My Hero Academia: Destruction Is Transformation in the Paranormal Liberation War

Weekly Shonen Jump issue 1 2021 cover

In hindsight, the Paranormal Liberation War will probably be one of My Hero Academia’s most important arcs. We didn’t know it at the time, but chapter 258 was meant to usher in what would become the beginning of the series’ ‘final chapter,’ changing the status quo massively and setting up for the final battle. By the time the arc ended with chapter 306 last month, things would never be the same again.

Contains spoilers for the My Hero Academia manga up to chapter 306.

It’s not as if My Hero Academia hasn’t done long ‘war’ storylines before: there’s the example of the Shie Hassaikai arc, the Meta Liberation Army arc, as well as even the USJ arc at the very beginning of the series. Each one of these contributed to the overall narrative in their own special way, but not to the same extent as the Meta Liberation War: it’s not insignificant that this story took from Shie Hassaikai the accolade of being the manga’s longest arc in terms of both chapter length (54 installments) and publication time (469 days). This shows the number of things that it covered and the ambition that it boasts.

As a result, summing up the Meta Liberation Army arc is no easy task. Many words could be written about each little moment, but what would be the point in that? You should just go and read it yourself.

Instead, we’re going to focus on the central theme of ‘transformation’ that runs throughout this arc, which became evident once its narrative function was clear. Tied into this is also the theme of ‘destruction,’ because you can’t have an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Change always means losing something along the way.

Twice’s Death and the Two Faces of Heroism

Twice's death in the Paranormal Liberation War
Does this look like a hero to you?

Destruction is immediately recognizable in the story of Jin Bubaigawara AKA Twice. Ever since his development in the Meta Liberation Army arc, he’s been one of my favorite characters thanks to both his unique powers and personality. At heart, he’s a deeply broken person who just wants solace and comradeship: that made him a perfect target for Keigo Takami AKA Hawks.

There was always the worry that the Wing Hero might ‘go native’ in his activities as a double agent spying on the Paranormal Liberation Front, but it was actually Bubaigawara who got too close to the enemy. He formed a genuine friendship with Hawks, believing him to be a good guy and even looking up to him. So when the hero’s true intentions became clear, he couldn’t help but feel betrayed: raging out of control, Hawks felt like he had no choice but to kill him.

This mirrors a very real world issue we’re facing in my home country of the United Kingdom right now: so-called ‘spycops.’ In 2011, a legal case was launched against a police officer known as Mark Stone, who had infiltrated a number of environmentalist left-wing protest groups to pass on inside information about their upcoming plans. This led to many arrests. What’s more, he wasn’t alone: over 140 undercover officers were sent to spy on more than 1000 political groups in the past four decades.

It’s no accident that the name of the Paranormal Liberation Army mirrors that of real-life guerilla forces throughout history. This part of the arc clearly underscores the two sides of ‘heroism,’ whether one’s justice truly is so when it comes at the expense of human lives. Furthermore, it feeds into the second major piece of the Paranormal Liberation War arc, shaking up the foundations of hero society and causing the veneer to fade along the way.

Dabi’s Revelations and Endeavor’s Skeletons

Dabi in the Paranormal Liberation War

As readers, we’ve known for a while that Enji Todoroki AKA Endeavor has, well, quite a lot of skeletons in his closet. The question of whether he can be redeemed (and whether he even wants to be) has been a critical one ever since All Might retired from hero activities, but the public as a whole was none the wiser. The Paranormal Liberation War arc brings it all out into the open.

Prior to the Paranormal Liberation War, there was another arc that revealed that Endeavor had not only contributed to the traumatic upbringing of one Shoto Todoroki, but also that his actions had lead to the death of one of his other sons, Toya: the Endeavor Agency arc. Why that was important didn’t become apparent until later on in chapter 290, when it was revealed that Dabi (one of the key figures in the earlier League of Villains and now the Paranormal Liberation Front) was actually Toya Todoroki, long thought to be dead.

