While Shounen as a whole makes up a significant portion of manga (and anime), there are instances we feel that once we’ve read one, we pretty much have been exposed to almost all of them. To a certain extent, many fans can agree with that assessment. It is undeniable that many of the top Shounen titles of the past thirty years share numerous qualities to the point that you can officially label them as clichés.
If you see a certain trope succeed the first time, it is only natural to apply it to another creation and so on. After all, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said great artists steal. If so, then that may be true to the point that we need to share some of the biggest clichés in Shounen.
10. Big Appetites
One cliché in Shounen is how the main characters tend to have big appetites. Everybody knows that Goku could put every buffet in Las Vegas out of business. In addition to Goku, most of Dragon Ball’s cast has the biggest appetites you could ever see. Luffy from One Piece is another big eater and Naruto loves his Ichiraku Ramen. L from Death Note is a unique addition because he says that the sugar from sweets stimulates his mind to work while apples for Ryuk are like drugs to Shinigamis.
For some characters, it can easily be a symbol that they are growing youths and need nutrition to stay healthy. Many of these characters in manga are pretty active and you can’t fight on an empty stomach so eat while you can, right? While you see this often, each series does their own job in presenting why their characters’ eating habits to get readers to accept it.
9. From Zero to Hero (Main Characters Who Are Underachievers or Underdogs)
Another (in) famous cliché in Shounen is the underachieving hero. One notable example is Naruto Uzumaki, who is the ultimate underachiever, outcast, and overall failure in life. After realizing that there is someone that cares about him and that he has a dream to chase, he finds the strength deep down inside to overcome his adversities to forge his path to become the greatest hero of his story. In a more semi-realistic setting, we have Eikichi Onizuka from GTO. Initially, no one takes him seriously because he is a former gang leader with a criminal record, and that he is undereducated by the standards of Japanese society and his superficial motivations should have him in jail. After showing his troubled students and fellow teachers that not all learning can come from a book, others start to see his contributions.
One present example of this stereotype is Izuku Midoriya from My Hero Academia. He lives in a world where a majority of the population has super powers called quirks but he does not possess one despite his parents having them. But a chance encounter with All Might, the greatest hero of his generation allows him to inherit his quirk and enroll in a high school that makes the best heroes in the world. This cliché tends to work because readers can relate to these characters. There are moments we do feel undervalued and it is human nature to seek some kind of acknowledgement because we all do our best. But these characters show that in manga, and in life, we have to pay our dues to get our moment to shine.
8. Hard Work and Dedication
Another stereotype we tend to see in Shounen manga is that the characters put in hard work in whatever it is they do. Many international readers can view this as a portrayal of Japanese work ethic. In a way, some people tend to not like this cliché because it glorifies something that could be counterproductive to one’s health, such as numerous real life cases of Karoushi, or death from overwork, as well as suicides.
We can argue that this branches from the heroes being underachievers because they don’t exactly have any natural talent of their own when they are introduced in the story. While this quality tends to apply to titles that are mostly action oriented, there are some non-action manga that perfectly applies the hard work cliché in a realistic manner. One notable portrayal is with Bakuman, a manga about making manga. Bakuman portrays the competitive field of becoming a manga artist and how demanding it can be once you get your foot in the door.
You got deadlines to meet, the need to satisfy the editors, occurrences of creative differences, and so on. Some work hard to make deadlines to the point that they put their health at risk and end up hospitalized, which has happened in real life and this manga does a great job of presenting the hard work cliché in a non-trendy perspective.
7. Righteous Delinquent
While it connects to some characters being underachievers, there are some that are good in nature, and there are others that are bad to the bone but with a heart of gold. One famous portrayal would be Yusuke from Yu Yu Hakusho. He’s the ultimate bad boy and he’s banned from his school. But in the end, he was willing to give up his life for a child.
Naruto and Boruto are introduced as juvenile rebels but in their own different ways. Naruto lashes out against society because they refuse to acknowledge him while his son’s rebellious nature is about wanting his father to acknowledge him creating a very contrasting cycle between the two. In the end, they want to do the right thing but they are pushed to doing certain things to get attention.
6. Orphans and/or Single Parent Household Main Characters/Familial Issues
While there are some Shounen heroes who come from stable households like Izuku of My Hero Academia, Kenichi from Kenichi the Mightiest Disciple, and Ryoma from Prince of Tennis, there are some Shounen heroes that are either orphans like Naruto and Goku, or come from single parent homes such as Yusuke from Yu Yu Hakusho that consequently influence their characteristics. While Goku and Naruto grew up on their own, they managed to become great heroes in their own ways. Naruto uses his background to motivate himself to become a hero while with Goku, his independent and isolated upbringing shapes his rather uneducated and yet humble, playful and innocent nature.
In Rumiko Takahashi’s latest hit Kyoukai no Rinne, Rinne has a widowed father and they have their issues. No thanks to his father, Rinne has little to no money leading to the difficult relationship they share. The quality of having a deadbeat single father (in a comedic presentation) is also demonstrated in Takahashi-sensei’s earlier manga, Ranma ½. Ranma’s father’s schemes always come back to haunt him and Ranma tends to be the victim. But if there are any positive portrayals of single-parent households in manga, it is most certainly seen in Hajime no Ippo where Ippo and his mother do their best to support each other.
5. Having Something to Prove/Big Goals
Also serving as a connection to the underachiever cliché, many Shounen mangas are about wanting to be the very best (like no one ever was). Naruto wants to be the Hokage of his village and Luffy from One Piece wants to be King of the Pirates. In just about every sports series that takes place in a secondary educational setting (Prince of Tennis, Slam Dunk, EyeShield 21, All Out, etc.), it’s all about being the best in Japan.
