Written by: Esosa Osamwonyi
Jump for Shounen! – comparing the past and present of the genre
by Esosa Osamwonyi on December 07, 2010
One can’t deny that the medium of Japanese animation consists of a variety of genres, but perhaps the most popular titles today derives from the shounen genre. A kanji word generally referring to a young male between elementary and high school age, shounen titles have had significant success throughout the years, both domestically in Japan and worldwide. Shounen manga/anime generally revolve around action and fighting, but often contains a sense of humor and strong development of bonds between characters. Many of the more popular titles such as Saint Seiya, Dragon Ball, Hokuto no Ken and many other stem from the shounen genre. Perhaps the most famous of them all is Dragon Ball, which is known for shaping the foundation of the shounen genre and establishing the basis for all other shounen to follow.
Now we are nearing the end of year 2010. Shounen is bigger than ever. The most popular anime/manga are usually of the shounen brand. However there is one problem—many of the shounen titles that were released around 10-15 years ago are still been talked about today. Not because people like to reminisce about these older titles—it’s simply because they still persist to this day. Granted, one can say that shounen titles have a reputation for being considerably longer than most other titles, but I don’t remember older titles such as Yu Yu Hakusho, Dragon Ball Z, and even Inuyasha being this long. This is a new kind of length that as a fan of the genre I have never seen the likes of. Some of the shounen anime and manga are beginning to rival those of a live-action American soap opera, and you know how long those are—I’ve never seen one end!
For this article, I want to explore four of the most well known shounen titles and talk about their incredible lengths. The anime/manga titles that I will be discussing are Naruto, Bleach, Detective Conan, and One Piece.
Created by: Masashi Kishimoto
Manga: 1999 – Present
Anime: 2002-2007 (Original series) 2007-ongoing (Shippuden series)
Naruto is an ongoing manga/anime series created by Masashi Kishomoto. It is featured weekly on Shounen Jump and airs weekly on television. Not only is it very popular in Japan but is also one the most popular titles throughout the world. Naruto tells the story of a young ninja in training named Naruto Uzimaki. Naruto has no friends and is not really accepted by anyone. Over time Naruto joins a new team with two fellow students Sasuke Uchida and Sakura Haruno. When this first came out, I felt Naruto was a fresh and very interesting anime. It was really character oriented, and dealt with issues of friendship and the bonds that form between people. As you read/watched more, you began to understand the characters in the established universe they resided in. The show had an abundance of action that was fantastic, but to me, the show was really about its characters. Now that all began to change right after the end of part one of the manga series, which ended in a huge confrontation between Naruto and Sasuke and each going their separate ways.
Now part two of the manga series takes place 2 ½ years after the first part in which we see a slightly older Naruto returning back to the village. In the anime form, part two is what is known as Naruto Shippuden. This part of Naruto is supposed to be more gritty, violent and dramatic. This isn’t the case for the most part, and we begin to problems with the series. While the original Naruto was about character development and friendship, all that is apparently thrown out the window. The only characters that really get development are the three main heroes (Sakura, Naruto, Sasuke) and more specifically, just Naruto. Many of the other characters take a back seat here, which showcases the imbalance in characters. To make matters worse, creator Kishimoto keeps introducing new characters, but the spotlight still remains on Naruto. Even important events involving other characters are not addressed as highly due to the spotlight being on Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke. So what exactly does Naruto Shippuden really focus on then? It focuses on action, pain, betrayal, changes, and acceptance. In these sounds great on paper, but once one sees it in action, it’s better to put it like this—we can see the “the vivid picture”. Naruto seems to follow a very interesting pattern. It took me awhile to conclude this, but here is the layout of the series.
Event –> fighting –> event –> training –> something happens with Sasuke –> training –> event –> training –> action and so forth.
Lately there has been a lot of training in Naruto. An important event will occur, perhaps little fight for example and then for some reason, Naruto has to go train yet again. Its feels like the author is stalling. Granted he can do because the universe of Naruto is so huge. Merchandise like action figures, video games and music are sold and they sell very well. And these things sell simply because they have “Naruto” written on it. I really feel that the current point within the series could’ve been reached a long time ago. Training is certainly amusing and all, but I like to feel the plot is actually going somewhere—with Naruto’s plot feeling quite disjointed. However, when Naruto gets going it can be quite interesting to watch. Granted people will say the manga is better than the anime, but this the case for most manga-series adaptations. The real difference here is the filler within the series. When the original Naruto ended manga-wise, the anime decided to continue it with filler upon filler up until the arrival of Shippuden. These fillers went as long as two years, which is around the time Naruto began to lose me. But you may be saying to yourself “surely Shippudden is not like that?” And I would say you’re right. Unlike before where you could actually skip the fillers in the original show (where they already showed the important parts), it’s not that simple for Shippuden. Sure, they have filler arcs but they are incorporating them into the canon episodes. Sometimes the fights are unusually longer than usual and sometimes the episode is half filler and half canon. To really confuse you, they can change up plot points to try and match up with the fillers they made.
