Ok, quick question. When you think of shonen battle clichés, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Are you thinking about one of your favorites arcs in one of your favorite shonen series? What about some special attack that you thought looked completely amazing? The dumb protagonist who isn’t good at anything besides battle techniques and strategy? Friendship? Do you know what the first thing that comes to my mind? Complete ass pulls that come out of nowhere to solve whatever problems our hero characters are currently suffering through. Inventing power ups and winning out of nowhere are things that just seem to happen. it’s frustrating every time I see it, because it breaks the bounds of all of reality the show is trying to convey to its audience. This also shows that there are no stakes in that anime at all. The ending result is that I don’t see any reason in watching that series anymore. I will say that there are examples and situations that make sense, but not many series can do it. Let’s just have some emphasis of stakes and limitations in our series, ok? I’m not too picky, I hope.
So how does having our main characters losing or have limitations positively affect a series, you may ask. The simple answer that I can give you is that limits ground a story in some sort of reality. I am not going to say that a story where characters can fly around and shoot laser beams or can punch people into the stratosphere are ever going to be realistic. Oh no, that’s far from the case. Shonen series can keep those fun things because those powers are what a battle shonen series are about. There is something to be said for barriers that our protagonists must go through to move forward that make a series far more interesting. Having our characters put into a position where they lose and have the strength of will to keep training and going or having them question whether they can still do what they set out to achieve in the first place shows us the strength of our characters. That is something that helps the audience root for them. A lot of shonen series understand this principle in the beginning of their stories, but often lose it for spectacle and writing themselves out of corners in their later portions. I mean, powers suddenly appearing out of nowhere shows that the writers don’t know how to solve problems other than just making the protagonist crew more powerful. To me, that is on my list of some of the worst kind of storytelling there is.
This post was influenced by my watch through of Chihayafuru. The fact that we see our characters train all the time, have some progress forward, but still lose a lot is amazing to me. Chihayafuru has just found the great sweet spot of having our Karuta team moving forward in skill level and placement in championships while also having them lose and re-evaluate their strengths to get stronger. Seeing them go through their own personal hells are why they are such great characters. There is a clear focus on Chihaya, because her name is the literal title of the series, but each character is given enough time to go through their thought processes and what they must improve on. All of this makes the stakes of the anime feel real, because there is a natural strength progression to each of their growth and I love all of it. There is also something to be said about how team battles are organized so we can have Chihaya lose, but the can still move forward. Just genius. I would like to thank this series for existing, because it’s beyond great.
When talking about shonen anime, there are a few series that take the cake for me. Especially some series that are airing right now. Though it’s not flawless, the currently airing My Hero Academia can join the ranks of shows like HunterxHunter and many of the Fullmetal Alchemist series in my favorites list. All of them have some incredible emotional weight that carry their pretty basic stories, but each of their anime’s powers are weighed down in some sort of reality. When Deku over strains his power, he messes up his arms. Yes, they only turn a different color on screen, but in the story right now, Deku, can only go beyond his capabilities a couple more times before breaking them permanently. That is a huge emotional weight that Deku needs to carry and he needs to figure out a different way to fight. Then there are HunterxHunter and Fullmetal Alchemist that a rules sort of system that their series put into place. Just like My Hero Academia, these allow us to know more about our characters by knowing how they think by how they use the rules of the powers they are given. So basically, good story telling.
Mixed Level Examples
As much as I love Togashi and Yu Yu Hakusho, I am not going to say it’s prefect. There are a lot of things the show does right, but it pulls a lot of ass pulls as well. Spoilers, but remember when Yusuke died the second time. He gets a massive power boost because our protagonist turned into a demon. Umm what, there were no hints of that beforehand. This is the part where my opinion of the show took a big hit. Even if Yu Yu Hakusho took some work in grounding Yusuke’s power with an arc after this incident happened, it still happened. It didn’t help that the demon world arc was the show’s weakest arc because of its half-baked nature, right? There are still some worse cases out there. I mean, Bleach has a protagonist who would be part golfer if that is what his opponent was. Maybe that was a cheap shot, but my point still stands.
Ok, you guys are going to be completely shocked by this, but Dragon Ball ahas a lot of good examples of being a grounded story. Even with Dragon Balls, the series had a lot of emotional weight to it. Let’s talk about build up to the Super Saiyan power. It was obvious going to happen with Goku, but the entire Namek arc was leading up to this event because of Vegeta. Z does the first of its dumps on Vegeta when he didn’t get it first, but you can’t deny that the dramatic build up was there. Especially since we didn’t know what kind of mindset was required or anyone to access this power. The moment where Goku transformed was powerful, because it felt earned. Maybe it was a little bit of an asspull, but you can’t say that it happened out of nowhere. The same could be said for Gohan turning super Saiyan 2. His hidden power was shown on many different occasions throughout Dragon Ball Z’s run. Remember Raditz? The viewer can’t say they were surprised when it was up to Gohan to save the world against Cell. After that though, yeah asspulls everywhere. That’s why the Buu saga was horrible. Also, Super digs into this with the Black Goku arc. It started out as a emotionally grounded story, but the color wheel of sudden power ups appeared out of nowhere and it’s just been frustrating. Until that point, I couldn’t say that asspull power ups happened out of nowhere, because everything was well established and stayed in the bounds of what Super established.
In the end here, what else can I say? I like seeing our protagonists have limits and barriers that they have to train to get through in order to get more powerful. Those are the things that help a shonen series become a shonen series. Training and consequences are what the genre is about. A series where a protagonist can power up to a level just beyond their antagonist to defeat them whenever they choose is frustrating because it shows how little thought a writer has put into their series. It doesn’t matter how cool a power up looks or how awesome they are if you can’t get a feel for who those characters are.