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I, like many other guys in the realm of anime fandom, have a lot of history watching shounen series. After all, Dragon Ball Z, while not the first series I watched, WAS one of the series that pulled me into the medium (in my post-Robotech, pre-Slayers days, that is.) And Rurouni Kenshin was one of the first series that completely amazed me. Naruto and One Piece were crucial in getting me into reading manga. For the past four years, my anime diet was a little unbalanced towards these meaty series.

Maybe it’s because of that unbalanced diet that I find myself weary of Shounen these days. It’s a genre laden with clichés and simplistic storytelling, with only a few gems shining out. There was a time when I would on a weekly basis look forward to four Shounen manga. Of those, Hunter X Hunter fell into a crappy endless arc and vanished when Yoshihiro Togashi vanished, Bleach is falling into a similar endless arc, One Piece has wandered off onto a stupid-sounding tangential arc after coming out of a botched huge arc, and Naruto is trying its hardest to keep up the energy and fun it had in the last arc, but if it doesn’t shape up and actually try to do more than show us a bunch of random fighting in the current arc, it will likely never be able to regain my favor.

In short, I’ve given up on three series and the fourth is on a short leash.

In tracing my sudden disinterest in “hunters,” “shinigami,” “pirates” and “ninjas” (which are in actuality secret society martial artists, magical samurai, superheroes that can’t swim and ostentatious martial artists, respectively) I came upon three potential sources for this weariness.

Those are Death Note, Busou Renkin, and most of all Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series.

What follows is an essay on the shounen genre, and what these series have that other Shounen doesn’t. Warning, this is reading intensive and contains no pictures because I’m too lazy to find some.

SPOILER WARNING, in the event you have never seen one or more of the series in question.

A Brief Look at the Shounen Genre

First, a disclaimer. I don’t read sports shounen, mostly because I’m not a sports kind of guy, so I don’t know that much about that sub-genre.

However, for the most part, Shounen is a genre about action. It’s about guys and sometimes girls fighting other guys and sometimes girls. The genre of action shounen was pioneered primarily by Tetsuo Hara’s Fist of the North Star and popularized by Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball and Hirohiko Araki’s Jojo’s Bizzare Adventure, and since then, almost every shounen series has pulled inspiration from the latter two. Roots of Dragon Ball can be clearly seen in series like Yu Yu Hakusho, Naruto, and One Piece, while roots of Jojo can be found in Shaman King, Yu-Gi-Oh! and their ilk. These series in turn have inspired their own series (Yu Yu can be traced to Bleach, One Piece to the recent comic Fairy Tale, etc.)

There are, of course, some Shounen where the sources aren’t as clear. For example, Nobuhiro Watsuki’s Rurouni Kenshin doesn’t have any clear single originating source, instead pulling from the whole range of Watsuki’s interests, from American comic books to random video games. Its biggest source, however, is not previous works of manga, but rather actual historical context. Kenshin is a unique series among the stack of other shounen from its time, and because the story it tells is so well told, I still call it my favorite manga. That, however, is an essay for another time.

So, for the most part, when you look at a shounen series, chances are you’ll see something you may have seen before, only drawn a little differently and with different characters. For some, this may get tiring, but I don’t mind. In a way, the Shounen genre story conventions tend to parallel (but not intersect) the hypothetical Hero’s Journey plot conventions. I still do enjoy the idea of studying Shounen much like Joseph Campbell studied his Hero’s Journey. That is also an essay for another time.

This essay is instead on how the typical mainstream shounen no longer impresses me, not due to conventions, but instead due to the flaws, both of running too long and of being so deeply seated in their roots.

The Pitfalls of Shounen

The strongest pitfall of all shounen can be traced, sadly, to one common root: the deep-seated desire to be the next Dragon Ball.

Dragon Ball is a pretty good series, at least for a while. The first story arcs, which shift between silliness and seriousness with a stronger lean towards silliness, are wonderfully fun adventures with a great cast of characters, both hero and villain. The personalities are widespread, and up through the end of the Red Ribbon arc, it actually showcases Akira Toriyama’s creativity quite well. Into the second tournament it starts to get a little more over-the-top and redundant, but until the end of Gokou’s story and the beginning of Gohan’s, it remains a fun series, just with less humor and more giant laser blasts.

The faults of Dragon Ball that emerge in what the anime studios called Dragon Ball Z to reinvigorate the series at a time jump after a bunch of filler are not really Toriyama’s fault. Although I’ve not read the manga past the end of the DB/DBZ cutoff, I hear that the manga is much better paced than the anime, complete with fewer weeks of powering up and grunting.

However, there are still faults in the manga, and the blame is still not completely on Toriyama. The two sources of blame are his editors and his fanbase. His fanbase kept demanding more (and mostly, demanding more Gokou) when Toriyama wanted to finish out the series with the Freiza arc and focus on Gohan. The Android Arc was rewritten several times at behest of Toriyama’s editors, and the Buu arc started as an attempt to return the series to its more comedic roots and put the reins back in the hands of Gohan, like Toriyama intended, but both were shot down because of fan complaints.

How does this connect to the pitfalls of other shounen, you may ask?

Dragon Ball is both one of the most influential series in all shounen manga, and easily still one of the most popular in Japan. It’s a series that inspired a generation of Mangaka, and through it many have decided that they need to be the next Dragon Ball.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with striving for greatness. However, the trouble is when series strive to be great while not striving to be themselves. In my eyes, the biggest offender of this problem is One Piece.

