Power-ups are one of the greatest mainstays of shonen anime, a paradigm shift in power that forever raise the stakes which, at their best, are a culmination of emotional narratives leading to the most dramatic and memorable moments of the series. They can be a double-edged sword, however, and not just for the characters who use them. Power has to feel earned and a sudden boost that feels too convenient can fall flat. Drop in a boost that’s too easy to use or has no cost and the transformation becomes a prerequisite for each fight that kicks off an arms race which can quickly get out of hand.
The best power-ups are a balancing act of narrative and mechanics, lifting up the system and themes of the story. To be great, the build-up has to be dramatic and fit into the internal logic of the series while also possessing drawbacks, whether they be direct costs or situational benefits, that prevent the power-up from being used frivolously so it feels significant every time it’s used or, at the very least, bringing the character up to the level of the series rather than forcing the series to grow to match this new level of power. With those requirements in mind, here are the top 10 power-ups in shonen anime.
The original power-up and point of origin for every other limit-surpassing transformation on this list, even beating Goku’s legendary transformation into a Super Saiyan by 5 years and 9 days. The raw power of a man’s tears required 124 chapters/100 episodes and putting Kenshiro through the ringer to finally attain. Sorrow so deep that it becomes serenity, creating no-mind state of nothingness that awakens one’s inner power. Past an extremely dramatic “transformation” scene, the power of Musou Tensei itself is a standard lateral increase in power that didn’t significantly change the game, but we’ll give it a pass for inventing one of the mainstays of the shonen genre and making this list possible. The cost is certainly high to attain this transcendent state, with Kenshiro losing his true love and basically all of his friends. The ephemeral nature of the mental state also means it’s not just something you can activate at will, so it’s not something that can be relied upon or often seen… although Raoh achieves it immediately afterward so the two can have a super-powered sadness battle.
Another early power-up was Yusuke’s sudden possession by the demon Raizen in his battle against Sensui. While toeing the line in terms of a true power-up and requiring little more than the interest of a certain Upper S Class demon, Yusuke’s transformation was a landmark power-up for informing some of the greatest power-ups appearing higher up on this list with its unique hair and beastial fighting style. Although this power-up essentially costs nothing and can be activated whenever narratively convenient, the loss of Yusuke’s self control and the resulting aftermath make this anything but something he’d want to throw out in a fight, if he even could. It also was probably the first to significantly change the characters style of fighting as Yusuke transition from a relatively rough street brawler style to repeatedly stepping on and headbutting Sensui like a wild animal. While, like most transformations in Yu Yu Hakusho, this even was more of a one-off (Hiei, why don't you go Jaganshi again?), it does serve to set up some important storylines later in the series.
For a guy who can safely consume flames, Natsu has a bad habit of finding even more dangerous things to put in his mouth. The cost and availability of this power-up really depend on what precisely Natsu is eating, but the first time he pulls this trick is probably the most dramatic, consuming pure Etherion. While crystals made of raw magic have a lot of flame power in them, Natsu is basically eating an omni element and the drawbacks are pretty evident from the get-go, with him rolling on the ground and vomiting up excess elemental energy. It works though and he gains some extremely temporary overwhelming power. His fighting style gets a bit more brutal but nothing too significant visually and the drawback seems twofold in his gastrointestinal distress and Etherion being hard to come by. Natsu later gets some lightning and black fire which offer a lot more mix-up with his usual power suite and have the unique drawback of being extremely match-up dependent. What it misses in drama by being free is more than made up for by the satisfaction of calling Natsu eating it well in advance. A bit like predicting the interaction between rubber and electricity.
7. Crystallized Innocence - Lenalee Lee - D.Gray Man - Episode 102
Although not the only character to undergo this transformation, Lenalee was the first and most impactful, since developing this new level of power required taking a tremendous leap of faith. With so little understood about the nature of Innocence, Lenalee losing synchronization with her dark boots made it seem as if she would never be able to use her power again. Having thought of the mysterious material as a tool until this point, achieving her new level of power required revolutionizing her way of thinking about the substance as having its own will and discovering how to reach an accord with this alien sentience. It took trust and bravery to drinking the black liquid and accept the Innocence into herself after witnessing it transform another Accommodator become a monster.
