Is There Meaning In “Subverting” Shounen Tropes?

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In today’s pop cultural landscape, there seems to be this sort of obsession with the ideas of subversion and deconstruction. When a show comes along that does something a little bit different from the lowest common denominator idea of what would be considered normal for its genre, people are quick to praise the innovation that they feel is on display, and to herald the crushing of the old tropes. While I can appreciate this excitement over the idea of innovation and challenging storytelling norms, I think that a lot of this overzealous celebration is misguided–and to me reeks too much of coming from the position of wanting to think that the things you like are somehow smarter, more mature, and more interesting than the stuff that came before, or that is propped up by the mainstream. (This, in spite of the fact that, by now, it’s the supposedly subversive stuff that seems to be dominating the mainstream landscape, especially in anime.)

But is this stuff actually subversive? Is it really changing the core messages of its genre, or commenting on those in any meaningful way? Are these shows as different, as smart, or as fresh as their fans are so quick to say that they are? I could individually attack this question with regards to any medium, any genre, or any particular work, and Under the Scope did a great job of attacking the widespread misuse of the idea of deconstruction in this other video; but for now I want to break down a genre wherein these days it seems like every single show to gain notoriety within it is heralded as some kind of subversion: the shounen action series. Just to keep the topic relatively narrow, I’m going to focus almost exclusively on stories which originated as manga running in Weekly Shounen Jump–the world’s most popular manga magazine which has been home to no shortage of the most recognized stories of all time.

Let me start with the proclamation that I love Shounen Jump. Bakuman, Gintama, Hunter X Hunter, Yuu Yuu Hakusho, One Piece, and Food Wars are all among my favorite stories, and I enjoy the likes of  My Hero Academia, Kuroko no Basket, Death Note, Bleach back when it was good, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and Dragon Ball. I grew up on stories like Naruto, Rurouni Kenshin, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Shaman King, all of which I still have a fondness for–and that doesn’t even touch on other stories that I’m sure I’d enjoy but just haven’t gotten around to yet. Suffice it to say that I’m speaking from a place of lifetime experience with this genre and this magazine, and that it’s something which I care about a lot.

Now, as I was listing off those names, you may have heard the titles of some works which to you might represent the standard idea of what a shounen action series is, some which have been classified as subversive, and others which aren’t action stories at all. But the idea that I’d like to put forth is that all of these stories are only as similar to as they are different from one-another, and that to say that any of them, or anything outside of the magazine which could be considered as such, is a subversion of the genre, is kind of missing the point.

So to start with, let’s look at Hunter X Hunter, which I’ve seen described as subversive myriad times for myriad reasons, each of which I’ll break down in brief.

First and most easily contradicted is the idea that Hunter X Hunter is subversive because of how brutally violent and dark it can get. Really, the level of violence in this series is not at all atypical of the genre. In one early episode, Killua pulls a guy’s still-beating heart out of his chest. The same move shows up in Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, Gintama, D.Gray-Man, and Saint Seiya. In Hunter X Hunter a guy gets his head bitten in half. In Dragonball, a guy kills another guy by impaling his temple with his tongue. Hell, there’s a scene in Bleach where a guy is given a drug that causes him to perceive every second as taking place over centuries of time, and then is stabbed in the chest. That guy literally felt himself dying for hundreds of years. In Hunter X Hunter, there are scenes wherein tons of random, innocent civilians are mowed down en-masse. By the end of the Buu saga in Dragon Ball Z, the entire population of Earth is dead. Granted, by this point in DBZ, the afterlife is established as like a place that people have a knack for coming back from, though this doesn’t seem to apply to some of those other planets that got blown up, so whatever.

But what about the sheer nihilism of Hunter X Hunter? There’s one scene wherein a secondary character is brutally murdered for no reason other than to make you feel like shit. Well, DBZ did have that scene where Yamcha got impaled for no reason, and I kinda liked Haku from Naruto before he got splattered over an entire two-page spread.

