Save for a rant-filled, canceled post from this past summer, I have never formally written on the topic of My Hero Academia. That might seem sacrilegious given my prior reputation as a Studio Bones devotee, but it never felt like there was anything to be said that hadn’t already been said.
It’s a super fun show given greater clout by its colorful cast and a uniquely relatable protagonist who goes through quite a lot of punishment to become the hero he wants to be. It has also been well-produced, taking year-long breaks in-between seasons to ensure a sustainable level of quality between arcs.
After a somewhat underwhelming third season (to me at least), the fourth season has been stellar so far, and high on hype from the last arc, I think everyone had high expectations for the new film, Heroes Rising. And to make a great year even better, those expectations were most certainly met.
I wasn’t a huge fan of My Hero Academia‘s first film, Two Heroes. It had an incredible final battle preceded by a somewhat poorly produced buildup that lacked the visual quality one associates with a film. The longer I reflected on it, the more I realized how boring and forgettable most of the film was.
The biggest contributor had to be the under-utilization of the cast. I’m aware that Hero Aca has a large cast but part of the charm of a superhero ensemble is being able to turn small moments into big ones in simple but meaningful ways. Think of how the Marvel movies and how the ensemble films put each character at the forefront in some way.
This isn’t to imply I’m demanding that each character get equal screen time however, as that would be a terrible idea that limits creativity. Hell, sometimes a character that gets the least screen time ends up being the coolest after the fact. What I ask is that a character’s presence not just exist simply for the fact that they are there.
But then again, it’s hard to have character interactions be meaningful if nothing that happens in the story is allowed to go against canon. Here we find ourselves at the biggest issue with shounen movie side-stories. The conundrum of what kind of story to tell and to what audiences to sell it to.
Consider this: You are a producer on a film running adjacent to an ongoing anime adaptation of a popular manga series. The film will be an original story, albeit one conceptually conceived by the series creator. You are faced with some difficult questions.
Do you make a film that plays a key role in the story so that events carry a certain weight at the risk of altering cannon? Or, should the story be completely standalone? If it’s standalone, what type of story can be told without contradicting the character growth that will happen later in cannon? Without some kind of change or cause/effect in the plot, what is the meaning of the story?
A lot of films will pick creating a standalone story and will either make a story in which the characters change very little or choose to focus on characters who are original to that story. If there is a character arc in the film which seems to go against cannon, the film will likely be treated as a completely separate entity in retrospect.
Finally, and most perplexingly, a lot of anime films like this will have a ridiculous amount of recapping. Heroes Rising begins with the typical “80% of the world has some form of superpower…” schtick, which is expected, but then they also feel the need to re-explain fucking One For All?
I imagine a lot of producers for these films want to make the experience as open for newcomers as possible, but I can’t imagine that many people who will go see a film from a series they haven’t watched even a bit of.
I mean, sure, I went to go see Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F and DBS: Broly, but I did so fully expecting to not know who certain characters were, and to miss out on certain crucial details. But I went with friends who were huge Dragon Ball fans so they could just explain everything I didn’t get afterward.
So… maybe I can kinda understand the temptation to keep things open, but Dragonball never felt the need to recap me, the My Hero films almost feel like they are preaching to the choir. I’m pretty sure 90% of the theater was filled with people who – if not completely caught up – at least understood the premise of what they were seeing.
So shonen anime films are typically original stories restrained by the canon and aimed at an audience of fans and newcomers alike, both expecting a self-contained and satisfying cinematic experience. The trouble is offering that while creating a story that ultimately won’t affect the plot going forward. Now, while the conundrum I have laid out hasn’t made it impossible for some good anime films to be created out of established IP’s, I have been burned before.
Bungo Stray Dogs: Dead Apple and the First Hero Aca film both were underwhelming either in the moment or in retrospect. The former for how it rewound the main character to the point that they were whiny and cowardly despite two seasons of character growth. The latter for its mixed overall production quality and forgettable midsection. However, I did start this rambling with some indication that this new film was an improvement. It was certainly a vast improvement at that.
Set in between the first and second half of the currently airing fourth season, Heroes Rising follows a new slew of villains aiming to recreate the world in their image. Slice, a woman whose hair can be hardened into sharp blades, Mummy, whose bandages turn whatever they enwrap into puppets, and Chimera, a hulking mixture of beast and man who breathes fire. Leading the pack is Nine, who can steal nine different quirks and use them in tandem.
