“A party member devoid of ideals lacks an essential quality – as does one who engages in empty talk about lofty ideals without doing anything.”-Xi Jingping
We at Shounen Ronin who have for years been studying shounen manga and storytelling noticed something peculiar about all the different manga in that demographic. Many of them share fundamental similarities in not just structure but 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 5 key principles that have taken root in the collective unconscious of manga writers, editors, and publishers (which in turn also affect anime). These principles form what we call “The Shounen Aesthetic”.
In “The Right Way To Make Jump” the current Deputy Editor in Chief (not Head Editor in Chief mind you) Axda postulates that the famous motto of friendship effort and victory that jump is known for doesn’t actually exist in any official capacity but rather Shonen Jump continually produces manga with these three pillars because they are valued. In other words Friendship, Effort, and Victory are just naturally occurring, unconsciously. Why is this so? In a word it is because of an appreciation for an aesthetic, the shounen aesthetic.
The most important thing 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 & define various types of fiction(2). Put another way, “genre”- as summarized by Anis S. Bawarshi and Mary Jo Reiff in “Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy”(3)- can be seen as just the categorization of a collection of tropes. Any particular genre piece 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- in contrast to both demographics and genre- is about the underlying ideas and philosophy of a piece of art. It is primarily an exercise in perception & 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 “youth”(4), and this helps establish Shounen from a marketing standpoint. Through this translation the people who like Shounen and are most likely to consume it become clear. That being said, as this interview with the current Vice President of Viz media who is partnered with Shounen Jump states(5), Shonen not only translates to Young Boy and Youth but also to “Pure of Heart”. This translation of “Shounen” turns out to be a Buddhist term referring to “true faith” and “right mindfulness”. In other words, Shounen content seems to have an unmistakable taint of eastern philosophy about it. Therefore we must continue the conversation and not just leave it as a discussion of mere demographics, because by doing so we shall discover things that are of great interest to us as readers.
Justification of the Ascription of Aesthetic Qualities
Why is it that the phrase “The Shounen Formula” is prevalent(6) 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(7) of genre(8) 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 is that we can replace these phrases and lines of thought, as well as the inadequate conversations that result from them. But in the words of famous youtuber and game critic videogamedunkey(9) “why is my opinion more valid than this guys? Well first off I actually completed the fucking game!” More than just the fact that we actually have done research into this topic, unlike most others, which should hopefully be evident, it’s also believed by many that a critical part of the process that is aesthetic philosophy is the establishment of credentials.
From the Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Thomas Gale (10) “The Justification of Ascriptions of Aesthetic Qualities” under the section “AESTHETIC QUALITIES” reads as such:
“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.”
Again to quote videogamedunkey as to put that all in simple terms “The best reviews are entirely subjective but that doesn’t mean you throw objectivity out the window. You need to build your case with honest statements that even someone who disagrees with you can relate to.” Furthermore one who claims to know of the aesthetic qualities of a work or group of works must show their integrity and expertise in the field they are discussing. They must prove themselves an “ideal” or “quality” critic who has “taste” or “gusto” as they would say during the Italian Renaissance. One need only look at our content and judge for oneself whether we indeed live up to such standards. Some of you out there may have the qualities of a Quality or Ideal critic so know that if you wish to criticize us then, by all means, do so. So long as arguments aren’t based on inattention, bias, or lack of knowledge the discussion should continue so that all can come to an understanding. I would just add that one must be careful to claim superior rationality.
“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” on The Great Courses.
It is vital to discern whether the judgment one is making is a reaction to the aesthetic in use or a normal reaction to the what just transpired. When one speaks of their aesthetic sense one must consider it a distinct faculty as Montesquieu regarded it rather than as a form of rationality Ala D’Alembert. Diderot correctly regarded aesthetic sense as a faculty shaped by experience and instruction. Individual works are understood within a framework of “aesthetic as such” which is to say you could have sound judgment of aesthetics in one regard, say shounen, and not another, say shojo.