In summarizing, the plot is moving slowly, things feel stalled, and fillers are everywhere. Kishimoto has said he plans for Naruto to be in three parts, and they’re currently going through part two. With the way things are progressing, Naruto is not going anywhere anytime soon. Who knows how many years it will take to reach part 3 and to finish the entire series. It’s something I really don’t want to think about.
Created By: Gosho Aoyama
Manga: 1994 – Present
Anime: 1996 – Present
Detective Conan (or Case Closed as it is know in various countries) is a detective series written by Gosho Aoyama. It tells the story of high school student Jimmy Kudo. Jimmy is an ace detective of sorts who helps the police from time to time solve difficult cases. One day while investigating a case, two members from an organization called “The Black Organization” attack him. He is forced fed a pill that is supposed to kill him but ends up reverting his body to that of a small child. Now under the pretense of “Conan Edogawa”, Jimmy still investigates cases and at the same time looks for clues on the Black Organization.
Now I remember when I first saw Detective Conan about 5-6 years ago. To me it was a really engaging show and something that could keep someone interested. Now I watched about 50 episodes of the series and thought it would end around 100 or 200 episode—oh how wrong I was. The truth is that Detective Conan is one of the longest shonen series still running today. Lets forward to the present time. Finally remembering about Mr. Conan Edogawa, I decided to continue from where I had left off, but imagine my surprise when I found out the series has almost 600 episodes now! So being the curious guy I am, I decided to skim through some of the latest episodes. It’s basically Conan and the FBI finally going after the Black Organization.
Personally, this doesn’t make sense to me as the Black Organization was introduced fairly early on in the series (the first few episodes in fact). I would have thought that ace detective Jimmy would have caught these villains by now, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. It also got me curious as to what happened between the episode where I left off up to the present. I skimmed through a few more episodes and basically what is was for the most part was a different case in which Conan/Jimmy solves a mystery unrelated to the Black Organization. Some mysteries had their own self-contained arcs and they’re usually resolved in a couple of episodes. I was surprised that they were finally paying attention to what were technically the first established villains in the show. That is quite a long time to wait.
Let me go a little further. Look the manga, which started in 1994, and the anime series, which started only two years later. In 1996, I was a mere 10-years-old. As of 2010 the show has been going on for roughly 14 years. Now its pretty much a safe bet I would have difficulty watching the show still. This is certainly enough time for them to discover the mystery behind the Black Organization—over a decade is certainly stretching it. I mean granted, I understand the show is still running cause it is very popular in Japan but that is not the core of the problem. The problem is that 500+ episodes in and to finally go after the guys who were established as the main villains is extremely ridiculous. I mean, catching this guys earlier in the series lifespan and perhaps establishing a new set of villains would be more logical. Not the other way around in which you establish new villains while neglecting the main ones until now. Granted the fans of Detective Conan today are not the fans of yesterday (for the most part anyway, as I’m there are some dedicated ones still watching) as they probably got tired of waiting. Who knows when such a series like this will end?
Created by: Tite Kubo
Manga: 2001 – Present
Anime: 2004 – Present
Bleach is a supernatural like shounen series written by Tite Kubo. The series tells the story of Ichigo Kurosaki who has the abilty to see ghosts. One day he gets super powers from fellow shinigami Rukia. He uses these new powers to find spiritual beings known as Hollows, which is basically the series in a nutshell. Now to me, Bleach had one of the more interesting and quite frankly underused anime elements: the spiritual and super natural. It felt like a Yu Yu Hakusho with a semi-modern twist to it and practically everyone fought with swords. What could possibly go wrong?
Unfortunately, that is not the case here and Bleach ends up being mediocre/average at its best. The concept is there but the execution is lacking. Concerning many of the characters and settings, I don’t feel Kubo put enough in his story to utilize them to the fullest. As the story goes on and on, it gets more and more ridiculous. For example, without spoiling anything, one of Ichigo’s close friends gets kidnapped and has to go rescue the person. The problem I have with this is that within the very next main arc, another one of his friends gets kidnapped and he has to go in and rescue that person as well! It is a real shame as Bleach has quite a dynamic bunch of characters. The one thing that probably redeems Bleach in a sense is the fighting. See, it’s like Kubo knew the story was underdeveloped and wanted to distract you with all the fighting. That’s cool and all but to me it feels like a poor man’s Dragon Ball Z (or Yu Yu Hakusho if one were to go that route).
In each arc there is some type of main conflict that appears in the show. Here’s the basic outline: the heroes fight weaker enemies, defeat them, then eventually a bigger strong enemy comes and usually beats up Ichigo and the main character. Now after that getting beat, Ichigo and the other go and train. Then they go after the really strong enemy. Sounds familiar? Well it should but let me continue on. Anyway, Ichigo and his allies reach the enemy’s base and usually they have to fight other enemies that are strong but not as strong as the main enemies. Sometimes there might be continued training for Ichigo or he just keeps getting stronger from his constant battles with the henchmen. Eventually the arc concludes with a big showdown with the big strong enemy from the start of the arc versus one of the main characters, which is 99.9% of the time going to be Ichigo. Ichigo defeats him and the world is saved. Rinse, repeat, and recycle and that is basically what Bleach is.
