Things Gunlord Has Been Up To (Thoughts on Shonen Manga)

Ah, the past week has been good to me. I’m feeling 100% better! Thanks for the good wishes, everyone. Now that I’ve recovered from my illness, I can start posting regular entries on my regular schedule again!

While I was laid up in bed for most of last week, I got a lot of reading done. Manga reading, that is! Stuff to help me feel better, by getting my blood pumping and my spirit burning! Stuff like…well, shonen manga.

For those of you who don’t know, shonen is a Japanese term that means “youth” or “young person,” most often “young boy.” So shonen manga = manga (japanese comics) aimed at a young male audience. They typically revolve around a young male protagonist having martial-arts fights and zany adventures, typically gaining a crew of reliable friends and enjoying the attention of many beautiful women (since the target audience is getting just old enough to enjoy girls). There’s no explicit sex or nudity, though, and not as much graphic violence (at least these days). For that, you want seinen manga, which is geared for an older male audience (late teens to early twenties).  Now, these definitions aren’t set in stone; there are some shonen manga (like Yotsuba) which are much quieter. The Wikipedia article goes into more detail and also offers the safest, most direct definition: Any manga you can find in the pages of magazines like Shonen Jump is part of the shonen genre.

Me, I’ve read a lot of manga over the years. While I’m typically a mecha (giant robot) fan, I like a variety of things, and I’ve read a few shonen manga here and there. While I was sick, on a whim I decided to pick up a couple of manga I hadn’t read before. It is these two manga I’d like to discuss today, along with my impressions of the shonen genre generally.

The first is a very famous comic I’m sure more than a few of you have heard of if you’ve been on the Internet for a while, even if you don’t know anything about Japanese manga. It’s “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure” by Hirohiko Araki. Known for its distinctive artstyle, references to rock musicians (like Speedwagon) and crazy plots, it’s a bestseller in Japan. It was first started in 1986 and is still running today, spanning hundreds of chapters and several video games and anime series.

The story begins in nineteenth century England, where young Jonathan Joestar, son of a wealthy lord, finds his happy life interrupted by the arrival of an adoptive brother, Dio Brando. Dio turns out to be pure evil and attempts to break Jonathan psychologically, eventually stealing one of his father’s artifacts–a mysterious stone mask created by the Aztecs–and using it to turn himself into a powerful vampire! The rest of the manga revolves around Jonathan’s descendants struggling to defeat the immortal Dio through the use of supernatural powers like “The Ripple” and “Stands” which enhance their abilities. I’ve only just started on this (I’m on chapter 18), but I’m really enjoying it. The characters are amusingly bulky and over-muscled, which along with the cheesy dialogue reminds me of one of my favorite manga (Hokuto no Ken).

The other manga I’m currently reading is “Kenichi, History’s Strongest Disciple.” Created by Syun Matsuena, it tells the story of Kenichi Shirahama, a high school student who gets bullied every day until he meets a girl named Miu on his way to class. She has incredible fighting abilities and agrees to take him to the Ryozanpaku Dojo (headed by her grandfather), where the greatest masters of Muay Thai, Karate, and other martial arts will all teach him and turn him into a capable fighter. Of course, as he progresses under their hellish training, he becomes much more than just a “capable” fighter, and attracts the attention of enemies much stronger than just schoolyard bullies.  Published since 2002 in Shonen Sunday, it’s also achieved a degree of fame and popularity for itself, currently spanning over 500 chapters and having spawned some video games, an anime series, and some OVAs (Original Video Animation). It is, admittedly, not as popular or well-regarded as Jojo, both because it’s not as old and because, as some of my friends might tell you, it’s not as good. XD

