Shonen is one of the most popular and expansive genres of anime. Dating back to the works of Osamu Tezuka, Shonen has traditionally largely been targeted at boys but has been enjoyed of people of all ages and genders. Usually focusing on action, the power of friendship, and known more recently for their epic length; Shonen works are a major part of the anime industry. With so many Shonen series existing though, those who are new to anime might find it difficult knowing where to start when looking for Shonen shows. I hope to help with this challenge by offering ten important and exciting Shonen series in this blog that are good starting points for both those who are new to anime and veteran anime fans looking for a great Shonen show.
1. Astro-boy: Osamu Tezuka the creator of Astro-boy is so beloved in Japan that he is known as the “God of comics.” While not the first Japanese animator, Tezuka is well known for his development of anime as an important element of Japanese culture. Through his comics and animation studios, Tezuka helped to establish anime and manga industries as they are today. One of Tezauka’s most famous series and arguably the first Shonen and anime series ever created was Astro-Boy. Its story features the robotic boy and hero Astro who defends the world from all sorts of menaces with his robotic super powers. This series was extremely inventive and so successful in Japan that it was brought to the United States as the first anime program to ever be dubbed and air on US Television. This shows popularity paved the way for other early anime shows such as Macross and Speed Racer to also be released in the United States. Despite being one of the earliest examples of anime this show is remembered fondly within both the United States and Japan, has spawned many reboots, and is well worth watching for Shonen and classic anime series fans.
2. Mobile Suit Gundam and Macross: It is important when looking at Shonen anime to acknowledge its roots with Mecha (series involving giant robots) series. Early Shonen series were connected strongly with mech series. Series like Gigantor, Getter Robo and Mazinger Z focused upon the adventures of boys commanding or piloting giant robots. The two of the best known and most popular Mech and Shonen shows however, are Macross and Mobile Suit Gundam. In Macross (retitled and cut in the United States as Robotech) teens pilot airplanes that can transform into mechs in order to defend the earth from alien threats with the help of a giant battle spaceship and Japanese pop idol music. Mobile Suit Gundam took a much more serious and realistic approach however, with the teen Amuro Ray piloting a giant Gundam robot to help the Earth Federations in their war against the rebelling Principality of Zeon. These two series helped to develop common Shonen themes such as friendship and a battle against evil, and both of these shows went on to spawn two of the biggest mech anime franchises.
3. The Dragon Ball Series: Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball Series is one of the best known and longest running Shonen series. The story of the alien hero and protector of earth Goku and his friends has delighted fans in both Japan and the United States with its hard hitting martial arts action with elements of comedy and science fiction. The Dragon Ball series set the template for most Shonen series to follow with characters constantly battling new challenges and unlocking new skills. Many people in the United States were introduced to Dragon Ball’s sequel Dragon Ball Z which was a major hit on Cartoon Network’s programming block Toonami. Most recently the Dragon Ball series has returned with the new sequel Dragon Ball Super, which continues the series proud tradition of martial arts action.
4. Ranma ½: One of most unusual Shonen series is the romantic comedy martial arts series Ranma 1/2. Ranma ½ was created by one of Japan’s most famous female cartoonists Rumiko Takahashi, who is one of the few female creators known for working on popular Shonen series. This series stars the adventures of Ranma a teen martial artist who ends up cursed to transform into a girl when doused with cold water, and returns to his original male form when splashed with hot water. The series features a number of other comically cursed and/or wacky characters, and is filled with slap stick absurdity, reluctant romance, and martial arts action. Ranma ½ was one of the most popular anime series of 1990’s within the United States due to creativity zaniness, and remains a one of the highest regarded classic Shonen series.
