There's a reason why shonen anime resonates with so many people
The first anime many people ever hear of is probably a "shonen" genre title. Millions of kids in the '90s were introduced to the medium through Dragon Ball Z, just as many more were introduced in the 2000s through Naruto, just as countless others were likely introduced in the 2010s through My Hero Academia. For many people, they ARE anime, becoming sort of a shorthand for it, and it's impossible to separate the genre or consider what the medium would be like without it.
But that's not a bad thing. Because while "shonen" literally translates to "young boy," and the shonen section is just one of many wonderful anime genres — it offers boundless amounts of creative storytelling, interesting direction, and inspirational and thoughtful themes. And thanks to Crunchyroll's Project Throwback, I think we have a great opportunity to explore those aspects and discover why certain pillars of the shonen anime genre stick with fans for so long.
You never forget your first anime ✨ pic.twitter.com/OBP9w9Ljxv— Crunchyroll (@Crunchyroll) August 17, 2020
Naruto is based on the manga by Masashi Kishimoto, and if you've never seen it or somehow never heard of it, it tells the story of a young ninja named, you guessed it, Naruto. Raised in the Hidden Leaf Village, he's an outcast that dreams of being Hokage, an aspirational position that symbolizes him being accepted by his community at large.
See, just in the basic framework of the barest plot elements, we have one of the shonen genre's greatest strengths — creating infinitely relatable themes out of grand, heroic dreams. We don't all wish to be Hokage (though that would be pretty rad) but I don't know a single person who hasn't longed for acknowledgment and recognition at least one point in their life. And because the franchise is also about growing up, as we watch Naruto age through the original series and then through Naruto Shippuden and the sequel Boruto: Naruto Next Generations, we watch him eventually find his place in the world and become someone that can help others find theirs.
Another example is Bleach, Tite Kubo's magnum opus about Ichigo Kurosaki, an aloof high schooler who finds himself suddenly thrust into the role of "Soul Reaper." With his newfound powers and responsibility, he must defend his friends, his fellow Reapers and mankind from malicious spirits and those that would prey on others. Bleach is also a story about growing up (many shonen anime series are) but while Naruto longs for the life experiences granted by aging and adulthood, Ichigo must learn to accept them.
And while he does, Ichigo as a protagonist represents coming to terms with the unexpected things life throws at us. Bleach deals with eschewing what we imagine our goals to be in order to be greater for those that depend on us. Because getting older is scary and weird and always manages to present things to us that we could never have hoped to prepare for, but it's also something inevitable. Time (and evil ghosts) will not stop to smell the roses, and so Bleach's lesson ends up being "How do I become what the world needs me to be?"
And though there are many more shonen titles in the Crunchyroll catalog you can peruse, I feel like it's important to round off this dive into the genre with Gintama. Based on the manga by Hideaki Sorachi, Gintama has always seemed to take a backseat to the heavier hitters of the Weekly Shonen Jump line-up, usually mentioned after Dragon Ball, Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, My Hero Academia, etc. when someone is talking about the most influential and renowned titles. But Gintama is anything but a second-stringer.
First off, it frequently parodies the characteristics and tropes found in other series, with references to One Piece, Saint Seiya, Naruto, and many others found in its fourth-wall-breaking antics. The main character, Gintoki, even wants to read Weekly Shonen Jump on a regular basis.
And enjoying manga anthologies might be his biggest goal because one thing that separates Gintama from its peers is the fact that Gintoki doesn't really seem to have any huge fantasies about his ambitions. Rather, as an ex-samurai, he runs a freelancing business, struggles to pay his rent, and simply wants to live by his own rules and his own sense of honor. However, this doesn't stop Gintama from frequently being thrilling and heartwarming, and it remains consistently underrated.
There are many, many shonen series to enjoy on Crunchyroll, but I feel like watching these three will give you a good idea of why the genre resonates with so many people at so many different points in their lives. Because while it does mean "young boy's anime," there are certain messages that are universal regardless of age or demographic. Most of us wish to be better, wish to be there for the people we love, wish to live a life we can be proud of. We may grow older than Naruto and Ichigo and Gintoki, but they'll always be a part of us.
Daniel Dockery is a Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. Follow him on Twitter!
Do you love writing? Do you love anime? If you have an idea for a features story, pitch it to Crunchyroll Features.