The Great Endeavor

It’s hard to understand people. So much of what we see on the outside is a poor reflection of what’s going on inside of them. It’s easy to make snap judgements or jump to conclusions. Worse, long patterns of behavior intended for one purpose can easily be misunderstood or just be flat out toxic, no question of perspective at all. What do you do then? That’s one of the many surprisingly deep questions tackled by Kohei Horikoshi, author of the manga My Hero Academia.

What’s even more interesting is that Horikoshi tackles this tricky question not once, but twice – possibly more, given that I will not rule out his planning to pull the trick a third time just to rub his skills in our faces. The characters he does this with are his protagonist’s archrival, Katsuki Bakugo, and his protagonist’s mentor’s archrival, Enji Todoroki, aka Endeavor. In doing so, Horikoshi takes a very nuanced approach to asking a very simple question. Can trying to take a noble form do good for a person who’s heart and mind are ignoble?

This is not a new question. Many people have tried to answer it in Western literature as well as Eastern. There is no one answer. So perhaps it’s fitting that Horikoshi looks at it from two different perspectives. (With possibly more to come.)

Of course, given the genre of My Hero Academia, it’s only natural that the goal both characters aspire to is All Might, the Symbol of Peace. (A few hundred words on what that means here.) The short version is both aspire to be the greatest defender of their society. However neither one really understands what that means and thus they stray from the path of righteousness in a couple of significant ways. Fortunately, through the efforts of All Might and series protagonist Deku, plus Endeavor’s son Shoto in Endeavor’s case, we get to see these characters confront their shortcomings and begin to change.

Bakugo’s shortcoming is multifaceted. On the one hand, he has always admired All Might’s ability to win out over evil no matter what form it comes in or how overwhelmed he might be. On the other hand, Bakugo is an incredibly blessed child, with a strong mind, instincts suited for his desired profession and a power tailor made to help him do what he wants to do – namely, defeat evil like All Might does.

Japanese society is not very forgiving of wasted talent and so Bakugo is under considerable pressure to measure up to expectations, leaving him very stressed. Combined with his own ambitions and the result is a serious insecurity about his place in the world. He wants to be the best and everyone expects him to succeed, so he constantly reassures himself about his position by being a bit of a bully. Deku is the primary recipient of this in their younger days, constantly drawing fire to himself by offering Bakugo help in ways that the insecure hothead interprets as condescending.

This conflict goes into overdrive when Deku gains One for All, leading Bakugo to presume Deku had hidden superpowers the whole time (when, in fact, Deku had been given his powers by All Might). At first Bakugo interprets this as just another sign that Deku didn’t take him seriously, hiding his powerful quirk rather than fighting him fairly to see who was better. Thus Bakugo’s rude talk and disrespect increase. But, at the same time, now that the two are in high school and among people who are much closer to their peers in terms of maturity and skill, we begin to see that Bakugo’s attitude is actually kind of fitting for his life goals.

In particular, during the sparing tournament in the Sports Festival arc, Bakugo ruthlessly crushes Urarara Ochaco in the quarterfinals, a match most of his peers saw as a rude, hotheaded boy beating up on a soft, timid girl. On the other hand, having made it to the quarterfinals, Urarara was bound and determined to do everything she could to win the tournament overall. When he actually went out in the ring to face her Bakugo knew this instantly, his remarkably perceptive mind and almost animal instincts both warning him he was about to have a hard fight on his hands. He won, of course, but he was mystified by his classmates implying that Ochaco was a weak little girl, ironically showing her far more respect than anyone else in the class. Bakugo respects people who take him seriously, he’s incensed by people who don’t.

This message is driven home in the finals of the tournament as Bakugo goes toe to toe with Shoto Todoroki. Todoroki is conflicted about using the quirk he inherited from his father and can’t fight Bakugo at his full potential, even though he did fight Deku at full strength in the round before. This enrages Bakugo – even though Todoroki is the furthest thing from a weakling. This makes it clear that Bakugo might look like a bully – but he really just can’t understand people who don’t measure up to his standards of dedication and skill.