Now while Dragon Ball Z and Yu Yu Hakusho had elements similar to this, at least they had good characterizations. In those series, before the fight you understood what each person was fighting for. In Bleach, they seemingly fight just to fight. Sometimes you will see characters they showed for 5-10 episodes come back and start fighting with main villain. Needless to say the attachment for the characters are simply not there. And just as in Naruto, as the show goes on it really begins to focus solely on Ichigo and his development. There are four main characters each with unique powers and stories in Bleach. To give Ichigo the spotlight alone and not balance it between the four is probably not the best thing to do—but it unfortunately happens. The other three characters just sit on the bench waiting for Ichigo’s next big move.
Even with all this said, I still think Bleach is slightly better than Naruto. The story is somewhat consistent and it seems Kubo is attempting to go somewhere with it. There is an established set of characters and new characters are introduced far and between. This is an advantage in that there are not as many continuity erros as you would find in the likes of Naruto. However, just because I said it’s better doesn’t mean they are both free from being tedious and at times boring cause quite frankly, they simply are.
Created by: Eiichiro Oda
Manga: 1997 – Present
Anime: 1999 – Present
Finally, last on my list of things I want to discuss is One Piece. One Piece is a very popular anime franchise, so if you’re into anime in any capacity, chances are you’ve heard of it. Created by Eiichiro Oda, One Piece tells the strong of Monkey D. Luffy, a 17-year-old who ate from the legendary Gum Gum Fruit, which made his body elastic like rubber. Luffy is a pirate who‘s in search of one piece—a massive amount of treasure left behind by legendary pirate Gol Rogers. As the story goes on, Luffy amasses a pirate crew of his own and they go on all sorts of adventures on their quest to find one piece. Now, One Piece is a massive and very ambitious series. With over 60 volumes and close to 500 anime episodes, One Piece is one of the biggest franchises in the shounen genre. And it shows no sign of stopping as Oda recently indicated in an interview that he has reached the half waypoint for the story of One Piece.
Now I have criticized the other three shounen series on this list but in my opinion One Piece is probably the most balanced. There are not as many problems with series when it comes to character and story. The world and setting of One Piece is humungous and can be overwhelming. What Oda does here is introduce everything ever so slowly. This way the viewer/reader is able to absorb more information before moving one to the next arc, in which Oda makes sure that the characters and environments introduced to the viewer are very familiar to them. As I said before, the environments are huge and majestic, and the characters are just as eccentric. From the childish captain Luffy, to the green haired swordsman Zoro, you will find the characters in Oda’s tale bursting with uniqueness and personality.
So are there no problems with One Piece? Well, not quite. My real problem with One Piece is that it’s perhaps a bit too long. I remember reading many years ago an interview with Mr. Oda, in which he said that One Piece was supposed to run for 5 years and then he would end it. While One Piece didn’t end in its planned 5-year run, what struck me as interesting was what Oda said—that the original ending he had planned then is still the one he intends to use. I’ve seen about 200+ episodes and even more volumes of One Piece, so at this point I believe I can amass a pattern for the show. The pattern goes like this:
Luffy’s pirate crew sails around –> they reach an island –> usually this island has some type of conflict –> Luffy and his pirates somehow get involved –> a series of epic fights and revelations occur –> conflict is usually resolved with a fight between Luffy and the big bad boss –> Luffy and friends leave the island and move on to their next adventure.
Now it’s not as bad as it seems, as the show can be pretty engaging. Oda recently said that the show is at its halfway point, but keep in mind the manga has been running for 13 years and the anime for almost 12. Basically, another decade and a half before the show ends. That is a bit ridiculous considering that there have been instances in the series where I felt it could have drawn closer to a conclusion with specific arcs, but I still give Oda credit—the man knows how to keep people interested. I haven’t really been keeping up with One Piece (its probably for the best) but as all popular things, a sense of that popularity has to be maintained for it to continue. If Oda can keep One Piece relevant for that long, One Piece has a chance at being the longest shounen series ever made. By that logic, we should mark our calendars for around the year 2023–which should be the end of series.
Now it appears that the shounen genre of yesteryear is quite different from that of the present. They are considerably longer, they tell more interwoven stories, and have quite a few fillers (okay, they have a lot). Sometimes I feel that because these shows are popular the author has to find ways to prolong it as if he/she ends it early the company will not earn as much money. What happened to the days when stories were just stories? The shounen series of today have reached epic proportions length-wise—sometimes this is a good decision, but for the most part, it’s an awful one. Sure the likes of Dragonball and Dragonball Z were long shows but it’s nothing compared to the length of some of these newer series. As many of this series continue, they become more and more flawed within their story structure. In a sense, they have overstayed their run. Or maybe it’s just me? Let me know what you think.