So to further my thoughts on what distinguishes good shonen and bad shonen anime.
The main thing I notice about shonen anime and manga is the power creep. For anyone who doesn’t know, power creep is how both the protagonists and antagonists become stronger over time. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s simply the nature of the beast. After all, if the bad guys were all the same threat level, it’d be hard to care about the second one after the heroes beat the first. And considering the main currency of a shonen story is actual combat, it would be hard to vary things with a whole story arc about a social conflict, where fists/guns/swords/psychic powers were actually forbidden as a path to victory. Especially since many shonen protagonists are defined by either a lack of awareness, or a lack of interest, in social conventions that would restrain their fighting.
Having said that, it’s a red flag when the power creep goes up by leaps and bounds in a short period. While it’s not the first shonen manga, Dragon Ball Z is in many ways the foundation for everything that’s come after, and it’s guilty as sin of this. Character power levels shoot up within the same story arc, sometimes within the same volume of said story arc, just to try and increase the tension. Whether or not you like that is up to personal preference, but to me it actually takes the tension away. If we never feel like there’s a genuine question in whether a given fight could be won or lost, then its nature as filler becomes too apparent, and I lose interest in anything but the nature of the outcome. Did the loser die? Is he alive but permanently maimed? Or just beaten, and will probably recover? Give me the short hand so we can move on to something more interesting.
I’ll note that when I was younger, I ate this up, so this is definitely a question of who the target audience is. Most kids are going to enjoy the fact that the hero is beating up the villain, period. So that makes the separation between a good and a bad shonen story much murkier at that age.
So if that’s bad use of power creep, what is a good use? Partly it’s about limiting how fast the protagonists and their counterparts go up in power, but it’s also about varying the nature of the challenge. If every fight is just “who punches harder and/or faster,” then we’re back to leaping power creep. If, however, the villains use more varied techniques, or tools unavailable to or disdained by the heroes, then the challenge shifts for the length of that story…and that additional spacing between new forms/techniques/training exercises will make them seem more like genuine events. It will also have the side benefit of making the antagonists (if they’re working together in an organization) seem smarter, since they will notice that always trying to punch the person whose main skill is punching first is a losing game. I’ll note that this is a delicate balance when it comes to the target audience; you can’t keep the hero from punching for too long, or else those kids will move on. But most of them are fine with a little variety, because even an 8 year old boy will get bored with punching if that’s all anyone ever does.
The second part of the question was if there are bad things even good shonen anime do, and vice versa. For bad things even good shonen anime do, I’d pick out something almost all shonen anime do: make no basis for their wider world of antagonists and protagonists. All of them will set up the basic premise, of course:
- There’s an alien who was supposed to destroy the world, but protects it instead.
- Heaven has agents who fight against evil spirits on our behalf.
- There is a secret tournament whose prize is incredible power.
But this isn’t the same as making a wider world. Without some discussion of why there are so many temples with martial artists, at some point there are too many “secret” martial art styles for any of them to really be secret anymore. For another issue that causes, and to use Dragon Ball Z again, there is never a good explanation for the fact that one bad guy, Frieza, heads up an organization that goes around blowing up whole planets. Why do they do it? Because they’re evil, of course. We’re not just talking about the motivation not making sense, the actual action is nonsensical as well. It doesn’t give them any advantage, and they don’t talk about using the fragments for resources. They just do it. Asking for a deep character motivation for every enemy is probably asking too much, and at least for some it’s not appropriate. But if there’s no world giving a context for someone’s actions, it gets much harder to ignore when a character’s actions don’t make sense.
So what is a good thing even bad shonen stories can do? That’s simple: build a group we can root for. I’m hard pressed to think of any shonen story where the protagonist remains alone for a significant length of time, let alone the entire story. Even when they are a lonely bastard who wants nothing to do with the world, they’ll start to gather companions, because otherwise they’ll either be talking to themselves for terrible exposition, or there will be no dialogue until they meet the next bad guy. Whether you like those companions is a personal preference, but I think it’s still better to have characters who can talk with each other than to stick with one person the entire time. And sometimes they can draw out admirable qualities from the protagonist by their presence, whether that’s inspiring better action through their own positive example, or just making them look better through a negative one.
The final point was the question of whether shonen stories ever improve past their second big arc. I agree that they don’t, but I’ll pick out an example of a story where it almost broke that rule: Naruto.
Now, when it first started, Naruto was a series that I thought did a lot of things right:
- It had a protagonist who was immensely powerful, but could not yet control that power, and with a reason that would defy easy outcomes.
- It had a world that not only explained why there were so many ninjas, but set up possible political maneuverings for both the ninja villages and the outlying nations.
- It created a power system with actual branching paths and a solid foundation that would allow for great complexity, but was simple enough in theory for anyone to grasp.
- The “tough love” from the mentor figures actually had the “love” part, rather than people just yelling until the main characters somehow absorbed the lesson through volume.
And the first big story arc is pretty much a masterpiece of shonen style story telling to me. You get to see the ninjas performing their function but getting in for more than they bargained for due to non-malicious deceit, facing an enemy above their skill level and having to beat him through intelligent application of their skills, and training to face him again; it even sums up with the group questioning one of their core tenets as ninjas, even if they never go very deep in the questioning.
The second is…well, less masterful, because it starts off weird and takes a looong time to reach the end. But it’s still good, and it certainly goes bigger than anything before it. Their leader dies! Naruto has to fight a battle far from the front, unable to intervene! A new enemy not only is revealed, but takes the field himself rather than sending out a bunch of underlings and never doing anything himself! If nothing else, it shook things up in a way the first arc couldn’t, and removed the idea of the village being a safe space.
The third arc was shaping up to be just as memorable, and maybe even better than the second. (Note: I don’t count the search for Tsunade to replace their leader as a big story arc; it felt more like housekeeping to clean up after the second arc.) It paired Naruto up with people outside of his regular team members, many of whom hadn’t gotten much time to define themselves…and one of whom had, but who had become a much more interesting character thanks to that, and thus made an interesting addition to the team. And with a clearly defined objective with a time limit, it made splitting up the team to meet each threat into an actual strategy they had to follow, rather than an inexplicable following of genre cliches.
And then it not only failed to stick the landing, but broke its neck in the attempt.
After working hard to avoid the worst abuses of the power creep, the series dove directly into the pit, as Naruto and Sasuke not only revealed “new forms” to fight each other, but did it multiple times in the same fight. What had promised to be a great fight between two former comrades, who now hated each other for different reasons, ended with both of them just trying to punch each other really hard and fast. I hated it then, and I hate it still. I tried to continue with the series after that, but it just wasn’t the same. Looking back, it’s impossible not to pick up on the feeling of desperation on the creator’s part, and I think that’s the reason why almost no shonen series can top their second story arc, because now they’re up against the wall.
They get the first big story arc to take off the training wheels and show what their characters can do. They get the second to go bigger, bolder, and really shake things up. And with the third…well, either they’re trapped because they don’t have enough fans to make sure they continue as a series, or they’re successful enough that they don’t want to risk losing the fans they have and slipping back into cancellable territory. Manga fans may talk about how their stories have a beginning, middle and end compared to American super hero comics, but those creators have an incentive to make that middle as loooong as possible. Even if each arc is building up to an ending, none of those endings are definite until the series itself ends. And the third arc is usually where that cycle kicks in HARD. Now they’re building a miniature manga merchandising empire, there’s an anime series coming out, and they are the central point that keeps the money train rolling. In some ways, it’s surprising that a shonen series can even manage to improve on its first big story arc.
This went longer than I intended it to, but hopefully that makes some sense.