What makes an exceptional anime? Is it a protagonist with a relatable journey as they go from zero to number one hero? Or is it watching an antagonist’s backstory unfold, only to find that it reminds us of our own? It’s true that protagonists can be inspiring, but an exceptional anime is not just about the protagonists but about the antagonists as well! You see, the best anime have villains we can relate to and learn from. One of these anime would be My Hero Academia, which stands out for its stellar cast of villains with humbling backstories. Let’s take a look at what we can learn from some of these bad guys and girls and how our heroes interact with them!
The superhuman society of MHA may revolve around individuals with superpowers (or “quirks”), but it is otherwise not much different from our own world—particularly its challenges. With difficulties such as corrupt governments, mental illness, and unrelenting pressure to succeed no matter the cost, it is no surprise that not all quirk-users end up as heroes. Several characters become vigilantes, pursuing what they perceive as truth, yet letting it take them down the wrong path, as with Lady Nagant. But even more resonant are the outcasts and antiheroes: characters like Toga, who become villains because they have no place to belong and instead discover “home” in the deceptive darkness; and like Endeavor, who are molded by the pressures of striving to level up with or supersede others. Fortunately, these villains’ stories don’t end with their mistakes, and in the sixth season, we get to see their desire for redemption!
Outcast Turned Outlaw
The story of Himiko Toga and her search for acceptance is one of the most compelling and gruesome backstories in MHA. Her ability enables her to take on someone else’s appearance, voice, and even their quirk when she consumes their blood, which definitely ups her creepiness factor! And yet she remains a relatable character at her core: Toga is just a young woman desperately searching for a place to belong.
As a child, Toga was obsessed with death and blood, even bringing a dead bird to her parents and calling it “pretty.” Instead of seeking the help Toga needed, her parents tried to force her to become “normal” by suppressing her behavior. This failure to acknowledge and seek support for Toga’s mental illness caused her behavior to eventually spiral out of control. A part of Toga’s soul died when first her parents, and then society rejected her and considered her a monster. But she found acceptance in the League of Villains. Or at least she thought she did. Ultimately, though, becoming a member of the League of Villains only made her spiral down even further, as her life became full of murder and violence.
A second chance at life begins to open up to Toga as she watches a class of upcoming heroes. Through the first five seasons of My Hero Academia, Toga meets and begins admiring two young heroes: Izuku Midoriya (Deku) and Ochaco Uraraka (Uravity). Toga admits she wants to “become” the people she admires, so she often enjoys stealing blood to see what it feels like to be them, to be someone “normal” and “accepted.”
When Toga’s closest friend in the League, Jin Bubaigawara (Twice), is killed by a hero acting in self-defense, Toga falls into despair and begins to ponder whether she too might one day suffer the same fate. She wonders if the heroes she admires would consider her life worth saving. She is clearly conflicted about whether to stay with the League or join the heroes.
To help resolve her internal conflict, Toga forces Uravity into a private, personal battle in the hopes that Uravity will reveal what she really thinks about her. Sadly, Uravity does not handle the confrontation very well, and the lonely outcast feels rejected once again—this time, by someone she truly admires. Longing to become like Uravity but having no idea how, Toga begins to cry and flees back to the comfort of the villains, the only “home” she has ever had.
Toga’s story is so powerful because we all know what it’s like to seek acceptance and to look for it in the wrong places. Sadly enough, many of us are familiar with reaching out to those who seem to be the right people and discovering what seems to be the right place, only to find that rejection lurks there as well. The pain we experience from rejection can send us fleeing back to the wrong places—like Toga.
While this is Toga’s story, it is also Uravity’s. Toga was fully prepared to step out of her life of killing and into the light, but she was turned away by someone who was able to help her, but chose not to. Uravity viewed Toga as someone deserving of only punishment and condemnation, and so she was unable to be the hero Toga needed.
Like Uravity, we too can fail others who come to us for guidance into the light. Sometimes it’s easier to judge others or hope people “get what they deserve” instead of taking the effort (and sometimes the risk) of extending them love and compassion. But when we write others off like this, leaving them to stew in the consequences of their actions, we can get in the way of the love of Jesus, thus hurting both them and Jesus.
Unforgiveness Kindles Flames
Now, on to the fiery, controversial Enji Todoroki, known as Endeavor! Although his character may appear despicable at first glance, beneath the surface, Endeavor is the face many of us see in the mirror each morning: he longs to be the best of the best. But his intense hunger to surpass the extraordinary hero Toshinori Yagi (All Might) drives him to such extremes that he becomes an abusive husband and father, earning him his family’s hatred.
Endeavor’s ambition and pursuit of greatness are not actually the problem though. Instead, the problem is his priorities. Endeavor doesn’t just want to be a great hero; he wants to be better than others. Even worse, he’s willing to sacrifice his family relationships to do it, and his obsessiveness causes him to put his goals above taking care of his family. While goals are admirable, Endeavor does not measure himself against who he wants to become; he measures himself against other people. This comparison leads him to make sacrifices that hurt his family and himself.
While Endeavor’s backstory can be hard to watch, in season six we get to see his transformation through a solid redemptive character arc. Surprisingly, it is Endeavor’s rival All Might (now retired) that encourages him to become the hero he has always longed to be. Little by little, Endeavor takes the steps to turn his life around and become a hero, and this time, he decides to put his family first. Endeavor reminds us that prioritizing the wrong things and obsessing over success only leads to destruction—not to becoming the people we hope to be.
