The Kindness of New Shounen
Since childhood, I’ve gone through occasional cycles of anime-fueled escapism. No other genre of storytelling does interesting worlds and unique characters the same way, and for me, it’s a welcome supplement to great books and music when I need imagination fuel. It’s been a few years, but I recently jumped back into anime-land and binged two of the most popular shounen anime this season: Demon Slayer and My Hero Academia. The former just wrapped its first season, while the latter entered it's fourth a few weeks ago.
For the uninitiated, shounen anime are marketed to teenage boys. The word “shounen” roughly translates to “young man,” or “boy” in English. Dragon Ball Z, FullMetal Alchemist, Naruto, and Bleach are all shounen shows you’ve probably heard of, even if you’re not a huge anime fan. Like most anime, they operate on a set of tropes predictable enough to set your watch by. For shounen, it’s usually a young man thrust into a harrowing situation, giving it his all to overcome. The plot often focuses on fighting and action in some way, the hero becoming stronger by testing himself in combat against peers or overpowered villains. He never gives up. He’s not usually very smart. He yells a lot. And other characters yell a lot. There will definitely be yelling.
Given the target demographic, all of that is understandable. But some new shounen shows deviate from the map. While they’re still loud, the protagonists aren’t always walking stereotypes of the genre. They’re…humbler. More kind.
Take Demon Slayer’s Tanjirou. In episode one, the show sets up his character as mature and reliable. He works hard and helps anyone who needs it, even though he struggles to get by. His siblings look up to him. His parents count on him for help around the house. When he goes into town with a load of charcoal to sell, he can’t get two steps without someone coming to him with a problem, despite being only 13. When his family is killed by a powerful demon, his sister transformed into one, and his life ripped apart, he holds on to that kindness as he seeks justice for his family.
My Hero Academia’s Midoria Izuku, aka Deku, isn’t looked up to by anyone. Born into a society of superheroes, he’s crushed when he finds out he’ll never manifest his own superhuman “quirk.” He continues to act heroically, hoping against hope to be part of their world, even without a superpower. Then, the impossible happens: Izuku’s idol All Might, the strongest hero in Japan if not the world, is so moved by his selflessness that he chooses Izuku to inherit his power in a heart-wrenching scene. He tells Izuku, who everyone had written off as a failure, “You can be a hero,” and Izuku is so moved he falls to the ground bawling.
The kindness of these two characters is surprising
Time and again both Izuku and Tanjirou return abuse with kindness and determination. Tanjirou prays over bloodthirsty demons as they die at his feet, cut down by his sword. Demon Slayer could easily be a one-sided slaughter-fest, but instead, the viewers learn the back story of the demons Tanjirou fights; how they were once human, how their lives were agony, and how sometimes their only choice was to become a monster. Tanjirou sees the humanity buried deep, deep down, and pities the creatures he’s sworn to destroy. He sees them as people, afflicted by a greater evil. At times, he appears to absolve them and help free their souls. Izuku runs into grave danger to help Bakugo, a character who’s bullied him since childhood, without a second thought multiple times. He’s often repaid for his efforts with insults or attacks because Bakugo can’t stand being in his debt. During the sports festival arc, he wrecks himself to help his rival, Todoroki, bring out his full potential as a hero and get past Todoroki’s anger at his father.
The kindness of these two characters is surprising for different reasons.
In Tanjirou’s case, he’s very strong, closer to the typical shounen archetype of the “special” protagonist. Despite that, he doesn’t become a heartless killing machine. He stays level-headed, only becoming furious when he sees the weak being preyed on and hurt. His strength grows as the season progresses, but he remains a gentle soul, trying to help and save people whenever he can, even when he’s seriously injured. Despite his innate skill, he still has to work hard to advance his strength, training literally day and night to get stronger.
Izuku has to work for his place at the table, too, harder than his peers. Even granted power by his superhero idol, it’s too much for his body to handle at first. The raw force of it breaks Izuku’s limbs whenever he wields his quirk, but he does it anyway. As the seasons progressed, Izuku sacrifices his body and faces incredible levels of pain as he learns to master All Might’s strength. To save a classmate he barely knows during the hero school entrance exam, he breaks an arm and both legs. Two seasons later Izuku shatters his arms again to save a child from a homicidal villain. It’s a plot device to force him to learn to control his body and use his superpower, but it also shows the kind of person Izuku is. He knows the hurt that’s in store for him on this journey, and he embarks on it without a moment’s hesitation. Izuku believes he’s the last person people think of when they hear the word “hero,” but he was a hero before he ever inherited his quirk from All Might.
Shows like “Demon Slayer” and “My Hero Academia” show us that earnest heroes can be appealing, too
Contrast this with comic book superheroes like Batman or The Punisher. They show almost no emotion aside from anger, snapping bad-guy necks (or at least badly beating them) on their quests for vengeance. Characters like Batman, Arrow, John Wick and Jason Bourne train their bodies and minds into a rock of rage and muscle memory to aid in their mission of righteous vengeance. It’s so common to hero and superhero stories alike that we’ve come to expect it.
Psychologists think antiheroes may have risen from society’s need to see themselves in the protagonist. Squeaky-clean heroes on the silver screen made jaded audiences feel alienated, and they looked to heroes that were imperfect. Flawed, sometimes terrible, but endearing enough to love anyway. Antiheroes definitely have their place; they can vicariously free us from the constraints of societal standards and rules we see as arbitrary, most of which don’t seem to benefit us. Batman punching bad guys in the face is definitely cathartic.
But shows like Demon Slayer and My Hero show us that earnest heroes can be appealing, too. Neither of the protagonists are one-dimensional, do-gooder robots. Izuku is constantly battling imposter syndrome, anxiety, and frustration at himself over his perceived weaknesses. He’s hell-bent on living up to the investment All Might made in him to become the next Symbol of Peace, scared of Bakugo from all the times he got bullied by him at the beginning of the show and constantly tells himself that he has to work harder.
These new characters combine the old-school idea of heroes as paragons of ultimate moral good with the gritty relatability of antiheroes. Sure, Tanjirou’s a goody-goody, but he’ll still swordfight a demon with a couple of broken ribs. Izuku breaks into tears so often fans of the series joke about it, but he’ll power through a shattered arm to save someone. If antiheroes acknowledge the bad in us, maybe these ones remind us of our desire to be good. After being jaded for so long, we may be seeing such a strong interest in characters like these because as a society, we’re hungry for this kind of heroism.
Vulnerability and strength can co-exist in male heroes
Even Izuku’s mentor All Might, at first presented as an indestructible force of unsurpassable strength, is vulnerable. We find out early in the second episode that he can only maintain his “hero form” for a few hours due to an injury he sustained fighting a particularly vicious villain a few years prior. When we meet him, the larger-than-life vision of heroism Izuku spent his young life idolizing spends most of his time as a skeletal, emaciated version of his former self. But that doesn’t make him any less of a hero.
Both these characters, in typical shounen fashion, rise above their station. But in doing so, they fail. They bleed. They cry. They show us that vulnerability and strength can co-exist in male heroes. That’s something people, especially young men and boys, should see; that what matters is what’s inside, and that even the “weakest” among us have something to contribute given the chance.