Disclaimer: This is a collaboration between myself and my friend THEHXH2011DRA the initial skeleton for this post was written primary by me and you can see a different version of this same content on his blog. Additionally to any creators out there we do not wish to imply that using and writing with the Shounen Aesthetic in mind guarantees you’ll become Yoshihiro Togashi or Kōhei Horikoshi level in talent. Your ability to make use of the Aesthetic will naturally come down to your individual talents. It’s up to you to create the best shounen work you can and we trust that you can do so!
Speaking on Shounen
I and my colleagues who have for years been studying shounen manga and storytelling noticed something peculiar about all the different manga that have come out in that demographic for the last 30 years or so. Many of them share fundamental similarities in not just in structure, but in artistic philosophy. Series from completely different genres, publishers, and of course minds all seemed to have inherited principles that acted like the code in their DNA. But how could we have come to such a conclusion, and if we’re correct, where does this Zeitgeist in shounen manga seem to come from?
Discussions on Shounen manga are often unproductive because there’s no consensus on what “Shounen” is. It can be difficult to see the thematic and narrative through lines or story beats that these series share. At first glance, it would not at all be strange to look at Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Naruto, and Death Note and be shocked to realize that these were all published in the same weekly magazine. Questions of how do all of these stories come from the same origin and yet come out so different are bound to pop up.
We propose that the reason for such similarities is due to the fact that shounen has 4 key principles that have taken root in the collective unconscious of manga writers, editors, and publishers (which in turn also effect anime). These principles form what we call “The Shounen Aesthetic”.
The most important thing for this post to do before getting into the 4 principles is to make clear the meaning of the word Aesthetics and to distinguish that idea from genre and demographics. This can be more difficult than one would expect as they have many similarities. All can be found in any medium which chooses to utilize its qualities. That includes anime, manga, video games, tv dramas, books and so on. So how exactly do they differ?
A genre is a category of literature, a way to organize and define various types of fiction. Put it another way, “genre” can be seen as just the categorization of a collection of tropes. Any genre could hold any particular philosophy or theme. Demographic is similar with the main difference being that demographic is specifically about the target audience and not the elements of the work itself. This brings us to the Aesthetics of a work. Aesthetics by contrast to both is about the underlying ideas and philosophy of a work, it’s primarily about perception and cognition. Aesthetics looks at the style of collective works and ask “what common messages are being conveyed here?”
The immediate truth we can all agree on is that Shounen is, first and foremost, a demographic. The word Shounen is translated to “young boy” or close the word “youth”. This helps establish Shounen from a marketing standpoint providing clear economic bases to expound upon who like Shounen and are most likely to consume Shounen. We must continue the conversation from here, however, because by doing so we shall discover things that are of great interest to us as readers.
Justification of Ascriptions of Aesthetic Qualities
-We have Kurapika no worries.
Why is it that the phrase “The Shounen Formula” is prevalent in the anime community but not say “The Seinen Formula”? The use of this phrase has lead people to mistakenly refer to shounen as a type of genre in order to rectify their feelings of there being a connection between different shounen series that they can’t put into words. Part of our hope here today is that we can replace these phrases and lines of thought, as well the inadequate conversations that result from them. However, it is important to understand who “we” (me and my colleague) are why we feel the need to establish these aesthetic qualities, as that in itself is viewed by many as an important part of the process aesthetic philosophy.
“Objective base properties justify ascriptions of aesthetic qualities, and these justify overall evaluations. But there are no principles at either level. On the second level, elegance, for example, usually contributes to a positive evaluation. But prose or painting styles can be too elegant for their subject matters, lessening the overall impact of their works. In view of the lack of principles and the relativity of aesthetic qualities to different tastes, how do these justifications work?”
Ascriptions of aesthetic qualities are unjustified when based on inattention, bias, lack of knowledge of the formal properties of a work or its historical context, or an unacceptable interpretation. In asserting that an object has an aesthetic quality, one makes an implicit claim that one’s judgment is not based on any of these disqualifying factors. This is equivalent to the claim that a fully competent or ideal critic who shares one’s taste would respond to the object, in the same way, would ascribe the same property to it. Thus, the relation between objective non-aesthetic properties and aesthetic qualities is simply that the former cause fully competent critics with certain tastes to respond in ways expressed by ascriptions of the aesthetic qualities.”