Okay, but what about Hunter X Hunter’s moral ambiguity? The main characters are hardly fighting in the name of justice, and Killua is even an active murderer who kills people that he just kinda doesn’t like, or who get in his way for a second. Well, if anything this is closer to par for the course as well. In the original Japanese version of Dragonball, Goku wasn’t a particularly moral-driven person, and more just operated on his own whims–check out this video by JaxBlade for more on the differences in morals between the Japanese and English versions of Goku. In One Piece, the main characters are a band of pirates who are being actively hunted by Navy, and have no problems with murdering people when they have to. Hell, in the first chapter, one of the members of the crew that Luffy idolizes domes a guy from behind at point-blank range. Stepping out of the action genre a bit, you’ve got Yugi Muto who would crush people’s minds and make them insane just for pissing him off in school; and Death Note, which is literally about a kid who decides to take over the world by murdering every single criminal and also anyone who tries to stop him.

Well okay, so maybe Hunter X Hunter isn’t any darker than the typical shounen action series, but it certainly plays around with the structure a lot, doesn’t it? Rather than featuring a upward progression of main characters fighting increasingly powerful opponents, it’s more like the series drifts between different arcs with their own self-contained ideas and freely drops what it’s doing to go in whole new directions at the drop of a dime. Sure, Yuu Yuu Hakusho was somewhat similar, but that was from the same author, and was definitely more structured overall, with proper climaxes for each story.

But really, while so many people look at Dragon Ball Z with its rigid structure of introducing a big bad, building up to a fight with them, and then showing the fight, the original Dragon Ball was much more of a sprawling, open-ended adventure in the vein of Hunter X Hunter. One Piece starts off feeling more like a villain-of-the-arc story in its earlier introductory part, but after entering the grand line, all bets are off. Undercutting an ongoing tournament arc with the involvement of a more interesting overarching narrative as happens a couple of times in Hunter X Hunter was also done in Dragon Ball Z to start off the Buu arc, and in Naruto towards the back end of the Chuunin exams. How about the weird-ass direction Yugioh’s battle city tournament turns into?

Alright, but there is a section in the middle of Hunter X Hunter that suddenly veers off into a completely unrelated arc from everything that’s been going on so far and stays there for like sixty episodes, telling this complete, epic and self-contained story right in the middle of the show before going back to business as usual. Well, One Piece did the same damn thing with its Skypiea arc.

But surely, Hunter X Hunter does a lot to subvert the viewer’s expectations, by setting them up to think that one thing is going to happen, and then switching to a totally different direction. One of the show’s best aspects is how it utilizes an element of chaos to keep the viewer on their toes.

Well, sure–but if anything, this is just basic storytelling. If you want to keep someone engaged, then you have to keep mixing things up so that it doesn’t get stale and predictable. There’s a reason that shows like Bleach and Fairy Tail eventually got to be so reviled even by the most avid followers of shounen manga–because those are shows that failed at basic narrative subversion.

Some of the most devastating and memorable moments in shounen manga come in the form of unexpected losses, when things don’t go according to plan and then the characters have to figure out how to deal with that. Unforeseen complications are one of the specialties of the manga duo behind Death Note and Bakuman–their stories stay so gripping and fresh because their characters are always getting stopped in their tracks by totally new challenges that they have to rethink their entire strategies around. And if you want a series that truly revels in its own unpredictability, you need look no further than Gintama.

What keeps Gintama so fresh and exciting is that it manages simultaneously to be a full-bore parody of shounen tropes with the mindset of a gag manga, and also an actually gripping and badass action story whenever it so chooses to be. But it’s not really that Gintama is all that different in structure from other shounen manga–it’s really more that it’s doing everything with an exaggerated wink and a nod, and willing to completely disregard the idea of a consistent tone and do whatever the fuck it wants. That the series pulls this off so well is absolutely incredible; but it is, at heart, just a far more extreme version of the kind of moment-to-moment subversion of expectation that makes manga exciting to read in the first place.

Even something as simple as the early part in My Hero Academia when a team of high-powered villains suddenly appears in the training center of all the new recruits and they all of a sudden have to learn how they’re going to fend for themselves against this massive opposition is really the same kind of subversive logic that gets you pumped to see how the situation is going to unravel.

This kind of setup and subversion is even pretty much a fundamental pillar of good comedy. So much of the funniest stuff in manga–and we’ll take the latest Jump series adapted to animation, Saiki Kusuo no Psi-nan–is about getting us into the mindset that we’re about to see one thing, and then showing us something wildly, hilariously different at not quite the moment we expected.

