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January 29, 2015

So How Good is Shonen Jump, Really?

I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m starting to suspect Soul Eater is my favorite anime.

Well, one of my favorites, I guess.  Gundam Build Fighters and JoJo are both making their way up there.  But in terms of preferences bred from experience?  From nostalgia?  I’ve got to give it to Soul Eater.  It had pretty much everything I could ever want in an anime: crazy cool characters.  Style in spades.  A sense of energy and spirit, be it in the fights or just some comedic beats.  And even if you look past the macabre elements -- themselves worth plenty of praise -- it’s worth noting that despite the title, Soul Eater’s real main character is ostensibly the super fighting bookworm Maka…i.e. the fabled “strong female character”.

Maybe I’ll get around to watching the anime in full one of these days.  It’s certainly an easier choice over some of the stuff that’s popped up this season.  There’s some good stuff, sure, but I gave Kantai Collection a look, and it’s a wonder that my skull is still intact.  Plenty of anime bloggers have noted the absolute onslaught of magical school/harem/halfhearted fantasy shows out and about; I’ve read their posts, and the content for some of them is the sort of thing that would make a fan drop the medium like an angry snake.

Which brings us to…well, you read the title, didn’t you?

In loving memory...or something like that. 

Shonen anime and manga -- the Jump fare being the most popular -- get a bad rap.  And I’d be lying if I said that the hate wasn’t deserved.  “It’s all just a bunch of big dumb fights!”  “Blah, blah, blah, power levels!”  “It’s been going on for way too long!”  “The creator doesn’t know what he’s doing!”  Stuff like that is pretty much the norm, and even if those are some aggressive opinions, they’re not entirely wrong. 

I think I checked out of Naruto right around the time the Pain Arc ended (I won’t talk about how it ended in case you don’t know, but let’s just say it backpedaled so hard that you can find feet lodged in the center of the earth).  I kept up with it via posts here and there, but from what I gathered consistently from that point on, Naruto collapsed.  Not to the point of being a train wreck, but to the point where you could conceivably argue that it forgot what it was about.  I don’t know much about ninjas, but I’m under the impression that as soon as you give them the ability to qualify as nuclear weapons, your story isn’t about ninjas anymore.

It’s really a shame, because I was on board with the show at the outset.  The pre-Shippuden canon, for the most part, set up the characters as fighters who would have to use wits and skill more than just brute force or friendship-bred willpower.  Prankster Naruto outwitting Zabuza in their first meeting is one of my personal highlights of the whole series, though his first successful Rasengan against Kabuto -- the fruits of an entire arc’s worth of training -- aren’t too far behind because of the effort he has to put in. 

Likewise, I was down for Bleach (even more than Naruto, honestly).  The first arc built up Ichigo and friends as Hollow-busting defenders of Karakura Town, but once they ventured into Soul Society, things got nutty…in retrospect, for better or worse.  There were some good twists, the cast must have tripled in size (at least) in a single stroke, Ichigo got his character development even in the midst of high-risk battles, and it all led up to a grudge match that spawned a thousand AMVs.  

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut the cracks started to show even back then.  The story couldn’t support taking on twenty-six new characters at once, three of the four core characters got taken out of the picture as quickly as possible, and to some extent it did just break down into power level shenanigans.  But that was just a sampler for what would plague Bleach later.  Creator Tite Kubo is on record saying that whenever he can’t come up with new ideas, he creates new characters; now instead of developing a small cast, fight after fight after fight grinds to a halt so New Character #86 can explain their power to New Character #112.

Pat of the Best Friends Zaibatsu summed it up pretty succinctly not too long ago: shonen starts out strong because that’s when it has all of its best ideas.  He went on to say that once it hits a tournament arc, you know they’re running out of steam.  I’m not 100% sure if that’s true, but he’s on the right track; shonen tends to be built on combat, but it takes more than cool fights to tell a compelling story.  Naruto did well enough past its tournament arc (even though prior to that it showed more interesting applications of ninja abilities than just one-on-one fights), but Bleach -- modern-day or years-earlier -- is technically nothing but a never-ending tournament. 

