Why the New Wave of Shonen Anime Are Raising the Bar – IGN
In anime and manga there’s a term called “The Big 3,” which was used predominantly in the mid-2000s and early 2010s to describe the three most popular mainstream series on a worldwide scale: One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach. Now, I loved each of the Big 3, and in fact, One Piece in particular is one of my personal favorite animes of all time, but I think it’s pretty fair to say that all three of them are deeply flawed on a fundamental level because of how long-running action anime were made to be at that time.
But as Bob Dylan would say, the times they are a-changin’, and there’s a new wave of modern shonen anime that are paving the way for the next generation. That said, it’s important to pause for a second and really take a look at how anime like the Big 3 were made, and how shows like Attack on Titan, My Hero Academia, Demon Slayer, and Jujutsu Kaisen are doing things differently in ways that are raising the bar for shonen anime.
Anime is in an interesting spot right now compared to where it used to be. The ways in which people are watching anime are changing. It’s more popular than ever thanks to popular streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Prime Video offering a legal, guilt free outlet for anime fans, in addition to services like Crunchyroll and Funimation offering on-demand access for shows currently airing in Japan. This change in the way people watch anime has kind of opened the doors for a change in how certain anime are produced as well.
You see, anime like the Big 3, along with a couple of other very long-running shows, were unique in the world of serialized entertainment in that they practically never took a break. Sure, they might have taken a temporary hiatus on rare occasions due to a variety of reasons. But if we look at One Piece as an example, this show has been putting out an episode every week since 1999, which is why it currently has 990 episodes.
This frequency of episodes presents a big problem for a show that’s based on a manga series that is also still in-progress: What do you do when the show inevitably catches up to the source material? You either have to create a completely separate continuity, like what Game of Thrones or the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime had to do when they ran into this problem, or you just have to cut the series short.
Neither of these outcomes are ideal, so generally what happens is that anime studios will do their best to try and slow down the progress of the anime. This is achieved primarily in two ways: filler and padding.
A filler arc is an anime original arc that is designed to tell a story that can exist in its own little bubble, not affecting anything outside of it and thereby not getting in the way of the actual canonical story. Filler arcs aren’t automatically terrible, and there actually are some examples of fun filler arcs or episodes that either offer up some truly funny moments or shine a light on characters that don’t get much of a spotlight in the canonical story. But for the most part, they’re generally pretty boring and feel utterly inconsequential by their very nature.
Filler can be a huge bummer when you’re following a weekly on-going show and have to wait sometimes upwards of 20 weeks before the story gets back on track. But at least for shows that are already complete, you can pretty easily find out which episodes are skippable and just ignore them if you want to. Padding however, is harder to ignore.
Padding is when an anime episode adds in fluff to pad out the episode run time, slowing down progress with excessive recaps, flashbacks to scenes that just happened not even two episodes ago, re-using animations to make fights last longer, or just doing anything to stretch sequences of events longer than they need to be.
Oftentimes, filler will be used as padding! To use an example from Naruto Shippuden, there’s a part in the manga where a character named Suigetsu collects a sword from a grave. This takes just a few pages. But in the anime, the sword gets stolen, and the whole episode becomes about Suigetsu trying to get the sword from the people who took it, leading the anime to cover literally a fraction of a single chapter with an entire episode.
The often plodding pacing has not been the only issue either, as the Big 3 and other shonen anime were also rife with inconsistent animation and art. For an example of that, one doesn’t have to look much further than Dragon Ball Super.
One Piece is still going strong, Bleach’s anime ended abruptly in 2012, and Naruto ended in 2017, giving way to its spin-off series Boruto, but since then, no three series have really cemented themselves as a new “Big 3.” Despite that though, the landscape of shonen anime is stronger than ever thanks to a shift in how they’re made.
And really, it’s not even a radical change. The big thing that’s different in shows like My Hero Academia, Attack on Titan, Demon Slayer, and Jujutsu Kaisen is that their studios are willing to take a break. My Hero Academia began in 2016 and its first season was just 13 episodes. Its second season came a year later and was 25 episodes. It has continued like this ever since, and now it’s on its fifth season, with 110 episodes and consistently excellent animation and art. And practically the only filler episodes are meant to catch viewers up on events of prior seasons after a long break.
The same is true for Attack on Titan, which actually took a five-year break after its first season before coming back for Season 2 to ensure that it didn’t catch up with its manga. The result is one of the most faithful adaptations of a beloved shonen manga series. Filler just isn’t a problem when the anime is allowed to take some time off and give the manga some time to get ahead.
Of course, being willing to take a break isn’t the only advantage that these newer series have. They also are being produced by studios that have built their reputations on the sheer quality and consistency of their art and animation. Demon Slayer is done by Ufotable, the same studio that worked on the absolutely gorgeous Kara no Kyokai OVAs, in addition to both Fate/Zero and Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works; Jujutsu Kaisen, the most recent shonen anime sensation, is made by MAPPA, a studio with a resume that’s just a laundry list of some of the most impressively animated shows of the last decade, from Yuri on Ice to Sarazanmai to the final season of the aforementioned Attack on Titan; and My Hero Academia is done by BONES, which is a legendary anime studio most renowned for its work on Fullmetal Alchemist and Mob Psycho 100.
There’s definitely something nice about always having a One Piece episode to watch every Saturday night, and truth be told, the series has definitely stepped up its animation quality in the most recent arc. But both it and Boruto still feel like relics of the past that could be much better than they currently are if they took some cues from the new wave of shonen anime that is making the genre’s future look brighter than ever before.
Mitchell Saltzman is an editorial producer at IGN. You can find him on twitter @JurassicRabbit