[Major spoilers for HunterxHunter (2011), Naruto and Dragon Ball Z]
I really enjoy watching shōnen anime, like many it was my first introduction to anime with Dragon Ball and DBZ, and for me later on became my reintroduction into the medium through Naruto and Naruto:Shippudean. Shōnen is exciting and action packed and does everything you want from a show at that point. It has a wish fulfilment main character that you can see yourself as, great fight choreography and a great well-rounded out cast that everyone can find their favourite out of. Shonen has produced some of my most enjoyable moments watching anime: from watching Gohan turn Super Sayian 2 against Cell, to watching Naruto go 7 tails against Pain.
That being said shōnen does begin to have a lot of problems as it continues on. Shōnen is a recipe designed to stretch years or even decades and still be somewhat enjoyable. One Piece has been going on since 1999 and shows no signs of stopping, Naruto since 2002 and only recently ended it’s manga, and Bleach has just only now announced that it’s manga will finish soon after starting in 2001. For someone who doesn’t believe that shonen get worse as they go on just look at the original Naruto versus the current arc that it is on now in Shippudean for proof, or even the combat driven Dragon Ball all about learning martial arts and compare it to how the newest movie was the main character facing off against the God of War.
Now I’m not saying all shōnen get bad as they continue, I’m just saying the quality of storytelling gets progressively worse in most of them due to a couple of factors. The main one being: Power-Scaling, power-scaling is something that most shows run into after they go past 100 or so episodes. Power scaling is when the show builds up a really powerful villain that the mc takes down, and then needs to build up an even more powerful villain so that the mc has to struggle to beat them, and so on and so forth. This becomes a problem when later on in the show a villain becomes so powerful that it becomes to unbelievable that such a being can ever exist. For example the constant Super Sayian progression of the main characters needed after Freiza to up the ante for upcoming villains such as Cell or Buu. Or in Naruto: Shippudean, the main villains at the start of the series were the Akatsuki: a group of rogue ninjas all believed to be incredible powerful as most ranked S-class in the bingo book, and leader them all was Pain an individual with God’s Eyes known as the Rinnegan. Now this sound really entertaining and it really is, as the members of the Leaf Village take out or assist in defeating all the members of the group. But after Pain is defeated around episode 140 and a new villain needs to be established to progress the story, that is where the story starts running into problems.
When Obito is recognised as the new villain the story need to make him more powerful than Pain because of an escalating plot; so the show does this by not only giving him the rinnegan, but also the mangakyou sharingan (the second most powerful eyes) as well as eventually making him the Ten-Tails Jinchuuriki with the power to do almost anything. From this moment on the show establishes Obito as Pain’s superior and clearly outlines the huge difference in their power levels, Obito becomes almost to the level of a God in the series with the ability to defeat everyone without even trying. The show after Obito’s defeat runs into yet another problem of escalation with making Madara their villain and having him have the same powers of Obito just better at using them and more powerful overall, then after his defeat having Kaguya who is the first person to ever have chakra meaning she’s the strongest to ever live become the new antagonist.
This slowly becomes a problem as Kaguya and even Madara are completely ridiculous in terms of power level and unrealistic even by the shows own logic. Pain was believable within the shows own boundaries, and with Obito being a stretch in terms of his power level, it was still somewhat justifiable, but the latter 2 villain: Madara and Kaguya were completely unrealistic. Naruto started out about strategy in fighting, and how knowing your opponent and their weakness could help you win; the Chūnin Exams are a great representation of this. In the exams every character felt somewhat equal to each other, their were great specialists like Rock Lee and Neji, tacticians like Shikamaru, all rounders like Sasuke and even wild cards like Gaara. They all felt powerful in their own right, but all operating differently; and it was their differences that made them strong and entertaining to watch. Seeing how Lee would use his speed to try to counter Gaara’s sand wall, and how Neji was ruthless in his use of his Byakugan was amazing to watch. Compared to recently where Naruto spams the same 3 moves of: Shadow Clone Jutsu, Rasengan and Kyuubi Beast Bomb, just with slight variations of the three such as Sage Mode Rasengan or Kyuubi Mode Rasen-Shuriken. It is disappointing to watch, on how far this show has fallen, and lost the connection to its roots.