I guess you could say that the biggest pitfall any shonen can face is an obsession with power dynamics.  It makes sense; stronger enemies have to appear to escalate the threat in the story, so the heroes have to get stronger to keep things going.  But then you get situations where, instead of going on adventures or learning about how the world works (warts and all) or just getting the most out of life, it’s all about the next fight and making sure everyone’s ready for it.  And not even everyone, in a lot of cases; Sakura, Chad, and of course Krillin are all casualties of the plot.  If you could call it that.

If it seems like I’m being hard on shonen…well, it’s because I am.  But you know what?  It’s not wrong.  It’s not an instant failure-state to be a part of the category (even though it’s more of a demographic than a genre, but whatever.  Semantics).  It’s true that there’s an extremely high probability for things to go awry, but when shonen’s done right, it’s hard to turn your nose up at it.  As far as I know, One Piece continues to enjoy overwhelming popularity and acclaim because it hasn’t fallen into the usual traps; it’s still about that adventure, and it still keeps its core cast -- the strongest tools at a creator’s disposal -- relevant, on top of creating a wild, evolving setting that inspires wonder time and time again.

Far be it from me to be the grumpy old man who shuns anything new for some comfort-zoned nostalgia.  But here’s the thing: part of the reason people like me bought into Jump (and possibly anime as a whole) is because the shonen fare showed us all the power of an interesting premise -- something that couldn’t be reproduced so easily by others.  Even if they were destined to go awry, there was a focus to them.  An end goal.  A reason for its leads -- martial artists, pirates, ninjas, substitute Soul Reapers, whatever -- to press onward.  I don’t think I need to tell you how awesome that is…especially in a world where there are anime series getting aired that creates stupidly-powerful leads lusted after by little sisters or junk that willingly justifies molestation -- again, of little sisters.

*sigh* You’re starting to look like an angry snake here, anime.

Come on, guys.  I don't want to be a hater, but...fuck.

You know what, though?  Speaking personally, I think my favorite part of shonen -- Jump or otherwise -- is the passion it can toss out on a regular basis.  It’s built into the plot a lot of times, which definitely helps matters; even if the stories get bogged down by power level pissing contests, the underlying desires are there.  Naruto wants to be the ninja president.  Luffy wants to be the pirate king.  Ichigo wants to save everyone he can, his friends/family chief among them.  Goku wants to…well, it was “find the Dragon Balls” at first, but even at his worst I’d say “protect the damn universe” is a pretty noble goal.  A character that cares about something immediately has a leg-up on a character that doesn’t, because those personal stakes add a whole new set of tools to play with.

But the passion goes beyond just caring about something.  Time and time and time again you get to see these characters -- yes, even Krillin -- strike out and give it everything they’ve got.  It’s more than a little corny that they often draw power from their emotions, or courage, or their friends, but seeing that explosion of feeling on a regular basis makes it all worthwhile.  It’s what makes one awesome, unforgettable moment after another possible.  And really, that passion is something that plenty of stories can use -- and HAVE used, to great effect.  A lot of people think highly of Attack on Titan, for example (myself included); there’s any number of reasons why, but for me?  It’s hard for me to shoo away a series that makes carrying and chucking a damn boulder an electrifying experience.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say for now.  So, you know what that means, right?  Anime fans, your time has come; if ever there was a time to speak without repercussion -- without anyone calling you a nerd -- then here’s your chance.  You know the question at hand: how good is Shonen Jump, really?  Overrated schlock?  Underappreciated classics?  A worthless fragment of days past in the face of the Moe Armada, or a secret exemplar and trailblazer for the future? 

Don’t bother strapping on your scouters.  Ready?  Set…comment!

Oh, crap.  You know what I just remembered?  J-Stars Victory Vs. is actually coming to the States.  I wonder if they’ll make any adjustments for the Western release.  That might be asking for too much, but by the same token, does that hold over for new characters? 