One Piece

Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece is one of the best selling manga series to date in Japan. Fans of it will often cite it for creativity, excellent characters, and great storytelling.

Of those three, the only I can really agree with is creativity, and mostly because Oda has managed to come up with a serviceable replacement for the traditional “Mystic Shounen Energy” while still maintaining the feel of characters with superpowers. The principle characters of One Piece are all mostly caricatures, simple characters guided by grand dreams, but only one of them is truly what I would describe as an “excellent” character, the cowardly liar, Usopp, and due to recent storylines, Oda has managed to disappoint even with this interesting character.

And then there is the point I find hardest to agree with, the storytelling.

One Piece is by no means a terrible story. It’s a fun adventure that can really pull the reader in. However, it suffers from an incredibly terrible flaw: pacing.

One Piece, like Dragon Ball, is a sequence of Sagas broken up into smaller arcs. The first two sagas have well defined breaks. The first Saga, the East Blue Saga, serves as an introduction to the first five characters of the main cast, and gives a selection of minor villains. The Saga isn’t much different structurally from any other Shounen Manga early story section: there’s a new friend to be had, he has problems and doesn’t want help fixing it, the main character fixes things anyway, and they all become good buds. The second Saga, the Baroque Works Saga, is the first Epic Saga of One Piece, and it gives us a trek through a helping of diverse and interesting islands, ranging from a Jurassic Park-inspired Jungle Island with Giants to an island covered in eternal snow to a sprawling desert with a kingdom on the verge of civil war thanks to the machinations of an evil and governmentally sponsored Pirate.

These first two sagas start One Piece off much like any other shounen series would: a Saga of introductions and an Epic Saga. However, unlike most shounen series, thanks to Oda’s pacing, the first Saga takes eleven volumes to trudge through, and the Baroque Works Saga twelve. And in my eyes, the first saga doesn’t hit its strong pace until a YEAR into the series. That’s 52 chapters, and a total of six volumes. Also, the main plot of shounen series rarely BEGINS until the first Epic Arc, meaning two years and one hundred chapters passed in the course of One Piece before the plot even began.

It’s not all bad yet, though. The stories told in the first Saga still manage to entertain, and once the Baroque Works Saga begins, the plot shifts to full gear and manages to be high quality for the entire Saga.

However, the flaws caused by One Piece’s pacing start to reveal themselves as the series second Saga, the Skypiea Saga, begins. I posit that Oda needs to change locations within his sagas, or else they lose all sense of structure as the Saga moves forward. Skypiea takes place on a single island, floating in the sky, and for nine volumes, the action slowly gets more and more convoluted until it concludes with a tremendous aerial final battle as an entire ancient civilization faces annihilation at the hands of a lightning wielding psychopath with delusions of godhood.

Skypiea makes little sense while reading, and that’s WHEN it is read in one large chunk. It’s not that it is slow; it’s that it is almost too FAST. Stuff happens at a rapid pace for an extended period of time, and most of that is simply random combat involving our main characters fighting generics that we don’t care about, as well as generics fighting other generics. And at the end, we have no new insights into ANY of the characters we have been following, so it’s pretty much as if it were nine volumes of straight fighting.

Then the third Saga begins, the Water 7/Enies Lobby Saga. Divided into two distinct halves, this Saga starts off beautifully and ends an utter mess.

The Water 7 half of this arc is quite possibly the greatest plot section Oda has ever written, his melodramatic tragedy-driven back stories aside. It seems to be getting just about everything right. Character buildup that began in Baroque Works Saga and was ignored in Skypiea picks up again at full speed, as the series most interesting character, Usopp, finds himself at odds with his captain over the fate of their ship. Meanwhile, a special ops section of the World Government, CP9, is working to assassinate the mayor of the largest city in the world, steal the plans for a world-threatening ship, and through it all pin the blame on the main characters, whose actions have proven to be a thorn in the World Government’s side over time.

There are two plot points that I mentioned above that deserve further mention, because they’re important for later. First is Usopp’s development. Usopp’s strength as a character comes not from his combat abilities, but from the fact that he feels more REAL than the rest of the cast. All the other characters seem to be simply using their back story as an occasional crutch, since once we have heard about the problems they had, we are instantly to assume that their tragedy-filled past is the ONLY driving force behind these characters, and any outside influence introduced by the continuing plot will not impact them.

Usopp is different. His back story is lighter than the rest of the cast, more subdued and therefore closer to the heart than the others. Along with that, his general personality is amusing, and it works well in contrast to his grand dream. While the rest of the cast wants to find something or achieve some goal that they’re well on the path to already, Usopp literally wants to CHANGE himself. He is a coward, and yet wants to be seen as a brave warrior. Because of this, he is CONTINUALLY affected by the events of the plot, and he grows substantially, especially when compared to his comrades.

Water 7 puts Usopp and his growth at center stage, where his strong feelings towards the crew’s ship (a gift given to him and the rest of the crew by the girl Usopp most certainly would love if Oda allowed any kind of actual romance to occur) causes him to mutiny when the sad truth that the ship cannot sail any further due to all the damage it has sustained comes up. In an emotional and intense two-chapter fight, quite possibly one of the best designed fights in shounen manga, Usopp fights his superhuman captain Luffy over matters of pride. Luffy defeats Usopp, and then takes the rest of the crew offboard where they will hopefully find a way to purchase a new ship, despite their money being stolen by a family of ship dismantlers.