This is all to say, in the simplest possible terms, when one wishes to describe an aesthetic quality they must prove themselves an “ideal” or “quality” critic who has “taste” or “gusto” as they would say during the Italian Renaissance. As an example let us look at an area of our own expertise; Hunter x Hunter analysis!
The Youtubers Aleczandxr and Tales of Nerdia have been kicking butt in the field of Hunter x Hunter content and analysis with their consistent and high-quality videos. They have proven themselves in the eyes of the public has had “good taste” or “right judgment” when it comes to analyzing the Yoshihiro Togashi’s masterpiece. Likewise, if you have seen a Hunter x Hunter analysis video on YouTube and scrolled down to the comment section there’s a 90% chance you’ve seen TheHxH2011DRA in the comments. However, despite proving themselves in this field, they cannot so easily claim expertise in areas outside of it. While this comes across as common sense, it ends up being very relevant to this matter of understanding aesthetics.
“An issue regarded as pivotal during the Enlightenment especially pertains to the place of rationality itself in aesthetics. Is the aesthetic “judgment” actually the report of the aesthetic experience, or is it a rational reaction to that experience?” Professor Daniel N. Robinson “Lecture 59 Aesthetics Beauty Without Observers”. In English, this means it’s vital to discern whether the judgment I’m making is a reaction to the aesthetic in use or a normal reaction to the what just transpired.
When All Might launches Nomu into the sky with a mighty strike… is the sensation of triumph felt a result of the Shounen Aesthetic at work? OR perhaps a natural sensation caused by watching a monster get punched through a roof?
A powerful question that gets at the heart of the matter. Let’s continue that quote obtained from The Great Courses Plus (#NotSponsored) and fill in the context. “Diderot regarded it as a faculty shaped by experience and instruction. D’Alembert, treats it as a form of reasoning Montesquieu and others regard it as a distinct faculty. Shaftesbury adds the aesthetic sense to the moral sense as a native feature of the human sentiments.”
Montesquieu regarded it a distinct faculty. Individual works are understood within a framework as, “aesthetic as such” which is to say you could have sound judgment aesthetics in one regard, like Shounen, and not have sound judgment in terms of Shoujo for example. However, the constant that is agreed upon is that the critic making the aesthetic judgment must have cultivated their taste in the field to give more informed and solid claims. We would consider ourselves “ideal” and “quality” critics of Shounen. Having grown up with it and writing multiple pieces on shounen works in the past, even going so far as to have specifically talked about the nature of shounen (again, multiple times). Some of you out there may have the qualities of a Quality or Ideal critic so know that if you wish to criticize the post then, by all means, do so. So long as arguments aren’t based on inattention, bias, lack of knowledge of formal properties of a work or its historical context then the discussion should continue so that all can come to an understanding.
“Ideal” and “Quality” aren’t really solid terms you could google in this regard. To #ShonenItUp think of the Ideal critic and Quality critic with the Genius vs Talented dynamic that is also a prevalent topic in Shonen .Taste is a special quasi-perceptual faculty… it’s best to word that by calling it similar to an “instinct” that can be honed with exposure to aesthetic qualities.
And finally, there is the issue of relativism we must address before we at last talk about the principles in detail. In short, to understand why a relativist account matters more than a realist (everything we just described in regards to taste, ideal critics, and the like) account is simply there will always be disagreements even among intelligent critics. While we feel the need to establish some type of credentials for those who hold such a philosophical perspective, a realist account would argue an aesthetic quality is present only if the quality is agreed upon by every qualified critic, as in every single one on the planet. Or that the quality is present but only a handful of critics have experienced and noted it. The issue with the first is that it obviously impossible and leaves little to no aesthetic qualities in anything. And the second leaves far too many aesthetic qualities to any object, as some random elitist or competent critic could come along and make a claim and one would have no choice but to take their word for it. In light of these two extremes, the relativist account is preferable as it accounts for subjective tastes.
“Kant held that there are no principles linking objective properties to beauty, and Sibley held that non-aesthetic properties are never sufficient conditions for aesthetic properties. The lack of such principles is due to the fact that aesthetic qualities are not only relational but relative in several different senses. First, they are relative to the contexts of the particular objects that instantiate them. A graceful passage in a Mozart piece would not be graceful at all in a piece by Charles Ives. Second, they are relative to differing interpretations of the same work. Iago’s “Credo” aria in Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello can be interpreted as boisterous and defiant or as sinister and brooding. Third, they are relative to historical context and change with changing historical contexts. The works of Antonio Salieri were heard as graceful before Mozart but as somewhat stilted and awkward after Mozart. Finally, as Hume in the end affirmed but Kant denied, they are relative to differing tastes of different critics. What is poignant to one is maudlin to another; what is striking and powerful to one is garish and grating to another.”