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. In all, remember Kant’s critique of Pure Reason. Inter-subjectivity is the answer.
“Shaftesbury adds the aesthetic sense to the moral sense as a native feature of the human sentiments…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.”(again quoting the great courses).
Without further ado let’s dive into the actual principles that make up what we call the shounen aesthetic.
The 5 Principles of The Shounen Aesthetic
One: The Ultimate Tendency and Predisposition Towards Optimism (The Pathway to Bliss)
In this first principal wording is everything. While the rest of the principles are fairly straightforward this one can be described as a tendency in the works 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- in addition to shounen’s tendency to be blunt- they attempt to impart the “Pathway to Bliss”(11) in the most forward way possible. You can also add in the fact that Japan as a culture (12) tends to have a real “Do your best!”/Ganbatti 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. 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 Joestar Campbell
Two: 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(13) it is always the youth (14) 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.Our avatar IS the MC of Persona 5 for a reason. Shounen recognizes and welcomes the fact that the young will always have this drive/fire/passion to change the world they inhabit. Rather than try and snuff out that “fire” they seek to fan it; to motivate the youth to do their best & work WITH the previous generation. The old serve as fuel and accept that they shall one day fade. They plant trees whose shade they will never get to be under, because that is what was done for them. 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, and even often the villains themselves, which Shounen tend to humanize and show respect for by the end. In this way that fire that is the collective spirit grows and burns brighter and warmer with each generation.
“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”- Greek Proverb
Three: 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 single biggest name in manga “Weekly Shounen 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. Overwhelming the message in shounen is 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.”- Christopher Mott, Geotrickster
Four: The belief that all of these things are achievable through power
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 or that strength, power, and authority are the same. It is important to clarify the difference before moving forward. And before any smart aleck ask yes we have read Foucault(15).
A thought experiment: Is the strongest human 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 they can claimed a “victory” over the worlds most fit man? Consider the possibility of an onlooker who uses their superior instincts, observational skills, and/or knowledge of poison to detect and destroy the drink? But they’re a sickly person who can easily be crushed by the now anger fit man if they don’t explain themselves quickly. It might seem like the classic rock paper scissors dilemma, and it says something important about the nature of strength, power and authority. Power is the capacity to do work, in other words it is control of a resource- a recourse being a certain expression of matter & energy. Strength is the combination of the will and power needed to complete a task. Authority is control over those who give you some of their power in order to benefit from yours. The fit man has the power to crush those he knows are an enemy but without certain knowledge that power and his life can be taken. This is why knowledge is itself a form of power, it is control over data which can be used to harness more strength more effectively. By giving the sickly person authority for his expertise in keeping him safe from poison, knowledge and thus a form of power that he does not have, they are able to increase their collective strength. What they both will is now more likely to get done. For this reason Shounen embraces diversity wholeheartedly.
“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(16)
Five: Appreciating A Pure Heart
“Gratitude is the memory of the heart.” –French proverb
I’m break from the structure of this piece up to this point for a moment and get a bit personal. Anyone who knows me knows that I just think Kuroko is the greatest sports anime to ever grace the earth. I mean manga was literally partly edited by ToGODshi and it got an adaptation that made everything better so absolutely nothing more can be done to convince me of that. Anyone who knows me while also know that while I’m very tolerant in my actions the same is absolutely not true with my mindset. What’s right is right, and if I’m truly convinced something is right there is just no stopping me from looking down on you to an extent if you disagree, even if I hide it. Such is my nature that I’ve always had strong opinions and beliefs like that which have stayed the same for years. So when I say that I can understand and respect people who say that it is Ping Pong the Animation that is the greatest sports anime this should come as an incredible surprise.
I still stand by Kuroko of course. Ping Pong’s art style is something I just can’t get used to no matter how many times I see it in contrast with Kuroko’s being my absolute favorite. I enjoy the cast of Kuroko much more on a personal level. I am bias because I read it as it was coming out, in my favorite magazine, with my favorite youtube, when I was just getting into anime. Ping Pong should not even be able to compete for space in my head.