This perspective begins to change when he is abducted from the U.A. summer camp and the subsequent rescue pits All Might against All for One, causing All Might to exhaust his last dregs of power and go into retirement. Bakugo takes this very personally, seeing it as a failure on his part that reached so far as to undermine the man he admires most in life. That’s not a good assessment on Bakugo’s part, but it is an understandable one. Bakugo has always measured up to standards before, now he feels like a failure and that’s opened up a new perspective he has to consider.

All Might’s fall caused Bakugo to stop and, possibly for the first time in his life, consider what the consequences of his actions would be for other people. A lifetime of struggling to make sure he lived up to expectations – others and his own – made Bakugo a very, very self-centered person. He had good goals, but he spent far, far too much time worrying about where he was in relation to those goals and not enough time thinking about where he was in relation to other people. While high standards are good, there was no way Bakugo was getting where he wanted to go without that added aspect of interpersonal savvy to go along with it.

Enji Todoroki is an interesting contrast to Bakugo, and stands as a stark reminder that personality flaws not corrected when one is young can metastasize into something much, much worse. Where Bakugo admires All Might and makes emulating him a goal, Endeavor resents All Might, and makes deposing him the goal.

The source of Endeavor’s rivalry with All Might is hard to pin down. All Might is sometimes characterized as a foreigner, and he certainly draws a lot of influence from American sources. (I did a whole post on why I think he’s actually a US national here.) So I suspect the origin of Endeavor’s animosity is the belief, very common in Japan, that Japanese cultural icons should be of Japanese origin, and not borrow influences too heavily from other cultures. It’s also possible Enji just disliked how effortlessly All Might seemed to climb the ranks to the top spot. Regardless, Endeavor wanted All Might out of his place at the top of the hero hierarchy and, as All Might’s position as the Symbol of Peace grew more and more obvious for all to see, Endeavor turned to more and more extreme measures to try and take his place.

This ultimately resulted in a marriage to a woman who’s quirk would complement his own and four children who Endeavor ruthlessly tried to craft in his image. Unfortunately, three of his children did not inherit the temperament or skillset necessary to follow in Enji’s footsteps. Only the youngest – Shouto – had the mix of his father’s personality and both his parents skills to take up the path.

However, Endeavor’s growing frustration with his failures became toxic, driving his timid wife to a nervous breakdown and turning all of his children against him. By the time Shouto does decide to take up the hero mantle he goes so far as to forswear using the gifts he received from his father and does his best not to bring up the familial connection.

Like Bakugo, Endeavor’s personality shift begins with the end of All Might’s career. However, where Bakugo’s problem was his self-centeredness, Endeavor’s comes from his myopic focus on All Might. As the shadow of his rival got ever larger and more intimidating, Endeavor lost all sense of his own actions save for how they related back to the goal of deposing All Might. Instead of an overinflated sense of self, Endeavor’s sense of self vanished into his drive – his endeavor, if you will – to catch All Might. He would not snap out of it until the revelation of All Might’s powers dwindling and eventually extinguishing forced him to face the fact that he was chasing ghosts – Yagi Toshinori wasn’t some unstoppable force of justice. He was a man limping to the end of his career, struggling to make his mark one last time.

This revelation snaps him out of his delusions and leaves him with a quandary. Endeavor has done terrible things to his family. He’s allowed terrible things to continue in his family, because he did not care enough about them to take a hand in his family’s inner workings. And he did it all trying to depose something that didn’t even exist. Left with only the pieces of his life that didn’t revolve around All Might, Endeavor is hollow indeed. Particularly since he now occupies the number one spot he chased for so long and has no idea what to do with it.

Oddly enough, while Endeavor isn’t satisfied with his new position or how he got it, it seems he spends more time trying to mend fences with Shouto and even making overtures to the rest of his family than he does exclusively on his career. He’s making changes, but unlike Bakugo, his habits are much deeper in his personality and the damage his flaws have caused is much more widespread. Healing it all will be an endeavor that could very well end his career – but only time will tell.

The parallels between Bakugo and Endeavor are interesting as part of the moral of their stories. They’re more than two surly guys with fire themed powers. They’re a warning to the young readers the story is primarily aimed at – face your personality problems, or they will infect even the worthiest goals and cause ongoing damage to your life. The sooner you sort it the easier it will go for you. But even if it takes time, even the seemingly least redeemable of toxic people can start to make a comeback. It’s a worthy story to tell and one told with subtlety and heart worthy of such a meaningful endeavor.

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