It is at this point that the second plot point I mentioned takes center stage, Cipher Police 9, or CP9, for short: Four strong, menacing villains that manage to be compelling and fascinating, despite being mostly blank assassins. They enter the series with a small whisper, where one of them approaches another member of the main characters, the mysterious Robin, and manages to give the illusion that she is betraying the main characters. Through this betrayal, they stage a botched assassination attempt on the Mayor of Water 7 and pin the blame on the Straw Hats.

This event slowly bubbles and comes to a full boil at the climax of the Water 7 arc, when the members of CP9 are revealed to all be employees of the Mayor’s shipwright company, planted there years ago to prepare for this very mission. Two of these members of CP9 have powers granted by Devil Fruits, the series replacement for Mystical Shounen Energy, and these powers complement the feel of the group very well. One has the ability to make doors in whatever he touches, an ability that is not only used incredibly well for stealth and assassination, but also in combat. The other gives a new take on the old Zoan-type Devil Fruits, animal transformation Devil Fruits, and manages to turn transforming into animals into something truly terrifying. The other two characters appear to have weapon-based skills which complement their skills as assassins well.

In other words, the CP9 members make for an impressive enemy group, despite mostly using the same attacks.

However, as the Saga moves to its second half, a massive raid on the World Government judicial headquarters, one of the two plot points gets completely ditched while the other builds up to an incredibly underwhelming payoff.

The plot point that appears to be ditched is the feel and flavor of CP9. After the transit arc between Water 7 and Enies Lobby, a sequence of battles on a train involving one fascinating but distressingly misused enemy, one pointless enemy, one incredibly annoying but still tolerable enemy, and a “rookie” CP9, we are introduced to three new members of CP9, as well as their figurehead leader.

And with their introduction, a rock flies into the glass of CP9’s image and leaves a rather large crack.

These three members fail to add anything to CP9, and in fact damage the image that we have formed of the group of assassins, by being completely idiotic. The only one that gets to use the brain the three of them share is Jabura, an obnoxious, loud-mouthed prick. He’s irritating, but not as much as Kumadori and *shutter* Fukurou. Kumadori is a massive, flamboyant Kabuki who attacks using hair. Fukurou, though, is the greatest crime of all.

He is a large, egg-shaped moron with a zipper for a mouth. The zipper’s purpose is so that he doesn’t spill important governmental secrets, but he always forgets to zip it up.

He also serves as a vehicle to introduce a numerical power leveling system, a carry-over from Dragon Ball that is wholly unnecessary in the situation and ultimately serves to annoy.

Yes, I regard Fukurou as the reason One Piece takes a sharp decline at this point. He’s even served as the origin for my online alias, Death to Zippermouth, originally conceived as what I’d call a “really awesome band name.”

But back to One Piece.

Thanks to these characters, the general feel of CP9 is damaged. Adding an incompetent governmental yes-man who is their boss only through force of nepotism furthers the damage. The final shatter to CP9’s image is when the two weapon users of CP9 get their own Devil Fruit abilities that take away far more from their image as assassins than contribute. Soap and Giraffe transformations don’t scream assassin to me in the same way hidden doors and Leopards do.

Meanwhile, Usopp’s development continues, as his wishes to help the crew clear their name and rescue their comrade Robin ends up conflicting with his decision to leave the crew. He temporarily rejoins as Sogeking, a masked defender of justice, which serves as a hilarious homage to many masked heroes in anime, manga and video games (my favorite comparison being Mystere from Lunar 2) as well as an excellent vehicle for showing that he has developed some bravery… so long as he’s pretending to be a superhero.

By the end of the Saga, we are thrown into a slew of disorganized fights, completely and utterly devoid of connection or emotion. The Saga ends with the crew’s former ship, thought to have been destroyed, rescues the crew as they try to escape from the besieged island. A full volume of wrap-up material happens, and all the buildup for Usopp becomes for naught when he tearfully rejoins the crew in a melodramatic and disappointing scene.

This is around where I gave up on One Piece. Part of the wrap-up material encompasses a HUGE buildup to a plot forming in the world, a truly interesting story arc on the horizon… that gets sidetracked by the introduction of an island of undead with a pirate lord who turns people into zombies by stealing their shadows.

One Piece neither has interesting characters nor good storytelling, and while Oda’s characters are indeed creative… that doesn’t make them good. However, the fatal flaw I see in One Piece is that through all this Oda has no inclination of ending the series any time soon. He plans to make it 1000 chapters long, after all, of which I expect about 100 will focus on all the interesting plot he’s been trying to build up but avoid actually touching on.

For the record, the series is currently sitting at around 460 chapters.

One Piece is an aimless trek to a number of islands featuring a cast of characters who offer no emotional interest to the reader beyond what we’ve already seen. It drags like the Dragon Ball ANIME dragged, and has already passed Dragon Ball in terms of published chapters.

Thus, I gave up on it, hoping for something that would actually have an ending.

Speaking of “endings,” this seems like a good point to change gears a little and focus on a series that has regrettably unofficially ended, Hunter X Hunter.

Hunter X Hunter

Hunter X Hunter was, at a time, probably the best manga Weekly Shounen Jump had running, and its early chapters are still among the best written shounen manga there is. A wonderful adventure tale involving a young boy’s quest to find his father by becoming a Hunter, Hunter X Hunter is Yoshihiro Togashi (creator of Yu Yu Hakusho)’s best work.

