Shonen manga and anime are popular for a reason: they feature young protagonists with a drive to fight and overcome any obstacle. Most feature a male protagonist and can be summed up by their penchant for lots of action, drawn-out fights, powerups, and often times tragic backstories. Another feature that is often overlooked, or at least is often excused, is the protagonist’s lack of planning or academic success. Half-baked plans, worrying over marks, and ignorance are key points to a shonen protagonist. Naruto, Dragon Ball, Blue Exorcist, and Bleach are just a few that fall into this trope, some more than others. In these shows/comics, the protagonists are lovable and will often sacrifice anything to protect their friends and family. Their ignorance is portrayed as noble and their disregard for academic pursuits as an endearing silliness that can be joked about (Ichigo from Bleach doesn’t neatly fall into this trope, as he is shown to score well, but often times in fights he doesn’t try to outthink his opponents). There is a reason for this trope. Characters like Naruto and Ichigo are relatable to the intended audience of the genre. However, there is a point where the trope can become harmful. At what point does it become ingrained that this behavior is ok? Growing up, I did like characters like Naruto, Rin from Blue Exorcist, and Ichigo, but I found myself relating to characters like Edward Elric more than the three aforementioned characters. I could connect on an emotional level to characters in Naruto, but the characters I was drawn to and wanted to be like were Ed and Al.
This isn’t just an anime/manga trope. DC and Marvel comics are full of young heroes that fall into either the “brainy” or “brawny” archetype. The brainy build bigger and better gadgets to help them hit things harder, the brawny just keep hitting things. In the end though, both camps fall into the same issue of simply hitting a problem until it goes away.
My Hero Academia is different from the standard anime or manga, falling more in line with the protagonists of Fullmetal Alchemist. In a world where super is the average, in order to do well and progress, characters are encouraged to develop all aspects of themselves. The underdog story of My Hero Academia isn’t new. Izuku Midoriya, the main protagonist, had to work hard at the start to gain his powers and continues to do so throughout the series, using his mind just as much (if not more) than his power to solve his problems. It would be easy to say that the reason that Midoriya became such an analytical and critical thinker is because he grew up without a quirk, but that wouldn’t be giving enough credit to other characters who were born with quirks. Katsuki Bakugo and Tsuyu Asui, for instance, were both born with quirks that gave them an edge in combat, but throughout the series, both have displayed keen strategic minds. Katsuki’s abilities are augmented not just by physically training himself, but also through the different ways he’s learned to apply his quirk. This extends beyond immediate combat to his forethought to have a costume that helps to mitigate the side effects of his ability and boost his firepower. Ochaco Uraraka, initially seen as the kind-hearted potential love interest of Midoriya, has also shown herself to be able to come up with plans which have pushed characters like Bakugo to acknowledge and respect her as a strong opponent. In My Hero Academia, working hard to power up isn’t enough. Youtuber TazerLad did a great analysis on powerups in My Hero Academia. To sum up their video: in this universe, powerups don’t just come from rigorous training, and, in the case of Midoriya (as well as many others), his powerups all come from learning to think and apply his power in new ways.
Midoriya and Bakugo fit into the slots of main character and rival, but even so, there is a striking difference between them and say, Sasuke and Naruto. Yes, they have similar issues: underlying tension from childhood issues, competitiveness, different definitions of kindness and what it means to be a hero, and an admiration for each other (begrudgingly for one of them). However, if they were to fall into the typical tropes of shonen, the difference between them would be starker. One would stay a hero, one would lose their way and have to be saved from themselves. While writer and illustrator Kōhei Horikoshi does lead the reader into thinking this will be the case, the outcome to Bakugo’s troubles and motivations turn out to be much more complex than simpy “wanting power” or to “prove his worth” (I won’t say much more on this plot point because this involves more recent chapters of the manga). Bakugo isn’t an anti-hero, as much as his seemingly pugnacious nature and shouting “Die!” all of the time would try to trick the reader into believing so. He started off as a fairly brutal bully, but just as Midoriya changed over the course of the series, so too did Bakugo. He became more conscious of those around him and in recent chapters (post-sports festival) he is often seen internalizing the actions of others, analyzing them in a very similar way to Midoriya (if not quite to Midoriya’s extreme). This sort of conscious, analytical behavior isn’t usually permitted for hot-headed characters.
In contrast, Midoriya, a character who wears his heart on his sleeve and is very much the standard “I want to save everyone” protagonist, also doesn’t necessarily fit neatly into the sacrificial hero slot. He is very good at weighing his chances of success before initiating and mid-fight and uses that knowledge to give him or his partner and edge. In contrast to most shonen protagonists, Midoriya, ironically given his quirk, isn’t a “keep hitting it until it goes down” sort of hero. He buys himself time to think up a strategy and then acts, sometimes not actually directly attacking in order to succeed. This behavior does change slightly in some of the more recent fights now that he has a better handle on his quirk, but this new attitude is rectified after some interventions and talks from his friends.
Both Midoriya and Bakugo could easily fall into the trap of being “powerup” characters, constantly increasing their physical strength to simply hit their opponents harder and harder until they win, but Kōhei Horikoshi has deliberately designed his characters to move beyond this trope. His characters, the heroes he wants his readers to identify with, all have their own brand of clever thinking and problem solving that extends beyond hitting a problem until it goes away. Like Edward and Alphonse Elric, they are characters that show that it is good–desirable even–to be both clever and strong. My Hero Academia shows readers that you don’t have to pick a side and that sometimes, you don’t have to tackle a problem head (or fist) on to solve it, something that more books, movies, and comics could learn from.