comparisons between Momo and Asami in her own ventures into anime. Toph and Kirishima would probably get along really well with their brashness, love of fighting, and shared rock power. Or maybe Kirishima is more like The Boulder? And while I know this is very thin, I can’t help but see a connection between Amon and Shigaraki. Both obscure their faces and lead plots to kill the most powerful character in their stories.

None of this is special to Avatar, but I see it and I’m into it.

Of course, what stands out most to me about My Hero Academia is how fun and unique it feels compared to any other anime I’ve ever watched. It has inspired me to go back and look at the medium with fresh eyes and renewed optimism. There’s probably a whole world of anime out there that I will love. This one very well might be the anime that introduced me to it all. Even if it doesn’t and this turns into another Cowboy Bebop situation, I’m glad I gave it a chance.

If you’re like me and don’t particularly like anime, I still highly recommend My Hero Academia. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Images courtesy of Funimation

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