The cast of Hunter X Hunter is incredibly endearing. The four leads, Gon, Killua, Leorio and Kurapica all have unique personalities, and due to a clever mix-match arrangement, none of them become angst-ridden emo jerks. The closest to that is Kurapica, the resident avenger, and even then he manages to still be interesting rather than annoying.

The story primarily focuses on Gon’s quest to find his father, as well as his growth as a fighter and as a hunter. The first story arc, which serves to bring the characters together, is a test to determine who is qualified to become a Hunter, which is a catch-all term for what may be one of the most exclusive jobs ever, though the basic idea is a Hunter is someone who seeks out the rarities of the world, be it food, treasure or even criminals.

The stories after the first arc shift their focus, but mostly keep Gon and his best friend Killua in the spotlight as they grow.

The greatest strength of Hunter X Hunter lies in its incredibly well defined and detailed world. There are many subdivisions of hunters, from Cooks to Historians to Bounty Hunters, and they’re united by the use of the world’s Mystic Shounen Energy, Nen.

Nen is your typical shounen energy source given a number of rules, stipulations and classifications, all for the purpose of defining attributes and giving the abilities that are used actual structure. Abilities aren’t powerful just because the user pumps a crapton of energy into it; they’re powerful because not only do you have to be physically strong and well trained to pull it off, you also have to put a number of personal restrictions on the technique to make them work. Beyond even that, if the ability has a root in the character’s history or personality, it becomes even more powerful.

Nen is tightly defined, but there’s enough definitions and classifications that even among the non-Special Nen (the classification for Nen that falls outside the five common types) there is enough room for almost any ability the author can think of. This is a system designed for a well-done Pencil and Paper Role Playing Game, not a mere Shounen manga. It is brilliant.

If you’ll pardon the Spiderman clichéd reference, though, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Nen is a powerful tool for crafting abilities, but if used improperly, it can be creative but fail to be interesting. It is used well in the first major story arc after its introduction, the Yorknew City Saga, where it demonstrates a wide variety of interesting abilities and showcases just how strong abilities become with a number of restrictions. It is used INCREDIBLY well with the Greed Island arc, where Nen was the creating power of a living MMORPG designed for Hunters, and new mechanics were introduced to keep the action itself from being mere Nen fights.

It was not used well, however, in the arc that killed the series, the Chimera Ant arc.

The Chimera Ant arc begins right as Greed Island ends. Gon and Killua had entered Greed Island because it was the next stop on their road map to try and find Gon’s father. Inside, they obtained the ability to, just once, jump anywhere in the world. Gon chose to jump to where his father was, and bring Killua with him. Gon’s father, being both the programmer for the game and a big dick, made it so that if Gon used the card that allowed him to bring people, it would instead send Gon to the hunter than inspired Gon to become one, Kite.

So Chimera Ant arc begins by completely sidelining the main plot of the series, as now Gon and Killua have no more guideposts on their adventure. So instead, they travel with Kite’s group of Hunters that are investigating strange new insect-animal hybrid creatures, the Chimera Ants. At first simple hybrids that evolve based on what new genes enter their breeding pool, they obtain the ability to utilize Nen as the story progresses.

The end result is a hodgepodge of random critters with creative but ultimately dumb abilities. The Chimera Ants simply become a super-powered gimmicky army with no real substance backing them up. It doesn’t help that the leader of the Chimera Ants, the King, is visually a rip-off of Cell from DBZ and personality-wise blank aside from his odd fascination with board games which would be interesting if it actually went somewhere.

The plot hits several speed bumps, and during the course of it all Togashi’s health started waning. This compounded the already-issue of him not having any assistants to help with the drawings, which meant that many weeks the art looked like his rough sketches rather than a finished product.

Eventually, Togashi fell off the face of the earth, seemingly trying to escape from the horde of random baddies he had created and the soul-crushing loner work he was doing.

I don’t blame him. By creating the Chimera Ants, he wrote himself into a corner: he had a huge army of superpowers that his present cast wasn’t really able to handle. Also, his other major characters didn’t have a place in this arc, and the villains of the Yorknew Arc, which he was slowly trying to change into Anti-heroes after that arc, wouldn’t be caught dead helping in the crisis.

The most recent chapter, published in Weekly Shonen Jump over a year ago, ended with the small faction of good guys about to fight the army of Chimera Ants. And it hasn’t appeared since.

My belief is that Togashi, rather than drown the series in a mess of hopeless battles and spending another 50 chapters sorting everything out so that he can go back to the main story, decided to simply end the series there and leave the remainder of the story arc up to the imaginations of the readers that still care.

I also believe that if that was true, Togashi was rather smart. Rather than let his series die a slow, painful death, he opted to end it quick and move on to greener pastures. His series is still said to be serialized in WSJ, but since nothing has come of that, I think it will be dropped once the editors realize that Togashi himself doesn’t care anymore.

I’m also of the opinion that a series that is in a similar style of story arc at present time, Bleach, would do well to learn from Togashi’s example.

Bleach

In the last year, Bleach transformed from a decently popular series to a full-fledged phenomenon in America, and for good reason. The early section of Bleach, especially the anime, is a Shounen series that actually manages to be cool. The attitude and feel is much more inviting to American audiences than many other happy goofy shounen series. It is a shounen series that was pretty much destined to do better in America rather than Japan.