There are more than a few differences between Kenichi and Jojo. My friends love Jojo but hate Kenichi, which is why I’m constantly amused by their reactions whenever I post the latter in our chats, haha. And I suppose Jojo is more highly regarded, for a couple of reasons. First, Kenichi is pretty generic, in every sense. The art, while good, isn’t much different from the art of most shonen manga, while Araki’s glamorous, sometimes androgynous characters are recognizable even by people who don’t read manga. Kenichi’s plot is also pretty standard for a shonen: Young man faces progressively stronger martial-arts opponents while engaging in wacky romantic hijinks and being taught by super-powerful masters who nevertheless have their own wacky quirks. Jojo’s plot, on the other hand, involves vampires, Aztecs, and ancient archaeology in nineteenth century England–and that’s just the first 18 chapters, I hear the story gets even crazier later on! So I’ll concede that Jojo is a lot more inventive when it comes to the storyline, at least compared with Kenichi.

Still, as I implied above, I can’t help liking both. It’s understandable I’d love Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, given its fantastic art and crazy plots. But why Kenichi? Well, I think that series has a couple strengths of its own, even if it’s not the most original shonen in the world. First, I rather like the girls. Syun Matsuena incorporates a lot of fanservice in the battles between female combatants (clothing gets torn a lot and stuff). My friends find that distracting, but for me, if I just need something to cheer me up (as I did while I was sick), scantily clad ladies do the trick just fine. So that’s once thing that sets History’s Strongest Disciple apart for me, at least.

The action itself is also pretty darn good, in my estimation. While none of the fights are really violent and brutal in what I’ve read so far (up to around chapter 300), they’re pretty exciting as far as martial-arts manga go. Though based off IRL martial arts like Muay Thai and karate, there’s a lot of fantasy in this manga–we see stuff like energy beams and flying through the air in later fights, though it hasn’t gotten to planet-destroying levels as the most famous shonen of them all, Dragon Ball (Z, GT, etc.) portrayed. The fight scenes thus maintain a sort of balance between completely mundane and universe-shatteringly over the top I really enjoy.

Finally, though, there’s a moral element to the series I rather enjoy. It’s not exactly subtle, sure–this is shonen manga, not high literature. But throughout the series, Kenichi’s courage, persistence, and yes, kindness, are portrayed as not only virtues but the means through which he can triumph over much stronger opponents. Even when he gets the tar beat out of him, the friends he’s made thanks to his stand-up personality and character are there to bail him out, and working together with them he’s a force to be reckoned with–stronger even than individuals who’ve undergone incredible training but at the cost of building alliances with other good people. That’s a similar sort of moral teaching to what I’ve tried to live by these days. There are some differences: I’m not a martial artist obviously, and Kenichi places more emphasis on bravery in the face of physical danger. But I’ve certainly come to the conclusion that it’s much better to cultivate friendships through virtue with cool, accomplished people than to waste time getting angry at nonsense. This is something that really shines through in Syun Matsuena’s work.

I suppose the “moral” part of Kenichi’s Strongest Disciple is hardly unique among shonen manga. In fact, you could probably argue it’s pretty derivative, as most shonen stories revolve around courage, friendship, and “becoming a man” (the gendered maturing is important). Still, even though the characters themselves aren’t that deep, I’ve grown so attached to them that I find myself really enjoying the lessons they impart. Yeah, Kenichi isn’t much different from any of a hundred other shonen protags who start off weak and grow stronger, and yes, Miu isn’t much different from any other sweet, supportive, yet incredibly-strong-in-a-fight shonen manga love interest. Even so, I find them less annoying than the protagonists of other famous shonen series, namely Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece. And since I like Matsuena’s art style better than that of Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece (especially his fight scenes, as I mentioned above), it stands to reason I’d like Kenichi a little better than the other shonen mangas.

Ah, there’s one more thing, I suppose. Mr. Matsuena actually has a knack for drawing cute things, like kitties or the goofy little comic relief mouse mascot, as you can see here:

From chapter 104

From chapter 104

I’ve got a major soft spot for cute animals, so I suppose it’s the icing on the cake that Kenichi: History’s Strongest Disciple offers me. XD

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