Mainstream shonens are bad by default.

I know, the title is kinda clickbaity; I obviously intend to trigger those who love Naruto type series; but I can also explain why it’s actually true.

Btw, since people seem to be confused about it: This article is talking about especifically Mainstream shonen, not shonen as a genre. I make the distinction between the two later.

Recently, Chunchyroll announced the 2017 best anime awards, and as the normie fest they are, almost every award went for My Hero Academia, no matter what kind of award it was, because it’s the popular anime of the year, in the same way in 2016 almost every award went for Yuri on ice, because it was the popular anime of the year. It was especially obvious with the category of “best animation”, because it’s an area that can be judged more or less objectively, and objectively, both of them are greatly surpassed by other anime in the same year.

 

This appeared the same year as Yuri on ice, but obviously the skater guys are better animated.

This caused again a discussion about what is a mainstream shonen or if mainstream shonens are bad, and of course if you say “yes” you get called a “hipster”.

Of course, people who make that accusation either have no idea what hipster means or they just want to win an argument by ad hominem so they throw it there. A hipster, in the regard that affects this conversation, would be someone who rejects everything that is popular because they want to make a part of their identity to not watch popular stuff. They want to feel special for watching only obscure things that only they know. That is completely different to not wanting to watch a type of series because you know it’ll be bad.

And now all of the Naruto type fans will be crying “you can’t say a shonen is bad just because it went mainstream”. Well, thing is, you kinda can.

Have in mind, that most people who share my opinion, are people who have studied, or work, in areas related to storytelling. I studied arts at university, specifically in the area of audiovisuals and entertainment, with courses such as how to write a script. I also work as a comic artists, have been done comics since forever, and I have a webcomic since about seven years ago. Most of the time when I find someone who shares my opinion, they’ve studied similar things related to writing a script, direct a movie, draw comics, writing books, etc. What I mean is that when we say this, we do it because we know you usually have to decide if you want to create a good work, or a popular work, because there is certain stuff you have to do with a work if you want it to become mainstream, and that stuff imply lowering the quality of the product; I’ll explain.

(i make a minor edit here, cause it seems that paragraph could be confused with saying “im better than you”. The intention of that info about me was to make clear that my opinion about narratives and storytelling doesn’t come from thin air. You don’t need studies to understand this, but it helps you see where i’m coming from. Of all of the stuff i’ve writen here with the intention of been provocative, this wasn’t one of them)

First of all we should define what mainstream means. And I would say there’s a difference between an anime that “becomes mainstream” and a “mainstream shonen”, even if in many cases they become the same thing. An anime that becomes mainstream is essentially one that becomes popular, or at least known, for the wide population even if they’re not much into anime. We could say they’re “casual anime”. Many people who have watched things like Naruto have never seen any other anime nor will do, or if they do it will be another mainstream shonen. I would say it’s not the same as “popular”, because an anime can be popular within anime fans, but completely unknown outside of the community. I’ve liked popular anime like Jojo’s, Kill la Kill, Code geass or Keijo, but none of those have reached into people outside the anime sphere.

I liked KlK cause it’s like an old school shonen of the 80s but with super cool animation, not for the plot XD

A “mainstream shonen” is a shonen that is DESIGNED to become mainstream. It’s built and filled with a series of elements that have the intention of making the anime wildly popular with any kind of person at the expense of quality. In many cases, those two things become the same; a mainstream shonen becomes mainstream precisely because it has been designed to become mainstream. Many other times they don’t, but they’re still built with those elements anyways, even if they failed. When an anime becomes mainstream, it’s almost certain it has done so because it has all of the elements that make an anime go popular at the expense of quality.

Don’t confuse “shonen” with “mainstream shonen” tho. A shonen is just an anime whose target audience is young people, on a range that could go from 12 to 20, to say some number. That means they’re not going to have an adult story or development, but the objective can be accomplished in a lot of ways, not just the “mainstream” route.

Now, why do I say that the cost of becoming mainstream is quality? Simple: Because for a work to become mainstream, it has to be understood by the biggest amount of people possible; most people have average intelligence, and there are many people in this world who are not very smart, or lack knowledge, or lack the experience and tools to understand an anime narrative (it doesn’t help that many Subs don’t even translate terms cause they assume everyone knows them), or even if they are smart enough, they are bored by more complex or nuanced works because they have to think and maybe they just want to stop their brain for a while and enjoy some fights. Not saying i’m super smart but at least i can understand a seinen.

