Big Spoilers For: My Hero Academia’s Most Recent Manga Arc, Medaka Box and mild spoilers for Kuroko’s Basketball
Perhaps the most succinct word on the Shonen Trope of Genius comes to us from After School: 7th Class. A manga written by NisiOisiN, published in the highly obscure, read as dead in the West, light novel magazine Faust. This manga would later go on to form the thematic basis of his later Shonen Jump manga Medaka Box.
Remember a paragraph ago when I said this magazine was dead? Yea I can’t find scanilations of the obscure manga written years ago. I can’t imagine why.
“Being a genius makes you almighty. You feel omnipotent. Which means you’re almost like a god. All-powerful. In the same way people argue that there must be a god, natural prodigies must exist in the world, too. Though thinking something might be nice if it existed and actually wanting it to exist are two deceptively different things. Actually, since knowing this girl, all motivation to work hard and persevere has left me, the will to live has packed its bags.
It’s the worst thing in the world to find out that someone else has gotten to your destination- the place you’re aiming for- before you and left their footprints all over it.”
And this incredibly edgy quote sums it up relatively well. Welcome back to my weekly talkin’ bout Shonen. I’m CherryboyWriter the host of the Shonen Ronin and this is Shonen Trope Talk.
What is Genius?
Honestly if this image of a Medaka playing 3 sports at the same time doesn’t exemplify Genius then I give up. You try to do better.
Talking about Genius in Shonen is something of a daunting task. As if you’ve seen a Shonen in the last… forever you’ve run across at least one of them. Naruto, Medaka Box, Soul Eater, Sket Dance, Kuroko, Haikyuu… the list doesn’t end! And that’s just the series I can think of top of my head that actually use the word directly in dialogue. Once you start to notice the narrative and characterization trends you can almost just substitute any character that’s abnormally strong or talented. So to clear the air right out of the gate. No, I obviously don’t mean the character is just “intelligent” although that’s certainly a plausible trait a genius might have.
Rather I want to posit there are two distinctive elements that must be present in order for the narrative to interact significantly with the trope of Genius. The first is simply an unnatural proficiency in a given area. The second is something that might be a bit more presumptuous to posit but I’m going to anyway. Much in the same vein as the saying “when everyone is special no one is” Genius is used as a literary dynamic. When a Genius exists in the narrative, especially in Shonen, a “normal” or “Never Gives Up”/ “Hard Working” character is always within the cast near them. Whether this is just for the sake of giving the audience a yardstick with which to measure the Genius’ skill, or the other character is directly tied to the Genius’ character development is up the author.
Neji the Genius staring down Rock Lee the Underdog
Given that one of the three core principles of Shonen Jump is “hard work” the trope of Genius provides a good characterization trope to naturally lead into this theme. In particular it’s a good way to have your Shonen lead interact with the feeling of envy.
The famous (obvious) Neji Hyuga and Rock Lee rival dynamic hangs over head like an orbital satellite. Call it a matter of pride but I would rather use less famous examples when I can to paint a broader picture of the landscape. The Genius/Hard Worker dynamic doesn’t always have to be a rival affair although it’s certainly effective that way. One particularly interesting way I saw this done was in a Jump Start manga called Momiji no Kisetsu which is a Shogi manga. The talentless hard worker was the protagonist, Momiji Kuramichi. His brother older, Sakura is framed as the genius Shogi player. The chapter one twist is that Sakura died from a chronic disease during his finals game and Momiji decided to take up his will and play style and achieve the rank of Dragon King in his stead. Something I found particularly effective as Momiji has to reconcile both not having his brother’s talent or having his brother at the same time.
Momiji Kuramichi as he tries to live up to the Genius that was his brother
As of right now the manga has thirteen chapters raw and three as a Jump Start. Not sure how it’s doing in the rankings either so we may not have it around for much longer. Of course as a ride and die Jump fanatic I say give it a glance.
How is Genius Used?
