An appreciation for My Hero Academia's Bakugo (especially in S2)

December 20, 2017

Let's start with the tweets:

@MinovskyArticle: Bakugo is extremely divisive on Twitter for a character who wins every MHA popularity poll by a landslide.

@pontifus: I think he's a good character and i also live for him getting dunked on

@cks_anime: I hate to say it, but he's more interesting than Midoriya (although I wouldn't want Bakugo as the lead/hero character).

Let's talk about Midoriya for a moment. Midoriya is a classical Shonen Jump hero protagonist; he's earnest and good and quietly heroic, a standard underdog with a heart. He has some internal qualms and concerns, but he's not riven by any particular conflicts or angst the way many other characters are. He's sort of an everyman. As a result, he's not so much bland as straightforward. He makes a good lead character, but he's not particularly fascinating by himself.

Bakugo is nothing like this, and he's such a contrast from what you'd expect in a Shonen Jump character.

To start with, he's an unapologetic asshole, and MHA doesn't give his character any cover for it; he has no tragic backstory, no inner angst. He's just an asshole, which is a refreshing change from the usual approach of attempting to 'humanize' such characters. And Bakugo's not just any asshole; he's all surly teenage anger and prickly obnoxiousness.

(By contrast, Mineta is a noxious asshole and the worst character in MHA. Were he to disappear from the story, it would only improve.)

Part of why Bakugo works as an asshole is that he's also ridiculous at the same time, and the show knows this and periodically dunks on him. His 'grenades included' hero costume is one example, as is the whole exercise of coming up with his hero name. Bakugo is an angry teenager writ large and My Hero Academia understands that angry teenagers can also be fundamentally silly. Since this is a superhero show (and a Shonen Jump story), Bakugo gets dialed up to 11 here, hyper-exaggerated surly faces and all.

Some characters are empty assholes; they're obnoxious, but either there's nothing behind it or all they have is power and they think that power alone entitles them to what they want. Bakugo is not empty in this way. Sure, he has great power and he feels that this matters, but he doesn't coast on his power alone; he has smarts and skill and tactical awareness to back it up, and beyond that Bakugo is willing to put himself through pain when necessary. To put it one way, Bakugo doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk as well, even when it hurts.

(This is part of why I don't think Bakugo is much of a bully, although he has aspects of one, especially in the first season. I think of bullies as fundamentally cowards; they dish it out but can't take it back. Bakugo can take it back, it just pisses him off (more). Another part of this is that in the second season Bakugo is willing to ignore people trash-talking him.)

One aspect of that 'even when it hurts' is that Bakugo has integrity; he wants to win honestly, to genuinely be on top. What he cares about is being the best, not having an award; being awarded a first place finish is meaningless unless it's a true, genuine achievement where he really is the most powerful, the best fighter, or whatever. Winning by default, winning because someone else lets you, all of that is empty, and Bakugo makes it completely clear that he doesn't want an empty prize.

(I think that Bakugo hates not being the most powerful, but he doesn't want to change that by making other people less powerful; if he's not the most powerful, he wants to get more powerful. This is a very Shonen Jump protagonist motivation, refracted through a prism of perpetually angry asshole.)

Then, of course, there is the fact that Bakugo gets to do genuinely cool things. Some MHA characters are ridiculous or have ridiculous powers, and some of them have modest powers or only get to use them in modest ways, but Bakugo has a big power and the show lets him use it to do cool and clever things. The explosions help.

At the same time, the world doesn't go Bakugo's way; he only rarely gets what he wants, and watching Bakugo get frustrated by this is part of the fun. For all of his power, Bakugo is more of an underdog than Midoriya is; as the protagonist, Midoriya gets genuine victories. The best Bakugo can manage is to dunk on villains sometimes. And while Bakugo gets to do cool stuff, the show does not generally present him as genuinely cool the way it does with, say, Todoroki.

The final way that Bakugo is interesting is that he is Midoriya's thematic mirror image and contrast. As I put it once, Midoriya is all morality and no power; Bakugo is all power and no morality. Together they create a clear contrast around the central question of what a hero is. Is it someone with power, or someone with morality? I'm pretty certain that Bakugo's answer is that heroes are people with power and if you don't have power you can't be a hero. My Hero Academia would be a less interesting story without this contrast and challenge that Bakugo implicitly provides.

That Bakugo is an interesting character doesn't make him an appealing one, because he still is an unrelenting asshole that respects very little (and certainly not you or me). That's part of why he would make a terrible lead character. Assholes are tolerable only in relatively small doses.

(This is part of the 12 Days of Anime for 2017.)

Sidebar: First season Bakugo versus second season Bakugo

I'll be honest: early in My Hero Academia, Bakugo is a lot more obnoxious and a lot less interesting than he is later on. It's not quite as simple as the first season versus the second season, because Bakugo starts to show his coolness in the big hero versus villain fight at the end of the first season (cf), but Bakugo mostly becomes interesting over the second series.

The early Bakugo is not an attractive character or person. Given how he treated Midoriya, he was a knife edge away from being an unrecognized villain, enough that you might reasonably wonder why he was admitted to UA High School (or at least why the school doesn't have a way to exclude people even if they score high on the admissions test).

Written on 20 December 2017.
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