Thursday, April 4, 2019

Still Fighting: Sixty Years of Shonen

We talk a lot about forgotten traditions and warped ones, but how about those still holding the line? You would be surprised just how well following a formula that works could hold tight for so long but as those in Generation Y know, Japan had managed it for an absurdly long time. Nowhere is this more obvious than in their most popular export: the shonen story.

In March a milestone was hit for two of Japan's most popular magazines. While much was made about Weekly Shonen Jump reaching its 50th year of creating hits in 2018, this year marks the 60th anniversary for both Weekly Shonen Magazine and Weekly Shonen Sunday. It is hard to imagine from our perspective how a tradition could go for so long. These magazines started well after their format had all but went extinct overseas and yet they are still going to this day and running series that continue to get exposure all over the world. If you know Japanese entertainment then you know at least some of them.

There's that pulp tradition at work. Tales of action adventure never date, aesthetics be damned. No matter how much subversives try they can't stop it.

Weekly Shonen Magazine (WSM) is unique in that it is most known for running sports series such as Ashita no Joe, Ace of Diamond, Baby Steps, and Hajime no Ippo: Fighting Spirit, and romcom/ecchi romps such as Love Hina, School Rumble, Negima! and Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches. It's quite the split, but since Weekly Shonen Jump more or less owns the action genre, WSM managed to capitalize on what they had traditionally missed.

At the same time it did run its fair share of well known classics of the form such as the sf robot action story Cyborg 009, the tokusatsu Kamen Rider, one of the first cyborg comics in 8-Man, the highly subversive and controversial Devilman, the mega popular martial arts comedy Kotaro Makaritoru!, the thug with the heart of goal hit Shonan Junai Gumi and its sequel Great Teacher Onizuka, mystery Kindaichi Case Files, parody of tough guy manga Cromartie High School, and the most recent redeemed bully chronicle A Silent Voice. There is a lot more I could have mentioned that I just didn't get to, but the magazine has lasted for a reason.

In case you were wondering the magazine also ran traditional action shonen action series as well. The most infamous being the late 90s trio of the hired muscle escapades of GetBackers, the fantasy quest Rave Master, and split personality series Samurai Deeper Kyo, all of which are far more well known by their anime adaptions overseas. They were the first to really break WSM's name outside of Japan. But all three pale in popularity to the two more recent action series you've probably heard of named Fairy Tail and Seven Deadly Sins.

While it's not as popular as Weekly Shonen Jump is, you can clearly see how it competed with it for so long. There is something for everyone. The magazine is no slouch in content.

Of course the rise of digital means the physical edition's circulation has dropped in recent years it hasn't stopped the magazine from producing hits. It's still well known in Japan to this day. If anything Weekly Shonen Magazine should be more well known a name overseas than it is. Chances are if you're a consumer of anime you know at least some of what was mentioned above.

It put out many great series still being rediscovered today. See if you can recognize some of these titles!

The other magazine celebrating its 60th anniversary is Weekly Shonen Sunday. Sunday is a bit different than the other two of the Big Three in that its focuses are a bit more niche and catch all for whatever doesn't fit in the other two. Mostly it goes sideways in obscure directions for content. If it's weird or off the wall you are more likely to see it in Sunday.

Despite that strangeness, the reason it is called Sunday is because it is meant to evoke the calm and rest the reader would feel kicking back and relaxing. It actually comes out on Wednesdays. But the emphasis on Sunday tends to make the magazine focus a lot more on slice of life series in between its weirder content.

Because of this core concept Sunday has never been the most popular of the Big Three but has always been in third behind the other two. That said, when Sunday gets a hit it is always a titan. Of the three I liken it the most to that one shelf in the old comic store that always had the weirdest yet most engrossing stuff in the back. Because of this Sunday is overlooked way more than most would figure, especially overseas.

For some bizarre stuff you have Osomatsu-kun, Wonder Three, Blue Submarine No. 6, The Drifting Classroom, Urusei Yatsura, Hono no Tenkosei: Blazing Transfer Student, Detective Conan, Ranma 1/2, Kyo Kara Ore Wa!, Mai the Psychic Girl, Karakuri Circus, Cross Game, and Mermaid Saga. Many of these I would deem classics and I'm certain most readers will have heard of at least some of those.

Their straightforward stuff meshes in well with those. They even ran series by Mitsuru Adachi, quite possibly the most popular sports manga artist with works such as Touch, H2, and Rough. This isn't forgetting Major by Takuta Mitsuda about the life of a boy baseball player who the manga follows towards adulthood. You'll find a little bit of everything in Sunday.

