What is Seinen? [Definition, Meaning]

ghost in the shell Koukaku Kidoutai Highlight 3 the GitS universe

Seinen is a genre/demographic that is aimed primarily at the male, college-aged/young adult demographic. Seinen anime and manga tend to be a little bit more mature than it’s counterpart, Shounen, which is aimed at younger boys. This can be in Manga where a trademark of Seinen material is the use of Kanji in the writing. This is in contrast to Shounen Manga which have Furigana (A type of reading aid) adjacent to the Kanji, to help younger readers who have not advanced so far in their study of Kanji.

In anime, Seinen series are often aired at later time-slots. For example, Neon Genesis Evangelion, famous for it’s cryptic, off-the-wall story telling, is considered Shounen because it aired at a 6pm time slot, and Hideaki Anno aimed the story at Youth. Also, sometimes Seinen is mistaken for shows that have a dark, edgy tone containing brutal violence but this is a common mistake. Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan) is an example of a series that has such content and tone, but is actually a Shouen series, running in a magazine aimed at a young demographic.

Seinen has a number of signifiers, but you can generally tell it apart from Shounen as Seinen series either have a more complex plot, more mature themes and content or have an older main character. Seinen series are also much more cynical and pragmatic in their approach to conflict. It’s also more likely that the conflict in a Seinen series might deal with more shades of gray, rather than black and white and good against evil. Also in Seinen, much more attention is paid to things like the overall plot, character interaction and dynamics, rather than fighting as compared to Shounen battle-manga. Increased realism is also a fixture of Seinen Material, often with a more realistic art-style or with details thrown in throughout the story to make it closer to real life. Even in Sci-fi or Fantasy Seinen, the fictional worlds may function very closely to the way ours does, often subject to the same increased cynicism mentioned prior.

It’s also important to recognize that Seinen generally refers to shows that are marketed to an older demographic, and not who it ends up appealing to. Seinen material can find a younger, male audience as well as an older, female audience as can virtually all demographics of anime, respectively. Also, interestingly enough, Slice of life, high-school or rom-com Moe shows are actually generally thought as within the Seinen demographic.

Now it’s important to mention that these qualities are a sliding scale rather than a hard and fast rule. Also many Seinen titles don’t necessarily feature all of the qualities above, but feature others that place it in the realm of Seinen. For example, Serial Experiments Lain features a young girl as it’s protagonist, but it’s complex themes, philosophical outlook and dense, cryptic story-telling place it firmly in the Seinen genre. Tatami Galaxy is an example of a show that has a very idealized, instead of realistic art-style, but is much more realistic in terms of themes of growing up and development, as well as its college-setting.

Mature Content, Plots and Themes

jin roh What is Seinen

As stated above, a common mistake is that Seinen series is just shows that are dark and edgy. This mistake is easy to make, especially as Shounen series with darker content like Death Note and Shingeki no Kyojin have become extremely popular series, with followings outside of Japan. What generally places a series inside Seinen confines is that it’s more mature in its themes and plot, rather than just having a lot of violence.

Now this is not to say that Violence usually isn’t a fixture of Seinen shows, it is, especially in shows with an Action element. But where the dividing line between Shounen and Seinen often comes about is that the Plots or the Themes the show deals with are more suited to an older audience. Character motivations too, might be more obfuscated and difficult to figure out as well. These are elements which are often dependent on the viewer, and which someone older in age might have a better chance of grasping in full. It’s not as if younger viewers wouldn’t be able to understand, but it’s a little advanced for a young demographic. Imagine reading Kafka or Dostoyevsky in middle school, there are some kids who can, but for most of us, we might be a little lost.

Take for example the film Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. In Jin-Roh, the main plotline consists of characters caught in a web of multiple feuding Security agencies of the Japanese Government as well as a populace that is in revolt against an Autocratic regime. The various developments are subtle, under-stated and probably difficult for younger viewers to understand. In terms of its Themes, Jin-Roh explores how human relationships and individuals themselves are tainted, and might be doomed, when they exist underneath said oppressive structure, and how getting caught up in various factions might make us lose a little bit of our humanity.

Gray Morality

princess mononoke What is Seinen

Often times in Seinen series, conflicts will develop between people, factions or nations that don’t have a clear moral high ground. One group may have noble intentions, but have ways of achieving them that lead to violence against innocents. One group may be actually protecting the common good, but only doing so to keep in power a certain segment of a ruling class or family. Thus, it’s not often easy to distinguish which is the side we should be on, and often times, there’s no one side we should be on.