So talented. Yet so stupid. Tragic.
On the topic of sickly siblings one thing I think most important to the usage of the Genius trope is what in their life is limiting them from reaching their full potential. Like the example I presented in Momiji no Kisetsu it can be a physical impairment like a disease. Another more extreme way of limiting a genius is through removing one of their senses like sight. Take for example the blind Gungi master Komugi of Hunter x Hunter. The least common way I’ve seen so far to limit a genius would be societal prejudice and with that I’ll draw back upon the Neji Hyuga reference.
By far the most common way to limit a genius to date is through their own personality and neuroticisms. I can think of multiple reasons for this one. The first being the common underlying theme of giving something up in order to obtain power. And in this case it just so happens to be mental stability. Tapping into this theme does triple duty as it’s a familiar concept, provides a great way to make your character cool from Jump street (pun instead) and gives a clear internal obstacle for your character to overcome during their development. Most prevalent in my mind are the two boys in black Death the Kid of Soul Eater and Shigaraki Tomura of My Hero Academia. Death the Kid with overcoming his OCD disorder with symmetry slowly and not freaking out when things aren’t perfect. Shigaraki Tomura, with all his colossal cock ups in the story, make it easy to forget that he clearly has a genius IQ and eye for analysis. Especially when his mental state is that of a man-child, has episodes when his father’s hand gets removed, and is too vitriolic to properly lead the League of Villains. All of which he thus far has managed to overcome on his own terms with minimal guidance from All For One.
Shigaraki overcoming his issues and make his first actual leadership call
The second way is to show off how power, or in this case talent, can corrupt on a more individual level. Aomine of Kuroko’s basketball and Bakugo of once again My Hero Academia provide very similar yet differently nuanced takes in this department. Both characters are similar in that they had a clear direction for the latent talent they possessed. They both made strides in their respective fields by working in the direction they were naturally blessed. However, Bakugo’s inferiority complex formed in childhood due to the over stimulation of his ego. For someone who was always admired by his peers there was no need to develop early on communication skills or empathy. It’s only began to break with the rise of a rival that can match him and one of these two things had to give. And it wasn’t gonna be Deku. Aomine by contrast remained humble in childhood up through middle school due to his pure and honest love for the game. It was only through repeated and easy victories that he was hit by the reality he had gone too far too fast for anyone to challenge him. With his love of the game dwarfed by the lack of challenge from piers Aomine fell into apathy and the prideful habit of looking down on others. Once again it took the arrival of a worthy rival snap him out of his mindset and get him to train again.
Aomine at peak… Aomine
Even beyond Aomine, Brilliant but Lazy is so known as a trope you could make a bingo card with it.
While not necessarily falling into a “limitation” genius’ also have a unique relationship with society. Their skill more often than not shows at a young age. Because of this they grow up constantly being expected to perform great things and make contributions. These expectations can range from being as simple as commenting “They’re going to make a good [blank]” or “They have a bright future as a [Blank]”, to expecting them to (more stereotypically) take over the head of the family and lead them into the future with their great talent.
That “take over the family” trope is so especially common that I have too many examples in my head even thinking it. I could list off Killua of Hunter x Hunter, Tao Ren of Shaman King and more but I want to zero in on two in particular. Those being the titular Medaka of Medaka Box and the recent golden star child of My Hero Academia, Hawks. Given that our listed quote inadvertently comes from Medaka Box by way of proxy it strikes at the nerve of irony to use Medaka herself. Nevertheless Medaka has quite a few tropes of the Shonen genius. A hyper growth rate (apparently Dragon Ball Z made super babies more popular than I initially realized), incredible athleticism, off the charts intelligence, being privileged with money, good looks. Of course because Medaka Box is a deconstruction all these traits are pushed to reality warping extremes but nevermind that. What makes Medaka an interesting case study is that the same pressure comes from two entirely different sources. The Kurokami family, AKA a bunch of hyper rich privileged liberals that basically run the world, she’s expected to take over the family and basically lead humanity. So the pressure comes from the family unit but also from her best friend. When Zenkichi gave Medaka her reason for existence at the age of two (I beg you just take it at face value for the time being I don’t wanna explain) he set her off on the path of helping other people the matter the cost her herself.
