Being the top-grossing genre, “shounen” represents not only the most-watched anime series but also the iconic image of the anime industry itself. And so, even if you are new to anime and not Japanese, odds are you’ve already chanced upon the shonen series or some product of its franchise.
But you are probably unsure of shounen meaning and what the genre is all about, and that’s why you have decided to look it up, which is how you landed on this page.
In this article, we will explore what shonen means, what it features, the correct way to spell it, how it differs from other genres, and finally, a list of must-explore shonen titles.
The Japanese word “shounen” means “Boy” and befittingly describes all those anime that target males younger than 15 years of age. Consequently, genres within shonen are coherent with boy interests, including action, adventure, sports, rom-com, crime, thriller, science-fiction, etc.
Now, that’s a brief way of defining shounen, but this barely covers the tip of the iceberg. So, let’s take a deeper look:
What Does Shounen Mean in Anime?
As stated above, the Japanese word “shounen” translates to “boy,” and it refers to all those anime that exclusively target teenage boys or sometimes young adults. And so, shonen isn’t a genre but a collection of animated series that targets a demographic range of males, typically below 15 years of age.
Therefore, everything under the sun that seems palatable and appropriate for young boys is a theme and concept for shonen anime. Consequently, shonen features genres ranging from adventure, fantasy, romance, and comedy to sports, thriller, mystery, crime, and science-fiction.
Since the shonen targets young boys, the inclusion of mature content is considered inappropriate. However, shonen anime series are often heavily nuanced with ecchi tropes for fan-servicing to keep it ‘entertaining’ for teenagers. That said, most shonen have not only an adult male audience but also a strong female fanbase.
It may be that shonen shares various features with its adult version – “Seinen,” which targets adult males. But it may also be that shonen’s immense diversity appeals to all genders from all age groups.
For instance, Attack on Titan is a shonen that is made for boys in their teens. However, the series’ thrilling concept and praiseworthy animation have attracted a dedicated fanbase that includes teenage boys, adolescent girls, adult women, and even men well past their 30s. So, the term “shonen” is rather loose as there are no fine distinctions for what counts as a shonen.
Usually, an anime based on a manga published in Shonen magazine is labeled as “Shonen.”
But this definition is somewhat flawed because several mangas that deal with adult themes but have been published in shonen-exclusive magazines are also labeled as shonen manga. However, this is also the most appropriate connotation as the term shounen came into use through manga comics.
The earliest use of the word ‘Shonen’ in the context of manga can be traced back to 1895 when a magazine – Shōnen Sekai, started publishing comics for both boys and girls. But the emergence of separate shojo magazines in 1902 made shonen exclusive to boys.
During World Wars, shonen focused on patriotic, samurai, and militaristic themes. But as WW2 concluded, the anime industry renovated itself by exploring new ideas and art styles.
This renewal is credited to Osamu Tezuka, who is often called ‘the Walt Disney of Anime.’ While his 1950 series Kimba the Lion set the stage for several shonen mangas, his 1952 shonen manga series, Astro boy, aka ‘Mighty Atom,’ took the anime world by storm. Therefore, Astro boy received several anime adaptations and is considered the ‘first-ever shonen anime.’
However, the course of shonen anime was completely overturned with Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball series, which not only gave a new meaning to the word ‘Shonen’ but also inspired the Big Three of shonen, i.e., Naruto, One Piece, and Bleach.
Shounen, Shōnen, or Shonen – What’s the Correct Spelling?
Though “shounen” is the most appropriate spelling, none of these is incorrect as “shōnen” and “Shonen” are also pronounced the same way and refer to the same thing.
You see, the Japanese alphabet is different from the English/Latin alphabet. Over the years, several methods have been devised to read Japanese without having to learn Kanji.
Consequently, the same words in Japanese may be spelled in more than one way in English but are still pronounced with the same intonation.
Now, the Japanese word “Shounen” translates to the word “boy” and is the most accurate spelling. Meanwhile, “shōnen” has a Latin “o” with a ‘macron bar’ which is just an indication to prolong it while reading, i.e., “ō” is read as “oo” or “ou.”
That means “shounen” and “shōnen” are pronounced the same way.
But “shonen” is the most frequently used spelling. The Japanese word shonen can refer to a “boy” or “Early Years.” So, it still means the same thing.
However, there is a certain romanization method through which “shonen” is also written as “syônen,” but it too is read the same way as “shounen” and means the same thing.
What Makes an Anime a Shonen Anime?
Since “shonen” is not a genre but a group of anime targeting males in their teens, every concept and theme is on the table as long as it’s appropriate for young minds.
That means a shonen will feature all genres, from action, adventure, fantasy, and science-fiction to romance, comedy, drama, thriller, historical, and even crime.
But all these must remain coherent with teenage interests.
Therefore, shounen usually features concepts like friendship, hope, bravery, dreams, and fighting strength. Also, the shonen anime series ends on a somewhat brighter note. For instance, hard work always pays off in a shonen, even though that may not be true in real life.
However, the shonen genre has several tropes and clichés associated with it.
For example, a typical shonen starts with an aloof and not-so-perfect protagonist with a dream. People laugh at him, but he trains and gains trust from his “nakama,” i.e., comrades. But as a villain threatens the earth/village/universe, that protagonist becomes crucial for everyone’s survival.
However, that hero doesn’t win, so he goes on a solo journey to learn from great masters. Then, he outperforms the master and returns to save the day.
Now, that’s a brief story of almost every anime & manga in the shounen genre.
Though these shonen narratives intend to show that anyone can be a “hero” through sheer will and hard work rather than through status, intelligence, and birthright, several shonen series still end up featuring a “hero” having some hidden and untapped talent.
