Of all the genres of anime and manga, shonen is by far the most lucrative. Aimed at young boys by admission of its very name, 15 of the 19 manga franchises to have sold over 100 million copies are deemed as shonen products.
As someone who is not a young boy but has dabbled in being one in the past, I can attest to the appeal of the genre. It’s typified by exciting action, intriguing drama, and drawn out, epic story arcs with a massive payoff at the end. It’s a pure dopamine drip, and not coincidentally, makes up the majority of my anime viewership.
With such a broad range of material to draw on, I elected to reflect on 10 specific moments in shonen history that really got me pumped. I’ll throw a disclaimer here early, I’m not trying to stretch the boundaries of imagination, so all of the entries listed will be quite mainstream and from recent productions.
This is hardly scratching the surface, I just don’t want to think too hard. Plus, Gon Freecss as a header image is bound to grab me more clicks than Keima Katsuragi. Just you wait, though, the God of Conquests is bound to get his time in the sun one of these days…
Please note, there are big ass spoilers for the anime contained within this article. Legit, you wouldn’t find more spoilers if you went to a car dealership.
1. Bang! (Bluelock)
Season 1, Episode 1
Starting things off with the most recent entry on this list. It’s not an attempt at grabbing trends, just how I choose to frame this piece, so don’t judge me, you egoist.
Sports anime conventions would usually see a ragtag group of misfits finding strength in one another to work towards a common goal and become better people. Bluelock does this, sometimes, a little bit, albeit with the caveat that all of the participants are ultimately working for themselves, and actively encouraged to be assholes. Insert obligatory “tired of being nice” meme.
Yoichi Isagi has many of the tropes of your standard shonen leading man, with one notable exception: by entering this assignment, he is making an effort to shed the mindset of a team player, become the biggest piece of shit on the field, and score all of the goals while he leaves his opposition (and likely, his teammates) bawling in his wake.
It is wonderfully illustrated in the climax of the very first episode, where participants are tasked with playing a game of soccer tag. Whoever is hit last within the time limit will be instantly eliminated, so Isagi and his pal Ryosuke Kira do their best to avoid an early defeat.
The latter has been positioned as the deuteragonist; the upbeat star from a nearby school who gravitates towards Isagi as they enter the confines of Blue Lock. So when Isagi decides that he will be the one who must be destroyed on this day, it comes as quite the shock. Don’t be like Kira and let your guard down, this is an anime that is going to challenge the norm.
2. Bells in the rain (Death Note)
Season 1, Episode 25
Death Note plays out a little differently from your usual anime, insomuch that its lead character, Light Yagami, is in actual fact the villain. This places his foil, L, in an interesting narrative position; he is the good guy, but he doesn’t necessarily have to be a good guy. To keep things interesting, there has to be a certain edge to him that makes us question where our loyalties lie.
Shortly before Light successfully kills his rival, the duo shares a quiet scene on the roof. L is his usual self, muttering nothings about bells that only he can hear, but there is something more to this rainy day discussion than meets the eye. You can anticipate that we’re on the threshold of something big, just based on the atmosphere.
What makes L so fascinating is that he too was surely aware that he was about to perish, and treats the inevitability with a kind of contemplative resignation. How much did he know by this point? How close was he to outwitting the murderous Kira? Could he at least take solace in the knowledge that his successors would finish the task on his behalf?
L was a slave to his devout obligation to duty, with only a superficial list of joys that sustained his attention. Here, he has an approaching sense of his own mortality, and knowing that he can’t escape it, he instead chooses to stay true to who he has always been; a smug, know-it-all prick who will have the last laugh, either in this life or the next.
3. Rengoku vs Akaza (Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba)
Mugen Train (Movie)
In a little under two hours of runtime, Mugen Train is able to build up a character we’ve only gotten a basic impression of, make us intrigued by him as he combats the film’s assumed antagonist, and then have us absolutely on the edge of our seat when he takes on an even mightier foe in the final act.
I’m not going to lie, I thought we had already gotten a complete story when Tanjiro and Inosuke were at last able to fell the braggart Enmu. So when the Upper Moon demon Akaza arrives on the scene, I was surprised and unprepared for what was to follow.
