[Editor's Note: "Idiot Savant Japan," an in-depth look at Japanese cinema, with emphasis on anime, is published every other Thursday, alternating with Vadim Rizov's music column, "Indie 500."]
You may wonder where this column has been if you're one of the poor souls who dares read it—or if you're my mother. Hi, mom! As I was about to get started on this third entry, an elite squad of sailor-suited, pink-haired ninja women—"kunoichi" if we want to be all proper with the terms—kidnapped me and did unmentionable things for days on end. They only let me out to record the brand new House Next Door podcast with fellow columnist Vadim Rizov and co-editor Keith Uhlich. They then re-abducted me the second I stepped off the train back into Brooklyn. However, I spent the last two weeks training and—to paraphrase Dae-su Oh—I will soon find out if 14 days of imaginary training can be put to good use. I have developed my new ultimate power, turned one of my captors into my comedic sidekick and will free the land from the oppression of pink-haired ninja women/kunoichi! Believe it!
Ok, so maybe that didn't really happen, but branching off from that concept, it's clear I'm a fan of "Shonen" (also romanized to "Shounen"), one of anime/manga's most popular genres. Used essentially as an adjective to describe anything marketed to little boys, Shonen literally translates to "Few Years." The genre is known for its focus on action, friendship and constant threats that keep the heroes on their toes—as well as the new forms and powers they develop against said threats. It boils down to everything we learned from Joseph Campbell--even the eight reasons someone desperate for clicks lists to disprove him.
"Head Cha-La," the opening to Dragon Ball Z.
The perfect example is and shall forever be Akira Toriyama's sequel franchise, Dragon Ball Z. While the original series was a slapstick comedy with traces of martial arts—and also Shonen—it would be this multi-volume story following the grown-up characters that became synonymous with 12-chapter long fights, powering up to reach the next level of one's abilities, and going so far that finally the characters could destroy a planet just by getting angry. Look past the initial veneer of "His power level—it's over 9000," and you'll find a self-aware irony in a children's show that spends two or three episodes "powering up" in order to keep little faces glued to screens. Toriyama himself would poke fun at this supposedly serious work when introducing characters from Dr. Slump and the names of these battle-hardened warriors (Son Goku is an intentional homage to the Monkey King from "Journey to the West" as well as Goku's alien name, Kakarotto—or "Carrot.")
The series was separated into four sagas—Saiyan, Freeza, Cell and Buu—13 films, two stand-alone specials and countless video games that are still being produced. It comes out to a total of 291 episodes from 1989 until 1996. Another part of Shonen's nature is the epic feel, which must work the dual notion of producing content and keeping marketing happy. Because a title that isn't pulling in figures/models/soundtrack/wall scrolls/keitai sales will be cut—such as The Guyver series that was given a cliffhanger ending, only to find funding cut for the show. It still went on in manga form. And while Guyver's status as shonen can be argued—or at least loosely accepted—it presents the other trait found in all the work: the hero's power is incredibly dark, or intended to give the opinion that it is incredibly easy to slip into the dark side.
Current mainstream favorites like Bleach and Naruto follow similar arcs of an unwitting hero who winds up becoming the most powerful due to unexplored talent, but it is interesting to note that it comes from darkness, in Bleach's case the main character of Ichigo having to die in order to resurrect his powers but also revealing he has the same abilities within him as the series' antagonists, the Hollows. Nartuo's self-titled character has a Great Beast, the Nine-Tailed Fox, sealed within, which allows him to access unlimited energy—or chakra—for his various attacks, but at the cost of the seal constantly weakening. Of course, this is all swallowed up by the fact that this kid exists in a world with giant foxes and a turtle who talks like an old-school Yakuza boss—whose name is, literally translated, "Boss Turtle". It's still odd to find tiny amounts of adult humor in what is essentially a kid's show. Maybe that's why people in their 20s, 30s and 40s still watch this stuff.
Granted, it also perpetuates the myth of the eternal nerd. But considering the company I keep on this site, it's not like we're social savants. I, for one, thrive in my big-eyed, cotton candy cartoons of ninja foxes and Death Notes. One of the best satire series ever aired was Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, a knock against everyone from DBZ to Fist of the North Star and even the Mister Softee man.
"Mister Softee" kicks ass.
But as the above video shows, Bo-bobo is completely, utterly absurd. It's the self-referential comedy that pokes fun at itself, even in the translation. Instead of changing kanji to English, the character will announce he's going to draw in squiggles to see if he can pass a test. But before you can get all that, you need to start with the classics like Mobile Suit Gundam, Voltron or Yu Yu Hakusho. The best part? You can get caught up on an entire series in no time, believeit!
However, I now have to battle my oppressors. It should only take 30 or 45 episodes. And then my ultimate power will be such that no one will stand in my way--I may even attempt to battle MZS and Keith's super ultimate-er powers.
But that won't happen till episode 132.
____________________________________________ John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E [print only] and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.