Understanding Storytelling: It’s an Adventure

So in a previous post, I said that one way to overcome the limitations of the long running shounen genre was to make it an adventure.  That leads to the question: how does one make a good adventure story?  And it’s that question I’m going to discuss in this post.  From here on out there will be scattered spoilers.  You have been warned.

In the post linked above, one of the traits I mentioned that made the examples I used adventures was that their worlds felt vast.  So how do you make a series feel vast you say?  Well the size of the setting is a good place to start.  The reason shows like Log Horizon, Magi and HunterxHunter make for good adventure stories is because the worlds they happen in cover a large area of space.  Take Log Horizon, it is explained to us that the world of Log Horizon is a half size model of the real world.  Meanwhile almost the entirety of the action has taken place in maybe half of Japan.  What that means is there are loads of content and territory waiting to be discovered and explored.  The almost fifty episodes we have is just scratching the surface of a much wider world.  Likewise Magi has multiple continents but the show has spent most of its time covering different kingdoms on just one of the continents, so there are many more realms to explore and people to meet.  Both of these two shows also put a lot of detail in the settings they do explore.  Ordinarily that sounds like simple common sense but think big picture.  If Log Horizon or Magi and produce fifty episodes worth of content in a just a portion of the world, how many will it take to see it all?  Unlike long running shounen whose huge episode counts generally work against them after they hit a certain point, adventure stories are built on the idea of limitless possibilities and therefore thrive even as the episode count starts getting huge.  The amount of detail also enhances the vastness of the world by the amount of information it communicates.  If a kingdom as relatively small as Balbadd is capable of working as the setting for a major story arc because it has a complex web of historical and political details that flesh out its story, then what happens when we look at a bigger empire?  This wealth of detailed knowledge not only keeps the world feeling huge but it makes it feel so much more real and believable, which in turn keeps us engaged as viewers for longer periods of time, which in turn plays to the strengths of a huge episode count.  Ok but if this type of setup is so powerful for storytelling and relatively simple to understand, if work intensive to make, why don’t the majority of long running shounen shows go this route?

One reason adventure settings are more rare is because they aren’t driven by the same kind of things long running shounen are.  In the Big 3 for instance, it is the battles which form the bread and butter of the series, the backbone which supports the rest of the story.  Adventure stories can have lots of action, but they also need a lot more dialogue to function properly.  It’s hard to build a vast and detailed world when the primary concern is the what next bad guy should look like and how the hero should beat him.  Therefore adventure stories tend to have more dialogue and narration, where characters talk about their surroundings before interacting with them.  Take Magi, when Aladdin winds up with Kouga people he spends most of his time learning their ways, culture, history and getting to know the people themselves before he takes any action which might affect the story.  Aladdin’s role in this particular arc is only so pivotal because he and by extension we understand the Kouga people as well we do both at the national and individual level.  Without that knowledge there’s no reason for Aladdin to step in and resolve the crisis facing the Kouga people other than to simply be a good guy.  Likewise the Alibaba’s struggles in Balbadd are only as poignant as they are because he and the people around him have given us all the information we need to understand and sympathize with the people of this fictional kingdom.  If we didn’t care about the setting and the people who inhabit it, then the story would be altogether powerless.  Shows that rely heavily on action to keep the audience interested simply can’t do what Magi and Log Horizon do.  It takes quite a bit of talent to keep an audience engaged when they’re primarily dealing with dialogue and for most people it’s just too hard.  So are there any other ways to make a world feel vast that might be easier to manage?

Variety is one way to keep a series feeling big without needing loads of dialogue.  Fairy Tail and HunterxHunter for example, feel much larger than other long running shounen because each show has a wide variety of characters and powers.  Unlike Naruto and Bleach which have a habit of recycling powers and/or villains to the point of exhaustion, Fairy Tail and HunterxHunter have little to no overlap in their powers and characters.  In Fairy Tail’s case everyone who has abilities that are closely related at first glance, has the specifics of their magics work very differently.  Natsu’s Fire Dragonslayer Magic looks nothing like Gajeel’s Iron Dragonslayer Magic, which looks nothing like Wendy’s Sky Dragonslayer Magic, even though they are all using Dragonslayer Magic.  Likewise Dragonslayer Magic is distinctly more reliant on physical techniques than Godslayer Magic despite the fact they’re both conceptually very similar.  The fact the characters don’t look the very similar helps too.  In HunterxHunter especially, despite how strange so many people look they are very easy to identify.  No one else looks like Hisoka or Killua or Gon, not even the people who are related to them.  Add to that Nen powers that are basically limitless in their variety and suddenly the world feels a lot larger.  You never know what new powers and characters wait beyond the horizon, which keeps you more excited.  Another way to manage variety is to make the settings and people of the world look very different.  In Magi none of the major kingdoms look the same or have the same culture, they all are distinctly unique.  Likewise the landscapes vary from deserts, to tropical islands, to imperial cities, to the steppes.  It feels like we have traveled the world in Magi because they have so thoroughly exposed us to the rich variety it has to offer.  Another card up Magi’s sleeve is ethnic diversity.  Many of the major kingdoms can be told apart as glance not just by their war gear or clothing but even by bodies of their subjects.  The Fanalis, the Imuchakk, the people of Heliohapt and the Artemyrans all look totally different from each other and more normal looking people with their distinct hair, eye or skin colors.  This keeps the world complete and interesting since not everyone looks the same.  If you keep introducing new looking races for new areas then it never feels like we’ve been to the same place and talked to the same people twice.  But what if you can’t manage this kind of variety for one reason or another, can anything else help keep the world feeling big?