The first Epic Saga of Bleach, the Soul Society Invasion Saga, is also an incredibly fun ride. After the typical character introductory arcs of early Shounen, Bleach wastes no time in jumping into its first huge arc, beginning at Volume 7, the exact same time Rurouni Kenshin began its first epic arc. It also goes on a full three volumes longer than said arc, making it one of the longest story arcs in shounen history, clocking in at 130 chapters.

In the Soul Society Invasion Saga, we not only watch our main character Ichigo grow from a mere replacement Shinigami into the series Super Saiyajin equivalent, breaking through and surpassing EVERY enemy in his path and at the end obtaining not only the highest power an ordinary Shinigami can obtain, but also on the verge of obtaining a HIGHER strength still. The other secondary characters are still there, but their growth takes a backseat to Ichigo’s transformation into super badass shinigami level 1.

The enemies during the arc are the heads of Soul Society, the “Heaven” of the Bleach world, and are a collection of really strong Shinigami. Why these gods spend more time hanging out in their really awesome city rather and sending the mooks down to fight the big evil ghosts rather than doing the dirty work themselves is sort of beyond me, but whatever. The point is, since all the characters are pretty much dressed the same, Kubo Tite, a brilliant artist and actually a fairly good writer, injects the same amount of attitude and style that he put into the main characters into the enemies.

Note I say enemies and not villains. There IS a villain to the arc, a really powerful one who holds the distinction of being one of the only arc final bosses to not only survive their introductory arc but also WIN, but most of the enemies have actual motives and feelings of their own which drive them to protect their duty, to their post or to their friends, from the invading main characters, who are crashing the party to stop an execution.

Because of the personality of the literal MESS of new characters introduced, once the arc begins its stream of unrelenting battles, even if you’ve forgotten the ever-so-long names of these new characters, you understand who they are, who should be rooting for, and above all else are strapped in for a wild, fun ride.

It’s not just long; it’s also really well written.

That said, the anime version of the arc, while omitting a few details, still manages to show a rather scary flaw in the manga version.

Kubo Tite likes his art so much that he makes it a bit too big.

Almost every fight in the Soul Society arc takes 3-4 chapters when they could probably be done in 2. The problem is Tite likes to make huge, single frames that take up entire pages not once, but several times a chapter. This slows the flow of the series considerably.

It is wonderful art, probably the best art in all of modern shounen. But the problem is it slows everything down.

Granted, that’s a minor complaint. The Soul Society Arc is excellent all the same.

If only Tite hadn’t let the villain win (even if said villain’s win was awesome.)

If only Tite had let it end there.

We wouldn’t have had to endure the Arrancar Arc.

The Arrancar Arc has been going on for over 100 chapters now. I got out when at 75 I could see no tangible light at the end of the tunnel.

The Arc is sort of a horrific fusion of the failures of the Water 7 and Chimera Ant arcs. It starts off wonderfully, introducing two new sets of super-shinigami, the Vaizards and the Arrancar, as well as introducing several neat plot points and just in general having a good start.

Three Arrancar invasions later, and it’s clear that Kubo likes the cookie-cutter shinigami hybrids way too much and the more interesting but less evil Vaizards not enough.

The arc starts fun, but eventually becomes an exercise in tedium. At the end of the third invasion, Tite decides it’s high time he returned the series to its glory days and makes the main characters the invaders of Hueco Mundo, the home of the evil spirits of the Bleach world, in order to rescue one of their comrades, making it the exact same setup to the Soul Society Invasion arc, complete with the same final boss.

Only this time instead of the personality filled Shinigami of the Soul Society arc, we are forced to endure the cookie-cutter Arrancar that made the invasion arcs so boring.

And then there is the fact that even with our main characters hitting a literal wall when it comes to strength, there’s no way at their current level that they can beat the strongest opponents in the wings.

Finally, characters that have the potential to be interesting, namely Ichigo’s dad and his childhood friend Tatsuki, who at the start of the arc were growing into main character roles, have been completely left behind.

So what do we have?

We have an arc with wasted potential; interesting plot devices shoved aside for cookie-cutter villains and a hopeless, endless stream of fights.

As I said, a horrible fusion between the Water 7 and Chimera Ant arcs.

Well, that’s another series off my list. But there’s still Naruto for my weekly shounen fix… right?

Naruto

Ahhhhh, Naruto. The first weekly shounen jump series I started reading on a weekly basis. The series that, when I saw the first episode, reminded me more of Rurouni Kenshin meeting The Slayers than the DBZ that most people seem to be reminded of.

Fond, fond memories.

Naruto is something of an odd beast these days. One Piece fans hate it because it’s one of the only WSJ series to come close to matching their series’ popularity, not to mention they feel they have to uphold the “rivalry” between Pirates and Ninjas, even though One Piece isn’t about Pirates in the same way Naruto isn’t about ninjas.

Because a loudmouthed kid in an orange jumpsuit isn’t a Ninja, and a braindead rubber guy that looks like a farmer isn’t a Pirate.

*Ahem* Anyway, former fans of the series sometimes seem to hate it now that it has obtained mainstream popularity in the states. And really, it was sort of guaranteed it. Once every few years a series with just enough mainstream appeal will be a break-out hit on American TV.

It happened with Dragon Ball Z, it happened with Pokemon, now it has happened with Naruto.

Of course, unlike DBZ, this, as I said, is better as a manga before the Z changeover, and unlike Pokemon, which is better as a video game because the game has wonderfully deep game mechanics, Naruto is almost deserving of its popularity as a series.