With Eikichi Onizuka from GTO, he wants to be the best teacher in Japan. Izuku from My Hero Academia isn’t exactly aiming to be the best, but he does want to do something great with his life and be like his idol, All Might. While some readers may be turned off by this quality, some would beg to differ since it teaches audiences the importance of having goals and that you have to work hard to achieve them, which many mangas with this stereotype all do an effective job in exhibiting in their own ways.
4. Second Wind/Comebacks/Power-Ups
Sometimes when someone is on the brink of losing, they find a second wind to make a comeback. Comeback wins have happened in human history so readers at times can forgive this infamous cliché. In the 2016 NBA finals, Cleveland won after a 3-1 deficit to Golden State. In the 1980 Winter Olympics, Team USA hockey came back to win in the third period to defeat the USSR. And every American witnessed it in the 2017 Super Bowl with the Patriots and the Falcons. And on youtube, you can see numerous instances of second winds or comeback victories in both boxing and MMA (we recommend Houston Alexander vs. Sokoudjou as a perfect example).
While it does happen in real life, there are times that a large portion of Shounen has been accused of abusing this trope. Saint Seiya has notoriously repeated this with Shiryu. In the fight against the Golden Saints, there were many times he should have been unable to continue due to exhaustion but he still found a way to muster his remaining strength and still win. Even in sports titles, it has been demonstrated with Ryoma through Teni Muhou no Kiwami, a state where you play at your best just for the sake of playing the game but somehow gives you a second wind and super powers. Naruto does this with Kyuubi and a majority of Shounen titles since Dragon Ball have all done power-ups to further justify second wins and comebacks.
3. Tournament Arcs
A significant percentage of action oriented Shounen all have tournament arcs. While Yu Yu Hakusho and Flame of Recca popularized it in the nineties, it actually dates back to Ring ni Kakero, the series that put Shounen Jump on the map in Japan. In some instances, they can have a decisive winner like in Dragon Ball and Yu Yu Hakusho, and there are times when there are none like in Naruto and Saint Seiya when the villains hijack it and ruin it for everyone. Sometimes the main characters win like in Yu Yu Hakusho, and there are moments where they don’t get to win like in My Hero Academia and Slam Dunk.
With sports titles such as Slam Dunk and Prince of Tennis, tournaments are more or less the name of the game. Sometimes the tournaments can be the last man or woman standing, or they can be team oriented whether they are team sports and/or martial arts. It is understandable that these arcs can turn off fans, not for the sake of being cliché, but because they do tend to drag and are seen as a distraction, or that they really serve no purpose. Nevertheless, they do offer some really awesome fights.
2. Training Arcs
In connection to tournament arcs and hard work, there are training arcs that are used as a means to building up the fight or game. While a Rocky movie can just simply skim this through a theme song montage, the training can go just as long as the fight. As some real trainers and fighters in combat sports would say, the real fight is won in the gym and for those that are familiar with that saying, they probably think that such story arcs can capture the realities of that aspect in the fight game through Shounen manga. For other readers, they just think training arcs are a waste of time or filler.
If there is one manga that is pretty excellent at repeatedly utilizing training, it is Jyoji Morikawa’s long running knockout, Hajime no Ippo. In this manga, it gives a very accurate depiction of the training boxers goes through to get ready for a match. In addition to the running, hitting the mitts, sparring, and weight training, the series does a great job on how Ippo and his coach come up with a game plan and how they prepare for it. In some fights working the body is key, and in others, it could be cardio. Another productive example of training arcs is with the rugby manga, All Out.
For the international audiences that have little to no familiarity with rugby, the training arcs do a great job of not only preparing the characters for their game, but also educating readers about the sport in regards to the rules, the positions, and what kind of build and abilities are necessary for certain positions.
1. Plot Armor/Suddenly OP to Beat the Bad Guy
Plot Armor is something that can apply to numerous sub-genres of anime and manga, but Shounen can be most guilty of this. Characters at times are immune to severe injury and or death from certain explosive moments simply because they are the main or significant character to the story, so they come back overpowered and win just because they can. While mangas do need their main characters, there are instances readers do like to identify with characters who are genuinely human and that they can get hurt, or even die (as shown in Ring ni Kakero and Ashita no Joe).
One simple example is Ichigo from Bleach. Just when you think he’s down for the count, all of a sudden, he has a new power to gain the victory. A good portion of the cast from Fairy Tail is infamous for being protected by plot armor, especially with Erza. While she can be vulnerable she still comes out on top due to being overpowered to the point that there is no way to further develop her. Due to this cliché, sometimes the novelty of a character dies down and to some readers, it gives them the impression that authors lack any creativity.
One honorable mention we would like to mention are the flashbacks and that alone could be its own article. For some people, after seeing some of these cliches they just stick with it or just give up. There are some that most readers can forgive, and there are others that make you want to scream just stop already. It can hard to ask for originality and sometimes, these cliches do work and you just need to give it a different kind of context to keep it fresh.
With underachievers, they work because they tend to be relatable to readers and show that anybody can be anything they want to be but it is going to take hard work, and that’s true in life. While many not like the concept of plot armor, but hey, at times the main character has to win because he’s the main character. But sometimes, the hero doesn’t always win like in Devilman.
Can Shounen manga still pull something like that off, today? So what do you guys say? Please give us your thoughts in the comments below.