Oh yeah. That’s a serious question.
Think about shonen for a moment. We have “Fullmetal Alchemist” and “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood”, two of the greatest shows of all time. The former has deeply complex characters and hauntingly effective direction on every level. The latter is incredibly tightly plotted, covers a massive cast of interesting and well thought-out characters, and is one of the most philosophically deep shows arguably ever made.
Then you have “Death Note”, whose first half, at least, is probably the most carefully plotted I’ve ever seen, and whose original manga has spawned a franchise so massive it’s even extended to musicals, of all things.
Okay, I started with the best of the best. Let’s go down a peg.
“My Hero Academia”, then. THIS show has a massive, sprawling cast of unique and colorful characters and incredibly exciting action set pieces in a constantly evolving world. But more than that, the characters are complex and interesting, with powerful arcs rarely seen outside of the most critically acclaimed TV dramas. I mean, Todoroki’s backstory, and the way it was integrated into his fight with Deku, and how what happened in that fight reverberates throughout the rest of the series, is astonishingly well done.
And holy crap, ENDEAVOR? Is there ANYBODY who is doing anything as ballsy as what Horikoshi is doing with the character of Endeavor? It’s actually kind of amazing.
Hmmm, okay, this is a beloved show, maybe this is still unfair. Let’ go down even further. The show “Magi” had two seasons and has mostly been forgotten, though I adore it. THIS show takes place in a colorful fantasy-Arabian world, has a large cast of unique and interesting characters, and deals with complex socio-political issues with astonishing tact and intelligence.
The character of Ali Baba is one of the best drawn characters I have ever seen, vacillating between cowardice and bravery, crushed by guilt but driven to do right by his people, afraid to lead but ultimately more afraid not to. What shows have characters as interesting or complex as Ali Baba? What shows deal so well with massive geo-political politics, or deal with social issues with so much intelligence and humanity without oversimplifying any of them? Are there any?
Okay, shonen is really an age range, not a genre. Let’s take a look at another perennial favorite, the sports anime. I am not a big connoisseur of these but I am a big fan of “Kuroko No Basketball”. Once again, this show focuses on a large and colorful cast, has great character arcs for not just its leads but many different characters, and man, the animation and choreography of the games themselves is stunning. What shows outside of shonen put so much effort into making the actions of the characters look so dynamic and interesting?
I can go on. In fact, this is REALLY scratching the surface. I mean, “One Piece”? Holy freaking crap, “One Piece”? What story of any kind has done the sort of worldbuilding that “One Piece” has made its bread and butter?
And then there’s the Chimera Ant arc of “Hunter x Hunter”, a brutal, elegant, and moving commentary on humanity with some of the best characters and character arcs of all time, portrayed in a unique and powerful way. It is awe-inspiring on sheer ambition alone, but that Togashi cashes all of his checks is nothing short of astonishing. Not since “Breaking Bad” has there been either television or cinema that has matched the power and tragedy of the climax of the Chimera Ant arc.
And JoJo’s! What is there even to say about it? Is there anything JoJo’s HASN’T done? The artwork of JoJo’s has actually ended up in the Louvre!
So here is my question:
What happened that made massive, sprawling adventure stories with huge, complex casts and interesting and well-developed characters get stuck as “Kid’s stuff”? Why do we almost never see the sort of grandeur and complexity of shonen in stories designed for adults?
Don’t give me “adults don’t have enough time to get invested”. If there’s anything the streaming era has shown us, it’s that yes, they do.
I don’t have an answer to this. I’m just raising the question.
I will say this. In anime, there is one exception to this rule – only one. That is space opera. For some reason space opera is allowed to be marketed towards adults while still having huge casts, interesting worlds, and grand adventure – see (especially) “Legend of the Galactic Heroes”, “Crest of the Stars”, or even the Gundam franchise, whose robots are marketed towards kids but whose stories, mostly, aren’t.
But – in anime – outside of that?
What the heck happened?I really am not sure. I have no idea how we reached this point, just like I’m not sure why the west has reduced animation to adult comedy and children’s media. But I do know this:
Shonen is the best anime, and until I see the same sort of storytelling become mainstream among shows aimed at older viewers, well, you can pry “My Hero Academia” out of my cold, dead hands.