First One Punch Man, now My Hero Academia: it’s easy to say that superhero manga and anime are the fashion of the moment, and undoubtedly in some ways it is. That Japan has not remained indifferent to the superhero riot of recent years is beyond question.
But did you know that the first Japanese superhero was born in 1931, even before Superman? His name is Ogon Bat and he was a character in the kamishibai, a form of traveling show in which a narrator tells a story accompanied by a series of illustrations. The soul transposition of his deeds arrives in 1967, and is only the beginning.
The 1970s saw the highest concentration of skintight rompers and fluttering cloaks in the anime world. From the superninja squad of Gatchaman – The battle of the planets to Kekko Kamen, the sexy superhero of Go Nagai, not to mention the various bionic boys and girls, it is really difficult to count all the champions of justice that, more or less, full title (I gladly leave the technicalities to those who know more than me), they can be linked to the universe of superheroes. And this if we want to limit ourselves to the world of animation and print media, because we would have to open a big parenthesis only for live action productions.
Between the eighties and the 2000s, the phenomenon is decreasing, but this does not stop it. In 1984 Hirohiko Araki, who would soon start Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, signed Baoh, the story of a boy who fell victim to an experiment that gives him supernatural powers. Masakazu Katsura, another name well known to the public, from 2002 to 2014 abandons love stories and adolescent torments to devote himself to Zetman, a work in which he gives ample vent to his first love, that for superheroes, which had already taken shape with Wing-Man in the 1980s. In the 2000s, the Tiger & Bunny anime (in which there is always the hand of Katsura, who takes care of the design of the characters) with its cynical vision of a superhero industry subservient to the laws of marketing, met with considerable success.
We arrive in autumn 2015, in which the egghead of Saitama, the protagonist of One Punch Man, dominates the anime season. Now it’s the turn of Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia: the Italian edition of the manga arrives in February 2016, just a couple of months before the animated version airs. If One Punch Man undermines the very assumptions of martial arts shonen (it was discussed recently in a nice analysis on Prismo Magazine) by placing a protagonist of virtually unparalleled strength at the center of the story, My Hero Academia instead proposes a story from decidedly more classic mold.
Izuku Midoriya is one of the few ordinary humans left in a world populated by superheroes. Evolution has in fact progressed to the point that everyone is born with a “Quirk”, that is to say a superpower, which tends to manifest itself with the onset of puberty. The young Midoriya, who grew up with the myth of Allmight, the most powerful of superheroes, waits with trepidation to find himself capable of levitating objects, like his mother, or breathing fire, like his father, or perhaps possessing another power born of fusion of the two … But nothing. Nada. Absolute zero.
This is our protagonist, a fourteen-year-old boy with a pile of notebooks on which, throughout his life, he has accumulated notes on his favorite Heroes for a Big Day that will never come. A very ordinary nerd, in short. Or a Deku (this is the name of the puppets to be beaten up during combat exercises), as Katsuki Bakugo dubbed him, the bully who has terrified him since childhood. With his powerful Quirk allowing him to generate explosions at will, Bakugo is given as the most likely candidate to become a first class Hero, but his aggressive and proud disposition beyond all measure makes him swing dangerously towards, so to speak, the dark side of the Force. Midoriya, on the other hand, is a pure soul, moved by the best of intentions, and his innate desire to do good prevents him from giving up his dream: despite everything, he is determined to take the entrance exam to Yuei, the most prestigious school for Hero of Japan.
One day, Midoriya is attacked by a Villain, and his idol Allmight, with his dazzling smile and overflowing muscles, saves him. At least when it’s on duty. Because, as the boy discovers with horror, most of the time he looks like a common type, stunted and with sunken eyes, who spits blood from the effort it takes to use his power. Struck by the altruistic spirit of Midoriya who, like that of any true Hero, defies all logic, Allmight decides to make him his pupil. And he reveals a secret: his is a particular Quirk, called One for All, which can be transmitted from one person to another. Too bad that, as the young man will soon learn the hard way, it is not easy to control.
My Hero Academia starts immediately putting the cards on the table: “This – explains the protagonist – is the story of how I became the greatest Hero of all time”. A training story with all the trappings in a world where superheroes are born. Even if he is always whimpering (on a scale from Shinji Ikari to Madoka Kaname, he sets a new record by the end of the second chapter), or perhaps because he exhibits his fragility so spontaneously, it is impossible not to cheer for. Midoriya during the exhausting training in preparation for the entrance exam and, later on, her misadventures at the school for Heroes. He is a hopeless nerd and a clumsy, he broods too much and gets paranoid about every little thing, but he does not hold back in the face of anything and always gives his best, although he knows he has to work twice as hard to get results too. only passable: in order not to love him you have to be monsters. Or having difficulties, in 2016, in accepting a slightly less stereotyped representation of masculinity than usual.
In the world of My Hero Academia there is little room for nuances, so in the red corner of the ring we have a psychopathic half, Bakugo, who opposes technique to Midoriya’s heart and an innate talent to his perseverance. Then there is a love interest, the pretty Ochaco, and a large group of secondary characters with their assortment of Quirks and absurd characters, from Tsuyu the frog girl to Mineta, whose very useful superpower is to throw the sticky balls that pop up on his head instead of hair.
The author Kohei Horikoshi, in addition of course to the world of American comics, cites Naruto as his source of inspiration, and it is not difficult to understand why: My Hero Academia is serialized on the pages of the usual Weekly Shonen Jump and fits rightfully. in the tradition of the most iconic fighting shonen, from Dragon Ball to One Piece. And it is of these titles that he collects the legacy, rather than vintage Japanese or American superheroes. After all, Horikoshi, born in 1986, is first of all a fanboy who grew up with those stories. And it certainly does not make a mystery of it, on the contrary, he has disseminated the web of his tributes to Marvel and DC characters, Star Wars, Pokémon, Dragon Ball, the Studio Ghibli films.
Even his trait has little of the Western – except for the figure of Allmight, sculpted with chiaroscuro, which is deliberately a caricature of the superman made in the USA. Essential and rounded, bordering on the super deformed, it fits perfectly to the tones of the story and settles on a good level right from the first tables: we are certainly not faced with a virtuoso of the pencil but neither, as often happens, with inadequacy technique disguised as a stylistic choice. The author, in his first work with a certain resonance, immediately proves to be up to the situation by creating a manga that is pleasant to watch, as well as to read. It is not so obvious, given the not exactly excellent level of some of the greatest successes of recent years.
Wanting to give, ultimately, a look at the anime adaptation, it is also really well done, but a doubt spontaneously arises, namely whether My Hero Academia has not arrived a little too late. Because the formula in twelve episodes (in this case thirteen, but little changes) that today is the most popular little adapts to the breath of similar works, which in such a narrow space are able to lay the foundations on which they will stand over the long distance . Such a shame.