Peaks & Valleys: Boku no Hero Academia

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This is exactly the kind of post that would get me a ton of backlash if not for the fact I run an obscure blog.  Not only has Boku no Hero already peaked, as someone up to date on both the anime and the manga, my interest in this IP is severely waning.  There will be spoilers ahead.

Boku no Hero has a couple serious problems which I imagine many fans have either not noticed or have overlooked because they like the show.  Fair enough I like it too, but I have to say with the battle against Gentle Criminal and La Brava over, there is basically nothing left that I find interesting in Boku no Hero.  How is this?  How did a story which was at one point so captivating become so dull so quickly?  Well there are a couple of reasons but let’s start with maybe the biggest one – Deku.  Now I like Deku, he’s a hard-working boy with a heart of gold and he wants to be the best there ever was.  But well, he’s kinda boring.  One of the inspirations for this post was NuxTaku’s video “Deku Officially Sucks” which while obviously intended to rile the fanbase of Boku no Hero, did contain some very good arguments.  Chief amongst them were the following: Deku is a character without intrigue and he’s narratively and thematically dwarfed by someone who honestly would have made a much better main character – Lemillion.

Long before I came across NuxTaku’s video I have to say one of Deku’s very first lines bugged the shit out of me – “this is the story of how I became the number 1 hero.”  It comes up before the story really even starts.  Personally I think dropping that line was a bad move because it takes away one of the biggest achievements Deku could make as character.  When I look at Deku my best point of comparison is Naruto and one of things Naruto gets on Deku by default is that it’s never framed like Naruto ever has a chance at becoming Hokage – until he beats Pain.  Sure Naruto constantly says he wants to be Hokage, but wanting something and getting it are two very different things.  For a huge chunk of Naruto, Naruto’s big talk is laughed at.  It’s considered absurd.  But once he proves himself against the worst enemy Konoha had ever faced, suddenly his claims sound a lot less stupid.

By contrast Deku outright saying he became the best before we’ve really even seen anything is a giant buzzkill.  I mean it’s not a deal-breaker or anything but it really rubbed me the wrong way and it makes Boku no Hero all about the journey, because the we already know the destination.  Now that works plenty well in other shows and it could in theory work for Boku no Hero, but Boku no Hero shoots itself in the foot yet again because we know the means by which Deku will achieve this by the end of the first episode – he has one of the world’s greatest powers handed to him on a platter.  Sure he has to train and master One for All but there really no narrative hook here.  A perfectly generic good guy is given an immense power right out the gate and the only negatives are that he isn’t ready for this power so using it beats the shit out of him.  The problem with Deku is that he already has the perfect heroic mindset so all he needs to do is gain experience and master One for All – and while this makes sense as the reason All Might gave Deku this power is because of his mindset and attitude it’s also narratively boring.  Like how many interesting fights can Deku have where his main concern is hurting himself too badly to fight on or fight another day?

As it turns out not very many.  You’ll notice in season 4 none of his big fights revolved around this problem.  And yes this is in part due to Deku creating or developing workarounds but it also shows the limits of his constricting narrative.  I’m once more reminded of Naruto.  Naruto was a kid who worked his ass off developing techniques and was given great power.  However where Deku’s power is gifted to him by his idol and it earns him nothing but respect in wider society, Naruto’s power is given to him as a desperate measure and he is widely ostracized for bearing Kurama within him.  There also a another couple of layers here.  Deku’s worst outcome in any given fight is failing to save someone or doing too much damage to himself to continue fighting.  Naruto’s worst case scenario is losing control of his power and hurting everyone around him without meaning to.  Moreover because Naruto’s power source is Kurama, he has to walk the tightrope path between drawing out Kurama’s power to master his full potential while not being overwhelmed by Kurama’s chakra and giving in to bestial rage.  Deku has no such set of consequences, his only backlash in using All for One is that he hurts himself and he has the selflessness to let that happen for the sake of saving people.