And now that the groundwork has been laid, it’s time for the moment you’ve all been waiting for!
The 4 Principles of The Shounen Aesthetic
1. The ultimate tendency and predisposition towards optimism (The Pathway to Bliss)
In this first principal wording is everything. While the rest of them are fairly straightforward this one is a tendency in the work overall rather than something concrete throughout. It can and has been toyed with at the writer’s digression for the sake of the narrative. For the most part, a Shounen series is going to be uplifting and the actions of heroes portrayed as morally good or positive. This is likely the result of most shounen embodying the hero’s journey to a T and as such and because of shounen’s tendency to be blunt, they attempt to impart the “Pathway to Bliss” which Campbell talked about in the most forward way possible. Also, add in the fact that Japan as a culture tends to have a real “Do your best!” attitude in general. This isn’t to say the ending of the series can’t be depressing or to say that the actions of the hero can’t be portrayed as negative. In fact, some of the best moments of and commentary on Shounen come from when the actions of the traditional Shounen protagonist are shown in a darker light. Like for example Hunter x Hunter’s Gon Freeccs in the Chimera Ant Arc or Medaka Box’s Medaka Kurokami in the Successor Arc. I feel it important to remind everyone again that subversion is not deconstruction. To call something “shounen’ in this sense is to comment on whether it challenges you to take the leap of faith or not, often with the caveat of having to look first.
“What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then, if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of a fiasco. But there’s also the possibility of bliss.”- Joseph
2. To impart both a mentality of gratitude and respect towards the ideas of the predecessors onto the protagonist and by proxy the reader. After respect is established, instill a “fire” to forge your own path.
Historically speaking it is always the youth that takes the initiative to incite change. Even on a biological level as you age you become more set in your ways. As you do what you have always done, neurological connections become strengthened lie a trail walked on over and over by you. A large part of Shounen is about challenging institutions power and defending your own “justice” as it were (Yes, Persona 5 is shounen). In a manner that seems all too “Japanese”, for lack of a better word, Shounen recognizes and welcomes the fact that the young will always have this drive/fire/passion to change the world they inhabit. Rather than snuff that out that “fire” they seek to fan it and motivate the youth to do their best and work with the previous generation to grow. Accepting that the old guard must someday fade. For this reason, great importance is placed on the dynamic of the Student and Teacher. Passion and ideals without education would only breed ignorant hot heads. So it is vital to foster a genuine respect for the ideals of the predecessor onto the protagonist and proxy the reader. The predecessor can be a teacher, a parent, a former friend, but very often it’s the villain whom Shounen seeks to humanize to show *respect for. In this way, the embers on the torch that is pasted grow brow brighter and warmer with each generation.
*For additional clarification sake I’d like to note gratitude and respect does not have to be specifically given to predecessor themselves. Just acknowledging their methods have validity can be enough. As a quick example take Takaoka from Assassination Classroom. A abusive father figure that literally tried to kill the class. In the end though Nagisa did thank Takaoka as a teacher because despite his methods bringing harm. Nagisa got to learn and test methods he wouldn’t have had he not met Takaoka.
“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”- Greek Proverb (
probably Socrates let’s be honest)
3. Teach empathy
Again returning to the notion of Japan’s collectivist nature, empathy plays a big role in the bonding and maintaining of groups and thus societies. To that end, “Friendship” ended up being the first word in the motto of the biggest name in manga “Weekly Shonen Jump”. And the heart of any friendship is empathy. It is understanding each other on some level. For as long as humans have been sapiens we have known that no man is an island, so it only makes sense a publisher wanting to make it big would acknowledge that fact first and foremost. Psychopathic individualism is relegated to the realm of villains in shounen, and functional rational selfishness (that being working with and understanding the needs of others) time and again triumphs. The message in shounen is overwhelming in that when we hold hands together and weather the storm of existence as one, a bright tomorrow awaits us.
“It’s the group-solidarity that many a successful new society is built on, and many an aging society loses before its collapse.”- Geotrickster
4. The belief that all of these things are achievable through power
Power takes many forms.
