The first part of 2020 has certainly been great so far for cinematic anime, with releases of big movies like Weathering With You, Ride Your Wave, One Piece: Stampede and now the second film in the My Hero Academia franchise. I hope the rest of the year can keep up with this relative feast of theatrical Japanese animation. Once upon a time, cinema anime was a rarity and I’m so happy that it’s become popular enough to sustain more frequent releases.
Anyone who saw the first MHA movie Two Heroes (2018) should know exactly what to expect here: an action-heavy spectacle with calculated character beats where all of your favourite heroes get their moment in the spotlight to “do their thing” in a setting divorced from continuity and permanent repercussions. Its adherence to this archetypal Shonen Jump movie-making formula ensures that this will be a disposable franchise entry. Does that mean that Heroes Rising should be ignored?
THIS REVIEW WILL BE MOSTLY SPOILER-FREE
Let’s face it - MHA fans are going to want to see this even if it is empty spectacle. Any content where Deku smashes things and Bakugo blows stuff up is already halfway to an entertaining evening. I’m happy to report that even given its throwaway origins, Heroes Rising is still worth your time - if you’re a fan already. This will not convert any haters or the uninitiated as even the most climactic and intense action sequences rely on detailed character and setting knowledge from up until at least the end of season 3.
Heroes Rising occupies an odd place in continuity. In the currently airing season 4, the Overhaul arc ended last month and Heroes Rising makes explicit reference to some of the plot points from its conclusion. The film also features former number 3 hero, now number 2 hero Hawks, though he does not appear until a few volumes later in the manga and may not even appear in season 4. Some of the main characters sport a few upgrades to their quirks and/or uniforms that have not yet been introduced in the anime - though these are minor touches. Overall, you’re pretty safe if you’ve only seen up to about episode 14 of season 4.
Two Heroes was set on an artificial island, far from the main setting on mainland Japan. Heroes Rising is set on a remote South Japan Sea island, far from the main setting on mainland Japan. Hmmm. A pattern arises. The central conceit is that class 1A have been sent (sans adults) to this rural backwater to provide temporary basic hero services to a community of 1000 islanders whose single resident geriatric hero has just retired. After the obligatory cold open to a disconnected car chase sequence straight out of Initial D, we meet our heroes in media res, already hard at work rescuing lost children, repairing farm equipment and giving piggyback rides to elderly grandmothers. Past the relatively slow first half hour, Evil Villains arrive with their Nefarious Plans to cause Needless Chaos. After that, it is sheer Mineta’s-sticky-balls-to-the-wall action until the end as everyone in the class pulls together to fight against overpowered bad guys in fights that successively escalate in monstrous quirk use, intensity and insanity. Truly, this becomes My Hero Academia: Plus Ultra: Over 9000 Kamehameha Super Saiyan DBZ edition.
What I like most about MHA is the way that the varied and sympathetic characters are forced to continually re-evaluate and refine their talents and strategies, whether in response to unexpected situations, challenging teaching scenarios or due to the qualities of the other heroes they are placed with. Heroes Rising continues this theme especially during the lengthy climactic fights against a trio of villains where planning, strategy and intelligent team composition are key to our heroes’ success. It is just like a SRPG game writ large on the big screen, with characters and their quirks deployed like tactical units.
In true war movie style, no plan ever survives an encounter with the enemy and Deku in particular must make a potentially life-altering choice. This particular scene (you’ll know it when you see it) was originally part of mangaka Kohei Horikoshi’s plan for the manga’s finale. It certainly would have been tonally fitting, and I wonder what the hell he’s got stored up that could possibly top this. I don’t want to spoil it, but the way the conflict is resolved is both viscerally and emotionally exciting - but rendered ultimately meaningless by the film’s throwaway nature and the egregious use of the reset button in the final scenes. I did want to scream in frustration that such an awesome concept had been wasted in service of a filler movie.
The villains themselves are mostly underwhelming. Main bad guy Nine has a quirk similar to ultimate series Big Bad All For One, and he has a very personal motivation that could have been much better served if he hadn’t let his minions cause such complete chaos. Supreme strategist he is not. He sees something he wants and keeps going relentlessly towards it, so confident is he in his multiple quirks. He is more or less unbeatable, apart from the clearly telegraphed weakness that the heroes eventually exploit via much flashy animated violence. Animalistic monstrosity Chimera was a boring tank, pointy female villain Slice did not get much development and bandage-wielding edgy dude Mummy wasn’t much cop. The League of Villains do make some fun cameos but as they’re tied up with the main continuity’s story, they’re left very much on the periphery.
Other movie-only characters include two cute kids who err on the more tolerable side of anime child characters. Elder sister Mahoro is a troublemaker who acts mainly out of concern for her younger brother Katsuma who idolises heroes. He adores Deku, though is understandably terrified of Bakugo. The kids are central to the story, but only because they give the central duo someone to protect from the villains.
Bakugo is one of those initially one-note characters that I couldn’t stand to begin with. He’s noisy, obnoxious, full of himself, plus emotionally and physically abusive to his childhood friend Izuku Midoria. It was Bakugo who nicknamed Izuku “Deku” in what I assume is some kind of slur in Japanese. Throughout the series, other characters comment on how villainous he presents in both appearance and attitude. Yet as a child, Bakugo idolised Number 1 hero All Might, just like Deku did. He is determined to be a hero, even if his main motivation is to be number one himself. Deku also wants to be number one - but not for himself, always for the sake of others - yet remains fixated on winning Bakugo’s respect and even surpassing him one day. Bakugo feels threatened by Deku and hides this behind more abuse.
Heroes Rising focuses on Bakugo and Deku’s tense relationship and at multiple times forces them to work together. The fact that Deku shared his and All Might’s secret (regarding their quirk, One for All) with Bakugo becomes a central part of the narrative and I have to admit that despite my visceral dislike of bully characters like Bakugo, I willed hard for them to fight and succeed together at the end. I just wish that the aforementioned reset button hadn’t shit on all of the development that happened. That’s what you get with this kind of film though. Even though everything seems very meaningful at the time, don’t expect the events of this film to be ever referenced again.
In terms of production, this looks great, an order of magnitude above the TV series, with incredibly smooth action sequences that are full of bonkers spectacle and are easy to follow. Everyone’s quirk gets a good workout as the bad guys keep on upping the ante to obscene levels. The musical score, as always, is superb and the most prominent themes from the series are used liberally and in some cases remixed or upgraded, to prominent extent in the finale. This is definitely better than I expected it to be, but the compromise of having it be ultimately meaningless to protect the TV continuity does rob the story of any power it may have had otherwise. I would still recommend it as a good way to spend a couple of hours.
My Hero Academia The Movie: Heroes Rising
Directed by: Kenji Nagasaki
Written by: Yosuke Kuroda
Production company: Bones
Japanese cinematic release: December 20th, 2019
US/UK cinematic release: February 26th, 2020
Runtime: 104 mins
Rating: BBFC 12A
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