If you have read my essay exploring hard and soft magic systems through different applications in anime superpowers, you might have an idea of where I am going with this. If you haven’t, you can read it right here, it’s actually one of my more creative pieces.
However, this title is not as deceiving or as clickbaiting as you might think. My Hero Academia is a by-the-book shonen anime, and while it twists the occasional trope, it is often more than content to use the tools of its predecessors. Just in case you thought I could go more than a paragraph without plugging one of my essays, I also wrote how shonen has given up on radical innovation in the genre, and focuses instead on refining the existing metagame. I use Demon Slayer as an example, but it could have easily been about My Hero Academia, and you can read it here.
But My Hero Academia’s greatest strength is in how its characters will give their all to a fight, so much so that when someone doesn’t, the cast thinks it is an insult. Mangaka Kohei Horikoshi has done a fantastic job setting up large scale fights that take advantage of their surroundings, each characters’ individual skills, and sets up rules. Horikoshi frequently reminds the audience of these rules, and abides by them stringently…until he doesn’t.
The series has so many great fights because the author has a keen instinct for how different powers might clash with others, how the environments around them can be used, and it all bakes together into this interconnected and dynamic creature. The rules are an important part of that, because a really good fight manages to communicate what both parties are capable of at any given moment to build tension. Shonen fights depend on hype for survival, so if a character can start performing feats the audience had no clue they could pull off before, it robs the audience of that anticipation.
It is a simple trick that My Hero Academia takes to the extreme. If you establish a law, and then you purposefully break that law, it instantly adds drama and emphasis to what would otherwise be a character just doing something reckless. My Hero Academia dos this a lot, but I have three examples to analyze, and they all do this in radically different ways.
[Spoilers for season 4 of My Hero Academia]
Ochaco Uraraka vs Katsuki Bakugo
This fight is unique among the three selected for this essay. It does not take previously outlined rules and break them for dramatic effect, it takes the conventions of the shonen genre and breaks them to subvert audience expectations. If you’ve seen anime, sports films, or any kind of media ever, you are intimately familiar with the underdog cliche.
Uraraka, our protagonist’s close friend, recently confessed that her motivation for becoming a professional hero is solely monetary. Her family’s business has been suffering for years, and one of the fastest ways to support them is to become a hero. She’s pure-hearted, kind and hard working to a fault, and her Quirk makes for a great rescue hero. Her Zero Gravity would mean lifting rubble and clearing disaster sites would be a cinch.
Bakugo, up to this point, has been rude, physically and verbally abusive to everyone around him, and dumb. He’s an unrepentant jerk right now, and that acidic exterior might mellow later in the series, but all anyone knows him for at the moment is being a bully. To contrast with his opponent, his Quirk, Explosion, is destructive and his only positive aspect is that he might be a competent hero one day. This is a classic setup of an underdog, and it even comes packaged with its own rule; Ochaco just needs to touch him once, and send him floating out of the arena.
This requires Bakugo to let his guard down for a moment, to relax and take his opponent lightly. And he might have, if not for being dealt a stunning defeat by Deku earlier in the series. Bakugo, who has only excelled without effort in life, now finds himself being left behind as he attends a school of people who have every ounce of the natural talent he does, and work hard to improve on top of it. After realizing even his once-weak rival Deku has surpassed him, Bakugo actually shifts his perspective, and takes each of his opponents as serious threats. It’s a little bit of character growth that would go unnoticed in his larger arc.
So as Uraraka throws everything she has at Bakugo, he doesn’t ease up for a second, batting her aside with an artillery’s worth of explosives. It initially seems so one-sided that Bakugo’s classmates and even the heroes in the audience boo him, believing his attacks to be needless cruelty shown to a helpless girl. Their mistake is quickly corrected by the two’s teacher, Aizawa, who foreshadows our second fight by asserting that taking your opponent seriously is the bare minimum in respect.
And Ochaco reveals her big plan, that Bakugo’s low-aiming explosions have torn the arena to debris and she has been sending into the sky for one final attack. The storm of rocks nearly catches Bakugo off guard, as he’s been paying close attention to his opponent, but his quick reflexes allow him to scatter the attack before she can touch him. Uraraka collapses from exhaustion, and loses the fight.
