Transformations are an anime staple. Shounen anime, shojo, comedy, you name it. Sometimes, they can be the grand culmination of a character’s arc. In other cases, the transformation itself can be a simple joke. Either way, a ton of anime feature at least one transformation; it’s an icon of the genre.
Personally, I love transformations. If executed well, they mark the dramatic climax of an arc and the beginning of another. Besides, it gives the author a chance to shake up a character’s design to reflect their recent growth. They’re one of the main reasons I love shounen anime.
And in other anime, they make for a funny joke. Like Kill la Kill; that whole show is a parody of anime transformations and it’s one of my favorite anime!
A remarkable transformation can change everything in a series. For example, let’s look at one of the most iconic transformations in any anime: Dragon Ball Z’s Super Saiyan. This transformation had it all; it paid off a ton of buildup for an explosively memorable moment and Goku’s new design immediately became just as iconic as his original appearance. More importantly, it changed the tone and content of the story going forward; Z was a very different story after Super Saiyan showed up.
All of the other transformations in the series are… up and down, quality-wise. There are so many at this point that they don’t really matter anymore. Super Saiyan 2, 3, 4, Super Saiyan God, Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan, Ultra Instinct, Vegeta’s royal blue thing, Gohan’s new Beast mode thing, it’s a mess. That’s what happens when you remove the character work behind a transformation and make it all about marketing. “Jimmy, the ratings are down again, give Goku a new form!”
Don’t even get me started on Buu. Or Freeza. Or just about any other Dragon Ball character, let’s move on.
The coolest transformations are the ones most tied to the character’s arc. Take Gon’s transformation in the Chimera Ant arc of Hunter x Hunter; after going on a downward spiral for the whole story, he finally hits rock bottom and he finally becomes a monster inside and out. Another example is Luffy with Gear 5; after years of experimenting with his powers and getting stronger, he finally unlocks the true power of his Devil Fruit and his appearance changes to reflect the completion of his journey.
Unfortunately, not all transformations are built equal. Some of them are unearned, others have little to no impact on the story, and some are replaced before they ever have a chance to shine. These are the most disappointing cases, and unfortunately, the most common.
One of the worst examples of this is Naruto. In the Fourth Great Ninja War arc, Naruto unlocks three or four new transformations, each even more ridiculously powerful than the last. By the time you reached his third new form, they lost all meaning altogether; rather than reflecting the completion of Naruto and Kurama’s character arcs, it just becomes ‘look at these cool
toys you can now buy new forms, wow, Naruto sure is getting stronger.’
That’s pretty much how most shounen transformations end up. Name a shounen and chances are it devolved into a similar situation at some point. In cases like this, it becomes clear that they’re focusing on the wow factor of a new character design rather than the narrative impact all the coolest transformations have.
Don’t get me wrong, that aspect is still cool. It’s cool to see a character’s look change, even if just for a little while. From the simple changes, like Super Saiyan’s spikey blond hair to Naruto’s froggy Sage Mode eyes, to the more elaborate ones, like Ichigo’s many outfits in Bleach, it’s just cool seeing what new versions of the character an author can come up with. Even the most boring, inconsequential forms usually have the wow factor.
I really like transformations. At their best, they can make for a bombastic celebration of a character’s completed arc. At their worst, they’re a cool shake-up of a character’s design. It isn’t the most incredible writing trick in the book, but it always gets me excited nonetheless.
Unless it’s Super Saiyan Blue. That one just doesn’t have anything going for it. Unless you just really like the color blue over yellow.