I’m sure I can take this comparison deeper but I think I got the point across.  Deku is boring.  He’s nice, he’s got a good head on his shoulders and he has an immense power he has yet to master.  And that’s basically it.  Deku doesn’t have inner demons, his worst mental setback is doubting himself on occasion.  Deku’s power and lack of mastery over it has no interesting consequences, nor can the story really go all in on those consequences more a couple of times or else Deku would never be able to fight again.  There is no mystery, depth or intrigue in Deku – we know his destination and we know the means by which he reaches it, it’s just a matter of watching that story play out.  This isn’t to say Boku no Hero or even Deku himself can’t be great but Deku’s story is one with a short shelf life and I think after Gentle Criminal that shelf life has all but expired.  Deku was at his very best during his match with Todoroki during the Sports Festival.  Because that was a match wherein winning for Deku meant tearing his body apart and ultimately losing the big match that he wanted to win for the sake of getting through to Todoroki and saving Todoroki from his inner demons.  Since then Deku has been significantly less impressive with the Stain battle being the second best Deku moment in my opinion.  It’s a shame because he could have been made a lot more interesting if he was allowed to fail more often – but because almost all of Deku’s battles outside of the Sports Festival are matters of life and death, he can’t afford to lose them.  It would also help if maybe he had a different power that allowed for more narrative flexibility.

Which is were Lemillion comes in.  Lemillion and Deku have the same basic dream, attitude and story arc.  The difference is that Lemillion’s is much more compelling and he ends up in a much more interesting position.  Lemillion was a guy born with a pretty crappy powers who struggled to be more than a joke in the eyes of his peers.  But through an ultra positive attitude, dedication and a tutor that helped him master his bizarre power he rose through the ranks and was very nearly at the pinnacle.  Then when he has Overhaul on the ropes, Overhaul puts him in an impossible dilemma, save Eri and take a bullet that erases his powers for good or dodge the bullet and let Eri die.  Obviously he takes the bullet and this is by far the biggest emotional moment in his arc.  He’s inches away from achieving his goal and yet he’s forced to lose everything for the sake of his ideals, because this is a bullet he can’t afford to dodge.  And yet he doesn’t give up, he keeps fighting, he keeps smiling and he doesn’t lose hope.  Lemillion is Deku but a vastly superior version of Deku, his struggles are far greater, the sacrifices he makes significantly more costly and yet he doesn’t bend, he doesn’t break, he takes it all in stride and has hope for the future.

I’m begrudgingly reminded of Bleach’s Fullbringer arc here.  After Ichigo stopped Aizen he ended losing all of his spirit power for a time and he goes on living a normal life until a group of people show him a way that he might be able to get his power back.  Now the Fullbringer arc is to the best of my knowledge fairly widely panned and I didn’t think it wasn’t very good.  But it did attempt something extremely difficult and with tons of potential, a soft reset where someone who rises to the top suddenly crashes back down to rock bottom because they sacrificed all of their future potential for victory now (see HunterxHunter for reference).  But where Bleach didn’t really have the staying power for that I think Lemillion might have had he been the main the character of Boku no Hero.  In any event Deku could not go through this very arc, because losing his power is too great a loss to the wider world.  Another limitation on Deku’s story, and a reason why Lemillion is more interesting.

Getting away from Deku there are two other problems with Boku no Hero Academia that have crippled my interest in the story.  The size of the cast and the loss of All Might.  Now large casts aren’t inherently a problem but Boku no Hero has lost a lot of steam because many beloved or otherwise interesting characters either haven’t gotten much development or have been developed some and then sidelined to make room for more characters.  Ochako is probably the best example.  During the Sports Festival her battle with Bakugo was, and excuse the pun, the tits.  In a tournament arc with tons of interesting battles her’s was solidly in second place behind the even more phenomenal Deku versus Todoroki.  And since then what have we seen from her?  Basically nothing.  Sure she learned some martial arts and she was even present for the raid on Overhaul.  But what did she do during the raid?  Did she fight any interesting enemies?  Did she suffer serious injuries?  Did she bust out a crazy new technique she’d been working on and make an impact?  None of the above.  She’s barely in the raid.  Kirishima had a bigger part to play, and don’t get me wrong Kirishima is great, his fight was awesome and his Unbreakable form looks rad as hell but I wanted Ochako to shine too.  Worse if you read ahead the manga mostly gets away from the kids and focuses mostly on the adult heroes.