One of the core principles of Shounen Jump is “victory”, and in shounen, as well as in life, power is the key to obtaining that victory. However, it is a mistake to assume that your power is limited to your ability to execute violence. Instead of going all Foucault on you I’m #shounenup and explain it like this: Is the strongest the one who punches the hardest? If the most physically fit person on this planet drank a fatal poison they would die correct? Does that make the poisoner the “strongest” because the claimed a “victory” over the worlds strongest man? What if before the man drinks the poison an onlooker uses their superior instincts, observational skills, and knowledge of poison to detect that the drink has been tampered with? And destroys the poisoned drink? Does that make the onlooker the “strongest” or even “the most observant”? This thought experiment demonstrates the actually very flexible nature of power and how different types are needed to survive. Shounen embraces this diversity wholeheartedly.
“Effort”, the part of the motto we haven’t touched on, is the form of power you posse manifested in your talents and will. There are many ways the concept of “effort” has been examined and played within shounen, some I have even examined before, however at the core of the idea is that while the only thing you will ever have full control over is your will, that’s all you to shape the world closer to you imagine and achieve victory for the sake of your friends.
“The quest for power is the driving force of history, always has been, always will be. Those who fail to realize this are not spared in the grand chess game, but rather moved and manipulated by forces which they do not understand.”- Aaron Hawkins
- Series that you think felt like shounen but actually turned out to be seinen can now still be talked about in the same vain if you feel you have could reason to (Ex: Kingdom published in Weekly Young Jump, a kind of brother to Shounen Jump).
- Games and books from the west or even just some from japan for which the age rating of the game is irrelevant can also be talked about in the same vein as need be (Ex: Persona 5, the myth of Cu Chulainn, and street fighter as shounen/having the shounen aesthetic).**
- The end of confusion when one comes to realize that Ancient Magus’ Bride, the Watamote spinoff, and Devilman are all shounen (the most important part).
** It would be misleading to call the myth of Cu Chulainn as using the Shonen Aesthetic. Intent matters and it does predate even the oldest examples we have given. More #ShonenBeforeItWasCool I would say.
Perhaps in a traditionally corny, cheesy, and expected Shonen way I’m not one for goodbyes. I, as a Cherryboy, find them all too sad, so in a sense seeing this post come to a final word stirs some sentiments. So I’d rather keep my personal conclusion brief.
There’s little exaggeration in saying that me and my “nakama” in working together to create this work we are looking to leave a powerful mark on the landscape on the the anime community. We’ve toiled, gathered our passion, and tested the principals again and again. And with this conclusive work we’ve sure mustered a strike strong enough to breakthrough the clutter that has clouded Shonen discussion for so long. But after I triumphantly hit upload the amount of time it takes the anime community to feel the weight of this strike relies on you.
This work is 4000~ words of passion. All for the sake of a true solution that both sides can agree on and better discussion for the anime community I treasure so dearly. The volume is likely enough to dissuade those select few that only seek to undermine the point. However, to those select and vocal few that would look upon this with bias, malice, disdain or any other more colorful nouns and verbs I have a word. Trolls need not apply.
Ask yourself. Is it really worth sitting through pages of intellectual discussion just to leave a comment saying, “Nah bro you’re getting ahead of yourself they’re just comics for teenagers and kids.” when we can all now look forward to a brighter discussion with less vitriol towards one another? For some of you this may in fact be the ultimate joy. And you know what more power to ya. Far be for me to dismiss the whims of someone not looking to be in on the discussion when I published a meditation on the art of trolling not too long ago.
But in that same vein your trolling, clear bias, and lack of desire for further education from here on will not be met with a block, a removed comment, or even a response. Just silence.
To my friends that have supported me in this endeavor a simple word (rather meme) of thanks.
And to those passionate lovers of Shonen and those who have been excitedly awaiting this post. It’s here. We have taken what we knew and what we have been ignorant on and laid the groundwork from which you may all stand upon. Let this foundation become your strength, because whenever the works intellectual discussion and love surpass those birthed from ignorance and malice it’s always a shocking sight in history.
You are not inferior, but in turn, your worthy adversaries lack nothing. From here on out do not shrink back in the face of those giants. Rather stand firm knowing that I and many others share your sentiment and fire.
The stage is set. A new era dawns. With all of us basking in it’s light ready to face bigger challenges. Paint the world in the 4 bright new colors we’ve been given to experiment with. Let the creed echo in not only my soul… but everyone’s from now until the end.
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Wanna continue the discussion?
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