However, many people in Endeavor’s life—like those in Toga’s—have a hard time forgiving him. Two of his children show signs of unforgiveness, and his son Toya (Dabi), in particular, rejects Endeavor’s apology and refuses to accept that his father has changed his ways. Instead, Dabi wants to punish his father, and seeks to shame Endeavor, becoming a villain himself in the process.
Dabi’s unforgiveness does not hurt only Endeavor. Because he nurses such intense hatred for his father in his heart, Dabi turns to a life of destruction, which crushes not only his father and the rest of his family, but himself as well. Dabi “dreams” about dragging his father to hell with him, not caring if the flames take him down, too. This arc demonstrates so powerfully the deadliness of unforgiveness, reminding us implicitly of how life-giving forgiveness is. As Rebekah Lyons shares in her book Building a Resilient Life:
I need to forgive those who never confess or even ask for forgiveness. This is how I keep a clean heart before God, free of bitterness where the enemy can get a foothold to make further advances (see Ephesians 4:27). I’m not responsible for another’s confession, but I am responsible for a tender heart of forgiveness. My freedom from the enemy’s future schemes depends on it.
As Endeavor’s children discover, when we hold on to hatred and unforgiveness, we are plunged into a darkened state of mind. From a Christian perspective, this means we’re opening our hearts and minds to Satan, the great villain of our universe. Whether through violence, hurtful words, or other means, the enemy exploits every opportunity to use our unforgiveness against us and those around us. Holding on to unforgiveness does not help the Todoroki family to heal. Instead, it is the journey of forgiveness walked out by Endeavor’s wife and other family members that brings wholeness. By facilitating a spirit of forgiveness like them, we step through the doorway of freedom Christ so graciously offers each of us (Ephesians 4:32).
The path on the other side of that door can sometimes be a long one, and it doesn’t always reunite us with those who have hurt us. Sometimes it is emotionally or physically unsafe to offer them forgiveness in person. But we can still forgive them, because forgiveness is ultimately between us and God. By extending forgiveness through prayer, we open our hearts to healing from Jesus. In some cases though, such as Endeavor’s, it is possible for us to take small steps and allow changed individuals back into our lives. It is possible not only to forgive, but to reconcile too, especially when we see them moving closer to us again as well, rebuilding trust like Endeavor as he begins bringing his wife her favorite flower and having dinner with his children.
Save (All) the Children
So far, we have taken a look at villains who want to change, but what about those who are not actively searching for redemption? Aren’t they too far gone if they’re not even looking to change? Tomura Shigaraki, the central antagonist of My Hero Academia, doesn’t show any signs of remorse for his destructive actions and murder sprees. In episode 131, the soul of Nana Shimura clutches Deku’s shoulders and warns, “You can’t make [Shigaraki] see reason or offer him forgiveness. Some people are simply beyond redemption.” Considering that Shigaraki is a huge threat to the civilians and heroes, this is not an unreasonable claim. But Deku’s response shows that he has a radically different perspective: instead of condemning his nemesis, he explains that Shigaraki may be the very reason heroes exist in the first place!
By humanizing his opponent and having compassion on him, Deku is showing mercy to someone many would consider undeserving of a second chance. Deku compares Shigaraki to a weeping and lost child, acknowledging Shigaraki’s past and how it influenced his current behavior, and showing empathy for the hurting, broken person inside the mass murderer. You see, this mass murderer was emotionally and physically abused as a child, and no one offered him the help he so desperately pleaded for. Eventually, someone did show up to “help,” but it was actually a terribly manipulative villain, who used Shigaraki’s hatred to mold him into the villain he is today. While Deku doesn’t know Shigaraki’s entire backstory, nor the backstories of the other villains he faces, he decides, because of the brokenness and despair he sees in Shigaraki, he wants to save the villains, too! Deku wants to use his All Might-given quirk (One For All) for Shigaraki’s sake, and exclaims, “I want to save that little kid!” This is what Jesus does for us, as undeserving of grace as we all are, because He loves us and knows our whole story.
But Deku doesn’t stop there. He also extends this revelation to all the villains he’s ever encountered and ponders whether he could have helped them too, if only he had known about their struggles before fighting them. Deku has eyes that see the brokenness of the world and a heart that desires to save everyone he can, regardless of who they are or have been. By taking on this perspective, Deku is tapping into God’s perspective, allowing him to exhibit compassion and understanding. In an even more profound way, God the Father views each of us as the little children we are, loving us despite our imperfections and sins, and ushering us closer to Him if we allow Him to.
While we are all on the journey to be heroes, we often fumble and go down the path of villains instead—if only for a moment or a day at a time. My Hero Academia reminds us how easy it is to take the wrong path and end up in a place we never imagined we would be. Toga’s desire to belong, Endeavor’s obsession with success, and Shigaraki’s road of mass destruction might drive them to extremes, but these are the same things we struggle with, and in that way, we are no different than the villains we may be tempted to condemn. Profoundly, Deku’s realization also happens to be the heart of the gospel! While all have fallen short, with Jesus, none are too far gone! Because of the grace of God, no one is ever too far gone. As the late Charles Stanley reminded us, “God’s grace is available to all who want it—no one has sinned beyond His ability to love, forgive, and heal.”
Guest Writer Kaitlin Simmons is a Mississippi gal with a B.S. in psychology who is obsessed with discussing scriptural parallels found within anime and manga. When this longtime otaku is not fangirling over her latest favorite anime or attempting to write something, you can find her walking with her dogs, researching exciting topics, binge-watching YouTube, or racing down the tracks of Mario Kart!
My Hero Academia is streaming on Crunchyroll.
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