Comic book heroes have the same stories told about them again and again. How many versions of Krypton exploding or Batman’s parents being killed have we seen? And yet, our heroes are largely stable in terms of powers and character. If Wonder Woman today fought Wonder Woman from a decade ago it would be a draw—she has the same superpowers and skill level that she’s always had. For that matter, she will appear to be the same age despite the passage of a decade. Even when things change (Superman dies, Thor is a woman, Captain America works for Hydra) the fans can be content knowing that the continuities will be rebooted and the norms will return. As a result, I am confident that my grandchildren will read a fresh story of Bruce Wayne’s parents being shot in an alley.
But there is another world of superheroes to explore, one filled with people like Goku, Luffy, and Naruto. They represent a Japanese genre known as shōnen, which refers both to manga (black and white comic books) and to anime (animated television shows usually based on manga).The central message of shōnen manga seems to be that whatever obstacles you face, try hard, stay true to your values, work together with your friends, and you will prevail in the end.
For these heroes, increasingly popular with Western audiences, the focus is more on stories than on characters. One Piece, the most popular manga in the world, has been telling a continuous story for 20 years now. Someday Luffy will find the One Piece and become the Pirate King and his story will be done. There may be another story in that world, but it will not be Luffy’s. Likewise, there is not likely to be another story of how Naruto became a ninja. Instead, the focus is now on his son, Boruto, because time moves on.
The central message of shōnen manga seems to be that whatever obstacles you face, try hard, stay true to your values, work together with your friends, and you will prevail in the end. Although these are very similar to the morals we tell young people in the West, there are differences in the way they are portrayed in shōnen manga.
The most significant difference has to do with the directive “try hard.” It’s striking how devoted these heroes are to training. In many cases their real power seems to be that they simply won’t quit practicing. In Dragonball, Goku prefers to stay dead to train in the afterlife rather than return home to be with his wife and son. Monkey D. Luffy of One Piece takes a two-year break from his adventure to develop his haki skills. Naruto not only goes to ninja school, he spends all his free time training to get stronger and keep up with his rival Sasuke. In Black Clover, Asta has no magic yet achieves success through unrelenting training fueled by his can-do attitude.
These heroes constantly focus on progressing and leveling up. Superman may not do push-ups, but Goku does. For a shōnen hero, hard work and discipline are the keys to overcoming whatever obstacles lie before you.
Despite this intense training, the heroes in shōnen manga frequently run up against opponents who push them to their limits so that in the midst of battle they must undergo a surge in power and increase their abilities through sheer determination. The heroes concentrate and then shout and glow as their willpower takes them to a new level of fighting prowess. It becomes clear to the watcher that every challenge is conquerable if you give it your all.
This is hardly new. Although Rudyard Kipling is out of favor with the literary establishment, his poem of fatherly advice “If” makes periodic appearances on Reddit. It concludes with this stirring call to hustle:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
This message of discipline, effort, and self-reliance seems to resonate strongly with young people (especially young men) across continents and centuries.
It is, of course, both false and true.
The message is false enough that if this is the only advice we follow most of us will end up broken. As a wise teacher once observed, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Unlike in a shōnen story, self-discipline and an improbable hairstyle do not always guarantee success.
The message is true enough that it is worth listening to. Almost all of us can do with a reminder to be disciplined from time to time. Self-discipline is even a manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives (2 Timothy 1:7). So the part of us that resonates with the constant striving of anime characters, that part of us that cheers at a good training montage (Rocky IV still providing the cinematic gold standard), that’s a good and godly part of us. Like all parts of our earthly nature, it can become corrupt and self-indulgent. But when it remembers its boundaries, it is an important element of our makeup.
And so if you are one of those souls who have not yet had the joy of watching Rock Lee drop his training weights, or cheering as Sogeking sets fire to the World Government’s flag, or laughing when Vegeta breaks his scouter upon realizing that Goku’s power level is over 9,000, watch with the knowledge that these anime, juvenile though they can be, are reminding you of truths that are worth remembering. And have a good time watching.