All heroes must start somewhere.
With most of the big Shonen Jump series like Nisekoi and Naruto ending multiple eras throughout the fandom, the magazine desperately needed a new big series besides One Piece in order to continue falling out of relevancy like Robert Zemeckis did after Forrest Gump. Thankfully, it eventually managed to find one with My Hero Academia, a series made by Kohei Horikoshi – a former Shonen Jump fanboy turned mangaka whose previous entries for the magazine lasted about as long as your average h-manga series, thus Hero Academia is considered his breakout hit. The manga itself wasn’t too crazy popular at first, but it caught many fans’ attention for its entertaining tributes to Western superhero comics and charming characters to the point that an anime adaptation came out not even two years later. I’m not really sure what the exact reasoning behind the production for the Academia anime was, but I’m guessing wanting to cash in on the current superhero boom combined with Bones’ recent obsession with superhero premises played a factor in the manga getting adapted so fast.
Whatever decisions were made, it paid off because My Hero Academia is now one of the most popular anime/manga of our current generation. I see cosplay of the characters everywhere at conventions, it’s ranked consistently high on several anime sites, and there isn’t a single big-name anime reviewer who doesn’t give it his dues besides the unlikable crabby ones that I question why people pay attention to in the first place. Even people who generally don’t like Shonen Jump are starting to get into it now, as Hero Academia benefits from great production values (a very rare thing for a Shonen Jump adaptation to get due to their long runs and the amount of resources that go into production) and making sure to limit all the characters’ powers so that they carry the story more through personality and tactics than pretty much everything Dragonball Z popularized. The show is directed by Kenji Nagasaki, who’s a bit of a hit-and-miss director, but thankfully he and whatever team he’s working with brought in their A(minus)-game for this material. He keeps the manga fans happy whilst bringing in the wider audience who prefer watching their drawings move, and isn’t that all most people ask for with an adaptation?
Some of you are probably aware that I wasn’t a fan of this show when it first came out. I found the humor and characters to be serviceable at best and the plot beats to be generic Shonen Jump setup that didn’t capitalize on its setting properly. However, the current season of Hero Academia that’s airing right now has been surprisingly impressive to the point that I’d definitely rank it amongst my favorite anime of the year. Not that I think the show itself is great, but it’s hands-down my favorite anime to come from the Spring season; although it probably helped that I switched to the English dub a few episodes in. Either way, given my unanticipated reaction to the show’s quality combined with a recently renewed desire to purchase physical copies of anime, I got to owning the first season of Hero Academia on blu-ray with the intention of giving it another go and discovering if I was too hard on it last year.
Has my opinion of its’ debut changed in such a short time now that I’m aware of what it eventually grows into? Answering that question is what the rest of this review is for, so read on to find out.
My Hero Academia takes place in a world where superpowers called “Quirks” have started to manifest in the human body and as of present-day, around 80% of the population has a Quirk of their own. Unfortunately, main protagonist Izuku Midoriya aka Deku is not amongst that high percentage (despite his parents having their own powers), and is thus bullied by his former childhood friend and obvious Shonen Jump rival character, Katsuki Bakugo, for daring to dream that he can become like All-Might – the world’s greatest hero and Deku’s personal role model. After becoming inadvertently involved with a slime villain that All-Might was pursuing, Deku discovers that his role model isn’t as strong as he used to be and is looking for a successor to pass his “One-For-All” powers to. Seeing the markings of a great hero in his fanboy, All-Might gives Deku his powers and trains him to be able to handle it so that our lead can enter U.A. High School, a prestigious academy for heroes in training that only accepts a very small percentage of applicants. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that Deku passes thanks to the power of the heart combined with his new-found-powers not working quite like they were supposed to. Kind of reminds me of the exam portion of the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime.
Once Deku enters the academy, he discovers that his classmates are all colorful individuals with their own unique personalities and Quirks, including Bakugo himself, a young gravity girl and kinda-obvious love interest named Ochako Urahara, and a self-serious running man named Tenya Iida. He also discovers that he can’t handle his powers without severe damage to his body, so he tries his best to get through the academy’s curriculum whilst trying to get a better handle on his strength enhancements and making friends in the process. However, he soon finds that the school is about as safe as Hogwarts, because a group known as the League of Villains wants to kill All-Might (who has recently been made a teacher at U.A.) and are not above going through the students in order to get to him. This leads to a dangerous skirmish where Deku’s class discovers what it’s like to fight bad guys years earlier than most students before the professionals arrive and show them that they have a long way to go. A lot of questions are brought up by this skirmish, but unfortunately the show ends at that point with a promise that the next season will come soon, so either you wait till next year or you read the manga.
I’m sure most of you remember that my main complaint with Hero Academia last year was how it was nothing but setup to a future story that may not deliver. And not only did my rewatch of the first season not change my opinion, said opinion actually suffers more when I’m comparing it to the much better season that’s still airing at this point. Do you guys know what happens in the very first episode of this show? Deku introduces us to the world, we see his backstory, and then he meets All-Might. You don’t get to see All-Might’s secret, Deku performing any sort of action, or any sort of story progression until the next episode, and the pacing does not get much better from there. While it makes sense why the creative team would only adapt the first two volumes for the introductory season given how long the arc afterwards ended up being combined with the number of chapters available during pre-production, it doesn’t change the fact that Hero Academia’s first season suffers from that Marvel Netflix show problem in that it feels three or so episodes too long. Maybe if they focused more on the superhero commercialization aspects with that extra time, things wouldn’t be so bad. But a lot of the show is just getting Deku from Point A to Point B through very mundane plot beats we’ve seen a million times.