For them to see their plans to fruition, Nine requires one more quirk from a civilian on Nabu Island off the southern coast of Japan, where UA Class 1A is stationed alone, helping the local villagers. As the class and the new band of villains collide, the heroes need to get a hold of the ensuing chaos and turn the tables on their adversaries.
Much like the first film, the premise sets up our heroes to be acting alone without supervision from any peers, but the setup feels more conducive to interesting and funny character moments. The students operate out of a call center and quite professionally dispatch their own to help with small pedestrian affairs. The threat level is low but it doesn’t have to be anything else.
The new characters the film focuses on the most are brother and sister duo Katsuma and Mahoro. The former is a young boy who admires heroes and wants to be just like Deku despite his quirk which he finds unimpressive. Katsuma’s older sister Mahoro, on the other hand, doesn’t share the same admiration for personal reasons.
Apart from being absolutely adorable, these two characters – Katsuma especially – are the characters who have the most to learn from the story. They certainly change the most, having the benefit of being original characters with no ties to the main plot. It was a smart inclusion putting them in, as Katsuma parallels Deku in a big way. It reminds me of Rie Matsumoto’s inclusion of original characters Black and White in the first season of Kekkai Sensen.
The main characters ain’t slouches though. Every member of class 1A gets time to shine during the film’s numerous and phenomenal action scenes. Sometimes it’s just about using their abilities effectively in cool ways. Other times, characters’ triumphs feel like the extra payoff to character arcs from previous seasons. This is certainly true of Todoroki, whose scenes here feel important considering the series’ recent focus on his relationship with his father.
Other times, the heat of battle brings out emotional moments that land gloriously even with characters whom I previously haven’t felt as attached to. The use of character in composing action is so much more impressive here than the lazy fan service of other films that just say “look, they’re here too.”
If there is anything that I feel this film faltered in, it was the missed potential of the villains. As we learn more about them, their reasons for becoming who they are are interesting. They became villains because their abilities caused others to label them as villains, thus turning them into what they were accused of. While not original, there are many ways to go, and the series track record for compelling social commentary buried beneath the spectacle gave me certain expectations.
Part of the reason why I love the shonen genre is how the action is not simply the result of character philosophy, but the expression of it. A villain’s worldview clashing with the hero’s; discussions are given added weight through brutal physical interchange.
The villains keep their philosophies mostly to themselves though. While I was hoping to see Deku and Nine’s mindsets clash, it never quite led to the kinds of dialogue I hoped for. Additionally, while Chimera and Slice were given ample time, Mummy was underutilized. The villains this time around were beautifully designed and had awesome abilities, more than enough to be imposing and memorable, but I just wish they gave me a bit more to chew on.
Still, Nine’s incredible power made for a phenomenal final battle that never ceased to entertain. At this point, it must be legally mandated for Yutaka Nakamura to animate the final move of each especially awesome fight in this series, and this was no exception. While somewhat hectic visually, the creativity in expressing character through even the most larger than life spectacle makes him the perfect man to animate this series’ best moments. As soon as the Japanese Blu-Rays come out, I might have to analyze Nakamura’s cut in a separate post.
Narratively, Heroes Rising is a stopgap between two halves of one of the best seasons Hero Aca has had yet. Emotionally, it almost serves as a thrilling payoff to three and a half seasons. Some pretty huge and meaningful things happen throughout the story and some may be disappointed going forward how casually the ending goes back to the status quo, but to me, that is the strength of this film.
If films like Bungo Stray Dogs: Dead Apple are an example of when things go wrong with anime movies, Heroes Rising is a shining example of when almost everything goes right. It is a film that gets to have its cake and eat it too, experimenting with insane ideas without breaking canon.
My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising is a worthwhile reminder of why we love not only this series but also why we get excited when these kinds of movies come out in the first place.
Oh and by the way I’ve never watched Hero Aca dubbed before save for the occasional clip online but I watched this film dubbed and I’ve gotta say the work Funimation did was really solid. Shoutout to Justin Briner and his excellent performance as Deku, as well as the rest of the cast. If I was subscribed to Funimation I would 100% be watching Hero Aca dubbed more after seeing that film.
At the time of writing, My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising is currently playing in theaters all across America in sub and dub.
I’m currently on spring break, which means I’m getting a lot of writing done in my free time. I have an idea for a new retrospective series and I for sure have a retro review in the works that I have a feeling will catch a lot of people’s eyes. But let’s see where I’m at by next week. For now, be excited for another top five list next week (the subject is a secret).
Thanks for reading and see you next week!