Shounen is a genre of anime that doesn’t often change. And if it does, it does so very slowly. Ever since Dragon Ball rolled around and established the core rules and narrative beats of the genre, shounen has remained more or less the same. Whether it be about ninjas or grim reapers or a simple volleyball club, they all feel very similar.
This applies incredibly strongly to the protagonists of these stories. Because let’s be honest: most shounen protagonists are just a slightly altered variety of Son Goku. They’re generally extremely friendly idiots with massive stomachs and incredible skills in combat (or the sport, in a sports shounen like Haikyu). Naruto is just sad ninja Goku. Hinata is volleyball Goku. So on and so forth. Hell, they all even copy his orange color scheme!
Recently, however, we’ve seen a shift in how shounen protagonists are being written. With shows like My Hero Academia, Demon Slayer, and Jujutsu Kaisen, we’re seeing an interesting shift in how the protagonists of this long established genre are changing.
Sorry orange. Green is my new best friend.
Many of the traits of old can still be found. The protagonists of all three series that I mentioned above, Deku, Tanjiro, and Itadori, are all highly skilled in combat, moderately thick-skulled (literally, in Tanjiro’s case), and friendly to a fault. All three are exceptionally hard workers who struggle to become the strongest characters in the cast.
However, there are a few key things different in each one to make them unique.
Deku, for example, is incredibly smart. Unlike other shounen protagonists, who are complete morons in anything other than battle, Deku is a bright kid. In fact, it’s his combat skills that are lacking, not his mind. Over the course of the series, he repeatedly has to find creative solutions to his problems using his wits, not his brawn. Even as he begins to fully master the power All Might bestowed upon him, he’s constantly thinking, analyzing, and strategizing.
Tanjiro is much the same way. While his skill with a sword is certainly higher than average and he picks up on difficult techniques rather quickly, he relies more on strategy to win rather than strength. Many of his fights in the series consist of Tanjiro desperately trying to think through a problem presented to him by a demon. Rarely is it just a matter of him being stronger/more skilled than his opponent.
It’s not just their minds that’s different. But also their spirits.
Shounen protagonists are known for being completely fearless. That’s one of the main traits that makes them so likable, if unrelatable. Whenever faced with a dangerous situation, they simply smile and charge at it head on. Goku never so much as wavered. Naruto was only scared once, then he swore he never would be again. Luffy has been faced with dozens of situations in which he simply could not win, yet he never so much as flinched in any one of them.
But characters like Deku, Itadori, and Tanjiro? Often times, they’re very reasonably afraid when stuck in a dangerous situation. Tanjiro often has to try and calm himself down whenever he’s faced with an obstacle or threat that he doesn’t understand or doesn’t think he can handle. Deku’s entire arc is about learning how to face fear with a smile on his face. Early on in Jujutsu Kaisen, Itadori is faced with a situation in which he’s all but guaranteed to die and he practically has a nervous breakdown. These are characters who are just as terrified as any normal person would be, but have the courage to face their fears anyways.
Now, you may have noticed that I’ve mostly been leaving Itadori alone up to this point. That’s partially because, of the three examples I’m using, he’s the one that closest fits the ‘classic’ shounen protagonist archetype. He’s practically fearless, naturally strong, dumb as a brick, and kind to a fault. He doesn’t wear green. But make no mistake. He, too, stands out from the old.
Itadori struggles with the concepts of death and morality. Whenever faced with either one, he begins to grow quiet and introspective, the two traits farthest from a typical shounen hero. He has a simple view on morality; he and his friends are good, curses are evil. So, when something occurs to challenge that view, he grinds to a halt and has to consider.
And… that’s about all I can say about Itadori. I still need to read the Jujutsu Kaisen manga.
It’s interesting to see how shounen is changing. It’s a gradual shift, yes. But in a genre as tried, true, and long-lasting as this one, even a gradual change is dramatic. And often times, it leads to further, more drastic change.
I can’t wait to see how it changes from here. In about twenty years.