We all love a good shounen training sequence: punching stuff in the woods, wearing 10-ton weighted clothing, sparring with your rival. It’s a classic and beloved trope of the genre…
However, it can get a little stale from time to time, especially when the same types of training appear across the different worlds and unique strengths of protagonists featured throughout the shounen genre.
My Hero Academia, however, manages to change the approach to shounen training in one of the most uniquely subversive ways—through the concept of Quirks.
Quirks in Kohei Horikoshi’s hit series are kind of like superpowers, but much more physical—they’re part of the users’ bodies, and this slight shift from how we usually see superpowers and fighting power presented in superhero comics and shounen manga/anime tilts both concepts on their heads.
Simply put, the physicality of Quirks in My Hero Academia gives a fascinating depth to training and getting stronger by making powers more than just a level to raise or a limit to break.
Quirks vs. energy
One of the biggest differences between the powers of My Hero Academia and the powers in traditional battle shounen series is that it’s not just some iteration of energy.
No matter what unique fighting abilities exist in a shounen manga, they tend to borrow heavily from the rules of energy laid out by the genre’s most prominent series, where you have internal energy you can increase by pushing your limits.
It’s not a bad thing that this concept is adapted to each new generation of shounen, but it’s also interesting to see how My Hero Academia veered away from it while still keeping the spirit of training and power tropes.
Rather than each hero or U.A. student having an internal energy that powers their fighting capabilities, Quirks are, more or less, physical mutations. They are part of the person, a physical aspect of their body that provides them with superhuman abilities, but also takes a lot more understanding to truly wield masterfully.
Perhaps the best way to describe the difference between how Quirks interpret superpowers and how classic superhero comics and shounen series depict power is to describe Quirks as body functions.
Rather than just being superstrong or training to be superstrong, Heroes and U.A. students have to understand their body to amplify their Quirks’ abilities, much like a tall person has to know how to move carefully to avoid hurting others or how someone with a long-term injury has to create a specific workout routine for their specific limitations.
And I think that’s the most interesting part about quirks in My Hero Academia: they are literally Quirks—unique little mutations that can be beneficial, a hindrance, or a weird mixture of both, and it’s up to the user to understand their Quirk and mutated body in order to maximize the benefits and minimize the hindrances caused by the Quirk.
Take Hanta Sero, for example. His Tape Quirk is limited by pain caused from over-dispensing the tape-like substance that comes from his arms, so he has to push past the pain little by little until his tolerance is higher.
Tenya Iida is another good example. His engine legs giving him a traditional superhero power of super speed, but with the added layer of having to monitor how his engines are running. Ochaco Uraraka and Denki Kaminari’s Quirk support items further explore this idea, the former’s having built-in motion-sickness counters and electromagnetic boots to use with her Zero Gravity Quirk, and the latter helping turn his aura-based power into a long-range one.
The connection between Quirk and the user’s body is both what makes powers and training so interesting in My Hero Academia and what makes Deku’s struggle to master One For All so layered.
One For All was not made for his body, nor was his body made for it, so learning to counter the clashing of body and Quirk becomes the main focus of his training; he has to slowly build up his tolerance to a power that strengthens his muscles but crushes his bones; he has to learn how to focus it and how to spread the strain evenly so as to decrease damage; and he has to learn to fight with his legs when he’s damaged his arms too much.
Simply put, it requires a bit more thought and effort and is an overall more complex way to get stronger than the traditional shounen training arcs and sequences, making for a fascinating approach to anime power-ups.
I’m not sure if there’s any specific, deeper theme behind this approach to training and getting stronger—perhaps Horikoshi-sensei is trying to talk about understanding our bodies and provide some genuinely good workout and wellness mindsets with which to bring into our real lives. Or maybe there’s something to be said about how all bodies are different and have their faults and perks and how everyone has body struggles, seen or unseen.
Regardless of what the series is trying to say, the way that My Hero Academia seems to add these extra layers of thought and personalization to the familiar concept of shounen training is, in a word, genius.
Like with so many other aspects of Horikoshi’s hit series, there’s still plenty of shounen familiarity, but the genre convention is stretched and pushed in such unique and subversive directions, all by powers being tied to physicality as opposed to energy. This aligns the issues of mastering superpowers with the hurdles of understanding one’s body—a particularly poignant theme to approach with teenage characters going through, well, being teenagers.
It’s a simple but remarkably effective change, and it leads to a complete rethinking of the classic shounen power-up, making training interludes just as interesting and exciting as the big story arcs.