This also leads to characters who have greater shades of moral complexity. The Main hero may not be an ideal-hero, someone who strives to act justly and selflessly all the time, and may be someone with more roguish and selfish character traits and a much more flawed character. Also, the main villain may actually be someone with goals that aren’t outright evil. Their cause may be just in some sense, or they may be attempting to redress some actual wrong doing, but may be using extreme methods.

Gray Morality doesn’t mean it will never be resolved for a greater good. One great example of this is the famous Ghibli film Princess Mononoke. In the film, there are two primary warring factions, Iron-Town and the creatures of the forest. Iron-town consists primarily of those in human society who are downcast and oppressed such as war refugees, lepers, victims of disease and widowed/unmarried women. It’s a haven for those who are trodden upon by Japan’s feudal system, but to sustain and defend itself it cuts down the forest to use timber as a fuel source, something which puts them in conflict with the creatures who live there, who are just trying to protect their home. It’s two sides which generally have the right reasons for fighting, so it’s hard to justify a moral high-ground in the conflict.

This is in contrast to Shounen series which may have a conflict with less moral complexity. Often times they have a hero who you’re clearly meant to root for and identity with, and is always seen to be doing the right thing. It might have a villain who is just outright in the bad, with selfish and cruel motivations as well as methods.

Princess Mononoke/Mononoke-Hime

san princess mononoke
  • Episodes: Film
  • Aired: Jul 12, 1997

Ashitaka is a prince from an eastern tribe who battles an cursed boar to save his village, only to be infected with the same curse. Ashitaka leaves the village to find a cure for the curse before it destroys him, and eventually runs into Iron-Town, which defends itself with gunpowder weapons. However, the creatures of the forest led by a princess named San, seek revenge against Iron-town for their destruction of the forest.

Princess Mononoke – Official Trailer

Dense, Philosophical Narratives

ghost-in-the-shell What is Seinen

Adding to the complexity which is generally a hallmark of Seinen, a lot of series within the demographic might have a dense, philosophical layer to them. That is, they present philosophical questions or tensions, stated outright or otherwise, and often present an answer or a suggestion to the question, often which is open to interpretation. This is not to say you couldn’t discuss anime aimed at younger audiences from a philosophical perspective, just that in Seinen it’s much more common for a creator to overtly have philosophical questions in mind when creating a series

Now what makes a series dense is like a lot of other things we’ve discussed, up to personal feel, experience and interpretation. There are some of us who might be able to grapple with the complex narrative themes and questions of a show like Serial Experiments Lain or the Ghost in the Shell films from the onset. For most of us, it might take some re-watches and experience with secondary materials or written analysis. Generally, these series are a bit more intricate and complex and may have more outré presentation than usual.

One example of this is the original Ghost in the Shell film. Contrasted to the series, Stand-Alone-Complex, which is dense in it’s own right, the original film has a lot of stuff to unpack in it’s small-run time and almost art-house presentation style. Ghost in the Shell is an examination of identity in a world where technological progress results in Post-human life. Many flesh and blood humans have cybernetic enhancements, and some are full-cyborg, with computerized blains and a mechanical frame making up the body. Essentially, Ghost in the Shell examines these post-human beings struggling with the questions of their own identity, and this forces us to consider what makes something human, and if android beings can be considered a part of humanity.

Conclusion

One of the things you should remember is that again, some of the facets of Seinen can be found in other series as well. Seinen does not automatically mean darker or smarter, it just is generally more complex than series aimed at a younger audience, often with less idealism and more layered, philosophical narratives. Also note that some of the examples listed are not exactly the ‘most’ of whichever quality they’re example of. Princess Mononoke is not the most ‘morally gray’ anime film, nor is Ghost in the Shell the most ‘philosophical narrative’ in anime either, but they do serve as examples for those traits.

Let us know in the comments below what some of your favorite examples for these traits are. What are other facets of Seinen Anime and Manga that define it? We hope you understood and enjoyed all of our explanations and detail and be sure to comment below to make your voice heard and get a conversation going!

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CJL

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Author: CJL

Long Islander who loves anime. Interested in politics, philosophy and also a huge fan of sports and video games. Just about any series can get me going if it’s done well. From cute girls doing cute things shows, to gritty-action or space-opera or mecha series. Comment on my articles, let’s get a conversation going.

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