When you think of shounen protagonists, you tend to imagine energetic, hot-headed youngsters with big dreams that they’ll stop at nothing to achieve, fighting every obstacle that comes their way.
Just as important as this unfaltering determination is the fact that they tend to stop and help people whenever they see trouble—walking past those in need is unthinkable, and they’re always ready to take down anyone who is hurting or oppressing others.
Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia has adjusted the shounen protagonist quite a bit, with Izuku Midoriya being more emotional and less hot-headed than his manga predecessors, but he’s still a strong-willed youngster with an unwavering dream. And it’s this dream that serves as a fantastic shakeup of the shounen and superhero media the series takes inspiration from—rather than having a dream and stopping to help people on the way towards that dream, Deku’s dream is to help people. It’s his motivation.
Shounen manga and anime have a lot of shared elements. That’s what makes them shounen. They all align on most traits and tend to follow a common series of tropes and arcs, with one of the most powerful aspects being their protagonists.
Specifically, one trait that affected me recently is that even though these heroes are unwavering in their aspirations, they always detour to help others, with characters like Monkey D. Luffy from One Piece perhaps being the best example of this; he wants to be King of the Pirates and fight for freedom, so he hates when that freedom is taken away from others.
This setup makes for its own unique theme—helping people is the default, not the exception. It’s a powerful statement on how we should all help each other when we’re in need.
For Deku, he literally has to jump in and help people. In combining the tried-and-true nature of a shounen protagonist with a true calling to help, the genius of Deku’s motivations open up new possibilities for the genre.
The concept of aspiring to help, rescue and protect others is pulled straight from superhero comics, but isn’t always common to shounen anime. Yes, shounen protagonists do help people, but again, it’s in addition to what they really want. Goku wants to be a great martial artist. Luffy wants to be King of the Pirates. Naruto wants to be the next Hokage.
But for Deku, he wants to help people, to be a true hero. It’s his dream, and he’ll train nonstop to achieve it. It’s a smart and subtle subversion from other shounen, even though most of the aforementioned dreams also lead to helping a lot of people.
It’s this shakeup that takes My Hero Academia‘s American superhero influence beyond its visuals and setting, offering a new meaning to the training trope and deepening this idea that kindness should be a given.
Saving with a smile
Typical superhero narrative involves someone experiencing trauma or a motivating event that pushes them to fight bad guys. In My Hero Academia, Deku is motivated by his desire to do good. He aspires to be a hero out of his own personal drive, rather than out of a spurring event. Even finding out he’s Quirkless didn’t stop him!
It’s a nice twist to the “choosing to be a hero” aspect of superhero media, adding a dash of shounen aspiration for something truly special: Deku not only wants to do good, he wants to be the best at it.
This then changes the training trope from a need to get stronger, to a need to adapt and grow, to get better at helping people outside of fighting.
It’s not just about pure power and fighting ability, it’s also about reaction time, minimizing collateral damage, having a rapport with the public, comforting those in peril and much more—simply put, he has to sharpen everything to become a true hero
In its quest to bring together the power of shounen and the heart of superhero comics, My Hero Academia makes Deku a hero like none other before, one who wishes to do good like a superhero and goes through shounen training to be the best at it, inspiring all of us to do good and always try to be better at doing good.