Obviously Shonen Jump fans wouldn’t mind the whole “believing in yourself” morals that make up the innocent heart of this show, and I’ve seen people argue that Deku not being overpowered like Luffy or Ichigo is enough of a twist on that old formula. The problem is that it’s not a new twist. There are a lot of Shonen Jump products that start off with the lead not having anything special to him and losing all the time at the initial stages. Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad and Hikaru no Go are two really critically acclaimed examples of that (edit: I just realized I implied Beck is Shonen Jump when it’s obviously not. What I meant to say is that underdog stories where characters aren’t instant experts are nothing new, even in Shonen Jump, and Beck is one of them). And even then, I don’t see what’s exciting about Deku learning to control his powers through ball-tossing or beating up training dummies. Things get a little exciting when he has to fight Bakugo in a training exercise since he actually has chemistry with him and Bakugo is actually a really good fighter. However, when he and the other characters are pitted against the League of Villains, it’s completely obvious that this arc only existed in order to introduce the bad guys as well as have the characters reveal what their powers are, because there isn’t any sort of hero-villain bonding between either side during this season finale.
If you’re into action, Hero Academia delivers on that aspect in fine fashion. The fight animation is generally consistent, the choreography is pretty good, and because practically every Quirk has a drawback, no character is completely overpowered even though it’s obvious that Bakugo and Todoroki are better suited for fighting than the Invisible Girl and the Unlikeable Pervert. Unfortunately, a lot of the fight scenes also utilize those “narrating moves and tactics during the action” and “stylized freeze-frames to introduce the character descriptions” styles that I’ve never been a fan of because it slows the adrenaline down right when you want to get incredibly pumped up. There’s also not a lot of back-and-forth in these fights, and I can’t really remember any one action set piece that stands out. Thankfully, none of the characters call out their attacks like they’re daring the enemy to dodge a bullet going towards you at 0.5 mph, so it’s not completely bogged down by outdated shonen action standards.
At the end of the day though, I don’t really care about the action because it’s either low-stakes or it’s being used against bad guys that either just aren’t interesting or have yet to be developed into anything interesting – which are also adjectives I’d use to describe everything else for that matter. I don’t care if Hero Academia is really just an overly long shonen action show that takes breaks in-between seasons. If you’re going to make me wait a year or longer in-between arcs, you’d better be ready to have those arcs judged on their own merits first and their contribution to the bigger picture second. You know what I see in Hero Academia’s first thirteen episodes? A really long sneak preview that won’t appeal to people like me who don’t read the manga. Or to put it more succinctly, a cheap story with a cliffhanger. And not just any cliffhanger either. It’s a cliffhanger that happens right when the characterization and story seem like it’s going somewhere. What, am I watching the second Hunger Games movie?
On a more positive note, I’m a big fan of this show’s English dub. Some of my colleagues seem to find it overwrought, and it’s true that All-Might doesn’t sound as epic when voiced by Christopher Sabat, but I vastly prefer Tsuyu’s and Deku’s English voices and lines compared to their Japanese ones. Everyone else is voiced pretty well too from what I can tell, although Jerry Jewell’s voice coming out of the principal is a little creepy to me. Maybe because these days I associate his voice with Victor from Yuri on Ice, and so I’m always cautious that he’s not just an animal in terms of looks.
After my revisit, no I still don’t like My Hero Academia’s first season on its own. It’s nothing but introducing the characters and concepts for future seasons to use later, and while it may get through the setup quickly by Shonen Jump standards, I’m still watching very basic characterization, very little individuality overall, and almost no insight on the superhero commercialization that makes up its world for thirteen episodes. I will admit though, now that I watch the show with the English dub on and know what’s on the horizon, it’s a lot easier to get through compared to last year. The final arc when the League of Villains appears as an obvious attempt to have the individual classmates show off their powers isn’t as draining now that I know who the fuck these characters are.
But for god’s sakes, thirteen episodes averages around to over four hours of setup that we have to wait at least a year for in order to see it pay off. I know that even the most acclaimed American sitcoms tend to go through the same thing as well (The Office, The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, etc.) because of actors getting used to their roles and the writers trying to decide what direction to take their show and whatnot, but theoretically you could just skip those seasons if you wanted to given their episodic nature. You can’t really do that with My Hero Academia since it’s a story-focused show. And it wouldn’t have needed that much of a writing change to make the setup more interesting. Just have Class 1-A spend less time on mundane exercises and more time on having them interact with what the Tiger and Bunny crew went through.
It’s true there’s not really much point in complaining about how meh this first season is now considering I currently like the overall series. But it’s going to be over a year before Season 2 comes to the states, so until then, I’m going to feel like I own an incomplete product for quite a while.
- I will laugh my ass off if Mineta’s sticky ball powers end up being the key weapon needed to take down the final boss.
- Who wants to bet that the story ends with Deku and maybe the other characters giving up their superpowers?
- Honestly, I think I like the second season of Hero Academia more than Bobduh, even though neither of us seem to really think it’s among the top 30 greatest anime of all-time.