This fight doesn’t break rules in the traditional sense, as the only rules it plays with are the ones that we as viewers placed upon the series. Uraraka is a sweet underdog who genuinely outsmarted her much brawnier opponent, which this series usually rewards. However, they could have gone for that angle, as Bakugo has mastered maneuvering through the air with his Quirk, so the story could have easily broken the “rule” that all she needed to do to win was touch him. Here, however, Horikoshi merely tricks the audience, and breaks our expectations.
Izuku Midoriya vs Shoto Todoroki
Now we move into the climax of the Sports Festival arc, even though we have not left the second round. Deku vs Todoroki is everything an anime fight can and should be, a clash between two opposing ideals and wills, two creatively used power sets pushed beyond their limits, and a buffet of gorgeous choreography and animation.
The fight starts with one simple rule: Todoroki hates his father, who abused him into becoming a prodigy, and bulled his mother into a mental breakdown. Todoroki can create ice with his right side, and fire with his left, but he asserts to Deku before the fight that he rejects the flame power he inherited from his father, and will not use it to fight. It’s the most fundamental part of Todoroki’s character we have seen until now, and we’ve only seen him use his heat to thaw his ice. In the first draft of his hero costume, he completely obscures his right side to disguise the half that resembles his father.
As the fight begins, Deku uses his uncontrollable strength to destroy Todoroki’s ice barrages as they come. This means he has to shatter a finger every attack, and he soon starts to run out of fingers he can break. He uses his arm to throw a whole punch and manages to avoid any backlash, but he’s running out of options. Eventually, he uses a finger that he’s already broken, something he has never done previously. It’s an effective setup of a rule only to be broken, because while it’s insane that he can break his fingers individually, it helps the audience realize how far Deku is willing to go to win the fight and turn Todoroki.
This entire battle plays out as an argument between the two boys. As Aizawa declared in the previous fight, Deku believes it is an insult to the competition that Todoroki won’t fight him with every tool at his disposal. He reaches out to Todoroki and communicates that his fire is his own, and it no more belongs to Endeavor than his ice does. This, along with the imminent threat posed by Midoriya as he prepares to shatter the few bones he has left, forces Todoroki to use his fire.
The fire and ice in tandem creates a steam explosion that knocks Deku out of the ring, winning the match. It might be anticlimactic for the protagonist to lose the tournament in the second round, but by saying Todoroki from sinking deeper into his own bitterness, Deku’s already won.
Izuku Midoriya vs Kai Chisaki (Overhaul)
In the conclusion to My Hero Academia’s Overhaul arc, Deku confronts the titular yakuza head and realizes how outmatched he is. Overhaul’s ability to disassemble any matter and reassemble it is dangerous on its own, but when he uses it to fuse with one of his most formidable minions, he becomes a genuine monster. Deku has begun to get the hang of using his power at 8%, but he’ll need to turn it up to its maximum potential to defeat Overhaul. This isn’t just a rule, it’s an indisputable fact.
Deku frequently fights by moderately increasing his energy output, like increasing from 5 to 8% accidentally in his second brawl with Bakugo, or by smashing through his limits for one devastating attack, like the one million percent smash in his fight with the villain Muscular. Here, Deku needs to maintain his 100% for the duration of the fight, and at his current skill level, his body will break down and crumble if he even attempts it.
One of the most intriguing parts of My Hero Academia and Quirks is how they can be used in conjunction with one another. Todoroki is such a powerful fighter because his two abilities cancel out the physical weaknesses of each other. The cavalry battle in the Sports Festival is one of show’s most entertaining action set pieces because it is a wild display of different powers working together. Here, Deku teams up with Eri, whose time rewinding powers have only ever been used to erase people from existence. Deku finds a positive use for her Quirk; reversing the damage that his Quirk does to his body just as fast as he can hurt himself.
It is a creative solution to a previously insurmountable threat that works within the established canon. This is so much more effect than Deku just deciding that he has to use 100% because he can’t afford to lose, and it maintains the internal consistency of the story in the process. It also proves that Eri’s Quirk can be used for good, and it will have big consequences once she learns to use it.
Knowing how to bend and flout the conventions of the writer’s toolbox is the mark of a clever author, and Kohei Horikoshi has built this imaginative problem-solving into his breakout series. After so many decades of shonen manga and anime, it’s refreshing that there are still so many simple tricks that a mangaka can use to keep the same genre and tropes fresh.
My Hero Academia doesn’t like to break the traditions of its shonen forebears too often, but when it does, it manages to do so effectively and for a powerful effect. That’s just one of the components behind the series’ success, and it’s only going to elevate it to new heights in the rapidly approaching season five.