How to do Shounen Right (and Wrong)

Warning: This editorial contains minor spoilers for Naruto and One Piece.

Out of the many genres in anime, there’s one that’s undoubtedly the most popular: shounen. The term shounen means something like “young boy” and is used to refer to anime and manga directed at adolescent and teenage boys. Shounen series are primarily action based and outdo nearly everything else in anime and manga in terms of popularity. Some of the biggest hits in anime history have been shounen; Naruto, One Piece, Dragonball, Fullmetal Alchemist and Fist of the North Star were all shounen. In this piece, I’ll be looking at some things shounen should do or avoid doing to be good. None of these points are absolute and most apply to storytelling in general, but they’re all strengths and weaknesses common in shounen.

A common issue in shounen is how the humor is integrated. It’s generally a given that shounen will have at least some comedy mixed with the action, but the two don’t always mix well. For example, Naruto and Bleach are both primarily action based, and the humor often feels more like it’s there because it’s supposed to be that way rather than because the scene warranted it. This can distract from the more serious content and become more annoying than funny. Similarly, Akame ga Kill and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood both have a tendency to switch from serious to funny a little too abruptly to work well. Regardless of how good the humor itself is, placing it in the middle of or right after more dramatic content risks weakening both. Killing the mood is a workable method of comedy, but it needs careful execution so it doesn’t distract from the drama. Part of the reason this happens is because shounen anime is frequently adapted from manga, which is a very different medium from anime. Manga allows for humorous asides since the comedy can just be one or two panels out of a scene or in the background of a more serious panel, something anime can’t do. It’s not that one medium is inherently superior, the two just work differently. Not all shounen action handles comedy poorly, however. One Piece is frequently hilarious because it knows how to integrate the comedy. Shows like Naruto, Bleach and Akame ga Kill are distinctly action shows, and generally don’t need much comedy, whereas One Piece is a mix of action and comedy. The world of One Piece is pretty goofy and it’s full of goofy characters, so goofy comedy fits well without feeling forced or getting in the way of the action.

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One of the biggest problems I’ve seen shounen (especially long running shounen) run into is getting too big to handle. What I mean is that they’ll get so many characters and so much plot that the story can’t support it. Many of the later arcs in Naruto and Bleach ran into this problem by introducing too many characters and losing the point. Both would have large chunks where secondary characters battled secondary villains without the main characters even showing up. That’s fine in the short term, but gets tedious after a while. It’s okay to not focus on the main character every episode, but you have a problem when secondary characters get so much focus that the main plot stops moving. I’m not saying that shows should ignore secondary characters and subplots, just that they shouldn’t waste time. A similar issue is when stories bring in a bunch of secondary characters at the end but doesn’t do anything with them. Naruto also did this for it’s final battle(s). The climax of the manga brought in nearly every named character who was still alive (and some who had died) but most of them didn’t do much aside from take up screentime for a little while. My rule of thumb for this sort of thing is that if you’re going to take up a large amount of the audience’s time, have a point. The only shounen I’ve seen with such a large recurring cast that’s avoided this problem is Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. FMAB had a massive cast involved in the climax, but was able to manage it by giving every character something important to do. Even minor characters had a significant role that affected the overall plot. The key is that nothing felt pointless.

Another common criticism of shounen is that it relies too much on tropes and clichés, which is at least partially true. Shounen, especially shounen based on manga published in Weekly Shounen Jump, often has a theme of friendship. This can feel like a tired cliché after a while since it’s been done for years and frequently comes off as repetitive or preachy. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. The problem isn’t so much in the theme itself as in how it’s executed. Repeating a theme over and over like some shows do doesn’t make it stronger, it makes it weaker. Some of the best shounen I’ve seen has had a theme of friendship, but hasn’t hammered it in constantly. One Piece places a clear emphasis on friendship, but sells it through actions rather than long speeches. Luffy instantly agreeing to help Nami save her village without second thought is a lot more powerful than Ichigo shouting that he’ll save his friends. It all comes down to execution.

I’ve mostly been focusing on things that shounen should avoid doing, but there’s one thing that it needs to do to be good: be a good story. I realize that’s unhelpfully vague, but that’s because there’s no one thing that makes a story good. Steins;Gate and Gurren Lagann are both great shows but have virtually nothing in common beyond vague points like “compelling story” and “good characters.” The key to being a good shounen is simply to be a good story first. All of the points I raised would be problems for any kind of story, they’re just more common in shounen. Ultimately, good is good regardless of genre.

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