Power scaling is so key to this because most shōnen, start out as more of martial arts show using strategy, but they eventually end up as just who has the biggest power level or who can produce the biggest ball of energy to fling at their opponent. One shonen that doesn’t do this is despite it having +100 episodes is HunterxHunter (2011). HxH in my opinion is the best shonen ever created and that is partly because of how it handles power scaling throughout it’s narrative. HxH starts off as your average martial arts shonen, and it’s first arc the Hunter Exams which Masashi Kishimoto creator of Naruto took heavy inspiration from to create the Chūnin Exams. HxH manages that when its magic system “nen” is introduced in the Heaven’s Arena arc, it blends seamlessly into the narrative and manages to not focus on power levels like DBZ or the quantity of “magic” you possess like Naruto. But rather focuses on how you use the nen that you do have, by splitting it up into different categorize and having people fall into those categorize nen allows for diversity in its application.
Sure in HxH some categorise such as Enhancers are valued more and though of to be stronger, but ultimately it is about how you use your said abilities rather than what category you do have. For example someone like Kurapika managed to beat one of the strongest Enhancer Uvogin, by understand his abilities and sacrificing everything to improve himself. The leader of the Hunter’s Netero wasn’t even an Enhancer himself but was feared and respected by all for his combat abilities. Sure I am using extreme situations for my example, but I’m trying to show that the categorises that your nen is placed in does not ultimately determine your potential and eventual power level, but rather you yourself through how you train and use your nen decide how you will eventually turn out.
Different abilities cater to different situations, someone like Knov who focused his nen into creating pocket dimensions for teleportation and other useful things such as stealth missions or acting as a central base fear and during attacks. Whilst other such as Uvogin go for pure combat ability using their nen to enhance their bodies resistance. All of these different combinations end up avoiding escalation and power scaling, as new more powerful opponents can show up that are that powerful only because they used their nen differently to the last villains.
Take for example the inspiration behind the Akatsuki: The Phantom Troupe, a group a criminals that all specialise in different nen usage. One member uses sound as his weapon, whilst another using a vacuum whilst their leader can steal anyones ability as long as he meets certain requirements beforehand. The Phantom Troupe were the first major villains in HxH, the Phantom Troupe were largely created like the Akatsuki: a group of dangerous and powerful individuals that pose a serious threat to the main characters, what HxH did which Naruto failed to do was find a suitable way to move on from the group without sacrificing the effort they had left. Once the story progressed on from them and started Greed Island, the bomber from Greed Island wasn’t so much as stronger than the Phantom Troupe but rather a different type of nen user that presented a challenge to our heroes. And even building on from that the Royal Guards and The King were all nen users that had such refined nen and so capable of using it that it made them an extreme challenge.
Once finishing HxH, power scaling wasn’t an issue in retrospect, because The Phantom Troupe were still considered huge antagonists to Gon and his group even after they had faced opponents such as The Royal Guard and the King. This is because the Phantom Troupe aren’t better nen users but just different nen user to other opponents, and thus still pose a treat to the heroes. They didn’t seem weaker at the end of the series after other villains were introduced, or even after the main cast learned new moves and improved their skills; the Phantom Troupe are still seen as dangerous individuals and still pose the same threat that they did in their own dedicated arc. But the same can’t be said for other shōnen, after Naruto has learned how to control the Kuubi mode and has gained part of the Sage of Six Paths power, Pain can’t be seen as a threat anymore as Naruto would destroy him immediately. And similarly after Goku had gone Super Sayian God, the Frieza from Namek wouldn’t be able to even make a dent in him anymore.
It is just unfortunate that old villains can’t be seen as even being somewhat threatening as the story progresses in most shōnen because writers can’t write a good enough magic system that doesn’t rely on power levels. The problem is once you make a villain seem like the be all and end all of the series, and then have the mc defeat him, the new villain you try to establish must seem like a bigger threat than the previous. And if you magic system relies on power level you will run into problems as you repeat this cycle over and over, but if it rather focuses on individuality and how you apply you magic then your series has the potential to thrive and more and more villains can come up without making it seem like the previous ones are weaker because of this.
This is only one of many problems I face with most shōnen anime, I by no means am trying to bash shonen as I do really enjoy them. I just feel that they could achieve so much more if instead of them trying to produce content weekly to get into Shōnen Jump and try to retain their viewer’s attention weekly they could be better. HxH takes frequent hiatus’ manly due to the mangaka not feeling up to writing more, but I feel that this works in the series favour as every aspect of it can be thought out more clearly without the pressures of meeting weekly or monthly deadlines.
I only really talked about 3 different franchises in this discussion and I only kept it down to three because if I had to list every single one and how they either handle this aspect poorly or greatly this would be far longer that what it already is especially with one of the biggest offenders of this Bleach. And I know that “shōnen” isn’t a genre as so much of a demographic, but in this context shonen reference to what the most commonly thought of action-adventure shows targeted purely to young teen or preteens.