It makes sense with the worldbuilding for the kids to play a smaller role as the war against the villains ramps up but there’s a ton of moving parts and Boku no Hero Academia is all too willing to jump around and develop a ton of different characters, while leaving some of the core characters to essentially stagnate.  It makes the story less engaging because the worldbuilding is not that great.  I mean it’s not terrible and it raises some interesting questions but I’ve seen better versions elsewhere.  I even wrote about it before – here’s the link– I already argued that Tiger and Bunny and Gatchaman Crowds were better at this.  That the strength of Boku no Hero is that it has polished the basics of shounen storytelling to a mirror sheen and delivers on the fundamentals so well.  Now that it’s moving into a more complex narrative it’s starting to fall apart and become boring.

Last but not least is the question of All Might.  All Might is one of the greatest shounen characters ever written.  He’s powerful, a national symbol, a man with big dreams and equally huge responsibilities with an unflinching will and all kinds of natural charisma.  To me the ultimate peak of Boku no Hero is All Might versus All for One.  These two titanic figures with larger than life powers, archenemies who have wounded each other so badly they never returned to their top form, duking it out one last time.  The fight was one of the most simplistic I can think of and yet it was also incredibly emotional.  All for One doing everything he can to break All Might’s will and reveal the secrets he didn’t want to world to know, against All Might’s implacable spirit and his willingness to throw away the last dregs of his power in one final Smash to put his nemesis down once and for all was incredible.  And the bit at the end where All Might, a battered husk of his former self points at the camera and says “You’re next” is so fucking good.  It is not just the peak of Boku no Hero but a remarkable high point in the shouen genre, sure to go down with some of the other biggest moments in shounen storytelling.  I always tear up when I start writing about this fight because it was that good, it had that much impact.  And with All Might mostly out of the story, Boku no Hero has lost one of it’s biggest narrative hooks.  All Might was really the glue that held so much of this story together and he’s gone.

With all of that in mind I hope any Boku no Hero fans reading understand why I will not really be hype for any future seasons of Boku no Hero.  All Might is a footnote, Lemillion is out of the picture.  The interesting criminals of season 4 are behind bars.  All that’s left is to explore the League of Villains and have more showdowns, with a little bit of training here and there along the way.  Boku no Hero has gotten rid of its most interesting characters and thrown much of its strong points out the window as it moves on to the next big arc.  I’m not saying it will suck necessarily, but I would be floored if any future seasons were as good as season 4, let alone the true high points of the show seasons 2 & 3.  Thanks for reading, see you in the next one.

How to Hero: Boku no Hero, Tiger & Bunny and Gatchaman Crowds

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Superheroes are everywhere.  In the US every time you turn around there’s another superhero movie coming out and calling Boku no Hero Academia one of biggest anime of the year feels like I’m selling it short.  However I have a bone to pick with a lot of superhero stories, a lot of bones in fact, chief among them their simplicity.  With that in mind I wanted to talk about three very different superhero anime that I like and do a little compare and contrast.  There will spoilers, you’ve been warned.

I’m going to assume most of you have seen Boku no Hero Academia and even if you haven’t it’s a shounen battle story, you don’t need a long plot description to figure it out.  To sum up what I’m going to explore in more detail, Boku no Hero Academia’s greatest strengths as a story are the myriad of character stories it uses to create rivalries and relationships.  How these character stories emerge and clash is integral to the growth of all the major characters and it’s something the show absolutely nails.  It also nails some great shounen battles, tournaments and training, taking the building blocks of the genre and making the most of them.  However in comparison to the other two shows mentioned in the title Boku no Hero Academia is the least interesting, if no less engaging than the other shows.  It’s about as straightforward as stories come and while it does a great job in the details the overall story is very by the numbers for shounen fare and it’s not exactly brimming with ideas.  None of these are weaknesses necessarily just factors to consider.

