The 4 Kings Of Shonen Anime

You have a world of choice these days when it comes to Shonen anime (少年アニメ・少年漫画). However, there are 4 anime which you can’t avoid. Their names are everywhere, and they feel like they have been around forever. They helped change the genre, have sold ridiculous amounts worldwide, and have been at the top of Japanese anime for a long time.

The 4 Kings Of Shonen Anime

They can be intimidating to start due to the hundreds upon hundreds of episodes. Never ending fighting and battles might seem like a turnoff, as well as over-simplified childish themes like ninjas or pirates.

But what is really behind these colossal series, and are they worth watching?

4. ドラゴンボール (Dragon Ball)
Japanese Level: ☆☆

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This is where it all started, and still reigns as one of the most well known anime of all time, spanning multiple generations.

Son Goku is a strange boy with abnormal strength raised in the woods by his grandfather. Young teenage girl Bulma seeks out the legendary dragon balls, which grant the person who gathers all 7 any wish he desires. She stumbles upon Son Goku, who has one of the balls in his possession. The two begin on an adventure to gather the rest of the dragon balls.

Now this is as simple an explanation as you can get. The series starts off as a fairly light comedy, with an increasing cast of colorful characters introduced, and a little action and adventure thrown in. It’s funny, endearing, and extremely fresh.

As the early series progresses, the fighting aspect starts to become more significant. Martial arts, training, battles, and tournaments. However it’s always in light-hearted fun.

The series takes a major change after a time gap of some years (in English we call this time gap Dragon Ball Z, but there is no distinction in the original manga). Fighting newer and stronger enemies becomes the central theme. What started as Goku’s first fight of the series with a large tiger, eventually turns into fighting aliens that are powerful enough to destroy the entire universe.

There are so many parts of this anime that eventually go on to be firmly rooted into all aspects of Japanese culture. It also sets the stage for many of the anime that would come after it (including the other 3 below). It’s popularity still has not died, as new movies are coming out despite it being almost 20 years after its last episode.

If you aren’t into fighting so much, I recommend you watch the series until the time gap. The series has a nice conclusion there. This is the first anime I watched back in the late 90s, and while it feels a bit outdated now, it still maintains its original charm.

3. ブリーチ (Bleach)
Japanese Level: ☆☆☆

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Ichigo, below average high school student, has always been able to see spirits. This has been a hassle, but it became a crisis when he sees his first “hollow,” or evil spirit, that targets his family. Luckily he is saved by a “Shinigami” or “death god.”

However, the Shinigami eventually needs saving herself, and the only option is for Ichigo to become a temporary death god himself. This results in him getting involved in a struggle in “soul society,” an anime version of the afterlife, where Shinigami reign.

This is a much darker series than Dragon Ball, and quickly goes from a bit of mild comedy to full on action.

It’s a fun series, but the fighting grows repetitive quickly (which is an issue that many people have with the big shonen anime). I liked it up until about the halfway point.

2. ワンピース (One Piece)
Japanese Level: ☆☆☆

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Pirates with superpowers! That’s what it comes down to. If that’s not tempting enough. Luffy, who gains the ability to stretch his body like rubber, has the goal to become the pirate king. He sets off on a journey around the world, gathering a crew, and battling one crazy obstacle after the next on his grand adventure to achieve his dreams.

This whole series has a grand, uplifting feel to it, and while fighting is a major aspect to the series, it doesn’t overwhelm it. The characters and stories are really at the heart of this series, and you grow to love them all.

The series currently still has no end in sight (while the others are kind of reaching their conclusion). One Piece takes a while to build up momentum, and it has a few lags later in the series, but for an anime that is 600+ episodes, it knows how to keep itself entertaining and fun throughout.

1. ナルト (Naruto)
Japanese Level: ☆☆☆

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Ninjas with superpowers! Paralleling with many themes of One Piece, the main character Naruto has the dream of becoming the leader of his village and the strongest ninja ever. What starts as the story of an outcast, with little talent or hope, turns into Naruto becoming the leader of the ninja world, uniting people together, and bringing ultimate peace.

Naruto is about character and story. This story develops the characters deeper and deeper, and even hundreds of episodes into the series you always learn something new. THe show makes you care about all the characters within.

Naruto has an involved and complex fighting system, which focuses on creativity and skill, over just plain beat-em-up action. This makes even the standard battles stand out in unique ways.

There is always something new and surprising that awaits in Naruto.

Some important things to remember when watching these series:

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1. The artwork gets better.

Much better. While not exactly that “old,” these series started early 90s to 2000s. Anime technology has changed significantly, so you will notice as the series progresses the artwork improves substantially.

2. The stories and characters start off light and simple, but grow.

None of the creators of these series knew they would turn into the massive behemoths they are now. This means they couldn’t plan out deep and complex story lines at the beginning, because they didn’t know if their series would end in a few months or even a few years. This results in required story changes to expand the limited vision they may have started with.

