This post represents the first of three entries our blog is submitting to the Manga Olympics for Bloggers. Voting begins in a few days on June 16th, so just enjoy the article for now. Or check out our illustrious competition.
Shonen manga, as literally defined, are manga marketed towards young boys. There are several implications of this definition, but I’m going to zero in on one in particular for the moment. Because shonen manga is popular with and being marketed towards younger boys, it must to some degree adhere to their notions of manliness, but still holds a unique opportunity to redefine what they see as cool, manly traits to aspire to. Let’s dive right in and take a look at some of the many shonen manga that subtly teach kids life lessons.
My first example is a fairly common trait of the shonen demographic of manga. There are countless shonen battle manga that feature a main character who takes lots of hits but refuses to give up: Naruto, Zatch Bell, Law of Ueki, and probably hundreds of others whom it would take pages of text to name. On a very basic level, these characters, standing tall in the face of physical exhaustion and long odds, demonstrate the value of persistance to young boys reading their series. It’s one thing to be told by an adult authority figure not to give up easily. It’s another to have (albeit fictional) awesome role models show you how it’s done.
Sports shonen manga like Eyeshield 21, Captain Tsubasa, and Hajime no Ippo have much the same effect, with the bonus that they also encourage kids to exercise. It’s notable that the most popular sports manga of all time, Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk (~120 million copies sold), features a main character who spends a lot of time not being good at basketball, but trying hard anyway. Sakuragi Hanamichi is a model of persistence and determination, and many parts of the series are devoted to showing how much practice he has to put in to keep up with the other players on the Shohoku team. There’s even a whole 3-chapter arc in the series which shows him learning to shoot from beyond the paint, with him taking 20,000 shots in the process. No wonder the number of kids playing basketball in Japan doubled from 1990-1996!
Fist of the North Star often comes up when people talk about manga that are uber-manly to the extent of being silly. The main character is a buff, muscled adult in a Canadian Tuxedo who roams the wasteland solo, all the while punching people and making their heads explode. But people forget that Fist of the North Star also gave us manly tears – it popularized the idea that a man could be sensitive and cry at times of intense emotional distress, as Kenshiro does at several points in the manga. This is a huge and very refreshing departure from persistent Tokugawa-era sentiments that being manly means never showing that you have emotions.
Dragonball, also a shonen manga, is the second most popular manga of all time, selling approximately 155 million collected volumes. Dragonball is well known in the U.S. for the last 26 volumes of the series, which would be come to known as Dragonball Z and create an anime boom in the States vis-a-vis its anime adaptation. But people don’t always remember that, for a good 14 volumes of the series, Son Goku was a young child, virtually unheard of for the protagonist of a battle series. Nowadays, that’s something nobody would bat an eyelash. At the time, though, in a battle manga landscape filled with protagonists who were (at their youngest) teenagers, that was a big deal. It was a big deal because it taught kids that size, and, by extension, outer appearance, was not necessarily reflective of true strength. If these big muscular guys who talk the talk can get beat by a kid an eighth their size, maybe those guys bullying you can’t take a punch either. If that guy who looks mean is actually really nice, maybe it’s worth talking to that kid in your class who’s strange even though he looks weird.
On the more practical side of things, having a child protagonist lent the series a more light-hearted tone. This in turn allowed the series to cater to more audiences at once by getting rid of some of the gore that defined older-era shonen series like Devilman and Fist of the North Star, allowing Toriyama to integrate his old gag-focused Dr. Slump audience with lovers of popular battle series like Kinnikuman.
I could talk about foodie manga and Ian Sinclair-role Toriko all day, and there are at least two messages it carries that play directly into lessons every kid should learn. First, Toriko has delicious food. Some of that food is exotic. Toriko shows characters eating food that may seem weird and gross at first, but inevitably end up being delicious, which the character’s joy at eating each new delicacy expresses in vivid detail through pictures and prose. So the next time you read Toriko, think about how many kids probably tried a new food because of whichever chapter you’re reading.
It’s definitely a novel way of thinking about the Vegetable Sky arc
Secondly, Toriko includes one particular character who is, by the standards of a battle series, completely useless. Chef Komatsu, Toriko’s treasured partner, is just about the physically weakest human in the series. But he’s so, so far from useless. He’s got godly cooking skills that make him an asset to Toriko and the object of increasingly adorable amounts of in-series admiration. Komatsu’s character is a great way of teaching that being a working man doesn’t necessarily relate to physical strength, but polishing whatever talents one has. I think that’s a particularly worthwhile message.
And while unnecessary fanservice-based series like To Love Ru may be horrible examples of how to treat women, there is at least one major shonen title which devotes significant time teaching boys how to treat girls right. Sasuga Kei’s Good Ending, a Weekly Shonen Magazine title which regularly sold in excess of 20,000 volumes, essentially starts out as a clinic on how to handle relationships. The series’ seventh chapter features a practice date almost entirely devoted to correcting basic mistakes men make on dates, vis-a-vis a practice date between male lead Seiji and his relationship coach Yuki. This stands out as exactly the sort of dating/relationship advice manga should be giving.
Of course, it is also possible for shonen manga to present terrible role models. Most comedy protagonists, such as Masaru from Sexy Commando or Oga from Beelzebub, are clearly cast in a comedic light when they act like insane sociopaths, and could be argued to be counterexamples. But the biggest example of a subgenre that glorifies a somewhat destructive type of manliness is delinquent/brawling series, many of which are shonen (Worst, Sakigake Otokojuku). It’s hard to really call the message that physical violence is fine so long as it follows a code of honor a good kid-friendly one. If anything, it’s uncomfortably close to the ultra-right wing philosophy espoused by extreme nationalist politicians and yakuza bosses. This is one message I can’t really give shonen manga a pass on.
Overall, though, I think shonen manga does a pretty good job of stealthily preparing young Japanese boys to become nice guys and admirable men while sacrificing basically no entertainment value. Its ability to do so is one of the main reasons I love the demographic as much as I do. I hope the above examples make a somewhat decent case for this argument.
If you liked this article, check back on June 16th for more like it, plus links to the MOB voting!