Hanazawa Kengo, much like his alleged ‘friend’ Asano Inio, doesn’t need much introduction among the readers of manga. His works have been read, reread, and loved by many.
Two earlier works of the mangaka are Ressentiment and Boys on the Run; which are noteworthy on their own way. So, what sets apart I Am a Hero from those titles? What makes it more review-worthy? Well, we’ll see.
Now, before we discuss anything about the manga, let’s have a quick look, as to what the word ‘Hero’ means. According to Oxford, a hero is:
A person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.
Now, if we look up the definition, our protagonist here doesn’t actually qualify as a ‘Hero.’ He isn’t courageous, brilliant, or noble. So, why does he keep saying that to himself? Moreover, why should we believe it?
I believe we’ve already entered the discussion.
At first glance, ‘I Am a Hero’ is nothing you haven’t read before — or have you? Have you read about a mentally unhinged manga artist, having a measly job as another artist’s assistant, trying to fulfil his dream, i.e., to get his own series serialized, getting rejected, doing rinse-repeats — all the while trying to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend, despite clearly being in the shadow of her ex-boyfriend, a successful manga artist?
Our protagonist, Suzuki Hideo, is just that.
Great, let’s start with that.
Light spoilers follow, discontinue until the spoiler end blip.
The first volume of the manga is just that: showing an amusing life of a supporting character aka a total loser, the ones that tend to die first in case of a global disaster. That is nothing new for the author, as both of his previous works had protagonists with a similar lifestyle (with an astounding difference of ‘not’ having a girlfriend), which in turn is based on his own life. I have to admit that it is sometimes painfully slow, but once you reach the ending of the first volume, there’s no turning back.
I Am a Hero is about as realistic as you can get with a zombie apocalypse. At the beginning, there’s no frantic peoples, no burning buildings, no news reporter trying to be calm and notify how the world is ending. No one overreacts to the virus, as they believe it would eventually disappear. Some people even believe, that it is only a mere side effect of a disease that these infected people caught.
Only until the catastrophe deepens, does everyone begin to realize its maddening effects on those infected with the virus. The ‘zombies’ themselves don’t necessarily act like ordinary zombies. Once they become infected, they begin to reveal their deepest thoughts about the people they’ve been around with, but they also lose more and more of their humanity as well. In some ways, it’s like the virus from 28 Days Later, as the virus tends to change those infected into different people, not necessarily reanimating the dead.
When the zombie outbreak occurs (i.e., when the real panic starts), our protagonist Suzuki Hideo just happens to be on his way to a shooting range with his rifle — a gun which happens to be his key for becoming more than just a side-character.
One notable contrast between I Am a Hero and American zombie stories is how gun laws drastically affect the setting. Unlike in America, which has fairly lax gun laws, Japan is very strict and tight about its gun laws. Not every other person can have a gun, or use it as he or she pleases either.
So, whereas the characters of American zombie stories will be able to get their hands on guns quite easily, and get through hordes of zombies with guns blazing, Hideo is the only character in I Am a Hero who holds such a power.
Within the first few volumes of the series, he mostly just runs around aimlessly through the apocalypse, and only manages to get away from countless run-ins with the infected because of luck — not once shooting his rifle, in fear of breaking the law and killing someone. He would probably go on like that, but meeting Hiromi changed him suddenly, and drastically.
Hiromi could be called the heroine of the manga. In Japanese, ‘Hideo’ is written with the same kanji of ‘Hero;’ and the pun in ‘Hiromi’ is easily recognizable as well. But, she isn’t paired with the hero of this manga, like most of the cases.
She has a boyfriend, and the difference of age between them doesn’t help. But she gave Hideo what he needed then more than ever, after losing his loved one in a gruesome way; emotional support. Another thing, she is not actually normal, which we find out later; but my intention is keeping this article spoiler-free, so …
Now, once Hideo starts to meet other groups of survivors, he automatically changes the whole power dynamic of each group. It’s his ownership and knowledge of how to use a gun, which forces himself to rise above his previous tendencies to stay quiet and follow others, and instead become the leader himself.
A lot of the major characters in I Am a Hero were in similar situations as Hideo prior to the apocalypse, usually having it even worse as NEETs or ‘hikikomori’s. It leads me to the central theme of the manga: Taking advantage of the dismantling of society, to rise in social standing among the new society.
A lot of these loser characters are fairly untroubled by the apocalypse, and instead see it as an opportunity to gain power. At the end of the day though, most of them are still just ‘manchildren,’ with either little social skills or no empathy for others, and rising in power doesn’t really change that.
Hideo is in a fairly similar situation, of being a loser forced to rise in power and become a leader, but he still retains a moral code from the previous society, and actually uses his power to help others. Through the course of the series, he gains the courage necessary to protect others from hordes of zombies, rather than using his power to gloat about how much better he is now than the others.
Without delving further into the plot or characters, I can say that, from here on things only start to become more complex, more excruciating, as Hideo stumbles, from the tug of the chain of the dead society, tries to adapt to the rules of the new one, while trying to save people he got to know and love, and himself.
No, he doesn’t have any special qualities. He isn’t the ‘Hero’ who wouldn’t flinch in front of danger, or who’ll always get the girl. But he will fight, he will try to survive, with all his shortcomings, to help others, and he will try to be himself; because that’s what it actually means to be a ‘Hero.’
Any analysis of a manga without discussing its art is pointless. Kengo Hanazawa does wonders there as well. The art is incredibly detailed. Many of the panels have highly detailed backgrounds as well as character designs. It’s very easy to see how much effort the artist has put into the manga.
Some of the panels are filled with gruesomeness, so it’s definitely not for the weak-hearted. His previous work, Boys on the Run, had great art as well, but the author just takes that to the next level with this one.
Now, the manga hasn’t ended yet. As of the latest volume, a big, dark conspiracy is slowly trying to hatch. Just saying. Or am I?