One of the biggest anime this spring is My Hero Academia, returning for its third season from animation studio Bones (Fullmetal Alchemist, Soul Eater, Space Dandy, Mob Psycho 100). The superhero series is based on a comic by Kohei Horikoshi that started in 2014 in the comic anthology magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. The first volume was the second highest selling super hero graphic novel last year behind only Batman: The Killing Joke, and it’s since gone global with over 13 million copies of the series in print.
What’s My Hero Academia about?
In a world where most people have superpowers, middle school student Izuku Midoriya is part of 20 percent of the population born without them. But his dream is to become a superhero and to attend the premier Japanese school for aspiring superheroes, UA High. After a fateful run-in with All Might, the world’s greatest hero, he learns that his idol is dying and wants to pass on his mantle. His chosen successor, of course, is Midoriya.
This eventually leads to Midoriya inheriting All Might’s powers and attending UA High, where All Might is training the next generation of heroes. But when a group of villains show up looking for revenge, Midoriya and the other students feel compelled to grow faster into heroes or become a burden.
So what sorts of superpowers are we talking about?
In MHA they call superpowers “quirks.” The closest analog might be mutant abilities in the Marvel Comics, including both flashy powers and mutations like having wings, or lizard-like skin. Midoriya’s rival / friend Bakugo can create explosions in his hands, while his other classmate Tsuyu has a quirk that gives her frog-like abilities — sticking to walls and hopping long distances — and some of the physical characteristics of a frog, like a long tongue.
Quirks also all have specific names — Bakugo’s is called “Explosion” — likely because the government tracks them. So naming them seems like a good way to track and categorize them, especially if multiple people have similar quirks.
Wait… the government tracks their superpowers?! Didn’t that sort of thing lead to terrible problems and a “Civil War” in both the Marvel comics and movies?
Yes on both accounts. Although MHA looks like present-day Japan, it’s actually set in the near future, at a time when people with quirks are accepted by society. It’s been six or seven generations since the first quirks started appearing, and while there were initial societal issues when quirks became more widespread, they’re only given a passing mention.
And again, people with quirks aren’t a persecuted minority like mutants are in the X-Men comics, but rather the majority — and they’re running things. So tracking powers and making laws about their use is more about basic law and order than systematically oppressing a group of people. It enables an accreditation system through schools where students can learn to use their quirks and earn a hero license.
This seems like a lot of world building...
Which is why MHA doesn’t really get into it very deeply, and mentions most of this offhand. All you need to know is you need a hero license to be a hero, and you need to go to school to get the license.
Then what is the focus of the show?
While there is a larger struggle of heroes versus villains (people who use their quirks to break the law) in the world, the series is more focused on the personal struggles of the characters. A common aspect of all the series that run in the comic anthology magazine Weekly Shonen Jump (other famous examples being Naruto, One Piece, and Dragon Ball,) is that they all hit on three themes: friendship, struggle, and victory. Although each interprets that differently, it generally means characters struggle to achieve something, but eventually overcome those obstacles with the help of their friends.
Midoriya’s struggle is to become a hero and All Might’s successor. All Might struggles to be a good teacher, and to accept that soon he’ll no longer be able to be a hero. Some of the other students struggle with their pride, self doubt, living up to familial expectations, and even parental abuse. They might have superpowers, but they are still just kids in high school and their struggles reflect that, in addition to the larger struggle between heroes and villains.
Why does All Might look so different from the other characters?
Rather than being modeled after more traditional Japanese heroes, All Might’s design is more reminiscent of American superhero comics from the 1970s and ‘80s with strong angular features and lots of black shadows. Later in the series, the anti-hero character named Stain shows up, who looks like a combination of ‘90s Image Comics characters (e.g. Spawn and The Maxx) with clothing by way of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
These design choices are intentional, but they aren’t incongruous with the rest of the show’s aesthetic. Depending on how a person’s superpower manifests, it can sometimes cause drastic changes in appearance, which offers a lot of visual variety.
Do I need to read a bunch of different comic series to get the whole story?
No, but there is a spin-off comic called My Hero Academia: Vigilantes. If you catch up in the main series, and are interested in more of the world building and goings on outside a high schooler’s perspective then I’d recommend it, but it’s completely ancillary. It’s also available for free to read online in English.
Okay, so where can I watch or read My Hero Academia?
You can purchase the comic digitally or physically in pretty much any digital or physical bookstore. The entire anime series is available for streaming subtitled on Crunchyroll, with English dub on Funimation, and both on Hulu.