Masashi Kishimoto has been doing a running autobiography in the Naruto tankobon detailing his life and how it led him to create this work, and it is really quite fascinating to see everything that inspired him. Doraemon, Dragon Ball, Akira, Rurouni Kenshin, and even a feature length film called Hashire Melos! drove his style and career. His journey towards creating Naruto can really be seen in his work, too.

The art is somewhere closer to Akira than Dragon Ball, since he originally wanted to go into seinen (young adult targeted manga) rather than shounen, and the early chapter title pages are robust and lively.

The storytelling of the series is a bit spotty, but for the most part it has been consistently good. The story focuses around Naruto and his teammates, but when the story calls for it, Kishimoto has created a large cast of secondary characters, the majority of them with almost the same amount of effort in their development as the main trio.

The main story is something like the main story of Harry Potter: follow the main characters as they grow through their life towards what they wish to become. Along the way, villains come and go, but the story is, for the most part, about its main characters rather than its enemies.

The early section of Naruto is actually quite different from your typical shounen start. Instead of character introductory arcs prior to the first major arc, once the story has introduced the three mains and their teacher, it thrusts them right into the first major story, which, while not of Epic Arc length, is still noteworthy in that it serves to develop rather than introduce, and has a significant effect on the characters right away.

This arc, the Zabuza arc, is also the only arc of Naruto where the villains are gone at the end of the arc. It is also one of the rare instances in shounen where the villains die. Both in the manga and the anime, the deaths are emotionally charged and actually quite beautiful.

Death has become less common as the story has advanced, and while some good guys have died, only a few more villains have been taken down, and the entire cast of secondaries still stands.

But that’s a minor complaint.

Naruto chooses to introduce its recurring secondary characters mostly through the vehicle of the first major story arc, the Chuunin exam, rather than dedicate individual arcs to the characters. While to some this may seem like it drags the story, it actually streamlines it, giving the series a well defined path at no cost to building characters. With every fight, which is where most character development in the early arcs of shounen comes anyway, a little bit of insight is provided into either one or both of the parties.

While the story itself isn’t the most incredible story in shounen manga, it still develops a large cast of characters reasonably well and concludes with two concurrent amazing battles. As I see it, more happens within 105 chapters of the Naruto manga than in the entirety of One Piece.

The Chuunin Exam arc is therefore both the introductory arc and the first epic arc, and every arc since has built off the foundation it set.

Naruto deserves more praise for its storytelling than it gets. It has been consistently good, and sometimes good enough to be better than its competitors in WSJ.

Of course, the problem with consistency is that it grows stale.

The second part of Naruto has been running for about the same amount of time One Piece has spent in Water 7/Enies Lobby and Bleach has been handling the Arrancar Arc. In this time frame, Naruto has had three decently long (though not epic) arcs and is in its fourth arc, which may or may not be epic depending on how many fights Kishimoto can fit in.

Stuff has happened in these arcs, yes, more than in either of the epic arcs they have run along side of, but the amount of development is still down. I applaud Kishimoto for not simply trying another Chuunin Exam yet, especially now that ranks don’t matter, but he needs an epic arc in this second part, and soon.

However, I also want Kishimoto to branch out and do more than what he’s done. Before the start of the second part, he expressed interest in trying to introduce a bit more romance into the series.

This latest arc is the first arc since the Chuunin Exam that has introduced the possibility of the relationship of my favorite pairing (yes, I do pay attention to pairings and the like) actually growing. If it has not grown at the end of the arc (they don’t have to kiss, they just have to acknowledge each other a bit more) then I’m probably not going to continue with the series. I’ve read 360 chapters of it already. I don’t want to have to read another 200+ chapters of more of the same.

Trying new things sometimes leads to series death if the new things are too gimmicky or if the author can’t maintain the strength of the new things. Consistency leads to staleness and causes the reader to lose interest, no matter how good the storytelling is. The series wants so hard to be Dragon Ball it loses itself and continues a long death march once it obtains success. Thus, length is ultimately the poison that kills all great shounen.

“On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”

~Narrator, Fight Club

Avoiding the Pitfalls

So most shounen tends to be really long, and through that length the series kills itself. From what I can tell, this tends to happen for most any shounen series that goes on longer than Rurouni Kenshin. Kenshin survived through two epic arcs, each about 11 volumes in length, before its mangaka Watsuki decided the story had hit its peak and it was time to end it.

Of course, at the end of the second epic arc, he had run out of compelling villain and story ideas, so it’s definitely a good thing that he didn’t decide to prolong it.

But pointing to Kenshin as a series that avoids the shounen pitfall of forced longevity is easy. It is in my eyes the bar that has been set; the sweet spot where lengthy shounen manages to survive and still tell a wonderful and compelling story. It knows that it needs to simply be itself to please people and that it doesn’t have to be anything else.

It’s a shame that Watsuki’s other lovable series got the axe for the exact same thing.

Busou Renkin

Busou Renkin is not Rurouni Kenshin, despite being written by the same mangaka. It is its own thing, it realizes this and does not try to deny that fact.

I love it for this. It’s a shame that almost everyone else seems to hate it.

Everywhere I look, I see the exact same complaint: “This is from the same guy that did Rurouni Kenshin!?” Well, at least the people talking know quality. Still doesn’t change the fact that they’re judging Busou Renkin with the wrong jury.

You see, it’s quite clear in reading or watching Busou Renkin that Watsuki wanted to make a shounen series that’s simply fun and doesn’t strive to be anything else. It also has its own creative aspects, specifically its incredibly blurred story arc boundaries and the way it treats “power-ups.”