While the upgrade served to lift Lenalee up to the power scale of the constantly transforming Allen Walker, it did it in style. The stigmata and fusion between the Accommodators blood and weapon leave a lasting impression, especially at the end of a long narrative arc lifting her from despair to renewed rising from her desire to protect her loved ones. More might have been done to change her fighting style but the improvements to her existing techniques felt natural and significant.
Naruto is a series full of not-quite-power-ups which, while lacking the cinematic spectacle of some other series, were more satisfying in a number of ways. Kishimoto kept things interesting by giving the characters new skills and power nudges that were always true to the mechanics and emotional throughlines of his story. While Sharingan in itself wasn’t a tremendous leap in Sasuke’s power, it gave him new skills and fundamentally changed the way he could approach conflict. While Sage Mode was a generic boost to Naruto’s fighting ability, his already unique power suit allowing him to rapidly master it and synergizing with it later just felt right and gave the series a sense of internal consistency.
Naruto occasionally going Kyuubi might be the closest to a raw power up, something he couldn’t quite control which changed his scrappy fighting style into something horrific and overwhelming, especially as it evolved to make him progressively more beastial. Although Six Paths Sage Mode might represent the pinnacle of his power, Naruto finally mastering just this ability is the most significant of the series. While arguably making it even less distinct, his road to controlling this transformation is what makes it the greatest of his many power-ups. Reaching a mutual understanding with Kurama, a creature directly responsible for the death of his parents and all the suffering he had experienced as a child, proved that, more important than even guts and ingenuity in the world of Naruto, are compassion and understanding.
Ultra Instinct is the coolest power-up to grace Dragon Ball’s endless parade limit-surpassing transformations since the first emergence of Super Saiyan on planet Namek. I’d argue that it even beats that iconic moment, for two very important reasons. First, it’s narratively the perfect power-up for Goku’s sociopathic pursuit of fighting excellence and arguably what he has been training to achieve since the very beginning, a transcendent battle trance in which he can move without thought. Second, its limits. A concept only introduced in Resurrection F that has been doubled down in with Ultra Instinct, a state Goku cannot control and which pushes him to such extreme limits that it destroys his body.
The power-up itself is distinct for its minimalist appearance, somehow really creating an impact by returning Goku to his original hairstyle, and definitely changes up the way he fought with some spectacular visuals that showed high speed in ways that break away from Dragon Ball’s usual flickering afterimages, making every moment Goku is in the form dramatic. It will stay that way as well, since Ultra Instinct isn’t something Goku can just bust out whenever he wants. He has to be pushed to the very limit for the state to manifest on its own, which while narratively convenient, makes room for some great gags about Vegeta and Frieza being unable to push Goku into the godlike state.
One of the most iconic power-up moments second perhaps only to Super Saiyan was Rock Lee’s use of Hidden Lotus against Gaara during the Chunin exams. If it didn’t invent it entirely, then it’s at least the most well-known example of a dramatic trope that is now synonymous with Naruto, the much parodied evocative flashback preceding a sudden turn in the flow of the fight. It had an extremely distinct appearance and transformed Lee’s fight from a high speed battle to his opponent getting tossed around by invisible pinball bumpers. If it had any drawback it may be that the cost was too high and lacked real situational constraints, often reducing Lee’s fights to a constant pressure to release his inner gates, usually resulting in his defeat as a point of reference for a new villains level of power. If it were just based on the quality of the power-up alone Rock Lee would be much further down the list but the sheer impact of its reveal demands a spot in the top half.