His duel with the Flame Hashira Rengoku is easily in the top 5 anime fights of all time. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any better; it is emotional, gripping, tightly choreographed and exquisitely animated. We thought we were in the clear, the day had been saved, and our heroes were about to ride off into the sunset. But nope, Rengoku is mortally wounded and just barely able to send the demon fleeing from the morning sun.
For him to have gone through all that without actually slaying the demon doesn’t feel cheap or disappointing. It just makes us that much more ready for the day that Tanjiro is able to overcome the cavernous gap in ability to finish the job himself.
4. Hamon clackers (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure)
Season 1, Episode 15
When I think of an exact moment I was sold on an anime, this is probably the one that most springs to mind. The first arc of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Phantom Blood, doesn’t stray too far from conventional storytelling traditions as it introduces us to the Joestar legacy.
Jonathan Joestar is fondly remembered for being a muscle-bound champion who fought valiantly against his foster brother, Dio. But he is more made up of the sum of his actions than an interesting protagonist himself; it is not until we meet his buffoonish grandson, Joseph, that things really kick up a notch.
An arrogant lout who somehow manages to be a master tactician, Joseph faces off against the ancient Pillar Men with a brand new trick up his sleeve: a pair of clackers he has infused with energy. He proudly whips them about while letting out a fearsome cry, only for them to swing too far and bonk him over the head.
“Oh no!” he cries, his colleagues admonishing him in disgust. It’s such a defining moment of Joseph Joestar, portraying him as a knucklehead more concerned with style than substance. I’m so glad he would return for a few more seasons afterwards.
5. Good night, Chief (Megalobox)
Season 2, Episode 17
Occasionally, the best moments in storytelling aren’t those that necessarily come out of nowhere. There are times when a character arc is so wonderfully presented, you can foresee its outcome, almost making you hope that you’re right.
To that end, the death of Chief in Megalobox was telegraphed to perfection. After winning the tournament that will secure his rights to the land his people live on, the battered boxer gives a loving look at the photo of his wife and son before closing his eyes and going to sleep.
The next morning, he is found dead, sending all he had secured back into jeopardy. Chief represented the lost morality that Joe had shed after the events of the first season. His warm demeanour and wise outlook on the world had brought the man called Nomad back to reality, and he didn’t even get to live long enough to see the fruits of his labour.
I often toss up which of the seasons of Megalobox I prefer; the first is fresh and exciting, where the second is introspective and emotional. I think I would say that this is the better season from a storytelling aspect, and this right here was the event that sealed the deal for me.
6. Sister School Exchange Event, day 2 (Jujutsu Kaisen)
Season 1, Episode 21
If someone told you the most exciting fight in Jujutsu Kaisen would be followed up with a gag filler episode — one that would prove to be even better than what preceded it — they would probably scoff.
But that’s just how it is with the Sister School Exchange Event baseball game. This uproarious sequence isn’t a betrayal of the story’s momentum, it’s an amplification of it; serving as a palate cleanser in which we can catch our breath.
Thanks to the exchange event, and more broadly the season itself, we’ve got a pretty good idea of who these characters are, so seeing how they would fare in a completely unique environment is such a treat. The flavour text each batter receives as they step up to the plate is hilarious, and at its climax, we get to see the almighty Todo suffer his first defeat, coming at the hands of Maki who intentionally beans him.
Itadori is shocked, while everyone else is delighted, leading him to realise how much everyone actually dislikes Todo. It is exceptional, amplifying every single participant to the point where the emotional damage we’ll suffer later on in this story feels more important. Using the humour as a means of building character attachment? This is how you tell a good fucking story.
7. Meeting Eri (My Hero Academia)
Season 4, Episode 67
The payoff to a major story arc is when we get to see all of the loose ends tied up, typically in a showdown that pits opposing forces against one another in spectacular fashion. It’s the moment that gets all the attention, but without the pieces being put in place, it would hardly matter at all.
Throughout season 4, we learn of the growing threat that is the Shie Hassaikai, and the morally corrupt Overhaul who is at the heart of it all. Deku and Lemillion are made aware of the operation taking place to infiltrate the Yakuza syndicate, knowing that a single error could jeopardise everything.
When they suddenly run into Overhaul and his captive, Eri, on patrol, the tension skyrockets. Deku knows in his heart that he should save her, right then and there, and yet, he is incapable of acting. The students plaster pleasant smiles on their faces as they stare pure evil in the face, ultimately having to let him leave with the innocent girl in his grasp.
