Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The (Endless) Circle of Shounen

The long-running anime Bleach recently ended, after 366 episodes. The long-running manga Naruto is rumored to be ending soon, and the anime should follow after it exhausts the source material. Among the numerous fans of these series, there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. But in my neck of the woods… there is much rejoicing. I have only one question about the demise of these shows: what took you so long? And when will One Piece, Sket Dance, Toriko, Fairy Tail, and the rest exit stage right as well?

Of all the tropes in anime, I detest the endless shounen shows the most. They are, simply put, repetitious and boring, because they all follow the same basic pattern, which I call the (Endless) Circle of Shounen:

  1. Plucky youth discovers he has some special ability.
  2. Plucky youth meets some supporting characters.
  3. Plucky youth goes out to battle and defeat the Bad Guy.
  4. Plucky youth strengthens his power(s).
  5. Plucky youth discovers there’s Another Bad Guy (the Next Boss) above the last one.
Repeat steps 2-5 until nausea sets in.

This cycle is nothing new. In fact, I encountered it back in the Dark Ages when I first read EE “Doc” Smith’s legendary (as in legendarily bad) science-fiction series Lensman, which dates from the sci-fi pulp magazines of the 1930’s. In each volume of Lensman, our noble hero encounters and defeats dastardly villains from outer space in the name of Truth, Justice, and… oops, wrong series… in the name of interplanetary harmony. But at the start of the next volume, more powerful and dastardly villains appear to upset the apple cart, and the plot starts all over again. “Meet the new boss… same as the old boss.”

More recently, I saw this in the manga of Kekkaishi. I have a soft spot for the anime series, because it was one of the first long shows I edited from start to finish. However, as I’ve continued reading the manga (the anime ends at volume 13 of 37), the repetitive, cyclical structure has become very apparent and extremely dull.  Our teenage hero defeats a villain, powers up, and promptly runs into the villain behind the previous villain. All of the original charm of the series – the comedy, the quirky character traits, the fledgling romance – is lost in the endless action of the endless Circle of Shounen.

Now, I understand why shounen manga authors repeat the same basic plot. It’s very difficult to create a linear narrative extending over dozens or hundreds of episodes. The great geniuses of 19th century literature, like Dickens, Tolstoy, and Hugo, could extend a plot over hundreds or even a thousand pages, but that would only fill fifty or sixty episodes. The mangaka or screenwriter has to fill in a far longer canvas with some degree of continuity. In that context, step and repeat makes a lot of sense.

Further, long-running shounen series, in both manga and anime form, convey great economic benefits on the creators – not just guaranteed income, but tie-ins from merchandise, movies, DVD and BluRay releases, foreign licensing, etc – not to mention doujinshi. In industries fraught with uncertainty and badly impacted by the recession and digital media, long-running shounen series provide an annuity income stream and some precious security. It’s only human to pursue these goals.

Nonetheless, these shows are a blight on the anime scene, sucking up dollars and creative oxygen that might go into more imaginative shows, and contributing to the descent of anime into repetitive trash. I treasure the one season of Usagi Drop or UN-GO or Tsuritama, or the intermittent seasons of Natsume Yuujinchou, more than the whole corpus of Naruto and Shippuuden.  There’s more wit in the thirteen episodes of Fireball or Fireball Charming or Yondemasu Azazel-san than the six hundred plus episodes of One Piece.

So, otaku of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your mental chains. Support term limits for manga and anime series. Dump those shounen shows, and the moe-blob shows, and the rest of the repetitive dreck you’ve been watching, and demand something better, something creative, something original. Your mind will thank you, at least eventually.


  1. Roflmao. Okay give DAA DAA DAA a try. Oh wait frostii hasn't finished it nor do they appear to want to. Oh well at least it isn't shounen.

  2. I agree with everything you said :D

  3. I think this is the whole literary/genre thing again, only in anime. Shounen does well because the cycle provides what readers want. If it didn't, they wouldn't keep coming back and the cycle just would /work/. People don't buy or follow what they don't want to see -- at least, not for long. I personally like the cycle because it gives me what I want, and I like to see the main character growing and encountering stronger villains as the story progresses. It gives me the feeling that they're getting closer to achieving greatness. Better battles, more fame, more characters... it gives me more gratification as a reader.

    I can understand what you're saying from an intellectual standpoint but on a base level these mangas give me exactly what I want... and my base feelings generally win out over intellectual pleasures. A very nicely worded post though, and good luck with your otaku crusade ;P