Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Shonen Tribute ~ Why Anime Eventually Broke Overseas

"Mazinger Z" by Go Nagai

For a lot of people, anime has been a refuge from the collapse of the mainstream entertainment market over the last two decades. Since the 1980s, as mainstream books, television, and movies, slid into political correctness, obvious formulas, and post-modernism, a subculture of entertainment ballooned out from the underground and ended up nearly taking control of the world in the process. Anime in the '90s and early '00s filled a hole in many people's hearts as their local industry had begun to fall apart. It was truly big.

Not only was anime big, but it influenced everything at the time from French and American cartoons to comic book art styles to Joss Whedon shows. It was inescapable. Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, and Yu-Gi-Oh! alone were everywhere from the TV to card games to video games to toys and even films. For a while it looked as if anime would rule the world. It was almost inevitable.


Fast forward over a decade later, and anime is even more underground than it was in the 80s. It's already been posted time and time again how that happened, but that's not what this post is about. This is instead about how it appealed to so many the first time.

So, anime is not popular anymore. But there are series that still sell in high numbers and attract mainstream attention in both the anime and manga worlds and outsell remaining sellers in the declining US market. Dragon Ball, Naruto, One Piece, Fairy Tail, Speed Racer, Voltron, Rurouni Kenshin, Fullmetal Alchemist, Tokyo Ghoul, My Hero Academia, Attack On Titan and even underground hits like Fist of the North Star, Gintama, Space Adventure Cobra, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, and City Hunter, all have one thing in common.

They're all Shonen series.

"Ushio & Tora" by Kazuhiro Fujita

What is responsible for the overseas popularity anime and manga is credit that goes to the Shonen demographic and the artists that wrote for them. Boys Adventure is once again responsible for another movement. This means the reason you got Cowboy Bebop, Trigun (which started as Shonen), Record of Lodoss War, Planetes, and every other favorite you have brought over to your country is because of the success of Shonen. That is what opened the door.

Sure anime had underground hits in the 80s and early 90s (as "Japanimation"), but it wasn't until Shonen made its mark that anime hit critical mass.

The translation for Shonen Manga is read as Boy's Comics, and it is aimed at the 8-18 age demographic. It is essentially Japan's version of Boy's Own Adventure and teamed with light novels is almost entirely responsible for every Japan to US hit. There was a lot of crossover appeal at the time that still resonates now.

Manga had been around for centuries beforehand, but it was only brought into magazine form by the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. They weren't really aimed at any demographic in particular until the post-WWII era. The entertainment industry slowly began to change.

At the same time superhero comics were exploding in the US, Shonen Magazines were getting off the ground. They were seeing a lot of crossover influences in what made comics work: myths, legends, heroes and villains, and epic scope. From the beginning there was always a hope that both audiences and markets could co-exist.

The very first magazine was Shonen Sekai which ran from 1895-1914 but it wasn't until 1959 when Weekly Shonen Magazine by Kodansha, and Weekly Shonen Sunday by Shogakukan hit the scene and changed the game. They only started with a few series, but as they added more manga, they got more popular and sales only went up. This burgeoning popularity lead to 1968 when the current king of Shonen was finally released by Shueisha. This was the year Weekly Shonen Jump was released, and it is still Japan's top selling magazine to this day.

"Hajime No Ippo / Fighting Spirit" by George Morikawa

The first issues of Shonen Jump were so focused on their demographic that they ran translated comics of Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon, and Secret Agent X-9 in their pages to fill up the issue. That's right! Shonen Jump, which is responsible for Dragon Ball, Fist of the North Star, and Rurouni Kenshin, ran pulp. They even ran Flash Gordon in its first issue. This ties Shonen to pulp and the audience Shonen is aimed at: lovers of adventure, action, and romance.

These magazines focused on action adventure stories. Sometimes they had comedy series, and sometimes they ran romance series, but it was always built around hooking the young male demographic. And they always sold the most of every other demographic for it. It was what the people wanted.

This is reflected in how rough most of the art styles for Shonen tend to be. While Shojo (for young girls) is typically drawn in a soft style with prettier characters, Shonen emphasizes intensity and impact and their characters can look like and be anything.

There is no real limit to what a Shonen story can be. It can be a mecha series like Mazinger Z, a fantasy series like Saint Seiya, a sci-fi adventure like Captain Harlock, a romance like Kimagure Orange Road, a mystery series like Detective Conan/Case Closed, a sports series like Ashita no Joe, a comedy like Ranma 1/2, or an all out mind trip like Space Adventure Cobra. All the story has to be, is fun.

It was post-World War II Japan where the formula was tempered and forged and eventually became what it is today. It is fairly odd that as the Western world began to throw away the pulp ethos and decry them as childish and unneeded, Japan was embracing it and being rewarded with what is easily Japan's #1 entertainment export next to video games and one of their most important industries to this day. Both the manga and light novel industries were built off the back of these pulp-like series. As book sales sank in the west, they increased in Japan, peaking in the 1990s with sales of Shonen Jump issues featuring Dragon Ball, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Slam Dunk selling over a million just as their anime were setting record ratings. Japan might be the only area in the world where their entertainment industry could consider the 1990s as their Golden Age.