Since shonen is aimed at teenagers, most protagonists are males.
Therefore, the female characters are either supporting roles or usually mere eye candies for fanservice. But that seems to be changing, as several titles feature well-written female characters that are crucial to the story and not just there to look good.
Anyways, if you are up for watching or reading some shonen series, here is a brief list of must-watch shonen anime titles!
Shonen Anime & Manga Examples:
On his execution platform, the King of the Pirates – Gold D. Roger, revealed Grand Line to be the location of his treasure named “One Piece.” This instigated the Great Pirate age, where every pirate sought the glory of becoming Pirate King.
Years later, a boy named Monkey D. Luffy also set sail for the Grand Line. But his dream is to have an adventure at sea and to become the man with the most freedom in the world; he has no interest in acquiring the treasure. That’s just an excuse to go on adventures!
Dragon Ball / Dragon Ball Z
Dragon Ball is a series revolving around a set of seven Dragon Balls that can summon “Shenron,” a dragon with the power to grant any wish. A girl named Bulma is collecting these balls to wish for a perfect boyfriend. But a young boy named Goku refuses to part with his ball unless she agrees to let him tag alongside.
But they both are unaware that Goku is far more strange and unique than the dragon balls.
As the nine-tailed beast attacked Konohagakure, the village’s leader – the fourth Hokage gave up his life to seal the raging monster in a newborn baby named Naruto. However, the orphan grew to be hated by his entire village as he was considered the beast himself.
Seeking recognition from his fellow villagers, Naruto aims to become the next Hokage by making everyone in the village recognize and accept him.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
The rules of “alchemy” forbid anyone from reviving the dead. But the Elric brothers, Edward and Alphonse, experiment to revive their mother, only for one of them to lose his entire body and another his limbs. Their neighbor helps them by replacing their organs with a metal body and metal limbs.
Now, they are searching for the Philisopher’s Stone, a legendary artifact capable of bypassing the laws of “alchemy.” The brothers want to use the stone to reclaim what they lost, Alphonse’s entire body and Elric’s limbs, but the task won’t be easy.
A bored Death Reaper drops a Death Note in the Human World to entertain himself. But it lands in the hands of Light Yagami – a clever teenager who decides to use the Death Note and its powers to erase the crime from the world by killing all the criminals and earns the title “Kira.”
This attracts the attention of “L” – a genius detective who finds Kira’s sense of judgement questionable. And so begins the chase, but whoever gets caught first will not just lose a game but his life.
Rukia Kuchiki gets injured on her way to save people from a corrupt spirit, i.e., a Hollow. So, she lends her powers temporarily to a high school boy – Ichigo Kurosaki, who can see ghosts. Though they get rid of the Hollow, Rukia’s powers don’t return to her.
This leads Ichigo to work as a part-time soul reaper in Rukia’s stead. But they soon stumble upon various dark secrets.
After his father’s death, Tanjiro Kamado becomes the sole breadwinner of his family. As he travels to another village to sell goods, he is forced to stay overnight. But on his return, he finds his entire family slaughtered by Demons except for his sister Nezuko – who is also a demon now.
To take revenge and seek a cure for Nezuko, Tanjiro joins a group of Demon Slayers.
Attack on Titan
Centuries ago, Titans slaughtered humans to the point of extinction. The remaining humanity built walls and is now confined to an island named “Paradis.” For 100 years, there have been no signs of Titans, so people have begun to wonder if Titans are a myth.
But all doubts disappear when a Titan breaks a hole in the wall. As millions die, Eren Yeager also loses his mother. And so, he vows to take revenge, but he remains unaware that he holds the key to the mystery of Titan’s existence.
How Does “Shounen” Differ from Other Genres?
Shounen vs. Seinen:
“Seinen” is the adult version of “Shounen.”
Therefore, the concepts that are inappropriate for shonen audiences are featured within seinen. These include mature themes surrounding violence, drugs, sex, and psychological issues.
That doesn’t mean seinen requires censoring or shonen has no mature elements.
For instance, One-Punch Man appears ‘shonen’ for its bright colors and superhero vibe. But it’s a seinen manga & anime made as a parody of shonen because the protagonist – Saitama, is neither handsome nor needs more training, but just like in practical life, people continuously take credit for his work.
In contrast, Chainsaw Man, which revolves around a boy having sexual fantasies as his sole motivation to help people, is labeled as a shonen.
Sometimes a shonen series can grow to become seinen series. For instance, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure seasons 1-6 are labeled as “shonen,” but seasons 7 & 8 are categorized as “seinen.”
Shounen vs. Shoujo:
Shounen also has various similarities with its female counterpart, “shoujo,” as both feature friendships, coming-of-age tropes, and rom-com.
But shounen features male protagonists fighting their way through every hurdle in life; meanwhile, shoujo features girl characters dealing with their problems, mostly their love life and family issues.
Shounen vs. Josei:
But “shounen” differs the most from “josei,” a genre targeting adult females.
While shonen focuses on friendships and hard work, “josei” shows a person, usually a woman coming to terms with her career aspirations and her struggles in family life. Also, shonen tends to end on bright notes, and josei may conclude a story open-ended with a realistic vibe.
But certain shonen characters can grow to become part of josei. For instance, the shonen manga series Saiyuki later became a josei manga.
The word “shonen,” “shounen,” or “shōnen” are the same as they all mean “boy.” Shonen is not a genre in anime but describes all those anime series created for male teenagers. The shonen series has several tropes and clichés, but they differ from other demographic groups.
I hope this article helped you understand the term ‘shonen’ in-depth and cleared any ambiguities related to it. But comment below to let me know if I missed a certain aspect, and I’ll make sure to write about that.
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