5. Yu Yu Hakusho: Yu Yu Hakusho stands out with use of anti-heroes and a complex plot. This series stars delinquent Yusuke Yorameshi a trouble making teen that ends up becoming a hero. After accidently being killed while trying to save a child, he starts down the road to becoming a crime fighting spirit detective with the help of his friends. Yu Yu Hakusho stands out because of its world building and use of non-traditional heroes. Yusuke and his friend Kuwabara start off as trouble makers before becoming heroes, and are often more sarcastic and less conventional than most Shonen heroes as a result. The world is also given a lot of depth with a plot that explores human spirit relations, the nature of spiritual power, and characters with complex histories.
6. Case Closed: Case Closed is a strange case indeed. Unlike many Shonen shows that focus on fighting and friendship, Case Closed instead focuses primarily on mystery and murder. Case Close stars detective Jimmy Kudo who ends up being transformed into child by criminals trying to poison him. Determined to find the criminals, to protect his identity, and to continue solving mysteries, Jimmy disguises himself as the grade school boy Conan Edogawa and ends up living with his former girlfriend Rachel and her father, the washed out detective Richard Moore. Conan uses tools such as to a sleeping dart and voice changer designed for him by a scientist friend to help him solve various crimes and to search for the crooks that shrunk him. He also works with a group of elementary school detective fans who help him solve many cases. The lack of fighting, and focus upon solving mysteries sets Case Closed apart from many other Shonen works.
7. The Big Three (Naruto, Bleach, One Piece): It’s impossible to talk about Shonen without talking about the three most famous and popular series modern series, Naruto, Bleach and One Piece. While all of these series are different all of them share a focus on a group of heroes with powers who work together to fight an evil, while exploring the meaning of friendship. In Naruto the lead Naruto Uzimaki goes from a mischievous and shunned kid due to the dangerous fox spirit within him to an important part of his village and a major hero. Bleach focuses on Ichigo Kurasaki a boy with spiritual powers who ends up becoming a soul reaper who defends souls from evil and injustice along with the help of his friends. In One Piece the energetic teen hero Monkey D Luffy eats a magic fruit that allows his body to act like rubber, and eventually goes off to find an eccentric crew in hopes of becoming the world’s great pirate. All of these series are extremely long running and most often are what comes to mind in the United States when talking about Shonen series.
8. Hunter X Hunter (2011): Yoshihiro Togashi (who also created Yu Yu Hakusho) expands his love for world building in the series Hunter X Hunter. This show features Gon a boy who wishes to follow in his mysterious absent father’s footsteps and become a hunter, an elite licensed profession that involves hunting down objects, creatures, or people. On his journey he meets many friends such as the boy assassin Killua, Leorio a mysterious man seeking money, and Kurapika a boy who is seeking revenge on the criminal organization that murdered his clan. What makes this series so impactful is how much it builds up its world. With rigorous examinations, a world system for magic, and a large complex environment and culture this series has a huge scope and never feels like its long length is ever unnecessarily padded (which is a common complaint for many Shonen series).
9. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (2012): While by no means a new series (originally the manga was published in 1987) Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure’s recent anime revival is an important landmark in adaption. Featuring the adventures of Joestar family and it’ battles against the forces of evil, this over the top and stylized series has become a major hit within United States and even been featured on TV. The Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure series is a great example of how to adapt a classic Shonen work for modern audiences. Whether it’s battle vampires and zombies in England, ancient Aztec gods, spirit wielders across the world, or solving a murder within a small town Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure features many consistent elements such as battling evil with a group of friends and allies, dramatic posing, and music references and bizarreness that is a lot of fun and very accessible.
10. Food Wars: The most recent show on this list and one that I previously reviewed the manga series for (found here) Food Wars places an interesting twist on Shonen themes by having the battles be waged through cooking contests. Teenager Soma battles along with his friends to become the best chef he can, while remaining humbled and helpful to those around him. These cooking competitions make this series stand out from other Shonen series by featuring cooking training and delicious looking food. Another aspect that stands out about Food Wars is the variety of characters and dishes served, and how many major female characters there are. These aspects make this show stand apart from others and make it one of the best newer Shonen series.