By comparison Tiger and Bunny looks like the seinen onii-chan to Boku no Hero Academia’s shounen outoto.  They have a ton of similar features, like a character whose power is declining, an older hero who is symbolic of all superheroes and whom is greatly admired and an industry built around heroes and their feats in pursuit of villains.  But Tiger and Bunny really goes all in on these ideas in a way that makes it a hell of lot messier than Boku no Hero Academia.  It also nails character stories but because the cast is so much smaller we get a lot more intimate with most of them, and their stories tend to be about how their personalities and goals clash with or complement their jobs as heroes as opposed to setting up rivalries.  It is however, ultimately pretty close to Boku no Hero Academia in a lot of ways so the two are easy to compare.  This brings us to the problem child of the bunch, Gatchaman Crowds.  Gatchaman Crowds is far and away the show which focuses most on ideas and crams the most concepts into it’s story.  If Boku no Hero Academia is about trying to become the greatest superhero and Tiger and Bunny is about how different people struggle with being superheroes then Gatchaman Crowds asks, what is a hero anyway?

Let’s start with the Boku no Hero Academia and Tiger and Bunny comparison.  In terms of premise the three greatest things separating the two shows are relative numbers of people with special powers, how detailed and important the superhero industry is and the age of the main characters.  In sharp contrast to Tiger and Bunny, as well as comic equivalents like X-Men, in Boku no Hero Academia the people with special powers make up the vast majority of the population and the heroes are the ones who take it upon themselves to become heroes.  Their Quirks are of course important in determining how effective they are but a look at Deku’s class shows you don’t have to be a Deku, Todoroki or Bakugo to be a hero, even Mineta can do it if he really tries.  This doesn’t really apply in Tiger and Bunny, for the most part heroes are heroes because they have the right kinds of powers to be heroes.  The only noteworthy exception is Origami Cyclone whose power is no use in combat.  This creates a lot of tension within the character because despite his power’s weakness he is still making a living despite not doing any work, the sponsors just want him to pop up in the background and flash their logos.

In fact Origami is the perfect example of the kind of hero Stain from Boku no Hero Academia hated, one who couldn’t and didn’t do anything but wore the title of hero nonetheless.  However there is no Stain in Tiger and Bunny, and the conflict between being a real hero and being a “fake” hero is something the character struggles with internally – to the point where he almost quits/lets a former friend kill him because he feels so worthless.  And that character arc could never have happened if Origami Cyclone’s non-heroics were not financially viable, but they are because of how deeply entrenched the superhero industry is in Tiger and Bunny.  It seems to be the main form of entertainment and it rakes in the cash like there’s no tomorrow.  In fact Tiger’s biggest issue with the superhero industry is that it often calls on him to hold back or stay on standby in order to make the show more exciting, while Tiger is an old-fashioned hero who doesn’t really give a shit about the business end of things and just wants to save people.  Again this exists in Boku no Hero Academia but it’s a much smaller issue because it is given so much less attention – the worst example I can think of to date in Boku no Hero Academia is the hero internship where Yayorozu spends the whole time in photo shoots, but that’s nowhere near the glamour and excess shown in Tiger and Bunny.

The age difference is important too.  Deku is a kid coming into his powers and trying to control them so that he can succeed later in life.  Tiger is already a successful hero and is reaching over-the-hill status especially when Barnaby (whom he nicknames Bunny) shows up since the two have the same ability.  The age difference is most important though when it comes to a story beat which is shocking similar across both stories – the decline of power.  In Boku no Hero Academia that portion of the story belongs to All Might but in Tiger and Bunny it belongs to Tiger, and also Tiger and Bunny’s All Might equivalent, Mr. Legend.  Mr. Legend and All Might are extremely similar, both serve as symbols of all superheroes, both attempt to hide their decline in power and both inspire the main character of their respective shows to become heroes.  (Also this isn’t really relevant but I just want to mention that Ida is basically a teenage ripoff of Sky High from Tiger and Bunny seriously watch one episode and tell me I’m wrong).  Mr. Legend is ultimately the more human and messy of the two because the setting and story allow for that but functionally they are all but the same.  However Tiger’s opposite trajectory from Deku, when combined with the fact he’s an adult and knows nothing but being a hero, complicates his character story tremendously.