Not only are they sickened by what they just experienced, but they learn later the full extent of the villain’s depravity; making their inaction that much more painful to bear. It’s a reminder that sometimes, even doing the right thing when faced with a dilemma can still feel more like losing when it’s all said and done.
8. The death of Miche (Attack on Titan)
Season 2, Episode 26
It may seem strange (or even a little sinister) to include a good man’s grisly demise amongst anime’s greatest moments, but the way Miche Zacharius goes out highlights everything that made Attack on Titan legendary.
This isn’t a story known for its plot armour, and yet somehow, you figured that the soldier whose power was second only to Levi’s would make his escape. Up to this point, Miche was a one-man wrecking crew, remaining stoic in the face of insurmountable odds and familiar with practically every nuance in Titan hunting.
The Beast Titan is smarter than your average bear, hucking his horsey and sending Miche to the turf. When the hirsute giant leans over to exchange in some unexpected small talk, the wounded Scout is uncharacteristically shaken. He eventually regathers his courage, taking up his weapon to make a stand, only for the Beast to give the surrounding Titans the command to finish the job.
Miche does not go out heroically, quietly, or even quickly. We can only watch on helplessly as he is ripped to pieces by the ravenous mob, reduced to a shrieking, writhing mess. I am a big fan of Kenta Miyake’s work, but for my money, this is his finest hour; gone is his deep, booming voice, replaced by the ear-piercing cries of a man who is being eaten alive.
It’s just as horrifying visually as it is in an auditory sense, with close-ups of Miche’s tear-stained face before at last his head is ripped clean from his shoulders. When this happens to a villain who had it coming, we might feel a pang of satisfaction. When it occurs to a beloved hero, it is shocking and dreadful… and absolutely intoxicating.
9. Limitation Transformation (Hunter x Hunter)
Season 5, Episode 131
Of course, in anime, things are barely black and white. So even when an antagonist is on the receiving end of brutal punishment, it isn’t exactly cause for celebration.
Neferpitou is an outstanding character who we get to see grow over the span of a season, presented at first as an immature yet menacing killing machine. They are a stark contrast to the plucky Gon Freecss, whose bravery and determination is often accompanied by a kindhearted smile.
Through Pitou’s cruelty and perverted treatment of Kite’s dead body, Gon is noticeably changed. He clings desperately to the idea that his mentor can be brought back to life, so when it is revealed that there is nothing that can be done to help him, something snaps.
Gon is gone. In his place emerges this twisted, unstoppable presence who sets about obliterating Pitou. In their last, agonizing seconds on earth, all they can think about is the relief that they are sustaining this beating, instead of their king.
It takes such a physical and emotional toll on Gon that he is effectively taken out of commission for the majority of the next season, with the driving force becoming Killua’s mission to revive his friend’s body and soul.
It’s not Hunter x Hunter’s best fight scene. In fact, it’s hardly a fight scene at all, more of a mugging. But it is indeed its most impactful moment, the point of no return that shifts the balance of strong and weak, good and evil, Pitou’s face and Pitou’s teeth.
10. The chimera (Fullmetal Alchemist)
Season 1, Episode 7
We close out our list with the first big, emotional scene that ever left me reeling in anime, when it is discovered that the alchemist Shou Tucker has transmuted his 4-year-old daughter with the family dog. It is a hideous, atrocious crime that has made its mark as one of the biggest bombshells of the medium.
As far as which interpretation of this scene I wanted to highlight, I am going to stick with the 2003 original over Brotherhood. They both handle the reveal in equally heart-wrenching ways, however I personally feel as though 2003’s affect was more significant.
Edward knows from the outset that something is very wrong here, and he spends the first few moments acknowledging the chimera with silent horror, as opposed to the later adaptation’s early impression that this was a true achievement. Tucker himself comes across as more broken in 2003, whereas in Brotherhood he exudes an additional degree of pride.
There is a sickly candle glow in the original — while Brotherhood opted for neutral greys — and a more restrained musical score. Edward’s rage that he and Tucker are not the same also feels more unhinged. It’s a toss-up which Nina reaction hits harder, between her restraining Edward or repeatedly asking if her father is in pain.
Lastly, Shou and Nina get a little more screen-time in the original; their story is contained to a single episode of Brotherhood, instead of meeting them an episode prior. Needless to say, both are fabulous. My preference just happens to be 2003.
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