Appreciating the Shounen Aesthetic


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”. Understanding Aesthetics 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 five 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 “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” 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.” 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. 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!”/Ganbatte 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. 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. 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 I’m going 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. 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.

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