Mainstream shonens treat spectators as if they were idiots. It’s one of the things that I most hate about that kind of anime, but at the same time I understand it IS what they have to do if they want to become super popular, because many people in the world IS stupid, and they want to tap into that market as well. One of the most obvious examples I can think of right now is the “female titan” in Attack on Titan (go past the next two paragraphs if you don’t want spoilers).

In the anime, at some point a female titan appears and fights the characters. It’s insanely obvious that the titan is Annie, one of the protagonist partners. She looks almost the same, fight in the same style, we know people can turn into Titans, and Annie is nowhere to be found. Also, by narrative rules, when a “mysterious character” appears, it’s almost inevitably one we already know. So it’s obvious who she is to the point you’ll have to be dumb to not realize it, yet the anime keeps operating under the premise that we don’t know it, and then it reveals it in a “surprise!” way as if we are so dumb we would’ve never guess it.

But you know what? There WERE people so dumb they didn’t realize. Try making a search for terms related with that episodes, and you’ll see comments of people surprised at the revelation when the episode aired, or later commenting how “unexpected” it was.

There ARE people THAT dumb and a mainstream shonen tries to have them as audience as well, so they try to dumb everything down to the most ridiculous levels so they’re liked by huge amounts of people who would not follow the anime otherwise.  It’s really understandable since the target audience range of this works begins at around 12. I’ll point out some of the ways mainstream shonens dumb down, and will use some anecdotes of my own comics.

Plot: For a shonen to be mainstream it needs to have a very, very simple plot. It has to be understood with no problems by kids of even 12 years old, and by the kind of people who thought the “female titan” revelation was unexpected. Every single thing you add that could need any kind of thinking by the spectator means audience you’re losing. You wanna introduce a plot twist? Well guess what, some people will not get it, and others will not like it (cause that’s what happens with plot twists, some love them, other hate them), so that’s a number of people who stop watching. You wanna introduce some complex power or premise? Well throw some big percentage of people out the window as well. You wanna introduce some politics or aristocracy games? Oh god, you’re in for losing half your audience there.

I remember that the first time I watched Ghost in the shell I was like 14 years old, and I liked it a lot (but that shouldn’t be used as reference cause I’ve always preferred seinen since I was little), but at the same time I didn’t understand all of the political stuff. Then a decade later I watched it again and I was like “why I didn’t understand it? It’s very easy”. Well, the answer is because I had 14 years old and knew nothing about politics, and if it wasn’t because I’ve always liked seinen, my reaction could have been the same as I see many teenagers when they watch the movie: be bored. That’s why you have to decide if you want to do a good story, or a popular story; if you try to do the first you’re gonna lose audience.

Also, by simple nature of how editorials in japan work, mainstream shonens don’t have their story thought out in advance. In Japanese editorials, mangakas don’t think entire stories with everything already decided; they just send tons and tons of premises for a beginning of a story, and if one is published and gets popular, they just keep drawing stuff until they stop been popular and have to end the story (or the editorial lets them do it). This means no big plot twists or stuff that is revealed has been there from the beginning hiding in plain sight, etc; but just random new enemies that the artist comes up with as they go. Sometimes people is fooled by a simple trick we artists do (and yes, I do it too) when we left some stuff open so we can go back to it in the future in any way we want depending on how we have developed the story, but readers will think it was all thought out from the beginning.

I mean, I said at the moment I read the first tome of Naruto that the story was gonna end with the exact same panel it begins, but don’t think even for a second that the author had the story in his mind when he drew that panel; it was just a way of securing himself a cool last panel by drawing the same thing at the end with whoever he wanted in it. I did the exact same thing when I presented the very first promotional drawing of my webcomic and added to it a character that I only had an idea what she was gonna be about, and she didn’t appear in the comic till like 3 years later, in a completely different way as my initial idea.

So for a shonen to be mainstream, the plot has to be very straightforward, very simple, let nothing to peoples understanding or guesses, explain everything as if the spectator is a little child watching Sesame street, and repeat it several times to be sure (because Killing bites is about who has the sharper fangs), with no idea how it will end or even what will happen in it a year onward. In fact mainstream shonens usually have the same story told in different interpretations, with a main character that is a little dumb for everything except fighting, where he keeps surpassing himself to beat enemies who keep appearing to destroy/conquer the world. If you watch one, you’ve more or less watched them all. They are so predictable you’ll be surprised by almost nothing in them. Unless you are the female titan guy.