"City Hunter" by Tsukasa Hojo

These same series that were selling gangbusters in Japan slowly made their way to the West during the late 80s and through the 90s, eventually cracking the market here by the tail end of the latter decade. What was there to compete with them? Cartoons had thrown away adventure series, and comedies were getting more base and less like Looney Tunes. Dragon Ball found a crack where adventure had been left hanging, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! hooked kids with simple action stories they had been denied, and Rurouni Kenshin, Bleach, and Naruto brought in more adults and teens than the US market had ever seen. Then there was the underground hit called Samurai Pizza Cats, and weekday afternoon cartoon controversy known as Ronin Warriors. Anime was everywhere. And they were all Shonen.

At the same time, non-Shonen series made their way over with Sailor Moon, Gundam (though Wing and G have considerable Shonen influence), Cowboy Bebop, Slayers, Escaflowne, Trigun, and the Toonami action block, all managed to hit when they were needed. It's easy to forget, but there were no Western equivalents to any of these shows when they met huge success. The last serious Western show was Gargoyles, and the DC animated universe run by Bruce Timm was the only non-comedy shows kids and teenagers could get their hands on at the time. Anime had a clear line to make their entry into the Western market, and they took it hard.

This was what lead to the manga industry finally booming, and even US shows like Teen Titans or Ben 10 began adapting an anime-influenced art style. It got to the point that the "anime" aesthetic was as hated as the poor use of flash animation. Anime and manga were unstoppable.

Until they weren't.

But, self-sabotage aside, Shonen was responsible for it all. This is why there is any anime market here at all. Boy's Adventure stories were what led to this invasion and why you see so many moe anime avatars on Twitter or JoJo's Bizarre Adventure references on Tumblr. This is why so many younger authors and artists have so many strange anime influences and style in their works that the old farts just don't get. While the West was sleeping, Japan came in, ate their lunch, and left their mark.

"Kimetsu no Yaiba: Blade of Demon Destruction" by Koyoharu Gotouge

And it still sells.

Weekly Shonen Jump is still the highest selling magazine in Japan, and the only US manga magazine left, and its series are still some of the most popular series in Japan, and overseas. They still outsell the fads, and they still get stocked in the brick and mortar stores.

There's a lesson somewhere in there about respect for your roots, and giving the audience what they want, that the dying Big 5 publishers, cable TV networks, Marvel Comics, and Hollywood, could learn. In the end, the audience gets what they want, or nobody does. Because otherwise there will be nothing left. The cynical side in me is suggesting that it might the point, but that is neither or here nor there. The point is that action and adventure is what the audience wants. It's what they've always wanted. Romance and intrigue. Heroes and villains. Good and evil. It's what they're always going to want.

So the next time you're watching your moe series about a pathetic turd attracted to his grade school mother, remember that those inferior pleb Shonen series you hate is what got them here in the first place. Then, wake up, turn that crap off, and put on an episode of My Hero Academia instead. It'll do you good.

"Kyo Kara Ore Wa! / Today it's My Turn!" by Hiroyuki Nishimori


  1. Shonen Jump running pulp comics is a revelation, but not entirely surprising.

    I've noticed a tendency among "sophisticates" to look down their noses at shonen. There's another pulp connection.

    Been watching Ushio & Tora and it's quickly becoming a new favorite. I'm at the halfway point. I loved how a bunch of seemingly-characters-of-the-day united to rescue Ushio.

    That ANN article you linked...ugh. That's bad even by moe standards.

    1. The post-WWII period in Japan allowed them to also look into the West more for inspiration than ever before. Ushio & Tora, for instance, was apparently inspired by a book by, I think, Tanith Lee. Finding information about it is difficult, but there is a lot of Western influence in anime.

      Speaking of Ushio & Tora, I'm glad you're enjoying it. It's one of the best Shonen I've ever seen and it has been criminally overlooked. You're just at the point where the story goes insane.

      And, yeah... that link. While we have a problem with SJWs and PC stories where certain things are never allowed to happen, Japan has a problem with porn.

      I'm not talking about fanservice, cheesecake, or random nudity. That's always been a thing. The amount of series now featuring outright pornography is off the charts. The fetishism is getting really overt and uncomfortable.

      Thankfully there are series I listed above like (the just licensed) Kimetsu no Yaiba which realize storytelling should come first.

  2. I just finished Ushio & Tora tonight. Wow. I'm gonna buy the dvds and probably hunt down the manga too - wish there was an official translation for it.

    1. Glad to see another fan!

      They just unveiled the dub cast recently, including the voice of Tora from the original OVA.


      Sounds great.

      I'm also hoping for the manga to be officially released over here eventually. It really is an overlooked classic.