Let the speculation begin, I suppose.  (inb4 a call for Death Note reps.)


  1. J-Stars+, in addition to a PS4 port, has quite a few gameplay adjustments confirmed already if you look around.

    In any case, Jump is prestigious and dwarfs other shonen magazines for a good reason. The problem is that some of the longer series are actually some of the most common-denominator pandering things I've ever seen that run too long for their own good, but that's what happens when you're so cutthroat. I don't know if you pay any mind to my blog posts showing the Jump rankings every week, but if you look, it showcases how harsh Jump can be pretty hard (if you don't, read Bakuman if you haven't yet).

    What's unfortunate is that, by being so justifiably cutthroat, you get series with lots of potential, like magico and Koisome Momiji, that get cut way before their time due to poor performance. Then again, you get good stuff like Assassination Classroom, Food Wars and My Hero Academia that weather the storm and are still well-handled.

  2. To answer your question, SJ is exhaustively predictable. It's even in their mission statement. However, by tempering my expectations I managed to not only read through Naruto, but enjoy it every step of the way. I rooted for Hinata, got my way and abandoned all notions of it being a serious business ninja story. It wasn't.

    Shonen Jump is junk food for my brain. I'm OK with this.

  3. I think much of the pitfalls that come with SJ come from length. You can only drag out FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT! for so long without things becoming stale and old hat. Much as I love Dragon Ball, I am well aware of the series glaring plot holes that come from just the managa alone. Nevermind the first dub, Toriyama himself created some Swiss Cheese.

    I get a huge kick out of fighting manga/anime and due to all the fights this pumps up the number of chapters episodes in a series. As long as there are interesting stories to tell, I suppose than can warrant a SJ series going on for so long, but as some have already said, SJ is very predictable. Still, SJ isn't something I can completely rag on, otherwise I wouldn't still enjoy the likes of Yu Yu Hakusho, but since that ended at 18 manga volumes, that's actually one of the shorter SJ series out there.

  4. Yeah, I've seen some of your posts. Admittedly I'm not one who puts TOO much stock in stats, but I guess that those numbers do matter in the long run. Jump's a deliverer of stories, but it's also a business. And as the Anarchy Reigns song goes: gotta get the cash, gotta get the dough. So I guess that cutthroat nature's to be expected.

    But hey. The stuff that does make the cut? I'm happy for it. I've heard good things about My Hero Academia (and IIRC there's some art floating around of Naruto giving its lead some serious props), so who knows? Maybe stuff like Naruto and Bleach are way out of their prime, but the latest stuff is set to lead us into a new age of heroes.

    Marvel vs. Capcom 2 reference, or pun-tastic nod to Academia? I'll let you decide.

    Now then. Time to see how J-Stars is shaping up. Yo, I want to see some sick tentacle combos at EVO. The hype is (or should be) real!

  5. Damn it, I don't want to say that you're right, but -- yeah, you're right. Any given person can sit down and point out all the thematic depth and symbolism from any given Jump series, but anyone who denies that it all comes down to looking cool and making cools stuff happen is lying super-hard to themselves.

    As much as I hate to admit it, you can probably get away with a lot as long as you look or act cool enough. That includes murder, presumably, but I'm pretty sure getting a first-hand account isn't beneficial to anyone.

  6. Also: http://www.amazon.com/Even-Monkey-Draw-Manga-Vol/dp/1569318638

    Nuff said.

  7. I will now make it my mission in life to find one of these fabled simians gifted in the arts. I will not rest until -- well, probably until I get bored and forget about it. Also, monkeys are so gauche. Horses are far superior -- and that's just if we're sticking to the Chinese Zodiac.

    This comment got weird fast.

  8. Amusingly, you're incorrect about 18 volumes being short by Jump standards. The vast majority of Jump series end at about 10-20 chapters.

    Short for a *popular* Jump series? Definitely.