Even Dragon ball makes fun of it at this point.

Characters: As well as the plot, they have to be very simple, bidimensional. They usually have one main characteristic that’s hyperbolized and maybe one secondary trait, and that’s everything people need. More than that and you’ll begin to have people not understanding or liking the character because they think they’re contradictory (you know, like a real person) or will have difficulty identifying the character if they don’t have one hyperbolized trait. Remember that anything you include that has some complexity means a number of spectators that you lose.

People who watch mainstream shonen usually love a couple of characters because they like the trait that characters has, and the characters has it in a super exaggerated way; then they fill the rest of the character in their mind with other traits they like (this is also the same process behind love at first sight), but don’t ask them about the real traits of said character or you may burst their bubble. Some characters manage to obtain some other trait, but it’s usually because the anime gets so many frigging episodes, and so many filler, that at some point another trait is introduced, but I hardly consider a character can be called tridimensional if this doesn’t happen until a hundred of episodes have passed. Also in those circumstances, when an anime is so long that it spans 10 years of emission, the spectators end up getting old enough that they begin to read seinen, so those shonens tend to try to make things a little more adult when they do their later arcs to adapt to it.

I have an anecdote about this with my own comic. I introduced at the beginning a hunter who was established as a “lone wolf”; she was a hunter who tended to go hunt alone, and even when she did it with her team, she tended to charge the monsters. At some point I made a special telling how her team came to be. Even when they met she was a lone wolf, who just left her team behind to go for the big prey alone. Then, the team ends up surrounded by a great number of monsters, too much for them, and she tells her partners to fight together as a team under her command, to which some characters look at her in disbelief, and one even refuses.

Now, when I did that, I had some complains of the character been done badly, because it was a contradiction that she always wanted to fight alone and then suddenly she argued for not fighting alone. Well, there was a simpler explanation: She’s a hypocrite.

I created a character who had more than just one exaggerated characteristic (lone wolf), but rather who was egoistical and just changed her tune depending on what best suited her; if the monsters where weak enough she went alone and reaped the reward, but if they were strong, she tried to convince people to fight as a team, with her on top. It’s not a particularly hard concept to grasp, and the clues to understand it are all there, since some characters had looks of “why the fuck are YOU saying that?”, but even so some people didn’t understand it as a character with a more complex personality, but rather as a mistake because the character broke a rigid archetype. I can’t say if I lost readers because of that, but when we’re speaking about anime watched by tens of thousands of people, every instance like that can mean losing spectators, so mainstream shonens just keep the characters rigidly into those archetypes.

Which takes us to the next point, Archetypes

Now, archetypes are not a bad thing; in fact I think they’re one of the strong points of anime. Anime uses archetypes so spectators can quickly know how more or less a character is in general terms, and then later they dwell deeper into their personality, or make the characters evolve. In fact anime has managed to create their own kind of archetypes that are more complex than archetypes in other media; when we identify a character by “tsundere”, “yandere”, etc, we get more information than with western archetypes.

The problem is that mainstream shonen has too rigid archetypes. Characters in mainstream shonen are presented with an archetype and that archetype is all those characters are. They don’t dwell into anything more complex and rarely make the characters evolve; doing so could create the problem mentioned in my anecdote, or make people not like a character anymore because they stopped filling the rigid archetype they like. You’ll always have the optimistic protagonist who tries to solve everything by force of will, the rival/friend, the aggressive girl, etc. In fact it’s implied that it’s a good thing those characters never change. The protagonist must keep been the optimist guy who tries to use force of will, even when the anime is close to the end and every other character is in despair; the rival/friend must always be in that intermediate state, never becoming a full friend not interested in rival ship, nor a full-fledged enemy. Unless you’re writing the conclusion, of course.

Some people get triggered when you tell them this because you touched their waifu/husbando, and they try to use some minor irrelevant detail the character have or some minor change in the episode 120 as if that means the character is super complex, but in the end if you look at what are the defining characteristics of a mainstream shonen character in episode 1 and episode 50, they’ll be the same, and it’ll probably be just one hyperbolized trait.

Now, characters can be cool with a bidimensional personality, I’m not saying you shouldn’t like them or that you’re dumb if you do (oh do I love my Juri han), but let’s not pretend they’re complex characters who add complexity to a story just because in one episode they said what type of ramen they like (and that Is an actual argument someone gave me to claim a character was complex).

Praise her. Or she’ll kill you. Well she’ll do it anyways.

