Hey all, and welcome to Why It Works. We’re in the middle of hero week right now, which sounds pretty sweet to me - as recent columns have no doubt indicated, it turns out I friggin’ love heroes. I didn’t actually discover this fact until recently, since the style of western cape heroes I grew up with didn’t really do anything for me. Part of that just comes down to simple aesthetics, but a great deal of it is also due to the fact that western heroes tend to focus on, well, the heroes - monolithic figures like Batman or The Hulk are generally foregrounded. I can certainly roll with that (my shelves still hold a fair number of the staples - The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, etcetera), but what I like more than individual heroes is the concept of heroes as an ambiguous ideal, a kind of collective hope of society.
Fortunately for me, as it turns out, anime has been going through something of a superhero renaissance at the moment. This season’s My Hero Academia is structured as a classic shounen action series, but it still hammers on the ideas that I find most uplifting about heroes. Heroism is framed not as righteous action for its own sake, but as performed greatness that inspires others to be their own best possible selves. It’s fitting, then, that this season has directly focused on how parents can become heroes for their children, or cast shadows over their dreams. But My Hero Academia is far from the only great hero show in town, so let’s run down a few of my other recent favorites.
First off, Gatchaman Crowds stands as one of the most thoughtful and relevant hero stories of the modern age. In Crowds, heroes exist, but they can’t really save society for us - particularly not in the age of the internet, where basically all social leaders have to deal with the common people’s collective power. New Gatchaman Hajime believes that it’s only intimate, human connection that can lead to a better future, while semi-antagonist Rui believes that crowdsourced collective action will “update the world” and make heroes irrelevant. Directed by the visionary Kenji Nakamura and covering topics as diverse as online trolls, mob justice, and the 24 hour news cycle, it’s a simultaneously upbeat and savage takedown of the modern world.
Pulling back from the present day, the recent Concrete Revolutio presents an alternate mid-century Japan, where the social revolutions of the 50s and 60s are complicated by the fact that pretty much all famous heroes actually exist. In this time of social unrest and international turmoil, the Superhuman Bureau is tasked with protecting society’s superhumans - but in classic Who Watches the Watchmen style, the true motives of these government officials are far more complex. One episode will focus on a Beatles-style rock band that suddenly acquires supernatural powers, while the next might highlight the charming Astro Boy stand-in Earth-chan. There’s even a Vietnam War episode guest-written by Gen Urobuchi. Concrete Revolutio puts the nature of heroism in both a historic and deeply personal context, offering an action-packed ride all along the way.
Finally, if you’re looking for something a little lighter, 2013’s Samurai Flamenco is one of the most charming and ridiculous hero stories you’ll find. Beginning as the story of a normal, powerless man in a normal, powerless world who just really wants to be a superhero, it slowly evolves into something absurd, grand, and weirdly touching. At one point, our staple-chuck equipped hero will have to face down an unlikely menace known as King Torture. Later on, sinister events ultimately lead to a clash with the Prime Minister of Japan. Basically anything I could tell you about Samurai Flamenco would ruin some of its ridiculous fun, but rest assured, Samurai Flamenco understands the spirit of heroism.
Those three are far from the only superhero shows livening up recent seasons. If you’re looking for more, both adaptations of ONE’s manga, One Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100, marry tidbits of social commentary with absolutely gorgeous animation, offering some of the most impressive fight scenes of any recent anime. Whatever show you choose, there’s something worth celebrating in all of these heroic stories. It’s a very good time to believe in the power of heroes.