By Michael Pementel
For decades, we have seen the great power that friendship bestows in our favorite heroes. In a last-ditch effort, our protagonist will often call upon the strength of their friends to topple the bad guy. Being able to call upon someone when in need is a universal strength that many of us (even if we don’t have flashy powers) can be thankful for.
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But while many of us look to the power of friendship, what about the power of a healthy rivalry?
Across numerous anime, rivalries have not only made for compelling stories, but exciting character development. The interesting thing about rivalry is that it’s never quite as simple as friendship. Whether it’s two warriors that loathe each other but team up for the greater good, or friend-adjacent mutual respect, everyone has an anime rivalry that comes to mind.
But few are as compelling as the dynamic between Deku and Bakugo of My Hero Academia.
From the series’ first episode, we see the connection between the two. We see Deku’s constant attempts at friendship with Bakugo, and Bakugo’s anger in return. They both wanted to be superheroes, but Bakugo’s ego led him to bully Deku. Given his latent powers, he felt superior. And unlike Deku, Bakugo was born with a Quirk.
It’s this clash that brought the two together, and set them each on a path of righteousness in the shadow of their all-time role model, All Might. Deku first crosses paths with the Symbol of Peace while saving Bakugo from a villain. From then, we know the story: All Might passes his power to Deku, Deku heads to U.A., and things get rolling.
But throughout classes and various activities, we continue to see Bakugo act cruelly toward Deku. Early on, the two face off against each other during an exam. Bakugo spent a good amount of time berating Deku, only to be outsmarted by him. The one-sided friendliness continues, and Bakugo is having none of it.
And while this character dynamic might not feel wholly unique, it’s the subtleties of it that set it apart. Because as much of My Hero Academia is about Deku as a protagonist, Bakugo goes on his own journey of growth and development.
As their rivalry develops, Bakugo remains aggressive, but the two become closer through near-death experiences, a couple of island-saving events in the films and, finally, a shared knowledge of Deku–and All Might’s–deepest secret. This journey allows Bakugo to confront his own toxic aggression.
Following the battle against All For One, Bakugo challenges Deku to a fight, finally aware of All Might’s power bestowment. He questions why Deku would be chosen, and how they both idolized All Might. And the truth comes out: Bakugo thinks Deku looks down on him. All Might then steps in and stops the fight.
In an effort to mentor Bakugo, All Might teaches him an importantly lesson about acknowledging and managing negative emotions. While it is important to be physically strong and present an image for society, one must also be in touch with their feelings. As All Might holds a crying Bakugo, he promises to keep Deku’s secret.
What’s so incredible about this moment is how it addresses the toxic anger and aspects to Bakugo’s personality, all through the lens of Deku’s gentle demeanor finally influencing him. In some anime, violence isn’t really addressed as a concern from male characters. When the goal of shounen is physical power, how can it be addressed? My Hero Academia strikes a balance.
From here, we start to see consideration from Bakugo. He’s still an angry kid, but there are hints that he cares for his friends, partakes in school activities and does what he can to show he’s a real hero. Sure, All Might’s mentorship probably helped, but it’s Deku’s constant positive reinforcement that continues to chip away at the tough shell of Bakugo.
And though their rivalry begins fairly typically, the two end up learning something valuable from each other and mature as a result. From a creative standpoint, it’s refreshing to see a series commit to this learning, and it’s inspiring to see such care and attention given to an angry character that clearly had some trouble managing their emotions.
Through Deku and Bakugo, the characters are not present merely to beat up one another, but to truly inspire each other.
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