Shonen is Ready to Grow Up

In the world of manga and anime, battle shonen indisputably reigns supreme. Of the top ten most popular anime on MAL, seven are specifically battle anime, not counting the non-battle shonen Death Note or the action-oriented isekai Sword Art Online. Of those seven but technically eight series, six are based on manga that originated in Shonen Jump.

If battle shonen is the dominant genre, then Shonen Jump is perhaps the greatest reason for that. Thanks to an editorial process that hones in on the fundamental appeal of the genre and widespread name and brand recognition, they’ve produced more hits than perhaps any publication. That approach is multi-faceted, of course, as it seeks to address the wildly complicated question of how to create one wildfire success after another.

There’s obvious themes, like heroes who work hard and collaborate in order to solve their problems; a kids’ magazine ought to teach worthwhile lessons, after all. Other than that, the forces of good usually have to triumph, even if sacrifices must be made. And more than either of those traits, it has to be kid-friendly. Shonen isn’t the word we came up with to describe battle manga, it’s the demographic for boys between the ages of 11-17.

However, in recent years, we have seen a remarkable trend the pages of Shonen Jump, pushing what was previously acceptable. These new stories operated within that same mold of hard work and good overcoming evil, but were willing to demonstrate the excesses of human vice, the violence and collateral damage that these earth-shattering battles would realistically cause. Today, I’m exploring both the history of the world’s most popular manga, and what these trends have to say about its future.

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Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train

The 1980s and ’90s were relatively lax in their publication standards. The brutally violent Fist of the North Star remains one of the most popular and influential manga of all time, and it began its life in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump. It was soon followed by the similarly grisly JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, which shocked readers in 1987 by killing off its protagonist Jonathan in the final chapter.

If you’re familiar with the OVA boom of the same era, you’re likely aware of how gory anime was willing to get back then. Compared to the sanitized storytelling of the late 2000s, that kind of bloodshed was unthinkable. Perhaps Kenshiro’s organ-exploding martial arts was unsuited for children, but the power that Tetsuo Hara’s artwork held then and now is undeniable.

However, the industry became increasingly regulated and subject to censorship. As Japan increasingly opened its culture to the west, many elements in anime, manga, and video games were toned down to be more appropriate for younger audiences, as anyone who’s seen a 4Kidz dub can tell you. The so-called Otaku Murderer was the subject of media hype after his killing spree ended in arrest, and police found his collection of horror films, manga, and anime. The claims were largely hyperbolized, and there has yet to be conclusive evidence proving that violent media can provoke violence in its audience, but the sensationalist headlines prompted stricter editorial oversight.

This meant Shonen Jump would greenlight fewer titles like Fist of the North Star, and more like the similarly popular but kid-friendly Dragon Ball. Focus was placed on beam clashes and abstract power systems in empty canyons, rather than grim post-apocalyptic wastelands and brutal glory kills. Even JoJo, the Shonen Jump mainstay, was moved to Ultra Jump in 2005. The magazine was increasingly becoming less-willing to present dark or violent stories.

The problem with this cleaned-up Shonen Jump I’m describing doesn’t necessarily equate to the magazine as it stands today. So what changed?

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Kenshiro of Fist of the North Star. Artwork by Testuo Hara.

The most striking difference between Shonen Jump then and now is probably its increasing use of horror elements in its stories. Body horror and fantastical monsters in manga are nothing new, but they’ve become foundational to many of the magazine’s principle titles. Manga like Demon Slayer and Jujutsu Kaisen are characterized by their use of demons and spirits from Japanese folklore, as well as excessive violence. Demon Slayer in particular ups its brutality with each arc, though that doesn’t mean JJK is a stranger to putting its cast through the ringer. I mean, the main character gets his heart ripped out and dies in like, episode four.

