Welcome to the latest round of nerdy author musings. If you’re new to this aspect of my writing, it’s customary for me to make at least a few posts a year rambling about what I think of writing and musing on what I’ve studied about the art in the last year or two. This helps me get my thoughts on how to write well in order, in preparation for upcoming projects, and hopefully holds your interest for at least a minute or two.
It’s been a loooooong time since I’ve done a breakdown of a well written male character, including a breakdown of all the ways writing a man is done well in fiction. If you want a refresher of all I’m talking about you can get it by following these handy links:
Also, if you want to see the three previous male characters I’ve analyzed you can find them here:
Today I want to talk about All Might, the Superman analog from Kohei Hirokoshi’s My Hero Academia. All Might is an interesting case study, not only because he has a deeper character history than any other male character we’ve analyzed, but because he’s a male character from a completely different culture, yet he still carries many of the significant hallmarks of male thought and action that we’ve identified so far. This lends credence to the theory that these are, indeed, universals to the human experience, and thus things that we must wrap our heads around in order to write well realized male characters. With that in mind, let’s get down to it!
All Might has one simple goal that serves as the foundation for his life. Namely, to become “The Symbol of Peace.” The function of this symbol is to set the minds of normal people at ease, in day to day life, knowing there is a powerful barrier between themselves and danger, and in crisis, knowing that when they see him then they know things will be okay. In short, All Might wants people who face danger to think of him and be at ease, in the hopes it will make the difficulties of life a little easier. It’s a simple yet noble goal for a simple but noble man.
In pursuit of his goal All Might lives by a few simple maxims. One is Always Smile, a thought passed down to him by his mentor as a way to put people in danger at ease. It’s one of the few useful pieces of advice he has for his own pupil, Deku.
While never explicitly stated, All Might lives by the principle of humility as well. This is evident in many ways, from the extreme deference he shows to practically everyone he meets to the ease with which he works with other public servants like the police and civil authorities, in spite of the fact that he is far more powerful and popular than they are. It’s even evident in the way he introduces himself. All Might’s catch phrase, “I am here!” uses a very diminutive form of the pronoun “I”. Without getting too far into the weeds, All Might uses the most simplistic form of the personal pronoun, even though many people with his fame and status would typically use more self-aggrandizing forms of speech. Even the Japanese title of the manga uses a more assertive form of the personal pronoun. And it’s not like All Might isn’t flashy. Most likely he uses this form of “I” as a way to show that, in spite of how dangerous he could be, as a hero he is at the service of the general public.
The third axiom of All Might is in the name of his quirk (or superpower), “One for All.” Part of what I jokingly refer to as the Musketeer’s Paradox (All Might’s archenemy wields a power known as “All for One”) this quirk is the foundation of All Might’s identity. Not his superhero identity, but who he is. Because at some point in the past the man named Toshinori Yagi disappeared entirely in the superhero persona of All Might. Everything he had was devoted to the cause, to the point that we never learn much of anything about him that doesn’t tie back to the superhero part of his life.
This is a harder aspect to track in All Might’s life. Given his total devotion to his job, one might expect that he’d given up on all aspects of his life that didn’t tie back to his one purpose as the Symbol of Peace, and in many respects I’d say that analysis is correct. The catch is, before the start of the story of My Hero Academia, All Might suffers a grievous, near fatal wound that leaves him a shattered husk of who he was, only able to tap into his true potential for a few hours a day.
Unwilling to have his work as Symbol of Peace undone by showing the world that he can no longer serve as a pillar of society, All Might is forced to hide his weakness from the world at large. While MHA generally eschews the notion of “secret identities” so common in superhero stories in the west, this is a very close analog to it, as All Might leads a double life as a towering, musclebound titan in public and an emaciated, coughing skeletal figure in private.
Eventually All Might’s weakness is exposed to the public and this aspect of his character is gone. We might see it again in the future but, for the moment, All Might’s monomania in pursuit of the Symbol of Peace has prevented his forming too many mental compartments.
All Might and competition are interesting because… well, he doesn’t really have any. Yes, Endeavor is there and yes, Endeavor does want to beat All Might and take the spot of top hero. But the fact is, All Might is the best. No one else even comes close. That might cost All Might a few points except for the fact that this reality transforms All Might into something else – he becomes the gold standard.
Every hero or aspiring hero in the world – or at least Japan – measures themselves against All Might. Are they strong enough? Showing enough good will? Taking enough care in how they fight? Investigate? Patrol? Even the villains set their agenda by All Might. His impact on the world around him is staggering.
And it’s not like All Might isn’t measuring himself against anything. In many ways the standards of a mentor who has passed on can be even more daunting, as you can never really know how you’ll measure up to it…
It’s tempting to say All Might gave up a lot to get where he was. Giving in to that temptation would be wrong.
Real talk. Toshinori Yagi never wanted to be anything but All Might. He forged all his friendships through his efforts to be the Symbol of Peace, he took to his powers like a fish to water, he never really pulled his head out of the game long enough to get distracted by anything else. All Might never cared very much for the things he gave up to reach the top of his game so it’s hard to call passing over them a sacrifice.
