My Hero Academia is fairly clearly inspired by American comic books and culture. This is about much more than the superhero aesthetic though. It’s more a deeper, symbolic inspiration, a lot of which comes through All Might. His muscle-bound body bears a far greater resemblance to American superheroes than that of Japanese skinny Sentai heroes. His outfits and background images when he appears are all star-spangled banner themed and his attacks are all names of American cities. This is important to distinguish as it gets down to what My Hero Academia is fundamentally about: The American dream.
Leaving aside the part where the American dream is a dirty lie in reality and all that, the basics of it is that anyone can become anything if they work hard enough. This is our lead character, a person born in a world where everyone has super powers but he has none. Yet he works as hard as he can to become one because that is his dream. He collects notes, studies relentlessly, and is determined to make it. It’s what makes the American dream such an enticing image because it implies that it’s always possible. He represents hope and all he’s looking for from the world is encouragement to fuel his belief. He doesn’t want to be told sorry he couldn’t make it. He wants to be told he can do it because it’s that belief that keeps him going.
And then the story tries to ruin this image by giving him super powers. In My Hero Academia’s defense, it does an incredibly good job of justifying why him getting powers still fits in with the main theme because of how the power is supposed to represent the power of many being fit into his body and how its passed down to him and all that. It’s a shame because I would have liked to see the story about how a guy with no powers became a superhero in a world where everyone has powers, but I’ll give you a pass on this My Hero Academia. Although only just about.
After that the story becomes yet another shounen super power high school action comedy thing that they all ultimately become. It still keeps up the central theme of this kid achieving against the odds by threatening him with expulsion since he can’t control his power, but it’s pretty tenuous at best. Also at this point explodey-hands Bakugo became such an irritant to me that I lost interest a bit. This is the point that I sort of forgot to keep watching for the next 6 months or so. I did end up coming back to it and enjoying it a lot still though, and this time I’m going to credit it to the goofy side characters.
Who was your favourite? The blunt frog girl with the weird gaze? The super serious class representative with the rocket legs? The crow dude who stood in the background at looked menacing? The zero gravity lady who our main character had a crush on? The electric guy who became brain dead when he used too much of his power? The invisible girl with the super cute voice? The incredibly menacing ice guy who could destroy an entire city if he felt like it? They flow in and out of the story as the author feels like and they remain entertaining because none of them ever gets a chance to take the spotlight so long as to get boring. Just don’t say your favourite is the pervy tiny purple bouncy hair dude as he sucks and if you say you like him then you suck too.
By the end they had gotten me back into the story, not through the main character anymore, but through All Might himself. The struggle he has to maintain his image as being a symbol while fighting his crippling life-threatening injuries becomes the more fascinating undercurrent to the story. Part of the reason it works is because you can see the flaws in his thinking and the show itself acknowledges it too, but also presents a convincing argument as to why this is so important, at least to him. You can admire this man who tries to represent an powerful idea despite the fact that he is a walking half-corpse who shows how that image can’t be a reality.
In some way, perhaps My Hero Academia agrees with me. The dream that All Might represents is not feasible in its entirety. But it as an ideal to strive towards is too powerful an image to let go thanks to what it allows others to do. You can criticise the American dream as an ideal that allows you to paper over the cracks in society because you believe in these dreams, but its also those dreams that allows people to work as hard as they can towards those goals in the first place. The fact that I’d get these messages from a Japanese cartoon of all places is certainly strange, but it does a pretty good job of presenting an idealised yet surprisingly nuanced metaphor for these themes.