Understanding Storytelling: Long Running Shounen

Often times you will hear people say that long running shounen anime are aimed at a younger audience who less likely to notice their flaws and less inclined to question them.  That is true but observations like this miss the heart of the problem.  Rather than look at the intended audience for problems, it’s more helpful to look at the series themselves and how they are constructed.  Why do long running shounen shows tend to have so many flaws that they must be aimed at a younger audience?  This is a question about the nature of storytelling in a particular, and very popular, genre of anime.  And it’s this question I’m going to answer.  From here on there will be spoilers for any and all long running shounen series, you have been warned.

The author of Bleach once said that writing the manga for a long running shounen was different from more traditional storytelling.  He said it was more akin to tending a garden than writing a story with a planned conclusion.  However I have found that it’s much easier to visualize the way longing shounen are made via building a tower.  You see tending a garden sounds nice, refined and sort of artistic in a rustic sense.  But it implies a kind of stability and tranquility that long running shounen almost never have.  Pretend for a minute that a normal story is a bridge.  It begins at one end of a river, has a planned middle and end, and when it concludes the complete story holds itself up on its own merits.  Now pretend a long running shounen series is a tower.  This tower keeps going higher and higher, getting more epic in scale and impressive as it does.  But suddenly the tower starts getting too big, maybe it leans drunkenly like the Tower of Pisa, maybe it’s just a lot less sturdy than it used to be and a single major event can topple it, or maybe it falls to pieces right away because the foundations it was built on were not made to handle its ridiculous size.  This is what actually happens in long running shounen.  Our characters and their enemies keep on powering up over and over, until it gets to a point where the whole story is swallowed by the scale of the events it’s now trying to portray and the story which was once so popular is lost in the ensuing chaos.  Now if writing a long running shounen was tending a garden, this would never happen, because tending a garden not only means keeping it safe and healthy but trimming it back so that it doesn’t grow out of hand, trust me I’ve spent enough time doing the trimming to know.  To the author of Bleach’s credit, he actually did trim his story back once, but generally speaking long shounen always fall victim to the same trap over and over, they get too big for the simple premise or conflict which began the story to keep holding it up.  Let’s look at a few examples.

Naruto is probably the biggest offender of this particular issue.  The premise began as a simple kid’s journey to be accepted and become leader of his village, now during the Fourth Ninja War the premise is that Naruto and friends must save the world from a man who died and then came back to life all so that he could trap people in their dreams to create the semblance of a peaceful world.  One of those premises is easily manageable and understandable, the other sounds pretty ridiculous.  And it’s not just the premises that get warped by the scale of the events either.  In Naruto, combat used to be a mix of tactics, endurance and power, especially back when everyone only had one or two jutsus to choose from.  During the Chunin Exam, the best part of pre-Shippuden Naruto, each contestant wins or loses based more on their intelligence or endurance than raw power.  Neji loses to Naruto not because Naruto had more skill or power than Neji.  Quite the opposite, Neji’s techniques were far deadlier and Neji himself the more skilled of the two, but Naruto endured long enough to come up with a tactic that could get past Neji’s skill and power.  Now let’s look at the Fourth Ninja War.  Tactics basically no longer matter.  If you don’t have a jutsu that can take on anyone in the world, you no longer matter as far as the story is concerned.  There are thousands of ninjas fighting in the battle but only a handful of them even matter, the rest might as well sit on the sidelines and spectate for all the good they’ve done in recent episodes.  By the time the Fourth Ninja War roles around the scale of the events that make up the story are so far removed the origins of the story that Naruto no longer has narrative coherence.  All of the things that used to serve as Naruto’s strengths are gone.  Once upon a time the story of Naruto was not just about Naruto, it was about Naruto’s generation, his friends and fellow ninjas and how they were going to be different from the war torn generations that came before them.  And at the beginning of the Fourth Ninja War that happened, the villages were able to put aside their paranoia and old grudges and they joined forces.  But now the story is more or less controlled by Madara-soon-to-be-Kaguya, Naruto’s generation no longer has any agency beyond the titular blonde ninja and his archrival/best friend Sasuke.  The story has become a tale of monsters battling monsters for the fate of the world, even though it used to be a tale about how the new generation fought the monsters of the older generations to determine the fate of their world.  The story has dramatically shifted because the scale has gotten too big for the original story to contain any longer and now the storytelling, and our imagined tower, are in shambles.  So what caused all this to happen?

