My Hero Academia and Building Metanarratives

Last week we talked a bit about metanarratives the way not being aware of them can lead to a death spiral in a particularly long running work of fiction over time. The same can happen in a broader genre if no one is paying attention to metanarratives. Something of the sort has happened amongst superheroes in the last few years, both in comics and in movies. If you’re interested in tracing the spiral in comics, at least in a very generalized, scattershot kind of way, I recommend the excellent YouTuber Diversity and Comics. In movies the metanarrative is pretty simple, usually revolving around some kind of rebirthing arc.

The hero starts out either normal or somehow denied his heroic aspect by outside pressures, undergoes a transformation that cuts him off from his old life and grants him great power, finds some way to use said power for the greater good and eventually discovers that some part of his old life is now cut off from him by his power or the circumstances it forces on him. These story arcs are typically introspective, the hero’s transformation frequently being as much an epiphany about him or herself, and lead to deeper, richer characters. The problem is, by examining the same portion of the hero’s story over and over again, the industry is running out of possible permutations of variables to use and the arc doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the kind of conflict superheroes do best – the kind where they clash with supervillains.

My Hero Academia does do the occasional introspective arc where the hero, Deku, contemplates himself, his abilities and how to better use them. It’s standard issue stuff in the “shonen” or adolescent boy’s comic books. But there are two other kinds of narratives the series does that build on major shonen metanarratives by fusing them with similar metanarratives in the superhero genre. These are the “paragon” metanarrative and the “antithesis” metanarrative.

Paragons are people who embody certain traits particularly well, the term is typically used in reference to good or noble traits although one could also be a paragon of ruthlessness or cruelty. In superhero comics the most notable paragons are Captain America and Superman, people who’s strong moral fiber and dedication to noble ideas challenge those around them to likewise dedicate themselves to higher callings. Paragons in superhero tales are almost always moral paragons, leading by example and encouraging responsible and courageous living in everyone they meet. Many stories from the long history of comics’ top two paragons embody this metanarrative but the greatest of these is found in All-Star Superman #10, when Superman, slowly dying from a fatal poisoning, pauses in his mad rush to banish as much evil in the world as possible to talk a suicidal girl away from the edge of a building. It’s an unforgettable moment in a great story overall.

In shonen, paragons embody a much broader set of traits, usually perseverance, dedication, passion for a skill or calling, general lust for life, loyalty to friends and family, or some mix of those traits. Oga Tatsumi, protagonist of Beelzebub, is a perfect example of this kind of paragon. He’s a delinquent who gets into fights but he has grit, values people he calls allies and has no respect for illegitimate authority but plenty of respect for people who try to stand on their own two feet. People who know Oga gain self-reliance, self-respect and confidence from his example, even though he himself is rarely a very good person.

The protagonist of My Hero Academia, Izuku Midoriya, codename Deku, is a paragon for heroes. He’s not very special in the world he lives in, beyond the fact that not having a superpower basically counts as being handicapped. What he does have is a heroic instinct. When he sees someone in trouble he responds without thinking, moving to help them in whatever way he can. The first time the audience sees this is in the first chapter of the story, Izuku Midoriya: Origin. The way Deku’s behavior influences his peers is highlighted in two other chapters, suitably named Katsuki Bakugo: Origin and Shouto Todoroki: Origin.

In both cases the characters in question are influenced by Deku’s impulse to help them. Bakugo’s story is told in flashback as a young Bakugo falls from a bridge and Deku rushes to help him. This seemingly simple happenstance leaves his arrogance and confidence are shaken when a totally normal kid takes actions more reminiscent of their mutual idol, All Might, than anything Katsuki has done. Unsurprisingly this early event left Bakugo with a strong sense of rivalry towards Deku and a surprisingly pure-hearted sense of a hero’s duty. Even if it is a duty Bakugo is terribly unsuited for, emotionally speaking.

For Todoroki, Deku’s help takes the form of helping his schoolmate make peace with the abusive legacy of his family by fully embracing his superpowers. As the son of an established and horrifically ambitious “hero” called Endeavor, Todoroki has set himself the goal of being a top pro without ever using the powers he inherited from his dad, only those from his mom. With Deku’s help Todoroki makes peace with his origins and becomes a better, more balanced person. Both of these events make those influence by Deku better suited to be pro heroes – in fact, it may be the event that makes them true heroes, hence it being called their origin. Bakugo’s story meets the superhero comic definition of paragon to a T, Todoroki’s, as it takes place during a school sparing competition, hits all the highlights of shonen paragons.

By the same token the “antithesis” metanarrative is part and parcel of both superhero books and shonen manga.  The clearest example in comics is probably Captain America and Red Skull, both supersoldiers for their sides but with totally different ideals and methods that draw them into constant conflict to emphasize the differences.

In manga and anime you need look no further than Vash the Stampede and Legato Bluesummers to see completely opposite ideologies playing out in direct contrast.

Like those two great heroes before him, Deku faces a villain who his exact opposite. Shiragaki Tomura, the nominal head of the League of Villains, is not an all-powerful villain that can dominate Deku at every step with brilliant plans. Instead he’s also a teenager, maybe a year or two older, and still very much learning the ropes just as Deku is. As Deku’s experience as a hero grows, so does Shiragaki’s understanding of how to manage his personnel and his available supply of minions. As Deku’s resolve and compassion grows, so does Shiragaki’s malice and antipathy towards society. By occasionally bringing these two together we seen exponential changes in each character take place and get great moments of heroism to boot.

These kinds of metanarratives are missing from most American comics franchises these days, typically set aside as juvenile or simplistic. But, to be perfectly frank, without these metanarratives Deku’s story would have gotten stale a long time ago and no fresh take on the genre – either superhero or shonen – would have come about.

As we discussed last week, metanarratives are not inherently bad. By consciously examining them and planning a story around them, as Kohei Horikoshi clearly did with My Hero Academia, you can build very clear and compelling plots to hang great characters and ideas on. Study stories like Horikoshi’s for ideas, yes, but study their structure as well. You might be able to bang out a great story or two if you plunge in without a thought towards metanarratives, but if you try to sustain those stories then they’ll quickly become Simpsons-esque narratives caught in their own ideas with nowhere to go. Like any good building, a story with a solid blueprint will last longer than one without.

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My Hero Academia and the Art of Subtly

 

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?