Thoughts on ... Bakugo, and how to humanise rivals
We’re discussing My Hero Academia again. I love the manga, I really do, but certain aspects of the narrative make me cringe sometimes, because I’ve seen much more nuanced, sophisticated iterations elsewhere. With my previous article about Endeavor, I expressed how uncomfortable I was with the hack-handed method Horikoshi used to reconcile his abusive past. I was worried to publish that article because the debates on social media on the topic were so volatile, and I was wary to get involved in the affray. To my pleasant surprise, the response to the article was positive, reinforcing my belief that Twitter is an awful channel to communicate complex feelings adequately. At least with the blog, I can express myself properly, and completely. So here I am, delving into another sensitive character: Bakugo.
Midoriya is the protagonist of the series. He’s weak, an underdog. He begins the story quirkless, but there is something innately heroic about him that compels All Might to select him as the the successor of One for All. Unique kids are always bullied, and in a world where the majority of the population is born with a Quirk, a quirkless boy is an easy target. Midoriya spends his school years being tormented by Bakugo, a prodigy and an aspirant of the acclaimed hero school, UA. Midoriya, in his meritocratic innocence, also plans to attend UA—Bakugo’s rage intensifies. It is not properly explained why Bakugo hates Midoriya so much: his disdain for his quirkless classmate transcends the levels of everyone else in the school. He tells Midoriya to kill himself, he threatens to push him out of a top-floor window, he throws all of Midoriya’s textbooks, with all his notes and hard work, in the pond outside, and torments him constantly throughout the day. When the story began, I did not expect to hear Midoriya say that he considers Bakugo a friend. This is no behaviour of a friend.
We are not told why Midoriya worships Bakugo, or why he considers him a friend. Aside from a few random flashbacks of kid-Midoriya and kid-Bakugo standing outside a shop with some All Might toys, every early-childhood moment of the pair is tainted with abuse, and always, Midoriya is on the receiving end. Even when Midoriya tries to save Bakugo from the sludge villain in chapter one, the latter is disgusted rather than grateful, which is then replicated when he’s kidnapped by the League of Villains. The only reason we are given for Midoriya’s masochism is that he considers Bakugo a strong rival, someone he needs to overcome. This is sloppy. It makes no sense, and it’s haphazardly fitted into the story. It’s as if Horikoshi said “all shonens of this type needs a best friend/rival story line” and forced that device onto Midoriya and Bakugo. In other stories, this is explored so much more powerfully.
Naruto’s rival was Sasuke. At first, they openly despised each other. Sasuke, because he thinks Naruto is a weak idiot, and Naruto, because Sasuke stands for everything he dislikes about the ninja world: prodigy children from special bloodlines are hailed as geniuses, and unfairly scale the ranks over other hardworking ninja with graceless arrogance. Naruto’s a grinder, Sasuke’s a natural genius. Over the story, we witness Naruto’s ascent, his constant progress and defiance against the odds, accumulating friends and allies along the way. Sasuke’s hatred deepens as he finally discovers a genuine challenger, his sense of superiority shaken by Naruto’s increasing skill. When Sasuke leaves Konoha, he has Naruto in his mind: he has finally accepted him as a true rival, and his only solution to accumulate power is to join Konoha’s infamous enemy.
I like this character arc because it has a clear direction, both characters motives are unambiguous, we understand their differences, and their responses to these differences are realistic. Can you imagine, if Naruto randomly chased after Sasuke in the early chapters, begging him to be his friend? When we’re introduced to him, Naruto has already accepted that the village just hates him, and being pushed into Sasuke’s team will not suddenly make him fawn for a friendship that never existed. Instead, we are shown how both characters react to their dislike of each other, and then over the course of the series, we see how the dislike becomes a natural rivalry as both ninja accepts the other’s prodigious skill. Only after considerable time does the pair’s rivalry encompass friendship and respect.
I think Berserk shows another good example of rivalries. Guts and Griffith’s relationship was amicable at first, but Griffith’s own sense of self-importance meant that he was unable to see any of his mercenaries are true friends or equals. Disturbed by this news, Guts leaves the Falcon with the hopes of understanding himself, and carving a new sense of identity that is not wrapped around Griffith’s dream. When Griffith realises that Guts is no longer pliable to his will, and that during the course of their time together, Guts becomes powerful enough to beat him in a duel, he is totally shattered, makes a bunch of stupid decisions, and ruins Guts’s life in every way possible, just so he can surpass him and become something untouchable. The story revolves around the various elements of their relationship: rivalry, betrayal, trauma, friendship, and even a sense of homo-eroticism on Griffith’s part. Although Berserk can’t be compared to MHA, I think it provides a fantastic example of a rivalry written well.
Do you know about Tower of God? For the past three years, I’ve been allowing the chapters of this webtoon to accumulate over several months so I can binge-read them in one sitting—it’s that addictive. Although the main story is about Baam’s climb through the Tower, and his journey of self-discovery along the way, a very toxic rivalry runs in the background that affects major decisions in Baam’s life. He’s a chosen person, special and unique, and his former friend, Rachel, has no redeeming traits. Rachel’s realisation that Baam is destined for greatness, and not her, is a devastating blow, and she spends the rest of the story interfering with Baam’s life, often with disastrous consequences. Their relationship is interesting because Baam begins the story totally devoted to Rachel, the one person who cared for him when he was an anonymous child living underground, and he embarks on his journey to find her. When it becomes clear that Rachel’s intentions for Baam are evil in nature, he is torn, regularly making the mistake of trusting her again, and then putting himself and others in danger.
