In anime, sakuga describes a phenomenon where the animation changes dramatically to emphasize a moment of great importance to the larger story. It’s dazzling to look at—the lines of these sequences are longer and smoother; the character models are more loosely defined and have greater freedom of movement. The conclusion of 2018’s My Hero Academia: Two Heroes was basically a narcotized dance routine punctuated by an island-destroying punch; Heroes Rising, which was released in North America this past weekend, resolved itself in a similar way, with swelling ’80s montage music, billions of Yutapon cubes, a thunder clap, and finally, a spire of neon light. This might have been the showy “finale-ish” ending that series creator Kohei Horikoshi intended for the film—which has grossed more than $8.5 million, an anime box office record—but it’s not the scene I was thinking about as I left the theater.
It’s this one: A young boy named Katsuma stands trembling, unable to move, until it dawns on him that if he doesn’t, his sister will die. With no plan, with no actual way of saving her because he’s tiny and weak, he takes off in a beeline toward the threat, crying, flailing his arms, screaming. It’s so brave, so moving.
The battle anime genre is, at its heart, about the power and beauty of genuine human connection. Ultraviolence may be the currency of character development, but total victory is achieved only with some kind of emotional breakthrough: Naruto has to realize he’s loved; Yusuke has to accept that his dad was both a demon and a nice guy; Goku usually remembers that he has a bunch of people counting on him to succeed. Villains can have skill, vision, determination, and style in spades, and still lose because they lack all the crucial qualities that a person can’t discover in private, like social intelligence or courage or purity of heart. In turn the viewer is uplifted: With a little help from our friends we, too, can fell giants, catch moon-sized balls of energy, save the world, be the hero.
Heroes Rising is the second film based on the hit TV series My Hero Academia, a school-life superhero drama that follows Class 1-A, a group of aspiring heroes that often faces certain death as a matter of coursework. Showing up right on time after the conclusion of similar series like Naruto, Bleach, and Fairy Tail, MHA fills the anime-as-coming-of-age-story void. It’s also a mishmash of Western and Japanese storytelling—imagine a reality full of DC and Marvel superheroes, but everyone shouts the names of their moves before they do them.
MHA takes place in a world a lot like ours, with one crucial distinction: 80 percent of the human population is born with “quirks,” abilities unique to each user. These quirks can be as dumb and useless as the ability to conjur super-adhesive sticky balls, or as powerful as “one for all,” the special quirk that allows main character Deku to be as strong as he needs to be. Heroes Rising branches off from the show’s fourth season, but the film isn’t exactly hard to follow without that context: Class 1-A has been assigned to patrol an idyllic town on Nabu Island without the supervision of the “real” heroes for a month. It’s an easy job: Most calls to their pet hero agency are about retrieving cats from trees and fixing farm equipment. That is, until their peaceful work study is interrupted by Nine, a quirk-stealing villain who can also trigger natural disasters—a tall order for even the most seasoned pro heroes. In Heroes Rising, the kids have to hold out until the adults show up. (They don’t show up.)
While you could drop into Heroes Rising cold and be just as inspired by Class 1-A’s resolve in the face of hardship, the students’ resilience hits harder if you’ve watched the “Kamino Ward” arc. I’ll try to keep this short: Near the end of that arc, All Might, the most powerful hero, the symbol of peace, goes toe-to-toe with All for One, the most powerful villain. The fight becomes such a district-leveling spectacle that it’s broadcast on a giant screen downtown, for all the city to see. After All Might expends the very last of his energy to defeat his foe, he points to the screen and says, “Next, it’s your turn.” And then he retires.
Thus far, Season 4 has been about the students of U.A. reckoning with the loss of All Might as the no. 1 hero. In living memory, he’s been the steadying hand on Japan’s way of life since anyone can remember—how can a fresh-faced teen hope to live up to that standard? To fill All Might’s golden knee-high boots? That’s another defining characteristic of battle anime. The shows are always presenting a challenge, and giving their characters an opportunity to step into or shrink from it. At the end of Heroes Rising, Deku has to fight a giant, faceless, flaming tornado with nothing but friendship and grit muscles. Again, there’s an island-destroying punch. Human connection is powerful.
The most memorable bit of animation in Heroes Rising, though, is near the beginning. It comes soon after Katsuma meets Deku, a real, live hero. Katsuma tugs at the hem of Deku’s uniform, and just before Katsuma can speak, his eyes lower, and he does a sweet, bashful, so-quick-you-probably-missed-it shimmy. The crazed light-show finale may send viewers out into the lobby ready to scale the walls of the cineplex, but it’s this tiny moment that will resonate with anyone who’s ever asked for an autograph, or reached out and felt the relief of someone else’s understanding. Human connection is beautiful.