Whereas Deku has to deal with the pain of not being able to handle his power and ultimately needs to worry about not destroying himself before he fully comes into it, Tiger has to start worrying about his ever decreasing time limit while using his power, which he could only use for five minutes per hour anyway.  Tiger’s struggle is by far the more interesting from a conceptual standpoint and it’s handled fairly well but ultimately I think Tiger is at his best when he’s interacting with people.  Barring his age he’s closer to the loud, obnoxious shounen hero than Deku is but because of his age he can also impart life changing lessons to younger heroes and Nexts (mutants basically).  In fact one my favorite scenes is early on in the show, when instead of arresting a teenage Next trying to hurt people because they treated him like a freak, he talks the kid into giving himself up, assuring him that he can be a hero too if he tries.  He even tricks the kid into fixing an impending disaster caused by his own rampage.  Likewise his short arc with Blue Rose a teenage idol-cum-hero who never really wanted to be a hero in the first place and only agreed because it would boost her singing career was great.  Tiger’s attitude is not all that different from Deku’s but the difference in age allows for Tiger to involve himself in a much broader range of stories.

All that said I want to stress I don’t think what I described the last few paragraphs necessarily makes Tiger and Bunny better than Boku no Hero Academia.  Boku no Hero Academia absolutely kills Tiger and Bunny in the action department and Stain is probably coolest character across both shows.  What Tiger and Bunny offers is a story with more messiness, more adult concepts and problems, and more twists and turns.  It’s no mindfuck but there’s definitely a lot more going on behind the scenes in Tiger and Bunny whereas Boku no Hero Academia mostly survives on good but limited character stories and action – it’s definitely weaker when those two things aren’t present.  This brings us to the complicated one Gatchaman Crowds.

Gatchaman Crowds is the least action oriented of the three shows.  In fact in the beginning the Gatchaman operate in total secrecy and fight against limited alien threats, a big difference compared to flashy crime scenes and tournaments of Tiger and Bunny and Boku no Hero Academia.  Gatchaman Crowds also spends a lot less time spelling out how characters think and what their backstory looks like, barring the occasional flashback Gatchaman Crowds gives us a lot less to chew on.  But that’s also kind of the point.  Gatchman Crowds spends a lot of time looking at subtle reactions and planting cryptic hints that it expects you to sort of read between the lines to get the meaning of.  It’s not so complex or subtle that I would call it especially challenging but Gatchaman Crowds is willing to expect more from the audience, which given the main ideological struggle of the show is quite thematically appropriate.  And I’m using ideological on purpose, Gatchaman Crowds is not really a battle of good vs evil and superhero vs supervillain, it is a clash of ideas made manifest, with the main questions regarding heroes and nature of humans.

And it’s precisely because the aim of the show is so different that its main character is similarly a far cry from Tiger and Deku.  Hajime is a blob of energy who is extremely hard to pin down.  She comes off as goofy and air-headed but she is surprisingly sharp.  She has no love for social boundaries, she’ll happily chat with children, city mayors and godlike aliens with the same casual, bubbly attitude.  What this means when she becomes a hero is that she begins questioning the Gatchaman ways immediately and generally approaches potential enemies with curiosity rather than violence.  She isn’t a pacificst but she never kills anyone either, she’s eager enough to get into the action and suppress minor bad guys but she inevitably tries to communicate when faced with a real opponent.  And I’m not kidding when I say she’s hard to pin down, the second season Gatchaman Crowds Insight, features an alien who can quantify people’s thoughts and emotional state by way of colorful thought bubbles, and Hajime is one of only two people shown whose thought bubble is gray and never changes.  One second she is an adorable lass squealing with delight and hugging every cute person and object in sight and the next she’s discussing seriously philosophical question in the exact same tone of voice.