3. It’s not just about the fighting (despite plenty of it)

Fighting is a major aspect of these series, but it isn’t the heart of what they are about.

4. Shonen’s audience is vast

Shonen (少年) means young boys, or what would appear as the target audience for series like these. Yes, a large part of the audience includes them, but the audience expands way beyond age or gender.

People watch the series for different aspects that appeal to them. Just like various Disney movies appeals to both kids and adults for different reasons.

So which of the big 4 shonen series do you recommend the most?

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


The 4 Kings Of Shonen Anime — 21 Comments

  1. Dragon Ball’s art gets kind of bad near the end, though. I noticed a lot of unfinished drawings and strange anatomy in Buu saga (just finished reading it in Japanese today, actually!). What did you think of Naruto’s ending?

    • Haven’t gotten to the end just yet (I’m actually some months behind), but I’m excited to see how they finish it.

  2. I haven’t seen any of them yet, although I plan to. I’ll probably start with either Naruto or One Piece. They are pretty intimidating time investments though. I don’t binge anime as much as some people, so each one would probably take over a year before I catch up.

  3. Dragon Ball was the first of these I saw back when Cartoon Network brought it over. I remember arguing often with a friend who was convinced human beings would eventually evolve into being able to shoot kamehamehas in real life. I think after a point I got tired of the pacing and the ever escalating power levels. I’ve never been a fan of Superman or the like, so once you start getting guys who can obliterate mountains by grunting, I lose interest.

    I liked a lot of Naruto once some character development started setting in, but it hit the same pacing and escalation issues I think most shonen manga-based stuff eventually reaches. I remember not being into Bleach because I kept seeing phallic metaphors everywhere and couldn’t take it seriously. I was already out by the time One Piece arrived in the States.

    Of the four I would probably recommend Naruto the most, though I haven’t seen any of it in years. But out of shonen stuff in general, my vote would easily go to the sleeping giant, Detective Conan!

    It hasn’t received nearly as much attention in the west as these four, but personally I think the quality is much higher. The big arc climaxes and even some of the smaller ones ranks among my favorite storytelling I’ve seen, regardless of medium. It’s largely grounded in reality, so there’s no ever growing list of super powers. Though the writer is kind of a sadist when it comes to progressing the overall plot, the murder mystery structuring at least gives you cases to go over during stretches of filler. From what I’ve gathered from poking into fan forums, it actually is possible to deduce every method and culprit from the clues the author gives, but I’m a big mystery idiot, so I’ve never been able to figure out even one in over 20 years worth of content.

    • Pacing is an issue due to the sheer number of episodes. That’s why sometimes it can be a good idea to skim through some of the slower parts.

      Conan does seen to be a very popular choice in Japan.

  4. I guess since Naruto might be ending, I’ll want to start watching one of the others. I’m pretty sure if you watch them without Filler and if you can get you hands on the Japanese subtitles then you can use the episodes for study material (somewhat).

    One Piece (Filler Episodes)

    One Piece (Jap-Subs)

    One piece (Eng-Subs)

    • You can always use anime as study material. Besides the extra specialized vocab and occasional strange slang, it’s still just regular Japanese.

  5. I have somehow managed to make my way through life with anime without watching a single long running shounen except Fairy Tail. However, based on the urging of basically every single other anime watcher I’ve met, I’m considering starting to watch Naruto.

  6. One Piece is definitely my favourite out of the four.

    My introduction to 少年アニメ・少年漫画 was NARUTO, and while I fell out of it half way through, it still holds a special place in my heart.

    Eventually, I plan to watch and read Dragon Ball in Japanese, as I grew up watching it with my cousins.

    I never liked Bleach much.

  7. I’ve watched all of them before I started Japanese. I even restarted them in Japanese. My favorite would definitely have to be One Piece. I’ve connected with all the characters on a much deeper level than any other show I’ve seen. Slightly ashamed but I have cried a few times throughout the series (And I never cry for shows).

    • One Piece has become my favorite as well. They’ve had more than enough time to delve deep into every character.

      And it just shows that if an anime can make you cry, there is a lot more to it then just fighting.

  8. I would love to watch all 4 of these but I just can’t seem to enjoy them unless I understand everything. I watch some anime with Japanese subs because I can read better than I can listen and understand. But, it’s just not enjoyable only knowing half or less than half of the plot and I get frustrated and just turn the English subs back on… I really don’t know what to do here.

    • How about reading the plot summary of each episode in English before watching it? It only will take about 10-20 seconds of your time, and then you can use the full 20+ minutes as study time?

      • That is something I have been doing recently with new anime that I want to watch. I used to spend lots of time going over drama, anime, and movies that I had already seen, but I also want watch new shows. Reading ep summaries before had was a big help. I also had to learn to be comfortable with ambiguity. Raising that comfortable was also useful when I branched out in reading a wider range of material as well.

  9. Where is gintama? Necessarily,gintama supposed to go in. And of the above options, I prefer one piece.

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