Don’t make the home of your heroes the center of power in the series.  Part of the reason Naruto will never work as an adventure is because it’s so Konoha-centric.  All the great jutsus and characters who have a major effect on the story either come from or are related to Konoha.  Because of this the rest of the world is not as interesting because any other village will always have less to offer the story and the viewer.  In Magi the main reason our main characters go on adventures is because they don’t have a home.  Morgiana’s people have all but vanished from the continent they once ruled.  Balbadd has fallen into the hands of a foreign empire leaving Alibaba without a city to call his own.  And Aladdin is total foreigner to this entire world.  They all go exploring because there is precious little else for them do without fading into obscurity.  Likewise Gon’s little island home commands no power and Killua’s family mansion is in some small nation, our heroes are not at the center of power.  And this is important because…

In order for an adventure to be an adventure, the heroes must be actively pursuing the next horizon.  Gon and Killua leave home to discover more about themselves and the world.  They constantly move from one dangerous place to the next seeking power and hints about their goals as they go.  Compare this to Naruto where the story is more often about the dangers that come to him rather than any foe he seeks out.  Because Naruto rests on Konoha’s solid foundation there is rarely a need to leave it, hence he doesn’t go adventuring too often and so no adventure story.  In Magi Alibaba, Aladdin and Morgiana all travel to get stronger but also to learn and mature.  Morgiana wants to see her homeland and get some closure, Alibaba wants to mature so that he can prevent disasters like Balbadd from happening again.  And Aladdin wants to check the status of world so that he can keep it on the proper course.  In order to not only achieve their goals but to grow as characters they must by necessity go adventuring.  This is the beating heart of an adventure story.  Without it the adventure dies almost as soon as it begins.  But while this aspect is one necessary part of an adventure story, there is another that tends to keep long running shounen from being proper adventure tales.

The hero cannot be at the top of the food chain in an adventure story.  They are always going to be outclassed by someone or group of someones.  In HunterxHunter this role is given to Hisoka, who pops up frequently throughout the story to remind our heroes and the viewers that no matter how far Gon and Killua have come, they still have a long way to go.  Likewise in Magi, Alibaba is a pale shadow compared to Sinbad’s brilliance, Morgiana is much weaker than  adult Fanalis and Aladdin looks much weaker than the archvillain based on what little we have seen of them.  In a show like Log Horizon, Shiroe is the strongest person around but he’s always up against groups or challenges that require a group to succeed so he never appears overpowered for whatever situation he finds himself in.  This is why so many shounen can’t be adventure stories, even if the heroes aren’t at the top at the beginning they steadily make their way to the top and the adventure is over.  Unlike shounen shows, which are mostly concerned with having the hero overcome a challenge, adventure stories care more about having the hero learn and grow.  I’m not saying the heroes of adventure stories shouldn’t power up and get stronger, that is an integral part of the story, but it should not be the end goal of their travels.  In an adventure the heroes getting stronger should be either a secondary goal or a by-product of the travels and trials they undergo to reach their main goal.  Gon and Killua both want to get stronger and accomplish that goal frequently, but they are only ever getting stronger as a stepping stone to achieve their primary goals.  Gon needs to get stronger to find his dad, so he gets stronger.  If HunterxHunter was a more traditional shounen then Gon would still get stronger but it would likely be because he wants to beat Hisoka or become the Chairman of the Hunter Association.  It’s because Gon has ignored more typical goals in favor of just finding his father that HunterxHunter is able to work as an adventure story despite being a long running shounen series, when so many others simply can’t.  And that about wraps this topic up.  I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

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