The mechanical pinnacle of the most well-conceived power system in the history of shonen. The preceding arcs following the Hunter exam followed Gon and Killua’s introduction to Nen energy and the dangerous double-edge sword of Nen contracts. When we return to Kurapika we see he’s spent is time in media res balancing upon this razors edge of power and consequence to make a quantum leap in strength beyond his friends, becoming potentially the most powerful nen users in the world, but only against a certain 13 individuals. Where Gon and Killua are better all-rounders, Kurapika has become the ultimate specialist to hunt down the Phantom Troupe. Against everyone else in the world, he’s left himself with only the basics of nen and his considerable wits.
Coupling such specific conditions with the penalty of death realizes Kurapika’s conviction in the form of nearly unstoppable power. The concept and execution of Emperor Time itself tells you all you need to know about Kurapika’s genius and dedication even removed from the context of the story and are a perfect reflection of the inspired connection between narrative and mechanics that is the Nen system itself. The fight itself has huge impact. Where Kurapika barely fought before, seeing him casually dismantle one of the strongest opponents yet introduced as a means of testing his newfound power was just as horrific as it was dramatic.
The first real powerup in One Piece is one of the greatest achievements of the bizarre, Alice in Wonderland absurdist logic that defines Oda’s style. Every once in a while Luffy’s rubber anatomy seems to mean something more than just his ability to stretch and his discovery that he can vulcanize himself is even more satisfying than his reaction to electricity. It came at the perfect time. with Luffy’s growing concern that his current level of power would be insufficient to protect his crew and the tremendous toll it puts on his body is a cost all too easy to imagine Luffy accepting. In the strange, happy-go-lucky atmosphere of the series, it was indication that the series was taking a (slightly) more serious turn.
Updating all his technique names to the next larger calibur drives home the upgrade, where some power-ups can leave you feeling unsure about what precisely has changed besides the character gaining the upper hand. The visual language of Second Gear also sells the power-up. Luffy’s skin changing color and the steam rises off his body give you a sense of the power and the cost before he even moves. His high speed conveyed through the snappy retraction of his limbs and satisfying zipping noises were perfect way to show off a sort of bizarre change in his physiology. While the cost itself is fairly generic, Oda’s even-handed approach to its use make it feel important when Luffy drops into the recognizable pose.
If Emperor Time is the mechanical pinnacle of the Nen system, then Gon’s Nen Curse is its narrative mirror. Like Naruto’s kyuubi, Gon’s nen curse has a monstrous appearance, but, unlike the kyuubi, we’re never given any clue as to what’s happening to Gon, only that his transformation is a choice. We’re forced into Pitou’s perspective, experiencing their confusion and fear at something we have no basis for understanding. The anime also did a fantastic job adapting the scene to drive home its unnerving atmosphere. The music becomes a foreboding dirge, complete with screeching violins when Gon unleashes his power. His new form isn’t a new plateau of strength but a new becoming into something that shouldn’t exist. The ensuing fight plays out like a horror movie. While the power-up itself is one of the most generic on the list, the immense jump and the obvious consequences of its use make it distinct on its own.
Even beyond that is how the power-up itself affects the narrative. It’s the culmination of the doubts that have been growing about Gon over the course of Hunter X Hunter’s longest arc. His unrestrained temper, loss of innocence, and growing obsession with revenge, calling all the way back to Musou Tensei as a state only possible as the result of Gon’s tremendous sorrow. Its costs are the clearest of any on the list, all but killing Gon and requiring an entire arc to discover a way to undo what he’s done to himself, but there were even greater consequence in the harm he caused to his relationship with Killua. Valuing their friendship more than anything, Killua had to confront the fact that avenging Kite’s death was more important to Gon than him. Although it could be summoned at any time, tt’s something that may never appear again and represents Gon’s greatest failure as a hero.
Power-ups can surive on any number of merits, even putting together theis list was more a process of deciding which had the greatest strengths and fewest weaknesses to push it above so many other, but there's definitely a ton that deserve a mention. Can you think of one which should have made the cut? Disagree with my orderL Which on the list is your absolute favorite? Let us know in the comments below!
Peter Fobian is an Associate Features Editor for Crunchyroll, author of Monthly Mangaka Spotlight, writer for Anime Academy, and contributor at Anime Feminist. You can follow him on Twitter @PeterFobian.