But for the most part, Busou Renkin exists to entertain. And like Watsuki’s other work, it does a wonderful job just doing that. Its action is fast paced, the characters are likable, easy to understand, and actually do grow, and it has the single most hilarious campy minor villain… well, ever.

Though at first glance, one might write it off as a Bleach clone, Busou Renkin is in fact nothing of the sort. Watsuki points out Ultraman as the strongest source of inspiration, and even then the connections are sort of vague. (Okay, I admit it. I’ve never seen Ultraman.) Regardless, rather than being a clone, if it DOES have any roots in shounen, it’s a common ancestor with Bleach, Yu Yu Hakusho, and even then the connections stop when you get past the whole “main character ‘dies’ in episode 1” thing.

Watsuki admits that he doesn’t keep up with modern manga. His apprentices have gone on to do works like Shaman King, Rave Master and One Piece, but he doesn’t follow them. He’s too busy reading American comic books and watching American movies. And reminiscing about classic animes.

Busou Renkin is a testament to that. Almost everything that is a reference pays homage to the mecha and sentai series of old, and the rest is character designs redone from his previous works, Kenshin and Gun Blaze West (a series that was pulled for not going fast enough, and probably for not being enough like Kenshin.)

Of course, I think the only explanation I can give for the madness (and brilliance) that is Papillion is drugs. That or Watsuki wanting to make a really camp over the top villain. While under the influence of drugs.

But let’s put that aside. The key point about Busou Renkin is that it is FAST. The series moves at such a rate that it gets through its same run of story arcs that Kenshin had, introductory arc followed by two major arcs, in a little over one third of the time. Of course, the last arc was cut short when the series was going to be pulled, but Watsuki had juuuuuust enough plot left in mind that he was able to give the serialized manga a (somewhat unsatisfying) end and come back with a true ending with the tankobon.

If there’s any reason for Busou Renkin being pulled, it’s that people were expecting another Rurouni Kenshin from Watsuki, not something that, while having characters with similar appearance, was completely unlike Kenshin. It’s a shame when series can’t simply be their own thing. Watsuki is therefore his own worst enemy.

Watsuki is being given a spot in Shueisha’s upcoming Jump Square monthly publication. I hope for his sake he doesn’t bend over to the fans and make a series that tries to be the next Kenshin. He’s a better author than to rely on his own success as a crutch.

Okay, so maybe he puts himself down an awful lot. Doesn’t change my stance.

Busou Renkin has a few other merits aside from its unflinching desire to “Be itself.” First is that due to the way the story flows, the dividing lines between arcs are blurred to the point of almost not being there. The first arc ends with the villain seemingly destroyed, but the very next chapter he’s resurrected by the villain of the next arc, which begins pretty much immediately. The second arc ends with the main villain of the series making his grand entrance. This gives the series a building feel, as it grows from small to large over the course of 26 episodes or 10 volumes, depending on if you’re watching or reading. It’s three story arcs, but it’s also one big arc.

The second arc also ends with Watsuki using a unique take on the “Shounen Super-powerup” cliché. Namely, the main character gets a significant power boost, signified by the changing of the color of his skin and hair.

However, this becomes not a boon, but a curse, since he ends up having the exact same leech-like nature as the villain.

See, Watsuki’s editor, probably a DBZ fan, told Watsuki “Why don’t you do power-ups like other shounen series? They’re kind of a staple.”

Watsuki took this and decided to make the power-up a tense plot device, and decided, “The power-up is not what’s important. It’s what the hero does with it that counts.”

The hero is given a strong power that he eventually resolves never to use because it makes him less human. Part of the final arc revolves around him trying to revert back to the way he was before. It’s a beautiful twist. With the Power-up, he almost stands a chance against the main villain, but he doesn’t want a thing to do with it.

The final battle of the series is fairly rushed and ends unsatisfactorily. However, the path getting there is incredibly fun, and it would make sense to assume that if Watsuki had a little more time to let the series prove itself, Busou Renkin would have been able to shine on its own.

Unfortunately, unplanned endings kill series, but thankfully it is a quick death, unlike the long death march of a long shounen series. However, a series ends best of all when the mangaka knows how and when to end it. The best example of that in recent memory is Death Note.

Death Note

Death Note, as a manga, is a series that sometimes I wonder how it got in Weekly Shounen Jump. It’s fairly dark for WSJ fare. I mean, the main character is the villain. In a publication that emphasizes “friendship, effort and victory,” Light’s not exactly a role model.

As a work on its own, forgetting the publication it’s in, it’s also hard to realize that it’s even shounen.

But it is. It’s a complete inversion of shounen conventions, but it’s shounen. It’s just instead of 5 chapters of one-upmanship with farking huge special attacks it’s 5 chapters of one-upmanship with mindgame tennis. The main character is an ambitious dreamer youth who just happens to be the most evil man alive. And through it all, it works really well.

Because it works really well, it’s a really good thing that it ends when it does. Two epic length story arcs with no introductory stuff, finishing at chapter 108. Some argue that the second arc is inferior to the first. I argue that it’s excellent in its own way. The two arcs are written differently, which avoids the “consistency” flaw, and they’re paced well, which eliminates the “drawn out” flaw.

I rather like the ending of the manga. Others will disagree, but watching mass-murdering fuckhead Light completely snap when he has been revealed and then collapse under the weight of his crimes is quite possibly the best defeat of any villain in anime ever. He’s not “out of character” like some would have you believe; he’s showing his true character.