And yet there’s that one scene(17). That scene that I will randomly think back on when I’m eating or out walking. That scene that stands out in my mind as one of the greatest in fiction, despite everything. Pico is finally playing ping pong again after his depression. It’s almost like the reasons why- the reasons for the depression, the reason he got so skilled- don’t matter at all. All that matters is that his friend and rival needs him now. What matters is that he wants to play a good game. What matters is that the hero needs to defeat another giant monster.
“Effort”, the part of the Jump motto we haven’t touched on, is itself the “will” part of the will & power combination that makes up strength. With Friendship & Effort Victory can be achieved. Empathy, Trust, Will, Power, Gratitude, Hope, all these concepts and more contained within each of these 3 words. These 3 words define “Shounen”; the Youth and the Pure Hearted. And a pure heart is the 5 and final core principle of this wonderful Aesthetic. Needless to say there is much to discuss.
What exactly IS a pure heart? A Pure Heart is the state of only desiring one thing in all of life. It’s a state in which you are focused on one thing and you dedicate your life and every action to it. In this context a Pure Heart, having a goal, and chasing a dream can almost be swapped interchangeably.
While one can call pure hearted characters all idealistic in one regard or another it is wrong to say they are “wide eyed”. This is because there is a distinct difference between the mature and they immature. It can be easy to get lost in the natural joy of seeing children playing or a baby in a stroller, forgetting so easily that children, are for all intensive purposes, drooling sociopaths. It’s not there fault of course and they develop empathy rather quickly; but we cannot forget it. “Pure” means free of any extraneous and unnecessary parts to it. It does not mean “good”. Hence why there can be Pure Evil. Shonen is about growth, an increase in one’s power, their connections, all for the sake of securing victory. It is not married to any specific idea of justice, hence it’s timelessness. For as the ancient Greek Philosopher Epicurus once stated “There never was such a thing as absolute justice, but only agreements made in mutual dealings among men in whatever places at various times providing against the infliction or suffering of harm”. Remember this all goes back to those Buddhist origins of the word. A man who conquers himself is greater than one who conquers a thousand men in battle after all, because conquering oneself is a constant battle to stay pure. By definition then one cares not about the methodology used but the results gained from it.
Shigaraki Tomura and Izuku Midoriya from My Hero Academia are both Pure of Heart. Gon and Gyro of Hunter x Hunter are both Pure of Heart. Rider and Gilgamesh from Fate Zero are both Pure of Heart. It’s important to make this clear because there WILL be confusion: Morality does not matter, ultimate simplicity in motivations and goals does. This is why immature good can be as bad as evil, and why the more effective evil is nearly indistinct from the good at least at first. So much of the basic work of those who serve the good is merely exposing the bad for what it is. Surrounded by such madness what is one to do to stay sane?
One must become pure. Being pure is more important than being good, for the individual at least. Good depends on the views and states of other people, it can shift, and you can be fooled to believe what is good is bad and what is bad is good. Throughout life, humans are influenced by a great number of things. To be relentlessly about only desiring to achieve one and only one dream in life is unnatural by comparison. What’s one individual’s happiness compared to their obligations? What really is a society other than a gathering where dreams are treated as a passing fancy? It’s all too easy to claim to have achieved a premature Buddha-hood in when placed in such a state. “I’ll just forget about my desires and do the proper thing so that we can all be better off. The best self interest is no self interest!” Nothing could be further from the truth. Any true Buddhist knows this: all is contradiction, nothing is permanent. In order to truly forget yourself and lose your ego, you must remember this. To remember this, you must remember the nature of the world, your nature. To know yourself is to forget yourself, to forget yourself is to know yourself. It must be a constant dialogue, and in order to keep having that conversation their must be an interest in it, one that can only come from inside you. How does one remember the person while forgetting the ego, how does one know via experience the cycle of suffering while escaping it? In effect how does one become Meta-Modern(18)? The answer is ideals.
