Reviewby Nick Creamer,
My Hero Academia
The first round of the provisional hero license exams is over, but our not-quite-heroes aren't out of the woods yet. In the second round, they'll be facing a challenge they never expected: a brutally complex rescue operation, where any mistakes that might cost lives in the field will cost them their chance of victory here. And when a top pro hero arrives to muddle things up, the seething resentment between U.A. and the other students might well stifle their hopes once and for all. All the while, society shakes in the distance, the pillar of support that All Might represented now leaving an uneven balancing act in its wake. Midoriya and his allies better fight hard, because this society has needed them now more than ever.
After the cataclysmic battle between All Might and All For One, My Hero Academia's previous volume felt like a bit of a tonal reset, focusing on smaller-scale conflicts without that much relevance to this society's overall future. Its dramatic priorities matched that smaller scale; Midoriya's attempts to develop a special attack and trials through the license exam were exciting, but largely exciting for their own sake - they were fun fights because they were fun fights, not because they furthered any central character arcs or made any big thematic points. Kohei Hirokoshi is a good enough shounen writer to make all that material sing, but here in volume thirteen, we finally return to the story's larger narrative concerns. But surprisingly enough, this return to the fundamentals isn't expressed through a new action arc or upping of stakes. Instead, it's reflected more quietly, through a bevy of small character moments that all together add up to one of the most emotionally incisive and thoughtful volumes of My Hero Academia yet.
This new sensitivity first shows its face during the conclusion of the provisional license exam arc, as Midoriya and his fellow students work to rescue professional “rescuees,” people specifically trained to act imperalled and then evaluate students on their de-peralling. As a tactical action conflict in its own right, these early scenes aren't terrible satisfying; they mostly just further illustrate things we already know about the cast, like Yaoyorozu's tremendous professionalism and Bakugo's inability to be polite. The fact that Gang Orca soon arrives to add some spice to the exam only underlines the fact that this manga is better suited to depicting heroes fighting than heroes saving lives; but when Todoroki and his new Shiketsu rival Yaorashi both move to stop Orca, things get a lot more interesting.
Yaorashi states his dislike of Todoroki, as well as his father Endeavor, from the start, leading into a sequence where each of them sabotage their collective efforts to defeat Orca by attempting to outdo the other. Given each of their flashy powers, as well as Yaorashi's ridiculously striking outfit, all this battling acts as a fine visual spectacle while also building anticipation, a hunger to know how exactly Todoroki wronged Yaorashi. But when we finally get to the truth, it's something far smaller than expected: Yaorashi felt like his passion for heroism was ignored by Endeavor, and when he met Todoroki in the U.A. entry exams, Todoroki ignored him too. Through his anger and preoccupation with his own demons, Todoroki accidentally hurt this boy, and fostered a grudge that would only resurface much later, after Todoroki had finally faced those demons. And now here came Yaorashi back into his life, still holding that grudge earned by Todoroki's past self, still fuming with righteous anger.
This conflict might seem almost too petty for a story with the scale of My Hero Academia, but I actually greatly appreciated how incidental and human this disagreement turned out to be. We generally think of our sins as the times we actively, willfully wrong others, but we all stir up discord and resentment simply by walking our own paths, and self-growth ultimately means acknowledging and accounting for the things we did even during the times we were angry and unhappy or full of regret. Todoroki's acknowledgment of these failings thus feels like My Hero Academia itself arriving at a new level of nuance regarding its characters' feelings; they are no longer simply reflections of clear thematic points or arcs, they are complex and faulty people with histories they still carry with them. While arcs like the school tournament felt like an almost flawless illustration of a single key point, I welcome the introduction of messiness into these stories and these lives. Todoroki is now far more than a reflection of how we are influenced by our parents, and he is a richer character for it.
That newly insightful focus on character interiority carries through much of this volume, extending to characters as diverse as Bakugo, All Might, and even the League of Villains comic relief Twice. Twice actually gets an entire chapter from his perspective later in this volume, and it turns out to be one of the best of the volume altogether. Moving beyond his gimmick character voice from the training arc, we learn Twice is one of many whose moral ambiguity and unhappy personal circumstances made him a terrible fit for All Might's world, and a welcome collaborator in Shigaraki's.
The sympathy these chapters extend towards characters like Twice, as well as their honest acknowledgment of how All Might's society suits some types of people better than others, does for My Hero Academia's thematic thrust what the earlier chapters do for its character writing. Whether society should be designed to raise up the least fortunate or enable the most driven is a question key to our ongoing societal divisions; being fair to both these perspectives, even if one is basically just represented by the villains, ultimately makes My Hero Academia's resounding belief in personal sacrifice ring that much stronger.
Altogether, My Hero Academia's thirteenth volume probably won't go down as one of its most thrilling or emotionally uplifting, but I feel it's quietly one of the best and most important volumes of the story so far. My Hero Academia has essentially already told one nearly perfect story of good and evil, and that story ended with All Might's simultaneous victory and defeat. The world left behind is marked by far more moral ambiguity than before, leaving Midoriya and his classmates to not just survive their journey, but actually choose where their destination leads. It's a frightening new world, and I'm thrilled to explore it.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Demonstrates a new breadth of emotional and thematic nuance in its vividly written character vignettes
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