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When browsing for anime shows to watch, you probably come across several genres you're not familiar with. One of the most popular genres is shounen. You'll also see this written as shonen or shōnen but they all mean the same thing.
Shounen is a genre aimed at a younger male audience and literally translates to ‘few years'. Although that's the technical definition, in the real world shounen appeals to both men and women of all ages. It's also much more than just shows for youngsters.
The History of Shounen
One of the first shonen magazines was Shōnen Sekai. Published by Hakubunkan from 1895 to 1914, it was one of the most popular children's magazines of its day. Although the stories in the magazine don't resemble the shounen of today, it was one of the first shounen media to target a young male demographic.
Shōnen Sekai was creating during the time of the Sino-Japanese War and featured stories about acts of bravery during war. It featured stories from authors like Shunrō Oshikawa, inventor of the “adventure manga” genre. Oshikawa was influenced by writers like Jules Verne.
After World War II is when the modern version of shounen developed. Shounen manga (comics or graphic novels) of this period focused on topics like sci-fi, robots, technology, and space travel. Arguably, one of the most well-known manga from this era is Astro Boy created by Osamu Tezuka. Readership grew rapidly, and shōjo manga aimed at girls became another main genre.
Weekly Shonen Jump
In 1968, the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump began production and went on to become the best-selling manga magazine in Japan. It's still produced today, and that's where many of the most popular shounen anime started.
The magazine content featured stories with numerous action scenes, broken up by comedy. Shonen Jump's circulation was highest from the mid 1980's through late 1990's. This period has a special place in the heart of many anime fans. Not only is it the period they discovered and grew up with anime, it also produced some of the most popular anime in history.
I would like to point out I'm going through the history of shonen quickly, but there's so much more interesting history. If you're interested, here are some good resources to get started.
The History of Shonen Jump – A Polygon podcast looking back at the last 50 years of Shonen Jump.
Weekly Shonen Jump on Wikipedia.
Shounen Anime Today
Shonen, and all manga in general, is extremely popular today. Many of the most successful and widely recognized anime got their start on Shonen Jump.
There are usually some plot and character features you'll find in shounen anime. Shounen usually features a young male hero, and features lots of adventure, action, and fighting.
A typical shounen plot might feature a young hero, who struggles to become stronger in order to help friends, or protect the earth. I'm kind of generalizing here of course! Shounen series can be mostly serious with some humor thrown in, or a mix of both comedy and action.
A recurring theme in shounen is friendship. The hero builds deep friendships and goes to great lengths to save or help their friends. Shounen can be motivating to watch, as you see the hero struggle through what seem like impossible odds to emerge victorious. Even though there's plenty of fighting and action, the relationships of the characters makes you feel closer to the show.
Shonen focuses on making (most) characters likable, and connect with what they're going through. It's the kind of emotional rollercoaster responsible for those jump off the couch and give your cat a high five moments (wait…everyone has those right?).
What Are Some Great Shonen to Watch?
Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z
Dragon Ball debuted in Weekly Shonen Jump in 1984. Series creator Akira Toriyama based his story on the classical Chinese tale Journey to the West. Dragonball influenced countless shonen after it, and is considered the most influential shonen manga in modern history.
Dragon Ball is a story about a young boy named Goku, who sets off in search of magical objects called ‘Dragon Balls'. Whoever collections all seven Dragon Balls is granted a wish. Goku makes friends with people he meets during his adventures. It's these friendships that often push Goku to reach new limits of strength to help.
All the classic elements of shonen are here including friendship, victory, struggle, and doing what's right.
The success of Dragon was followed by Dragon Ball Z. Goku is now an adult and living a peaceful life with his wife and son. This quickly changes when visitors from another world arrive and threaten earth. Goku and his friends must fight ever increasing odds to protect their home and loved ones.
Dragon Ball Z is responsible for creating a new generation of anime fans. Its legacy has become part of modern pop culture.
Monkey D. Luffy and his gang of pirates search for the greatest treasure ever left by Gol D. Roger, the legendary Pirate King. On his deathbed, Rogers reveals the existence greatest treasure in the world, One Piece. Luffy sets out to earn the title of Pirate King. Unlike your typical rowdy law breaking pirate, Luffy is purely in it for the sense of adventure. This is a very long series, so if you get into it there's plenty to keep you occupied.
Hunter x Hunter
Note – there is a 1999 and 2011 version of Hunter x Hunter. I would recommend the 2011 series. The animation and production quality is higher, and it follows the original manga story closer with little filler.
Hunter x Hunter takes place in a world where the hunter organization employs skilled individuals, called hunters, to track criminals and find treasure.
Gon Freecss in a 12 year old boy determined to become the best Hunter ever, and find his father who abandoned his young son. Gon has to take the Hunter Exam, where he makes friends, enemies, and discovers just how challenging becoming a hunter is.
I'll admit I gave Hunter x Hunter a couple tries and couldn't get more than a few episodes in. A few months later I was determined to finish the series, and it quickly became one of my all time favorites. I'm just saying this in case you're not hooked in a couple episodes. The plot develops somewhat slower than other shounen shows. The fights are also somewhat different. Where traditional shounen features flashy special power and endless fighting episodes, Hunter x Hunter takes a different approach. The fights focus a great deal on strategy, and out-thinking your opponent. There are some visually spectacular fights, but the battle of intellect seen on Hunter x Hunter is equally exciting.
My Hero Academia
Izuku Midoriya lives in a society where nearly everyone has a superpower, known as a quirk. Although he dreams of becoming a hero, Izuku is quirkless. One day he meets his idol, the #1 hero All Might. Through a series of events, Izuku is set on a path to try and become the greatest hero of all time.
My Hero Academia is a fairly new series, but it's an excellent example of shonen anime. It has mainstream appeal too! So there's a good chance you could get that holdout friend or family member to finally watch anime with you.
Yu Yu Hakusho
Yu Yu Hakusho is a series than ran from 1992 to 1995. 14-year-old Yusuke Urameshi dies after pushing a bystander out of the way of traffic. Yusuke was a delinquent in life, but his sacrifice convinces the authorities in the spirit realm to give him an opportunity to regain his life he completes a series of tasks. His mission is to stop evil presences on Earth as a Spirit Detective.
Yu Yu Hakusho is a great example of classic shonen with just the right balance of elements to make for a thoroughly enjoyable series.
Naruto and Naruto Shippuden
Just before Naruto Uzumaki is born, a demon called the Nine-Tailed-Fox attacked the Hidden Leaf Village where he lives. To stop the demon, the leader of the village, the Hokage sacrificed his life and sealed the demon inside the newborn Naruto.
Naruto's dream is to become a great ninja and lead his village as Hokage. The only thing is, he kind of sucks at the whole ninja thing and people shun him, afraid of when the demon inside him could take over.
Naruto's journey is hard, but along the way he gains skill, friendship, and respect. Naruto is a great story. The world it's set in, and the people in it have a history
The main issue with the anime is lots of ‘filler episodes' – when the anime series is waiting for the manga it's based on to catch up. Filler episodes aren't all bad, but some are downright awful, and most contribute nothing to the plot.
Shounen is evolving, bringing in more modern elements and adult story lines. If you watch some shows and want more, there's plenty you can watch. Check out MyAnimeList which currently lists 1918 Shounen Anime.