This rivalry works again because Rachel has obvious reasons for hating Baam: she’s always wanted to be special, and somehow, this unassuming boy surpasses her in every way. Baam’s unhealthy devotion to Rachel also makes sense, unlike Midoriya’s affection for Bakugo: it derives from his memories of her kindness back when he was a nobody. More importantly, Rachel is a master manipulator. She knows many secrets, and she knows that Baam is desperate to find out about his true identity, his heritage and his parents, so she often dangles bits of information here and there before him, weakening his resolve to turn away from her for good. We know that their relationship is unhealthy, and so does Baam, but Rachel knows all his emotional weaknesses, and uses them against him for her own means. It’s tragic because Baam can see this too, and he identifies the unhealthiness of his attachment to her—it’s a far cry from the inexplicable persistence seen in Midoriya.
Now this is a bit of a curve ball, but initially, Bakugo’s random bouts of excessive aggression towards his classmates reminded me of Kyo from Fruits Basket. Their mannerisms are the same: Kyo is the fiery student who scares most of his classmates, who in turn provoke him because they know he’s quick to anger. A lot of his early dialogue is shouted, and he appears annoying at first. This is until we find the truth of Kyo: that he was emotionally abused and ostracised by his entire family, expected to live his entire adult life in a cage, having spent his childhood forced to visit the cage regularly as a reminder of his fate. He did not know love, and his response to normal human interaction is often negative and aggressive as a result. His rival is Yuki, the pretty-boy popular cousin, and also the star of the family. He too suffered similar abuses to Kyo, but from a young age, they were pitted against each other. Their dislike is evenly matched, and when Tohru comes along, they vie for her attention, having recognised her as the person who can disperse the darkness they carry within themselves. Once again, it’s made clear that despite their dislike of each other, they both harbour a grudging respect which finally resolves near the very end of the story, with both characters having overcome the trauma of their shared past.
I gave a lot of examples here, and some of these examples are a tad unfair because they come from completed stories, but I think it’s important to explore rivalries done correctly: both characters have their own goals, they want to be strong, but realise that the other person risks getting in their way, and so they fight for dominance. If a friendship is involved, their rivalry naturally develops from there. The reason why Midoriya and Bakugo’s rivalry doesn’t work is because they were never really friends, and if they were, then Horikoshi has not written their friendship very well. Bakugo was Midoryia’s tormentor and bully, and Midoriya, for a reason not properly explained, other than “you’re a strong hero”, has decided to attach himself to Bakugo no matter what, even if it means he gets abused in the process. Why Bakugo has randomly decided that Midoriya is his rival, and why, following the revelation that Midorya received his Quirk from All Might, Midoriya has decided that he has to win over Bakugo, is muddled and sloppily written. Their second major fight (chapter 119; Season 3 episode 23) was annoying for me, because Bakugo was the one who demanded Midoriya to fight him. Bakugo threw the first punch, like he always has, and pushed Midoriya into a corner until he had no choice but to defend himself, and yet Midoriya was equally punished—and this keeps happening. It comes across as a means to force a best-friend-slash-rival narrative when in reality, all I can see is an abuser driving his victim to become strong and stand up for himself. They are not proper rivals.
I really wanted to get this off my chest because I know what it’s like to be bullied, and because of that, I’m always on the victim’s side. Midoriya has done nothing to receive Bakugo’s wrath, and in MHA, Bakugo’s fits of rage are framed humorously, and he has no remorse for the way he treated Midoriya when they were children. I hate when behaviours like these are normalised, and similar to Endeavor’s sudden heroic turn, I feel that Bakugo’s character is ill-fitted for the setting that Horikoshi has tried to put him in. You have a character who shouts out “DIE” all the time, bullies the protagonist to the point where supporting characters are looking on in discomfort, who is then molly coddled and defended by his homeroom teacher, and the biggest hero in the country, and laughed off by his close friends. It’s weird, and it’s a bad lesson to teach readers. Their rivalry would only make sense if Midoriya was just as hardheaded and aggressive as Bakugo, or if Midoriya never really considered Bakugo as a good friend, just as someone in his class who he saw as powerful that he needed to beat.
They do not have the depth of Naruto and Sasuke—whatever friendship Midoryia tells us they had is all imaginary, and Bakugo’s random sense of rivalry just stems from his own sociopathic behaviour, something that is exacerbated when Midoriya gets a Quirk of his own. Now, if Bakugo’s hatred for Midoriya only manifested after he found out that All Might gave him his Quirk, that would make a tonne of sense. There we have a motive, a reason for Bakugo’s anger, because Midoriya has quite clearly surpassed Bakugo with a cheat code. Of course Bakugo would want to know: “why not me? Why has my hero chosen a weakling without a Quirk, when I’m the talented one?” However, Bakugo’s anger has existed long before he found out about One for All. Instead of an empathetically developed anger, we’re just treated to his rambling tirades, with Midoriya looking on both helplessly and a little confused.
Bakugo is a popular character, both in the West and in Japan. I like his design and his Quirk, and when he isn’t being a dick, he has funny moments, particularly with other members of the class. His high moment for me was when he stood up to the League of Villains, and I really enjoyed his interactions with the kids during the Hero Licence arc. However, I wonder how much all of this Bakugo love is for Bakugo as a character, or if it’s really directed towards the shipping with Kirishima. Bakushima/Kiribaku is a strong ship. It can defeat tempests.
Ultimately, his character has potential. I’m hoping that we see more development from him as the series goes on. I’m just concerned that his character helps to normalise toxic behaviour, or dismiss very serious, and very harmful character traits. Bullying and abuse are very weird and disturbing traits for a teenager who wants to be a hero, and one who aspires to be like All Might. How did Bakugo learn to be so horrid, when All Might is nothing like that? It doesn’t really fit, and I’m hoping Horikoshi smooths out the edges before the narrative crumbles with the pressure.