To quickly break from that let’s look at the character of Hawks from My Hero Academia. Hawks is still a fresh face in the world of Hero Academia and what we know of him is still limited. However, what we do know of hawks is that after saving people from an accident he was scouted and given financial support to become a hero. While thinking back on this he calls himself “the man too fast for his own good” referencing the nickname he got as a hero and reveals the true reason he wants to make a society with no crime.
I swear this one page of Hawks has more foreshadowing, story implications and character than an entire arc of Haikyuu.
Regardless Hawks and eventually Medaka both at some point wish to live free. And that could be taken as the moral. Despite whether the genius wishes to or not it can be all too easy to force a future or mindset on them that they didn’t want. Especially as a child who would want nothing more than to have a childhood. In a more general sense there could also be a disconnect in the skills the genius has and skills they wish they hand.
Talent can be a curse in its own right. Whether that becomes a source of tragedy or comedy is up to the author.
Up till this point I’ve more or less covered everything I can think of in how Genius’ are written. So it end off I want to conclude on a theory about how Genius’ arise.
I want to posit that Genius’ arise from one of three factors. The first and least interesting being the will of fate, aka the story says so. They’ve always had the latent talent for the skill and whether they make it bloom is up to them. As my friend Brian put it having “Great base stats don’t make you a pro at the game.”
Komugi awakening to her Nen mid game
The second is that they arise from necessity. Given that the world currently world is a neoliberal nightmare land and developed countries refuse to even give access to single payer healthcare people have to fend for themselves. And the disabled are frequently incapable. Thus they must develop some skill to give themselves value of society. Once again Sakura Kuramichi and Komugi make prime examples to support this theory. Sakura Kuramichi being too sickly to go outside and participate in other activities stayed inside playing Shogi with his brother all day. Eventually coming to be called a genius. Similarly to Komugi being born to a poor family which due to her blindness she could not contribute except through her Gungi skills.
The final way is that a Genius’ may just be someone who is tapping into what Karl Marx calls the “General Intellect”. Personally speaking I was only made aware of what the concept of the General Intellect is literally days ago at the time of writing. It seems like a fairly straightforward concept but in order to not misrepresent Marx I’ll be leaving a link to a post and also linking a the first episode of a podcast called the “General Intellect Unit“.
To give a quick and simple definition: “Marx uses the term to refer to the general social knowledge or collective intelligence of a society at a given historical period.” Much the same way collective power is needed for humans to accomplish certain things like say building a bridge or a pyramid the same holds true of collective intelligence. An idea like this is more relevant than ever in my eyes given our infinite access to information on the internet. For example why go work hard at college to become a writer when some colleges have posted entire courses on Youtube free of charge and you can watch analysis videos all day.
If I were to attempt to identify a genius made in this way form the list of examples in the essay I’d have to give to it Aomine. As it’s mentioned that he was always playing basketball with the older adults as a child. It’s likely in those games being taught and coached by all of those adults he tapped into their collective knowledge of the game and because a basketball genius.
A more recent character who could embody the general intellect more thoroughly is a relative newcomer to Jump. Senku of Dr. Stone. Whose superpower is that he has literally of humanities scientific knowledge at his disposal inside of his mind. To which I have to say… yea… that’s about as straight forward a representation I think I can get honestly.
Again I’m not going to make large assumptions on this one. However I think it’s a fun and plausible theory. So what did you think? Am I just making this stuff up or have I hit upon a stroke of genius?
Let us know in the comment sections or tag us on Twitter.
Until next time.
Credit to the pixiv artist for the featured image of Hawks. Always credit artist image you borrow. https://www.pixiv.net/member_illust.php?mode=medium&illust_id=69526330