Having spent the last several volumes dealing with the buildup and aftermath of an assault on a genuine mob headquarters, resulting in close personal tragedies and irreparable injuries, Midoriya and his friends could really use some time off. In My Hero Academia‘s twentieth volume, they at last get a brief chance to, if not relax, at least positively express themselves, by embracing the small-scale conflicts of a school drama staple: the school festival. Putting on a grand music performance that allows nearly all of Midoriya’s classmates to strut their stuff, volume twenty offers a welcome celebration of the bonds and diverse personalities of Class 1-A… but first, there’s the matter of Gentle Criminal.
As volume twenty begins, Midoriya is still locked in battle with Gentle, determined not to let the would-be villain spoil Eri’s first outing with friends. The first few chapters offer a tense and yet strangely hopeful battle between two genuinely sympathetic sides, with both Midoriya and Gentle essentially fighting for the same thing. As they exchange blows on the campus outskirts, we receive an explication of Gentle’s past that paints him as a tragic figure, someone who wished to help others as a hero, but who was unable to succeed within the rigid metrics of professional heroism.
To be honest, by the end of this fight, I was actually rooting for Gentle more than I was for Midoriya. Kōhei Horikoshi has expanded not just My Hero Academia‘s cast and setting, but also its moral perspective over the course of its last several volumes. We’ve received short vignettes on characters like Twice that have complicated the manga’s perspective on heroism, acknowledging that many people are driven to selfish or socially discouraged actions by circumstances entirely outside of their control. Given that, I was slightly disappointed to see this battle end on the pat “Midoriya’s resolve beats Gentle’s,” and eagerly await Gentle and La Brava’s eventual return, as My Hero Academia‘s world hopefully continues to challenge its own simplistic framework of heroism and justice.
That framework is tested in a different way in this volume’s later chapters, as the announcement of this year’s “Top Billboard Heroes” returns the focus to the fiery Endeavor. Endeavor is one of My Hero Academia‘s most morally ambiguous figures, and having him stand as the number one hero feels like an indication in its own right of a society in crisis. The ambiguity of Endeavor’s public persona, as a distant and angry man who’s unable to inspire in the way All Might did, is echoed by the ambiguity of his own feelings. Endeavor is regretful of his past, but still bound by it, and well aware that the cruelty and coldness which destroyed his relationship with his family is still a living part of him. My Hero Academia‘s Endeavor material has trod a careful line, avoiding either pitiless condemnation or unearned redemption, and I’m greatly enjoying both his story in its own right, and how that story reflects larger instabilities in My Hero Academia‘s world.
And then, sandwiched between those two outsiders, we’ve got the school festival itself. Class 1-A’s performance serves as a winning celebration of the bonds between My Hero Academia‘s stars, as well as an unexpected demonstration of Horikoshi’s artistic progress. Horikoshi mentions in the volume’s liner notes that the festival performance chapter required substantial redraws between its magazine and graphic novel printings, and the results are dazzling. Powers like Todoroki’s ice, Sero’s tape, and Yaoyorozu’s creation join together to create a shimmering dance party, as characters bounce through dramatic poses and dynamic panel layouts keep the course of the action clear. Ultimately, all this theater leads into a rousing reiteration of My Hero Academia‘s most central theme, as Eri is inspired to smile by the efforts of her new friends. Though characters like Gentle Criminal have been failed by this system, the fundamental promise of heroism is a power anyone can grasp – the power to inspire hope through your actions, and raise your companions towards their best possible selves.
All in all, My Hero Academia‘s twentieth volume offers a satisfying mix of fast-paced action, engaging character work, and intriguing worldbuilding. While the school festival arc celebrates the journeys of all the characters we’ve come to love, the Endeavor and Gentle-related material serves as an exciting indication of how much further this story could go, illustrating the complexities of Midoriya’s world in a variety of compelling ways. My Hero Academia continues to make the most of its unstable post-All Might world.