Major spoilers for the My Hero Academia manga, up to Chapter 285, ahead!
Katsuki Bakugo is just one of many characters in Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia, but undoubtedly has the most beautiful arc of the bunch. Bakugo is the shonen rival — not a main villain, but an archetype that exists in opposition to, and in competition with, the shonen hero.
Fitting into the shoes worn by Dragon Ball Z’s Vegeta and Naruto’s Uchiha Sasuke before him, Bakugo is the opposite of the series’ lead, Izuko Midoriya. Midoriya is emotionally vulnerable while Bakugo suppresses his feelings. Midoriya cries when he needs to and processes emotion freely; Bakugo translates his insecurities and fear into violence and anger. At least, that’s how Bakugo started out as a character. Within MHA fandom, you either love or hate Bakugo. But more often than not, you one hate the hero until you love him. And that’s the key.
At the start of the series, Bakugo is a bully. He harms Midoriya both mentally and physically and continues to meet others with aggression. He uses his anger to push himself through every situation and focus on his ultimate goal: becoming the so-called Number One Hero. But too often, readers remain focused on who Bakugo was in the first part of the manga. In doing so, they perceive him to be stuck as the bully. When instead we should pay attention to the way he developed into a hero and moved beyond his past. Bakugo is an example of how a child can grow beyond their mistakes.
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It’s easy to see Bakugo’s arc as one of redemption, but I think that’s reductive. Horikoshi has managed to write his story as one that pushes past surface-level apologies and instead towards action. Bakugo isn’t a hero in spite of his past, but because he learned from it.
You can chart Bakugo’s growth as a character across small moments throughout the series — like his battle with Ochaco during the Sports Tournament, where he takes the normally buoyant girl more seriously than his peers, or when he teaches a younger child to stop judging others. However, it’s his actions in the most recent arc of the series that have defined the rival character.
Bakugo is important because he grows, but also teaches others to remember the pain they’ve caused. Being a better person — being a hero — takes constant, ongoing work. To show this growth, Horikoshi uses flashbacks in Chapter 285, right at the moment Bakugo chooses to jump in front of an attack, sacrificing himself for Midoriya to the series’ main villain, Shigaraki.In that moment, Bakugo’s mistakes flash before his eyes — just like so many of our own do every day of our lives. There is no apology. Just acceptance. Bakugo leaps forward, shielding his friend with his body.
In the flashbacks, we see Bakugo still carries the pain he’s inflicted on others; he doesn’t ignore it. He most certainly hasn’t forgotten it. In the series’ early chapters, Horikoshi illustrates moments that show Bakugo bullying Midoriya. In these illustrations, we see a shadow lording over and tormenting a scared Midoriya. But in Chapter 285 we see those same moments from Bakugo’s regretful perspective.
He’s standing over a fearful Midoriya. He’s hurting him. It’s then that you understand Horikoshi isn’t glossing over Bakugo’s ill-deeds, he’s confronting them. Bakugo was a bully and can’t erase that fact. In fact, he can’t even apologize for it. But what he can do is show in his actions that he is a better person now. He can show that he has grown.
The beauty here is what people who only refer to Bakugo as a bully forget. Bakugo, like most of our protagonists, is a child. Is he powerful? Yes, but a child nonetheless. In his journey from menace to hero, Bakugo learns what it means to be a hero — to improve the lives of others by improving himself. As a character, Bakugo is imperfect. He’s loud, angry, and proud. But that’s his power: to be a character that grows and learns, instead of being perfect from Chapter 1.
Bakugo resonates with so many My Hero Academia readers fans because he’s far from perfect. He doesn’t know how to work through his trauma; he doesn’t know how to take a loss, but that’s the key — he doesn’t know. Over the course of 291 chapters, we see Bakugo not only grow as a person but learn what it means to be a hero. Which, for him, is correcting the ills of his past. Instead of doing so from a place of forcing forgiveness from Midoriya, he does it from a place of understanding. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness. Nor does he waste words offering a verbal apology. Instead, he makes it his duty to protect our hero because he knows better than anyone that Midoriya won’t protect himself.
Bakugo is able to place himself in Midoriya’s shoes in that way, which is no small feat. In the opening of the series, Bakugo is nearly killed by a villain. A then-human and seemingly powerless Midoriya jumps in harm’s way to save him. It’s this selfless act that pushes All Might, the series’ Superman stand-in, to deem him worthy and grant him his superpowers. Because according to All Might, “Most of the top heroes show signs of greatness even as children, many of them claim that their bodies simply moved before they could think!”
Heroism in My Hero Academia is the reflex to protect — putting yourself last and living for others. Bakugo closes out this chapter with his sacrifice and the words “At that moment, there were no thoughts in my head. My body just moved on its own.” In that, we’re meant to finally see the angry boy as a protector, a guardian, and finally, a hero.
We’ve all made mistakes. That doesn’t mean we can stop trying to grow. As a Shonen Jump title, My Hero Academia is in a position to reach the pre-teen and teen demographics. The ages of our characters are the ages of the target audience. This series, then, can teach them valuable lessons. While it’s absolutely worth teaching kids to be steadfast in their goodness like Midoriya, telling them they can also grow from their mistakes is even more powerful.