But what I love best of all is his death.

It’s an ugly death, fitting for such a vile character as Light. The best part is how he begs for his life once he sees that Ryuk is punishing him the exact same way he was punishing criminals. Simple death through Heart Attack. It really shows just how messed up he is; somehow, he sees himself above all the other criminals he has killed.

If I have ANY complaints about the second half of Death Note, it is that the two replacements for L, Mello and Near, are not as likable as L. But then, they’re avengers; they’re not supposed to be likable. Besides, Mello’s sacrifice which allows Near to obtain victory redeems the creepy chocolate chomper a little.

I hate the ending of the Death Note anime, though. It takes a perfectly wonderful unveiling of the main characters true nature and self-destruction and tries to turn it into a beautiful, almost… redeeming death. And this is after the second half is rushed, completely missing the feel and flavor of Mello and Near.

On the other hand, I love the ending of the live action movies. It keeps the general feel of the manga ending while letting the character I really like, L, have the victory.

But that’s all beside the point.

Death Note’s strength comes a great deal from ending when it needed to in all cases. The manga knows that it can’t do another story arc after its second, since Light winning would be an ESPECIALLY bad ending for a shounen series. Utopia through fear and all that. The anime ends the same way, though in a pandering-to-the-audience sort of way and ends up less satisfying. The movie, realizing it can’t do the Mello and Near saga, makes its own conclusion. All three come to the same conclusion.

Light Yagami, and his “ideal world,” loses. And we don’t have to move on to the NEXT best detective to try and catch him.

And it works remarkably well.

I may not like Death Note as much as I do Kenshin; the latter succeeds in perfecting the art of long shounen, and is definitely the best traditional shounen there is. Plus, it ALSO ends right when it needs to, and under the same logic as Death Note: after the final enemy, the mangaka realizes that there is nothing more for the main character to fight and have it stay interesting, so he ends it then and there. Plus, Kenshin has a main character that is quite easy to root for.

However, all that aside, Death Note is by itself a remarkable work, and definitely one of the best manga I have ever read.

If you’re gonna watch something, though, watch the movie.

Yu-Gi-Oh! The Abridged Series and Absurdist Shounen

There is one style of shounen that has been gaining a lot of ground in my mind, and has been ever since I watched Yakitate!! Ja-pan. It is the parody and humor-centric shounen subgenre that I like to refer to as Absurdist Shounen.

Unlike the semi-serious actiony side of shounen, Absurdist Shounen in no way takes itself serious. For example, Yakitate!! Ja-pan is a take on traditional shounen conventions while being centered around bread baking.

BREAD BAKING.

And the scary thing is, it works.

Shounen is a genre so burdened by convention that when a series decides to say “Hey, shounen is really freaking dumb sometimes. Let’s make fun of that” it turns out surprisingly well. It’s parody through exaggeration, and at times it works better than even a well done Mel Brooks movie.

One series that would have benefited from being Absurdist Shounen was Yu-Gi-Oh!.

Yu-Gi-Oh! takes itself far too seriously for its own good. Before it becomes all about Card Games, it’s still fairly silly how seriously it takes itself, even if it is darker. I mean, the main character is a schizophrenic who destroys people’s mental health through games.

The anime, especially, needed to be Absurdist, since it focused on the most inane and longest subplot of the manga, the Card Games, transforming the series into what pretty much amounts to one big trading card game commercial. Apparently, the fate of the world rests on a young boy with utterly crazy hair and a split personality who plays card games.

This is why I’m very grateful for LittleKuriboh.

LittleKuriboh is the utterly brilliant British creator of what is probably the funniest damn thing on the internet right now, Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Abridged Series. (The series has its own website now, in case you have yet to check it out or are wondering where to find it now that YouTube and DailyMotion decided to be pricks. http://www.yugiohtheabridgedseries.com/)

YGO:TAS is a fusion of all the right things: a shounen series that takes itself too seriously and has a outrageously bad dub, a crazy british guy who can do voice impersonations really well, and all the pop culture references you can find on the internet. The three things come together like magic, and the result is nothing short of amazing.

In its wake, other “Abridged Series” have popped up, as well as LittleKuriboh impostors, not quite getting the point of what makes YGO:TAS so wonderful. It’s not just making fun of bad dubs. It’s making fun of a series that was too serious for its own good, even in the original Japanese. It’s condensing a long-winded drag of a shounen series down to a length that actually makes it watchable. It cuts down on the presence of Card Games and gives a unique look at the characters. And through it all, it actually maintains the “plot” and makes it ENJOYABLE.

Perhaps this quality is why 4kids keeps trying to shut down his operation. Not only does he do a better job with it than even the original Japanese version, he constantly shows 4kids for the money-grubbing scumbags they are.

So, yes, Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Abridged Series and its Absurdist Shounen ilk happen to be shounen that does NOT get old over a long period of time, as parody is something that continually finds new source, and can stay fresh. It’s the reason Weird Al is still around and relevant even today.

Conclusion

Oh, geez, I’m at 19 pages in word now. I might want to wrap this up.

*Ahem* So in conclusion, length is the primary killer of shounen, whether through the same-old same-old getting stale or botched attempts at shooting for new horizons. When series know when to end and pace themselves, or perhaps don’t take themselves seriously, is when Shounen becomes a truly great genre.

Thank you all for enduring this insanely long essay. We now return to our (hopefully once again regular) posting schedule.