Designed To Go On Forever – Shounen Jump Manga

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Recently I read through Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s modern-classic shounen manga Bakuman–the self-referential story of a manga writing duo who take Weekly Shounen Jump magazine by storm in an effort to become world-class professional manga authors. It’s a gripping, emotional thrill ride that shows you everything that goes into the creation of a weekly shounen series, while also itself BEING all of the things that it explains. As such, it combines a perfectly-woven narrative and meta-narrative into something at once fun and deeply meaningful–but that’s enough Bakuman endorsement for now. What I want to dive into here is one of the things I came to understand about Shounen Jump manga through reading Bakuman, which is the way that these stories are designed.

While Shounen Jump often features works by returning authors who have made great manga in the past and has some series which run for over a decade, when it comes to new series, the editors at Jump deliberately seek out fresh, young talent. A lot of artists make their debut or have their first ongoing series in Jump, and the editors don’t only scout artists who are already amazing, but will often start out artists who they believe have a lot of potential, in the hopes that those artists will grow and improve while working for the magazine.

Every week, Shounen Jump judges which manga are successful or unsuccessful via polls that the readers send in which rank their top three favorite chapters of that week. Therefore, it’s ultimately the goal of each manga in Jump to be successful on a week-by-week basis. And where this gets kind of weird, is that the goal is almost always to have the series continue running for as long as it can remain popular. That is to say that most Shounen Jump manga are literally designed to go on forever.

Everyone knows that series like Bleach, Naruto, One Piece and Gintama are allowed to run for such incredible lengths of time because those series are hugely successful, so of course they’re going to keep running them as long as they keep making money. But the flipside is also true–a manga is only going to keep running as long as it keeps being successful. The reason that not every Shounen Jump manga runs as long as One Piece isn’t that the other series are designed to have an ending, but because those series don’t reach the same level of success.

It’s interesting to think about this while reading Shounen Jump manga, because it starts to make you break down the way you think about the completed work. When it comes to things like movies, novels, most anime TV shows, and even graphic novels, there is usually a deliberate planned length. Whether the series is a tightly constructed plot-driven work that utilizes every moment, or a slow and easygoing slice of life series, the creators are planning the series with the idea that there’s a set length from the beginning and certain things that they can do within that time.

But Shounen Jump series, and surely plenty of other serialized manga, operate under a different standard. They aren’t being judged by the quality of the work on the whole, or constructed with the idea of running for a certain amount of time–every week, the goal of a Shounen Jump manga is just to keep the readers interested for that week. Whether this is accomplished by creating arcs, big or small, or by just telling one-chapter stories every week, it’s all about going and going and going until the series just isn’t fit to continue anymore for one reason or another.

And this, I think, is fascinating. To me, the experience of reading a long-running shounen manga is less about reading the entire thing and judging the work on the whole, and more about judging your level of enjoyment every step of the way, and stopping when you just don’t care anymore. After all, that’s how these manga eventually get cancelled–when people stop caring and it just falls by the wayside.

Even among the very best shounen manga in existence–even those that follow a clear arc and have a definitive ending like Death Note or Bakuman–there is no sense of absolute tightness. Bakuman is twenty volumes long, and while I wouldn’t say that I ever found it to be wasting my time to read it, the same story could’ve been told in probably half the volumes just by tightening it up. But that’s not really the goal. Bakuman may have indeed been planned to eventually have a real ending, but the series still ran for four years, and you can clearly see along the way all the methods the authors used to keep it fresh and entertaining as long as they could, even when some of the story arcs weren’t really adding anything narratively or thematically to the manga other than fleshing it out a small bit further.

It’s weird to think of an ongoing story this way, because we tend to think of a story more as one piece of work, but when a story is built for longevity, the way a lot of kids’ shows are in any country, it’s really more like a series of small works by whatever creative team or person is behind it. The work as a whole is more like a framework within which the individual creations are generated. It’s easier to understand this kind of framework with something like my channel. I create a countless number of individual works which contribute to the whole that is the Digibro channel, but because each of my videos seems to work as a stand-alone piece, it’s easier to mentally distinguish them as separate works.

However, a long-running manga series isn’t really all that different in the way that it’s constructed and in the intentions of the author. Just as my ultimate goal is to “make a living doing my style of analysis for as long as possible,” an author in Jump’s goal is to “keep writing this one manga for as long as I’m able to do so.” And in the process, that author and their story will often grow and change in countless ways, just like how my videos and style have changed over time, in spite of being contained within one umbrella of work.

How this might effect any one person’s judgement of a shounen manga really comes down to personal preference. For me, though, I think it’s kind of interesting to think of shounen manga as something to be judged on how long it can hold my attention. I may explore this concept more in future videos, so keep an eye out.

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