Your ideals, what you consider perfect and most suitable, ensure that your actions will always be in line with your goal. They keep your mind on the higher conceptually while you engage materially with the lower. Ideals are a form of self imposed perfectionism and the difference between authors that understand their importance and those that do not are worlds apart in terms of thematic richness. One of the most functionally useful aspects of the Pure Heart from a writer’s perspective is that because it only involves one central idea, it becomes very easy to make your pure hearted character an embodiment of that idea. You can explore all aspects of that theme filtered through the lens of that character. It’s a method of heightening the effectiveness of a flat character (one that does not change throughout the narrative) that works naturally with Meta-modern nature of Shonen.
Beyond keeping you focused on your goal, ideals make you more attractive as a person as well. People naturally admire qualities they lack when seen in other people. People and characters with solid understanding of their ideals are significantly more confident in their actions and driven to achieve their goals. Characters with ideals emit more charisma than one’s that don’t have them. Which, pun permitted, is ideal for Shonen Jump, which seeks to have readers stick with many singular, non-franchise based narratives over the course of years, following one character with a flat positive arc since that’s usually better than having them crow for a bit and then have people complain that they stopped growing. In the literal sense, ideals are what protect the pure hearted from straying from their own path.
But where do “ideals” come from, given that they are so intertwined with the heart? Are they nature or nurture? Such a question is important because it determines whether the individual is in fact the monolith. Sorry to say, but they are not. Ideals conform sharply to the shape of the heart. Man makes his own ideals but not as he pleases; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but based on their nature. If you do not on every occasion refer each of your actions to the end ordained by nature, but instead stop short at something else when considering whether to go after something or avoid it, your actions will not be in keeping with a purity of heart. Indeed our minds are born festering with sin, and some are so blighted that they will never find redemption. For those who can the question remains how does one pull the ape tendencies up from the roots and leave only the pure insect with the queen on its mind? The answer is gratitude, the mother of all virtues. If one has gratitude you’ll hold your ideals deep in your heart. You’ll protect them. You won’t forget them. You won’t change them. The question one must always ask themselves is this: Why was the past so great? The answer will guide you to victory and beautiful things.
Listen well, just as certain as we are born from the earth so it is that we shall leave it- either as the dead or as an immortal drifter through space. Either way, we shall go without a steward, for there is no one who can guide us through either endeavor. Regardless of that, those warriors who venture out with a pure heart full of gratitude regardless…those who search for victory and beautiful things…that is what Ronin are.
LWA art; https://twitter.com/Werkbau01/status/1113070155410468864?s=19
- “The Right Way To Make Jump”
- “Is The Shōnen Anime Formula Stale?” by Gaming Illuminatity https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSap-xA0rQI
- “Black Clover’s Stale Formula” by The Rpg Monger. Description quote at the time of writing “The Shounen *sub-genre* of anime and manga has always had issues…” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSLxraZPxZs
- “Shonen Anime’s Biggest Problem” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLIbI1FI6N4&t=6s
- “Game Critics” by videogamedunkey https://youtu.be/lG2dXobAXLI
- “Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation” by Joseph Campbell
- “Understanding the Japanese Mindset” by Caspain Report https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iAYTAaCvd8
- “1966: the year youth culture exploded” by The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/nov/15/1966-trip-good-vibrations-pop-revolution
- “The student group in Japan that’s made it cool to protest” By Naomi Gingold https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-05-27/student-group-japan-thats-made-it-cool-protest
- Foucault Explained Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLoPy6nHDeEkX6QzF50f0HWENIAhK5NS9V
- “Rule from the Shadows- The Psychology of Power” by StormCloudsGathering https://youtu.be/p8ERfxWouXs
- “The Hero Appears!” https://youtu.be/pBB8LzEX4PM
- “Doki Doki Literature Club- A Metamodern Horror Game” by Nightmare Masterclass hosted by David Stockdale https://youtu.be/UgTTDdzxqdo