Even cleaner, more kid-friendly manga like My Hero Academia has upped the grit in recent storylines. The Metahuman Liberation Arc, frequently referred to as My Villain Academia, focuses on the series’ antagonists the League of Villains, and displays some of the most grotesque concepts and fights in the series. Even after that point, the manga has taken several serious turns to the dark.

And that’s not counting straight-up horror manga that slipped in shonen premises. The Promised Neverland shocked in its first season, showing orphans kept as cattle until their flavor ripened to be devoured by demons. The second season is better not spoken about, and the manga’s ending is controversial, but most of the manga is quite well-regarded. Needless to say, the first arc is a masterclass in suspense and horror in anime, and I’m more than a little surprised it was published in Shonen Jump.

And finally, the most daring approach to breaking Shonen Jump’s barriers, Chainsaw Man. It is one of the bloodiest, most graphically violent manga to come out of the magazine in years. I mean, the protagonist gets organ harvested, torn to pieces, and becomes a demon with a chainsaw for a face in the first chapter alone. And far from hobbling the series, Tatsuki Fujimoto’s savage artistry has launched one of SJ’s biggest new properties. Seriously, if you haven’t read Chainsaw Man, you’re not ready for the hype this anime is about to deliver.

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Seriously, I’m a grown adult with bills to pay and that is haunting. Artwork by Tatsuki Fujimoto.

Shonen Jump has gladly leaned into being the go-to kids’ manga for decades now, but when reviewing the available information, there’s only one conclusion. After the most severe censorship, sales only continued to decline. In fact, the magazine’s absolute peak came in the 1990s’, thanks to the popularity of manga like Rurouni Kenshin, YuYu Hakusho, and the launch of the massively successful Dragon Ball Z anime.

In that way, shonen is ready to grow up again. Clearly, editorializing the most gruesome aspects of manga is not always in the magazine’s best interest. I can only imagine the uproar in the offices of Shonen Jump in 2013 in the wake of Attack on Titan’s runaway success. The publication had previously passed on serializing Attack on Titan, and it went on to become perhaps the biggest manga and anime of the decade. They wouldn’t let another blockbuster slip through their fingers.

So they’ve been trying to capture their own dark, violent hit, and it’s been working pretty well. Demon Slayer and Attack on Titan aren’t quite on the same level of storytelling, but there’s no denying that Demon Slayer is a titan of its own right now. Mugen Train was one of the most successful films of 2020, because it’s a very good movie and totally not for any other reason that would have killed any potential competition.

And as we look forward to projects like the second season of Demon Slayer, the Jujutsu Kaisen 0 movie, and of course, the upcoming Chainsaw Man anime, I think it’s fair to say that shonen has grown up. It hasn’t lost sight of its roots, we’re still all about plucky kids with spiky hair doing magic and punching real good. As long as we can say that, shonen is sure to thrive.

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Artwork for the cover of Jujutsu Kaisen Volume 0. Artwork by Gege Akutami.

Shonen Jump’s grip on the manga market is not exactly weakening any time soon, and the reason for that is that they listen and adapt to their environment. When it’s profitable, go all in on the bloodiest stories you can publish. When political pressure mounts and threatens those profits, ease up and push out more age-appropriate stories. Rinse, repeat.

I don’t mean that critically, either. The folks over in SJ’s editorial department have jobs to do and magazines to sell, and they’ve still put out many of the best titles in their history in the sanitized period I was just maligning. I’m just glad that they’re branching out again, and exploring some of their most complex and intriguing stories in years.

Ultimately, I’ll always side with allowing creators to do what they want with their projects, but I have that bias as a writer myself. I can understand that weird and dark stories don’t always sell, especially as cult manga have a much narrower audience than the broad demographic Shonen Jump appeals to. There’s a lot to be said about why Shonen Jump readers have latched onto horror-inspired works in recent years, but that’s the subject of another essay.

So, do you think that Shonen Jump is putting out some of its best work, or do you prefer when it was cleaner and kid-friendly? You can tell me down in the comments below, or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. Until next time, thanks for reading.

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