The real sacrifice comes when All Might has to face the reality that he can’t keep being All Might. You see, the secret of One for All is that it is a superpower that can be passed from one person to another. Six people wielded it before All Might. When his injuries leave him with an ever shrinking window of time with which to perform his duties as Symbol of Peace it become apparent he must find an eighth person to pass his power on to.
The catch to this is, once One for All is in the hands of another All Might’s own power will begin to wane and eventually vanish.
It would be understandable for someone to spend their whole life straining to reach the peak to cling to it for as long as possible. After all, All Might earned his place there. He did far more than anyone else in the superhero business to uphold law and order, the public adored him as a hero and trusted him more than any other. But in the end All Might knew that the existence of a Symbol of Peace was more important than him being the Symbol of Peace. So he passed his power on to Deku. At least he would have a little while longer to stand in the gap as the final embers of One for All kept him strong for a little while.
Except he quickly faced the same quandary again. A few months after passing his power to Deku, All Might would face his archrival one last time, as part of a rescue operation gone badly wrong. Again, after all he’d done with the full force of his power, one could forgive All Might for holding back, clinging to the few scraps of time he had left to stand as the Top Hero and fill the role of Symbol of Peace he’d so painstakingly crafted for himself. Deku was nowhere near ready to take over, after all, and he’d do so much better with a mentor who still had the power to keep up with him as he learned the ropes.
But All Might had lived too long as the Symbol of Peace to let it lapse. All for One was too dangerous to leave at large, and besides he had casually threatened the peace of the citizenry. If left alone he would do far more damage to peace than an undertrained Deku.
So for the second time, All Might took what little time he had left in his dream job and sacrificed it so the peace of others could be upheld. Anyone would have understood if he hadn’t. Dream jobs don’t show up every day. But he chose to retire sooner than he wanted so that others could have a future. That kind of tradeoff is at the heart of heroic sacrifice.
All Might is a naturally gregarious and jovial person so he’s not typically alone. Furthermore, many of the reasons a story might show him alone don’t apply to him – he’s not the protagonist of this story and we don’t often see him working through the kinds of problems well served by solitude. But none the less we do get glimpses of him alone from time to time, usually when contemplating what to do about the League of Villains and the Catch 22 that leads them. Usually All Might’s solitude is an indication of what’s important to him – he withdraws when facing something that effects him on an emotional level so as to preserve the integrity of the Symbol of Peace. It won’t do for the public to see him upset, after all.
While it might seem surprising to say about a boy scout superhero like All Might, the truth is he doesn’t have many real friends. But the handful he does have – Gran Torino and Detective Tsukakichi for example – command a great deal of respect and loyalty from All Might and offer the same in return. All Might’s own mentor, Nana Shimura, also commands great loyalty from All Might. Even after death All Might honors her memory in his philosophy of heroism and determination to somehow save her grandsom Shiragaki from the clutches of evil. It’s not a theme of his story but it is there, never the less.
The whole point of All Might in this story is to serve as a mentor, both for Deku and his friends. His career as the Symbol of Peace was legendary but ultimately it had to end. In many ways All Might’s superpower, One for All, is the literal embodiment of what he must do: Take the power of the Symbol of Peace he created and pass it down to others. However, while Deku is the literal embodiment of that process practically every aspiring superhero in the business looks up to All Might as a source of inspiration.
We see that most strongly in Deku’s frenemy Bakugo, another young man who has looked up to All Might all his life and wants to be an equal to his childhood hero. Where Deku admires All Might’s ability to save all the people who fall within his reach Bakugo admires the way All Might never loses to evil. This dichotomy is reflected in their personalities and the way they act under pressure. Neither one fully understands All Might, each grasping at only part of what made him the Symbol of Peace. If All Might can somehow knock these two into shape he can take the first step to solving the Musketeer’s Paradox.
The fatal flaw in All Might was always the fact that any villain that could defeat him would shatter his Symbol of Peace – a goal that All for One would eventually achieve, if in a roundabout way. One for All is still only one man, after all. And All for One’s horrifically exploitative personality may have tainted his power’s potential but his ability to unite people behind him gave him a depth and breadth of options that All Might’s solo career never afforded him.
But as a mentor All Might has a second chance. He can unite an entire generation of heroes all for the one goal of being the Symbol of Peace for a new age. And, in turn, with that one Symbol reflected in all who take up the banner against evil, the promise of Peace will not fall just because one man does. It turns out that, in retiring, All Might may just have found a way to make a better Symbol of Peace than he ever could have as a working hero.
All Might is a pretty simple character. And that’s fitting, as he is aimed at a younger audience first and foremost, and he’s very comfortable in his genre prescribed role. But he’s written with such zest and passion that one can’t help but be charmed. What’s more, he’s a fantastic example of how uniquely male themes can hold up a character’s story line without coming off as a stereotype or failing to resonate with a wide audience. An achievement worth studying for sure.