The feeling I get watching that episode preview at the end of this week’s Boku no Hero Academia is hard to put into words.
If ever one needed proof that it’s a demographic and not a genre, one need only look at the fact that both Boku no Hero Academia and Tanaka-kun wa Itsumo Kedaruge are considered shounen. Both run in shounen publications (though the latter is in Gangan Online, one of the most eclectic – and finest – sources for atypical shounen manga anywhere) and feature high school boys as heroes. But shounen is a big tent, with room for a dizzying array of genres and styles inside it – which is one of the reasons why I love it so much.
Still… When one hears that word – shounen – somehow, it’s Boku no Hero Academia and (the very few) series like it that spring to mind for me. I’ve thought a lot about why I love Boku as much as I do, given that it’s not especially groundbreaking and can certainly be picked apart intellectually if one is so inclined. It’s flawed, for sure, and full of familiar cliches and tropes. But if I know anything about this series by now, it’s this – Boku no Hero is a show you watch much more with your heart than your head. It’s big and visceral and emotionally transparent, full of larger-than-life iconic characters and big noises. And in that it has few equals, which is why I think it comes as close as any recent series to being emblematic of a concept as broad and elusive as shounen.
I have seen the first couple of arcs of BnHA compared to the “Hunter Exam” arc of Hunter X Hunter, and I don’t think that’s completely off-base – Horikoshi-sensei definitely has some of the spark of genius for breathless storytelling and iconic characters that Togashi does. I would say, however, that subsequent viewings of “Hunter Exam” reveal that even at that early stage, Togashi was offering clues that H x H was to become the subversive deconstruction of shounen than it would later be openly. I don’t necessarily see as much of that in the early chapters of Boku no Hero – I think this series is more transparent, but as we saw this week, it can be shockingly ruthless when the moment calls for it. Like Togashi, Horikoshi is a mangaka who seems to know no fear – and that’s a trait that unites virtually all writers of great shounen manga.
The true nature of the challenge facing our hero (and this is a series where that term really applies to the protagonist) is clear from the beginning of the Yuuei entrance exam. He’s facing off against a huge gaggle of kids who’ve been nurturing their quirks since toddlerhood, and Izuku hasn’t even had a chance to take his for a test drive yet. I’ve seen this series criticized because Izuku doesn’t end up trying to succeed without a quirk, but my goodness – in this context, does that charge really stick? He’s been given nothing, including by birth – Izuku had to earn that quirk by his own blood, sweat and (lots of) tears. I see it as a take on the trope of the poor kid trying to earn his way into the elite school full of rich kids who were born into their position.
Sadly for Izuku, he earns zero points even as his rivals are racking them up ass over teakettle. Even the “Ii Hito” Ochako piles up 28 of them, though she looks pretty flustered in the process. The hope of the underdog is always the wild-card, and in this case it’s the “zero point” monster Present Mic promised us – an opponent which was clearly intended to scramble the deck and test the examinees’ mettle in chaotic and unexpected situations. As it happens Ii Hito is trapped under a pile of rubble as the gargantuan 0-pointer approaches and everyone flees. Everyone but one, of course – and if you don’t know who that one is, you’re watching the wrong series.
My favorite moment of this sequence comes as Izuku and Iida pass each other like two ships in the night, going in opposite directions. Nagasaki-sensei frames this in slow-motion and in addition to looking brilliant, it calls home the importance of the occasion. Iida, a thoughtful young man, seems to slow this inconceivable occurrence down to slow-mo n his own mind – but he keeps running. Again we see Izuku setting the example for heroism that he learned from All Might – it’s not what you are, it’s what you do when the moment calls for it. By going back to help Ochako, Izuku is not only risking his life but dooming his chance to score a few points and possibly pass the exam, and that’s not even considering that he has no real idea how he’s gong to help her.
No doubt about it, what happens after Izuku squeezes his buttocks and screams “Smash!” is the most Togashi-like sequence of Boku no Hero Academia so far. It’s brutal, and Bones spares none of the brutality in the translation – Izuku’s fist is torn to shreds, his arm is shattered and his legs are bent at gruesome angles. This is the power All Might tried to hone Izuku’s body to contain, and the results are harrowing. In Boku no Hero consequences are a very real and harsh thing, as the sight of Izuku’s tortured body takes pains to show us. It’s only the intervention of the powerful healer Recovery Girl (Kozakura Etsuko – Ryo-ohki for crying out loud!) that prevents Izuku from being laid up for months, but the boy is still out cold – and finishes the practical exam with zero points.
One of the great unsung heroes of Boku no Hero is Izuku’s mom, and that’s one reason why the resolution of this ep is so great. She lives and breathes every trial and heartache along with her son, even as he pursues a dream which fills her with terror for his safety. When he receives the results she’s every bit as anxious as he is, and those results come in the form of a holographic video of All Might, who only now reveals to Izuku that he’s on staff at Yuuei. And the truth is revealed – Izuku has 60 “rescue points”, thanks to his actions in helping Ochako. And it’s self-evident when you think about it – indeed, how can a school for heroes ignore heroic actions by those who want to attend it?
I love series about kids where there are adults like these two – role models, protectors, ultimately supporters. They nurture the next generation, and ultimately entrust the future to them. All Might’s joy at delivering the news to his protege is so heartfelt, so pure – just as is the reaction of both son and mother when they receive it. That’s the essence of this series, every bit as much as the violence and the action – the sheer depth and clarity of the emotion. It’s great shounen in my book – it shoots from the heart, straight to the heart.