And what all of this inevitably brings me around to is the show whose entire purpose appears to be the subversion of the most widely believed stereotype about shounen manga–that every battle is a huge, drawn-out, theatrical drama that goes on forever. I’m talking of course about One Punch Man, whose concept is that the hero puts an end to every all-powerful, scenery-chewing, city-stomping villain in just one punch, and then gets over it. The concept works like gangbusters because the memories of the Frieza arc are so deeply imbedded in our cultural consciousness that anyone who knows what a shounen manga is knows exactly what One Punch Man is lampooning. But the more time I’ve spent actually thinking about One Punch Man and what happens in it, it only becomes clearer and clearer that while this show executes its premise about as perfectly as it possibly could and is great because of it, I don’t think it’s done anything new.

As a matter of fact, that central joke in One Punch Man–that all of his opponents think they’re hot shit and everyone gets blown away by them until Saitama shows up and anticlimactically ends them in one punch–is extremely common in the shounen action genre. Everyone remembers Piccolo, Vegeta, Frieza, Cell and Buu, but there are so many times when some villain would show up talking shit in Dragon Ball about how strong they are and how impressive their physique is, and then get their shit rocked by one of the Z warriors immediately. It happens in Hunter X Hunter, it happens in Yuu Yuu Hakusho, it happens in Gintama, One Piece, and like every early chapter of Rurouni Kenshin. I don’t think Kenshin even unsheathed his sword in the first few, he would just pound people into the roof with the hilt.

Hell, Dragon Ball Z even had a character who was kind of like an anti-Saitama, but grounded in the same sense of humor. Hercule was a guy who was supposedly the strongest human on Earth, and everyone believed that because they didn’t know about the Lovecraftian power levels of the Z fighters and their opponents; so Hercule was basically the one normal guy in a show where everyone else is One Punch Man trying to bluff his way through it. The joke is a play on the tropes of the show that it’s in, and played for laughs in much the same way.

It’s all of this that makes me feel like One Punch Man wasn’t really any more subversive than any of this stuff already was. It’s just making that joke the focal point of the series; but even as it goes along, it kind of just turns into any other shounen action series. We somehow end up watching fights that go on for several episodes, and the joke that Saitama ends all of his fights anticlimactically is totally broken by the end of the first season in the name of a satisfying climax. He doesn’t even beat Boros in one punch–yes, consecutive normal punches is hilarious in that it sounds so pathetic, but Gintoki has ended major dramatic arcs while screaming “domestic violence!” and hitting people over the head with a wooden sword. One Punch Man, if anything, is as much of a shounen action show as any other, but just happens to be in a seinen magazine.

And all this time, I haven’t even mentioned Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Holy shit. Do I even have to talk about it? Is there anything that it hasn’t done? Can anything else be said to play around with this genre in a big way when part of the genre is this generation-spanning epic that’s also rife with obscene violence, scatological humor, and plotting that’s nothing but a maze of subversion?

The reason I feel the need to break all of this down to such an extent is simply that I feel it’s disrespectful to the genre of shounen action stories, and even to the properties of good storytelling in general, to suggest that a show like Hunter X Hunter is only great because it flies in the face of convention, or is completely different from the norm. Yes, this show is a lot more nuanced and subversive and intellectual than the stereotypical cultural idea of what a shounen action series is like–but so are most shounen action series. Stuff that manages to go on for a decade without seeming to pay its dues or maintain interest like Fairy Tail are the anomalous exceptions to the rule, and not the standard-bearers. Yes, Dragon Ball Z became incredibly formulaic and easy to poke fun of… eventually, after hundreds of episodes of sprawling adventure; but even that show was making fun of itself all along the way.

Hunter X Hunter isn’t amazing because it’s fundamentally different from the norm, it’s amazing because all of the fundamentals are understood and delivered on so perfectly; and because it uses all of the genre trappings in the best possible ways; and because its anime adaptation had the good fortune of coming out during a time and from a studio who really cared about doing it justice and not letting any of the filler episodes or shoddy production values that color so many people’s perceptions of long-form storytelling in anime sink into their show. It’s not an anti-shounen subversion–it just simply is a shounen action series of the highest caliber.

I hope you found this rundown informative or helpful in some way, and that you’ll share it around to anyone else whom you think would appreciate it. Shouts out and thanks to (the people who helped me compile clips for this). Check out my other channels for more of me, and support me on patreon to help me keep making stuff like this. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one.


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