“Victory of Defeat”
Few stories have ever done this better, through luck as much as good planning. That’s fitting, I feel.
Most of us guessed what Shinso’s quirk was before even the end of last episode: brainwashing. And true to popular guesses as well, Ojiro-kun did warn Izuku, but Izuku got baited into the mind control anyway. And also true to many guesses, it was good old shounen grit and emotions that got Izuku over the top.
Just outlining the expected events obscures how well this was all done, and the slight twists Horikoshi-sensei put on the old standards to create something thematically striking.
The appearance of the One For All ghosts obscured that it was good old shounen grit until the very end, and even Izuku lampshaded that this wasn’t very satisfying—which I disagree with, actually. There was no other way that could end with no other players in the fight, and the trope of shounen grit endures for a damn good reason. Better, though, was what happened next. A latent theme had clearly emerged: that of the aggrieved have-not fighting against the privileged have.
This episode was perhaps THE most effective way to delve into this theme at this depth* of nearly any story I’ve read or seen. That may sound like hyperbole, but I don’t think so, and I’m not crediting it all to Horikoshi-sensei’s brilliance (which would go rather against the theme). Part of it is luck, which I find fitting. The story of someone struggling against another who seems to have it all is an old tale, but here it’s enhanced by three elements.
First is that we know. We know Izuku, and we know that, despite Shinso’s protests, Izuku was not born with this power and that he worked damn hard to get where he is. It works so well because Shinso is just like Izuku in this desire and this struggle—but telling us that wouldn’t be enough. We’ve been there with Izuku. That’s the advantage of coming at this theme later. The groundwork has been laid.
Second is that we’re on the side of the privileged have rather than the aggrieved have-not. Usually it’s the other way around—the main character is the scrappy underdog who’s struggling against the person who seemingly has it all, and then the storyteller tries to convince us that the guy who has it all actually had to struggle and work super hard to get where he is. Hell, HeroAca does this itself! That’s Izuku vs Todoroki in a nutshell, and Izuku vs Katsuki before that. But as much as we nod our heads and agree, deep down inside we still feel that the other guy had it easier, because we’re on the scrappy underdog’s side. Here, we’re not, and when that’s combined with our existing knowledge of Izuku, it makes us reflective rather dismissive—because we want our guy to be the good guy, and want to see him in the right.
Third, quirks are binary. This is the luck part, where Horikoshi-sensei probably only realized after he’d started writing the series that this theme would work so well with this world. Sometimes, being a good writer comes down to recognizing the good chance you accidentally made for yourself, and running with it. Think about it: though there’s endless variety among quirks, when it comes to the quirkless vs the quirky, the options are binary. 0 or 1. You have one or you don’t. And we know that Izuku didn’t have one, full stop. Someone might tell me that Serena Williams was terrible at tennis as a child—I don’t know if that’s true, I don’t know much about her other than what I’ve read on FiveThirtyEight, this is just an example—but there would always be that niggling doubt in the back of the mind that maybe she started off with some latent talent. Here, there is none of that. Izuku was quirkless, we know that for a FACT, and it’s only the oddity of One For All being inheritable that gave him one in the end.
All of this combines for an emotional scene, which I’ve gone on far too long about: of Shinso protesting that Izuku was born with a wonderful quirk, whereas he was born with one that gave him zero chance in the UA hero course exam. And we know it’s not true, and Izuku does as well, but he can’t respond because of Shinso’s quirk, and he couldn’t say anything if he could! It’s a scene that hits hard, not as much in pure emotional adrenaline as in an idea that blossoms in the mind and then just. won’t. go. away. It’s the realization of what it’s really like to be the privileged, the lucky, and to know it—but not being able to say a damn thing.
Which, by the way, was the other wonderful part. Izuku realized that nothing he could say would help Shinso, because he himself had been exactly like him—“You can’t help the things you long for.” But fortunately, combined with the slight twist of Shinso not being the bastard he seemed to be—which should have been expected, he is at UA to become a hero, after all—the other kids in the General Studies course took over from there. Why is the screen suddenly blurry? I’m not crying! You’re crying!
That brings us to Todoroki. Here’s the kid who has everything, proving again that having everything doesn’t mean all those things will be pleasant. His father mentioned Shouto’s siblings, and my instant response was “What did you do…?” Imagine me scowling, because I did. I’m rooting for Todoroki to punch his father’s face in some day, but for the time being, the match. I mean, it wasn’t like Sero was going to win, right? He acquitted himself all right despite the short match, at least he acted quickly and decisively, though he should have expected the ice across the floor—not that it would have mattered. Ouch. I guess, when the outcome of the match is all but preordained, you might as well reveal character. When Shouto got angry, and then apologized afterward—that’s a lot of character revealed. He’s still a good kid, despite it all.
Looks like next time we’re going to speed through a bunch of matches, though I hope we get to spend some time with a few of them, most notably Yaoyorozu vs Tokoyami. It’s all building up to the next big one, though: Uraraka vs Bakugou. Oh my.
* i.e. stories entirely devoted to the theme can and have certainly done better, but the construction of Boku no Hero Academia makes it uniquely suited to make this theme LAND with the relatively short amount of time it chose to devote to it.
My SECOND novel, Freelance Heroics, is available now! (Now in print!) (Also available: Firesign #1 Wage Slave Rebellion.) Sign up for my email list for exclusive content. At stephenwgee.com, the last four posts: I get it now!; Guardians of the Galaxy, Glee, & Firesign; That’s not supposed to go there . . .; and The Carcer Principle.