Hajime is a character who communicates more with emotion than reasoned language but this belies her ability to cut right to the heart of her stance on complex questions or her ability to connect with what the villains are saying.  Another baffling aspect of her character is with regards to one of the main themes of both seasons, the role of individuals versus the role of community.  This will get a bit detailed but one of the major aspects of Gatchaman Crowds which separates it from the other two shows is the emphasis on social media.  In Gatchaman Crowds there is a social networking system called Galax which is very popular and extremely useful in coordinating people.  It’s headed up by X a super AI developed by Rui, one of the other most interesting characters in the show, who eventually joins the Gatchmans.  It can greatly enhance everyday life by for example, alerting lawyers of that a nearby person has posted a legal question online, but the main purpose of this wealth of information is disaster relief.  Unbeknownst to most Galax users, Rui wants humankind to advance and believes that by creating a means to motivate people to take action rather than rely on the current system, humans will advance.  Rui also has the power to create CROWDS which are invisible to most people but are powerful entities born of the users’ minds.  In the first season one of the biggest questions posed was what was better, CROWDS a system by which all people could step up and become heroes, or the Gatchamans, a select few superheroes who would solve the problems no one else could.  Rui, is resolved to advance humanity by disposing of heroes entirely and using the CROWDS to lift everyone up to being heroes.

Hajime disagrees.  If I had to hazard a guess at her motivations it would be foresight, as in her view there will be times when superheroes are necessary even if the CROWDS might be a good idea.  Hajime has an uncanny knack of understanding the vague prophecies which direct the Gatchamans as well as the villains’ riddles, moreover various hints she drops in her own confusing and airheaded speech patterns shows that she can see what will become the heart of a potential problem or solution well before said problem or solution arrives.  The only thing which I can reasonably ascribed to Hajime which is purely heroic in the traditional sense is her willingness to sacrifice herself for the sake of defeating the various enemies she has to face, none of whom she defeats in straight contests of power and skill.  Hajime’s greatest weapon is how flexible her thinking is, because the problems of Gatchaman Crowds aren’t the kind you can end with a super strong punch, they are tied to human nature, how humans interact with each other, and how technology or alien super powers influences how we behave.

And with that in mind I can say with confidence that Gatchaman Crowds is my favorite of the three superhero anime listed in the title – and by extension my favorite superhero anything.  It’s willingness to run headlong into more complex concepts with messier and less obvious solutions is an incredible breath of fresh air.  Gatchaman Crowds really marks itself out not just by questioning what it means to be a hero but by drastically changing the nature of its villains.  It’s not about the biggest, scariest monster or craziest, cleverest schemer.  It’s not even about heroes fighting each other over differences in values.  Gatchaman Crowds is all about our struggle against ourselves, be it our baser impulses, best intentions gone wrong, lack of foresight, or various social pressures – and it highlights that struggle by cleverly forcing superheroes into the mix.  I don’t think Gatchaman Crowds is especially complicated but it takes an important step toward becoming what I would describe as a mature story – and that alone is enough to put it head and shoulders above the competition.

In conclusion all three shows are great shows, Gatchaman Crowds is just the best of the three – to me anyway.  All three of them have very different strengths regardless of how similar they are to each other.  Boku no Hero Academia brings out the best of what the shounen genre is known for, battles, backstories and rivalries.  Tiger and Bunny takes a formula anyone familiar with superhero movies and shows knows at a glance and then makes it messier, more nuanced and shifts the focus away from the battles to the people under the masks and in the super suits.  And Gatchaman Crowds brings the most complex setting details, concepts and the most unusual obstacles for the heroes to overcome.  I highly recommend you watch all three if you haven’t already.  I hope you enjoyed this post and I’ll see you in the next one.