This redeemed almost immediately what otherwise appeared to be quite a pointless arc and made it clear to the public just how villainous the so-called Number One ‘Hero’ was. Furthermore, when Dabi says, ‘These twisted people with skeletons in their closets… They cover it all up with masks of justice!’, you can’t help but sort of agree, especially after what just happened to Twice. In fact, it’s literally edited into the video that Dabi broadcasts to the nation!

In general, Dabi’s revelations continue the hard work pioneered by the Meta Liberation Army arc in making the villainous characters just as compelling as the heroic ones and thus further blurring the lines between what it means to be a ‘hero’ and a ‘villain.’ This is one thing that has become more and more important for Kohei Horikoshi over the years: he admitted in an interview in 2018 that he initially had quite a simplistic view of heroism when he first started the series in 2014. Now, however, he recognizes that there are shades of gray.

In any case, from the very beginning, it’s been made clear just how important a ‘symbol of peace’ is for hero society. That much is as true for Horikoshi’s fictional world as it is for our own: we need strong leaders who make us feel safe and secure to provide a foundation for society. By dragging Endeavor’s skeletons out of the closet and into the open for all to see, however, the whole thing could fall down like a house of cards.

Tomura Shigaraki: The New Best Villain in Jump

Shigaraki in the Paranormal Liberation War

Such was Tomura Shigaraki and All for One’s plan from the very beginning: destroy hero society, although exactly how has changed over the years. Speaking of Shigaraki, he changes quite a bit during the Paranormal Liberation War arc, transforming him into one of the best new villains in Weekly Shonen Jump.

That might sound a little strange, considering that he’s been around since the very beginning of the series. Yet, it’d be strange to try to compare the sniveling Shigaraki of the League of Villains to the terrifying Shigaraki of the Paranormal Liberation Front: they’re simply not the same person. The main antagonist has easily undergone the same amount of development as the main protagonist, Izuku Midoriya, making Horikoshi’s aforementioned intentions regarding the heroes and villains that much clearer.

In terms of the actual story of the Paranormal Liberation War arc, much of it revolves around the Pro Heroes’ attempts to prevent Shigaraki’s awakening and the battle that unfolds after they fail to do so. The amazing thing is that even when Shigaraki is immobile in Daruma’s tank, his presence is overwhelming: that is only multiplied tenfold when he actually gets out, sporting a new stark white hair color and the all-powerful Quirk, All for One. That’s a testament to Horikoshi’s incredible art, above all else.

Is Shigaraki really evil, though? That’s the question that’s ultimately posed at the end of the Paranormal Liberation War arc, with Midoriya remarking that ‘You looked like you needed saving!’ The seeds for that were already planted back in chapter 270, where we see Shigaraki’s past in an incredibly abstract flashback and how All for One took advantage of him. With this in mind, we come back to the age-old question of what separates a hero and a villain: could it really just be a matter of circumstance?

The Paranormal Liberation War: Combining Narrative Function and Thematic Grounding

My Hero Academia Chapter 295 Manga Page

All of this fails to mention, of course, the role that the heroes played during this arc, but that’s because the Paranormal Liberation War is ultimately one conflict that the villains won. That’s a first for the series, and a huge one at that: it provides the final part of the story with so much more momentum and does wonders to shake up the series’ formula, which risked getting stale if it continued down the same path for years to come.

Big events such as the Paranormal Liberation War are hardly uncommon in shonen manga: authors often use them to shift from one type of story to another. Yet, My Hero Academia manages to combine this narrative function with a genuine grounding in the series’ characters, themes, and ideas: the conflict doesn’t happen simply because the author wills it, but because real (fictional) people clash over their differing ideologies, upbringings, and organizational ties. That’s the real reason why this arc will go down in history as one of the series’ best: it explored destruction and transformation, but only because it felt natural to do so.

Going into its final phase, My Hero Academia has a lot of pieces to pick up. How is it going to restore the public’s faith in hero society? How is it going to deal with Shigaraki’s extraordinary character development? And how is Izuku Midoriya planning to do anything about it outside of the four walls of U.A. Academy?

That much has yet to be answered, but one thing’s for sure: My Hero Academia has my attention.

You can read My Hero Academia for free via VIZ Media.

Shueisha via VIZ Media
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