At it’s most fundamental level, My Hero Academia is a manga about a young man, known as Deku to his friends, who sets out to become a hero in a world where a whopping eighty percent of all people have superhuman abilities and costumed superheroes are a fact of life.
Deku, of course, has no powers of his own.
The role model Deku fixates on is the nation’s top hero, All Might, who is renowned for daring rescues, his care for the common people and his unflinching stance against evil. Deku’s story is not how a person with “nothing special” becomes a hero, however. Instead, it’s a tale of legacy. It turns out that All Might carries the one superpower – or “quirk” in the story’s parlance – that can be passed from one person to another. And after a devastating battle left All Might with chronic wounds that made it impossible for him to use his powers for more than a few hours a day he set out to find a successor. Naturally, that successor turns out to be Deku.
That probably doesn’t sound like a very unusual story, and really, it’s not. My Hero Academia is a very good, well written coming of age story about a young man who has to live up to a heavy burden and who struggles with what that means and how much it will cost him. It’s fun and has heart. But nothing would be particularly unusual about it, other than how well it executes it’s story, except for one little fact.
All Might is from the United States of America.
American characters aren’t exactly uncommon in manga, but the medium is fundamentally Japanese so they aren’t usually that central to the plot. There’s a long standing trope of a Japanese person who’s live overseas a great deal and behaves very differently because of it and there’s also plenty of characters who have a Japanese parent and a parent from elsewhere. But for the main character’s mentor to not Japanese is so rare as to be outrageous.
Yet All Might, in spite of having a Japanese name for his civilian identity, is undoubtedly American. He’s identified as a foreigner by several characters at various times. He calls his plan to prepare Deku for hero life “the American Dream plan.” His special attacks are named after cities and states in the U.S. His personality is brash and grandiose, traits the Japanese (and many others) associate with Americans. So why?
The author of the work has never shown any particular Anglophilia. It’s true that superheroes, the concept at the heart of the work, are an American invention but there’s no need to import a mentor character for the series. Personally, I believe there’s something more going on here.
For decades Japan’s relationship with the U.S. has been defined by the Second World War. After a crushing defeat the popular understanding of America has been that, as a nation, it’s defined by it’s military might. Perhaps that’s an understandable impression, all things considered. But there’s always been a political undercurrent of desire for that kind of strength in Japan. With the constant bickering with China that’s come to characterize the eastern Pacific in the past decade that desire has been gaining cultural and political steam.
In that light the thought of an American hero passing his power down to a Japanese person is pretty interesting. Consider the timing of All Might’s decline, which is pegged at about five years before the start of the manga. The timing lines up curiously well with the rise of the Islamic State and growing American uninvolvement on the world stage. So is this apparently simple tale of a young man aspiring to greatness actually a suggestion that Japan needs to step up on the world stage, set aside it’s own insular tendencies and try to become a force for good in the world? Would that be a bad thing?
If this notion is true, one thing that’s clear is that it’s not a polemic against the U.S. Deku’s rival, Bakugo, is another loud, brash character like All Might, with a dose of supreme confidence and ego thrown in. He could very well be the avatar for American Exceptionalism. While Deku and Bakugo don’t see eye to eye, probably don’t even like each other very much, they also don’t see each other as working at cross purposes. Bakugo doesn’t seem to think Deku’s cut out for the superhero life at first but they manage to find a grudging, working relationship. Even if USA World Police are gone, the manga suggests, there’s still great advantages in working with the U.S.
But is it even okay to wrap such an idea up in a bright, shiny package and run it in a publication aimed primarily at young, impressionable boys?
That’s a thornier issue. My Hero Academia treats the dangers, responsibilities and moral aspects of being a superhero very seriously, surprisingly so for a story aimed at adolescents. Deku’s life is not simple or easy, he faces hurdles that require more than a carefree grin and superhuman power to overcome. The mere fact that these questions are raised points to a deeper, more nuanced view of issues than simply smashing in the door and rounding up the bad guys – although that does need to happen sometimes and the story readily acknowledges that, too. Point is, getting people to ask these questions is an improvement all on it’s own. If Japan ever does have a debate about their place on the world stage an understanding of subtle questions will be as important as a firm grounding in larger issues. While My Hero Academia might be seen as pushing for one side of the issue it never goes out of its way to demonize those who might go the other way, and that is commendable.
Ultimately, the whole line of inquiry is speculative. And that may be the biggest lesson of My Hero Academia. It has a very simple, well explored premise. But, by writing with subtly as well as passion it brings a layer of depth and nuance that is not easily explored and will probably keep those on either side debating it for a time to come. What more could a good story hope for?