The manga caused it.  Specifically the way Shounen Jump manga works causes their own biggest hits to implode on themselves.  Shounen Jump manga are designed to be as popular as they can be for as long as they can run on a week by week basis.  What that means in practical terms is that the authors have to try and do whatever they can to generate interest in their work even if it’s gone on for much longer than they expected.  In battle shounen that generally means scaling up the power of the combatants and the stakes of the battles.  Hence all the, “this isn’t even my final form” kind of nonsense that is so typical of long running shounen.  That’s really the issue with these types of stories, they are never designed to be neatly contained and properly planned because the business model their sponsors use to support them doesn’t encourage it.  But if the stories are shaped in such a chaotic  and reckless fashion at their foundations, can they overcome their limitations or are they doomed to topple?  Well they might be doomed to topple, but there are work-arounds to extend the life of a story almost indefinitely.

I’m going to start by explaining this using shows that are not long running shounen.  I think Magi and Log Horizon are shows that could feasibly run for an eternity because they have mastered the art of adventure.  In both series the world the characters live in feels incredibly vast.  They both run for almost fifty episodes but it still feels like we’ve only scratched the surface of what the worlds of each shows have to offer.  Both series have accomplished this by having massive worlds, it’s also because the lead characters never get too strong.  Shiroe and Aladdin have limits, and while both characters are capable of incredible things it’s also made clear that they can’t just steamroll all their opponents.  In Magi Aladdin is almost killed by a Djinn Equip, meanwhile the archvillain defends attacks from a Djinn Equip without any visible effort, laughing the whole time.  Likewise, Shiroe is capable of more than any individual but he alone can’t match what the community is capable of collectively.  Now it’s time to shift gears and look at the long running shounen that has done the best job of this same thing, HunterxHunter.

HunterxHunter has the exact same kind of adventure feel to it.  The world always feels vast and while Gon and Killua keep getting stronger with every arc, they are always faced with someone who significantly outclasses them to keep them feeling small.  In more traditional shounen fare, our heroes would nakama power-up and overcome the villains or even allies who used to outclass them.  But in HunterxHunter that never happens, Gon never beats Hisoka and Killua has yet to break completely free of Illumi’s twisted embrace. In fact HunterxHunter was a show that I thought could go on forever until Meruem and the Royal Guard happened.  I’ve already talked about why I was not a fan of these four superpowers here.  Rather than repeat that I’m going to bring up the concerns these four characters represent.  These four are so strong that they threatened to swallow the story and bring about its collapse.  Luckily they got a nice helping of deus ex machina and died before a collapse came about but it was a close thing.  More importantly though what does this incident mean for the future of HunterxHunter?  Well it means that the story will need to trim itself back or the next arc could be its last.  Long running shounen have a natural tendency to scale up, but if HunterxHunter isn’t careful, then it will scale up too much and the story will begin to fall apart.  The Royal Guard and Meruem were so powerful that they felt like they had exceeded the upper limits of what was possible in the HunterxHunter universe.  On the other hand trimming back could mean the end of the show too.  In Bleach the Fullbringer arc, where the author cut the scale of the story way back down, was one of the worst received arcs of the manga by the fans.  So you can see the dilemma, continue to scale up without enough caution and the series implodes, cut back and you may upset enough fans to hurt the story going forward.  Based on what I’ve heard about the manga and where it goes next, it sounds like the author made the right call and squeaked out of this sticky situation.  But if one of the best, if not the best managed long running shounen struggles to contain itself, then it starts to get clear why the rest simply can’t escape their own collapse.

Despite the amount negativity I’ve put in this post, I’m not here to condemn long running shounen.  If anything their ability to run for as long as they do before collapsing is a pretty impressive achievement in its own right.  Likewise before they collapse I tend to enjoy the hell out of these kinds of shows.  If Naruto had ended shortly after the Pain battle for example, it probably would have been on my list of most awesome shows ever.  It’s only after it drags on to the point of no return that I start to blast the hell out of it.  Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed that, and I hope to see you in the next one.

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