There’s an easy exercise for this: Try to think about a number of completely different situations or topics, they can be random. If you can know what the character would do, say or think in every single one of them, and they all come from the same source, it probably means the character is bidimensional, cause they would solve all of those situations through a hyperbolized trait. Think about all of the characters who solve everything through the use of martial arts and willpower. And when I say everything I mean there’s even a Ranma movie where he wins a cooking competition, with no knowledge of cooking, because martial arts and willpower.

I have another anecdote with my own comic. I said I’ve been doing my comic for 7 years, but it would be more accurate to say I’ve been doing the same setting for 7 years, with 2 comics. The first one was Guild adventure 7 years ago, that lasted 5 years. Then I started another comic in the same setting, Monster girls on tour, with some secondary characters of Guild adventure as protagonists in this new one.

Guild adventure was what could be called a deconstruction of the shonen genre. More than a parody, I did a story on the line of a typical shonen, but then proceeded to break every trope and make fun of every stereotype. The protagonists were also a strange group; one of them was a typically Naruto guy with the difference that he was truly incompetent and useless; then we had two twin sisters who seemed to fill the “tsundere/yandere” archetypes but they were really trolls, and a small fighter who thought herself the best while been actually weak and losing every time. If I had to make a comparison I would say they were kind of a Konosuba group.

Now, at some point of their story, I introduced a group of rivals that was intended to be a parody of the typical protagonist groups in mainstream shonen. In fact, I wanted to poke fun precisely at how characters have to be stereotypical and bidimensional to become popular. So I created a more or less typical “protagonist” warrior, with a sword, because protagonists always use sword; with fire powers, because their element is always fire, and with a “willpower” personality. I also introduced a rival/friend, and a couple of dumb sisters for comic relief.

The result of it was that the group became the most popular characters of the entire comic. Not only that, when I created Monster girls on tour, it wasn’t intended to replace Guild adventure, just to add some extra funny strips. But the comic quickly became more popular than Guild adventure, and it ended replacing it.

So, yeah, the group of characters I did to poke fun at how characters who have all the bad elements I’ve mentioned are the ones who become popular, became the most popular characters and comic… I would say I kinda proved my point.

Animation: Now this would seem a non sequitur claim, since after all how a studio animates is not related to how the mangaka wrote their manga. But the thing is, that mainstream shonens are, as mentioned, usually super long series with no end in sight because they just keep doing stuff, introducing new enemies, forever and ever. So the budget for an anime based on a mainstream shonen must be distributed along a very wide number of episodes, making it simply not possible to emulate the animation quality of a 12 episode series of similar budget.

Some have better animation than others, depending if they are been developed in short seasons or long, but overall the quality is low, and the fans like them because many of them have never seen anything outside mainstream shonens to compare, or they confuse “I like this two characters and wanted to see them fight” with “good animated fight”. I’m dead tired of watching youtube “best fights in anime ever” compilations where 9 out of 10 examples are mainstream shonen fights with very bad animation. I’m sorry but two static images of characters talking and then two jumps with another static images surrounded by speed lines are not exactly close to my standard of good animation. Better try Karas, or Black rock shooter, or better yet look at this.

Aside of that, an argument could be made for the topic of “designs”, since shonens tend to do pretty unrealistic and stupid stuff (Ninjas with super saturated orange and refractory bandanas? I see how they’re experts of camouflage) that take out the seriousness of a story, but I actually like unrealistic designs and I’m able to apply suspension of disbelief, so I’m not really gonna pose that argument, just have in mind that for some people they do strip a work of seriousness or keep them away from anime at all.

In fact, another reason why I don’t like mainstream shonens is because so many people are mistakenly convinced that they’re the standard of what anime is, that they don’t want to see other better stuff they could probably like. I seriously cringe every time I see someone saying something along the lines of “ok I think anime is stupid but I’ll give it a try, tell me the best anime out there” and all the answers are “Naruto” and “Bleach” or whatever is the mainstream shonen of the time. Yeah I’m sure that someone who has a poor idea of anime to begin with will be convinced of its greatness by watching Naruto.

So, well, that’s kind of my dissertation about why I’m not going anymore to waste a second watching a mainstream shonen no matter how many people tell me it’s the best thing ever and totally different of every other shonen; because every single time I’ve done it, it has ended up been exactly the same as every other one, and with the same low quality. Because as I said; to become THAT popular, it NEEDS to be bad.