But, of course, it wouldn't be shonen without traditional action series. You can't forget about Tezuka's Dororo, the classic mecha Giant Robo, supernatural buddy action Ushio & Tora, Isekai favorite Inuyasha, the unique mecha Getter Robo, the revolutionary manga version of Mobile Police Patlabor, the ninja action Flame of Recca, pulp adventure favorite Spriggan, monster hunting Ghost Sweeper Mikami, the obscure scientific experiments of Project ARMs, the Pokemon meets Ushio & Tora of Zatch Bell, the weird demon exterminating of Kekkaishi, and the Arabian Nights flavored Magi: the Labyrinth of Magic, just to name a small sample of what Sunday ran. Even their action series are a more on the weird end.

See if you recognize some of them here:

So why make a post on this? After all, certainly anyone interested in anime or manga knows these series. But the answer is obvious. To be sure that there is a place for tradition in entertainment and the arts. 

Too often we're told something is out of date, or antiquated, or even irrelevant, when what they are talking about is aesthetics. Does going back to black and white coloring or 1960s character design make sense? No. But that was not what links all the above series together despite their creation dates, is it? That's just an aesthetic, and not the soul of art.

For instance, when someone says they want new Star Wars, do you think they mean the same plot as the original movie wrapped in a new garb or a fresh plot wrapped in the original's garb? Which one do you think takes more effort? Which one do you think follows closer to a tradition instead of pandering?

How else is new art created then by following old formulas and the artist adding their own stamp to it? That is how you get 60 years of tradition with no end in sight. There is nothing in the western world with that level of commitment as Japan.

WSM and Sunday still run series just as they did back when they started except with more modern art designs (though not always) and different cliches (though, again, not always) and have put out hits for decades. They have managed just fine.

No one in Japan is eager to overturn tradition, and they benefit from it being around. Though the audience has moved to digital and physical is sliding away they are still there and as big as ever. Even overseas audiences have remained since Japan first broke in back in the '80s. Anime and its moe problem aside, manga doesn't have the same issue. It's still cleaning house and giving readers what they've wanted since the beginning.

Where do you see that attitude in western art today?

Certainly not in comic books that are hemorrhaging money while insulting anyone who pines for storytelling and art from the form's peak. Not in video games with AAA lobotomizing gameplay and player choice while insulting customers in their advertisements. Not in the publishing world where authors go on social media to insult customers who voted wrong and then telling them to not buy their work--something a Japanese writer would never do. Western art is sick and in need of cleansing.

A traditionally fresh attitude is something you can only get from the newpub types such as the pulp revolution who are more about forging that patron and artist bond anew and continuing on from where we left off.

Much is said about how anime is the last bastion of entertainment that isn't imploding, but it's really manga (which gets adapted to anime) where the source of that is. And until dying western companies begin invading the east, God forbid, it looks to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

Unlike how the pulp style was abandoned for "respectable" styles that aren't respected by anyone who matters and allowed western entertainment to fall into the rut it is currently in, manga kept its head and went the distance instead. And now it has taken over the worldwide stage.

So there is something we can learn from Japan and its sixty plus years of tradition in the arts. We can learn what we lost, go back and pick it up, and start anew. Until we do Japan will continue to leave everyone in the dust.

We're gonna need quite the revolution to catch back up again, but we can do it. We just have to remember what we lost.


  1. It is easy to taste the defeats we have suffered culturally and artistically; not so easy to see the possibility of victory some time in the future. This post, however, shines a little bit of the light that seemed lost on a tiny corner of the interwebs.

  2. I really wish there were comics in the pulprev or superversive scenes.

    Or are there...?

    1. There are a few. I'd start with Flying Sparks by Jon Del Arroz. He keeps up more with the newpub comic scene than I do.

  3. As far as PulpRev comics, Michael Tierny writes ERB comic strips for the ERB Estate. Annual subscriptions to one or more strips are available. Carson of Venus was just released as a new series. Samples are available before dropping your cash oh them.
    ERB Comic Strip Subscription page

    H/T: Cirsova Magazine

    1. Ah, yes. I almost forgot about Tierny's work. He's been on a roll.

  4. My Hero Academia is unbelievably formulaic. This is its biggest flaw, which is also to say this is why everyone adores it.

    1. That it does it without having to wink or sneer is why it's so well loved even by cynics.