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.
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: ☆☆
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: ☆☆☆
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: ☆☆☆
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: ☆☆☆
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:
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.