Power is a fundamental currency in shounen anime and manga. When it comes to the battling and sports genres popular to the category, the expression of power all but defines their appeal. In this respect, one of the big differences is whether a series places greater emphasis on the power of the individual, or instead the group.
The Lone Hero
When you have a Goku (Dragon Ball), a Kenshiro (Fist of the North Star), or a Mash Burnedead (Mashle), you’re reading a series that ultimately centers around the protagonist being the baddest dude around. While the other characters can win smaller fights, it almost always comes down to the hero saving the day. Characters like this play into a simple but profound desire to be able to emerge victorious no matter the challenge ahead. Power is the ability to right wrongs, vanquish evil, and beat the bullies. Individualism, rugged or otherwise, takes center stage here.
What About Everyone Else?
There can be downsides to the lone great hero approach—namely, if your favorite character isn’t the big hero, knowing they won’t be the ones winning the biggest battles can feel unsatisfying. Why isn’t Vegeta allowed his time in the sun? Can’t Kimura in Hajime no Ippo just win one championship? What’s more, that individualism, if taken to extremes, can start to resemble authoritarianism and the idea that the world would be better if one person could solve everything.
That response often manifests in sports series like Kuroko’s Basketball and Yowamushi Pedal, where cooperation and mutual trust topple proverbial giants, but even something like Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba carries this spirit. Tanjiro is often not the strongest fighter in each situation, but he strives to do his utmost to aid in defeating a threat, whether he lands a killing blow or not. Just because someone is weaker doesn’t mean they don’t matter, playing into positive feelings of collectivism.
However, teamwork-oriented works can create a different type of dissatisfaction: the feeling that a hero can’t actually accomplish anything. If you’re someone who wants a main character to be self-reliant, it can seem like every one of their victories comes with a qualifying asterisk. “Can’t they stand on their own two feet?” On top of that, too much emphasis on collective will can be stifling to those who don’t necessarily fit societal molds.
Not all series fall neatly into one group or another, and some will even play with the assumptions carried within shounen. Even though One-Punch Man is literally about an unbeatable hero who’s powerful to the point of trivializing his conflicts, the series actually highlights how weaker heroes like Mumen Rider can make as much of a difference. Similarly, Ao Ashi and Blue Lock turn the teamwork aspect of soccer on its head, questioning some of the assumptions about cooperation. These can often be the most interesting, as they bring a level of nuance that can encourage fans to think more about the roles their characters play in their narratives.
The reason I began thinking about the role of power in shounen titles is that I noticed how one person could view a character or a moment in a title very differently from another. One fan’s love of perseverance despite lacking sufficient might is another’s reason to not cheer for them. I worry at times that people get too obsessed with power levels, but I also understand that we all engage stories with some level of desire that reflects who we are as people. The contrast of individualism vs. collectivism transcends far beyond the boundaries of anime and manga, and ultimately, I hope people take away the messages that enrich their lives rather than limiting them.
Image Source: Dragon Ball Super: Broly
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