I love shounen anime and manga. Dragon Ball Z, Yu Yu Hakusho, Naruto, Bleach, you name it, I’ve probably watched it. There’s something endlessly entertaining about watching two characters beating the shit out of each other. Watching an underdog character overcome all the challenges that come his/her way is so satisfying. But most shounen series suffer from the same problem; the constantly escalating stakes and power creep. Every new arc brings a stronger opponent the protagonist must defeat. After a certain point, the stakes and power levels escalate past a point where it becomes ridiculous. First your fighting a street thug and by the end of the series galaxies are being tossed at each other. The reliance on transformation and powerful energy beams make a series lose the original charm it had.
Dragon Ball is a classic but is probably the most infamous example of the escalation problem. Dragon Ball starts out as a simple martial arts anime. Basically, Goku and friends search for the Dragon Balls and train for martial arts tournaments. The power levels were relatively low, and the supporting cast is actually helpful. Each new saga sees Goku reach a new level. The villains continually get stronger and stronger. Dragon Ball Z comes around and the stakes have reached new heights. The Saiyans arrive, Goku’s Saiyan blood is revealed and he becomes stronger. Goku learns the Kaio-ken and Spirit Bomb from King Kai. Vegeta and Nappa are dispatched by Goku with assistance from Gohan and Krillin. Next they face the greatest threat yet, Frieza. Repeat the formula. Goku transforms into the Super Saiyan and beats the evil intergalactic space lord. By the time the Cell Games begin, anyone who isn’t a Saiyan is useless and only exists to react to the action. Dragon Ball had a chance to end after Cell’s defeat, but it continued on and on. The Buu Saga introduced even more transformations and added fusion forms. Now Dragon Ball Super brings the power to ludicrous levels. Yet even more forms for Goku, like Super Saiyan God Ultra Instinct. Its getting out of hand. The scales and the stakes are so astronomical that it becomes too abstract and you don’t feel connected to it.
Naruto also suffers greatly from the escalation problem. It begins as an underdog story following the exploits of the young ninja Naruto Uzumaki. Part 1 of Naruto focuses on creative Ninjutsu techniques and team work. The stronger ninja doesn’t always win. Match ups are key to victory. There is a lot of thought put into every battle. All that goes out the window in later arcs in Shippuden. It becomes about who can throw the biggest energy blast. All technique and thought are thrown out the window.
Bleach may be the biggest offender of the power creep phenomenon. Ichigo begins as the substitute Shinigami and the structure follows a more monster of the week formula. Next is a rescue arc. The Soul Society arc is one my favorite parts in any shounen series to date. How does Tite Kubo follow it up? By doing yet another rescue arc. This time against the uber powerful Arrancars. As Bleach continues on, it is clear that Tite Kubo did not intend for Bleach to last as long as it did. He continuously pulls new powers for Ichigo out of his ass. By the end of the manga, he’s a fusion of Shinigami, Hollow, and Quincy. He’s a Frankenstein’s monster of Deus Ex Machinas Ichigo is given new abilities that he’s always apparently had out of plot convenience. Bleach died a slow, painful death. As someone who once was huge Bleach fan, it was sad to watch what became of it.
While most shounen series suffer from the escalation problems, there are a few notable titles that subvert this trope. Jo Jo’s Bizarre Adventure manages to avoid this by introducing new characters with each part. Every new part follows a new Jo Jo. This keeps the series from getting stale. Something new is always waiting around the corner. Part 1 is gothic horror meets Fist of the North Star. Part 2 introduces Joseph Joestar who relies on his wit to get through battles rather than brute force. Part 3 is like shounen anime’s take on Around the World in 80 Days. Part 4 is a murder mystery taking place in a small Japanese town. As you can see, the stakes and scale are constantly changing. Jo Jo’s manages to constantly surprise the viewer. The shakeups keep it fresh and engaging.
My Hero Academia also subverts the escalation trope. The characters do not learn new techniques or increase their power levels, but rather learn new way to use their existing power. For example, Deku struggles to control One For All at the beginning and ravages his body after using it. Destroying his body by using his power is obviously a fatal flaw. Now Deku needs to learn how to keep One For All from breaking his arms and legs. He finally succeeds and can use One For All whenever he wants. Deku didn’t become more powerful, he just figured out a more efficient way to use his power. The same sort of thing can be said for the other characters. The focus on finding new ways to use the same ability prevents the power creep from happening all while keeping the battles fresh.
I may love the shounen genre, but it has several tropes that can become annoying. The need to constantly increase the stakes and power levels is shounen’s fatal flaw. Manga authors seem to think escalating everything will make their series more entertaining. Jo Jo’s Bizarre Adventure and My Hero Academia would love to disagree with this notion. Not everything needs to be about saving the world or the universe as we now it. A scale of that level is far too abstract to comprehend what’s at stake. Battles don’t need to be giant spectacles of flashing lights and explosions. Well thought out battles are more entertaining than two characters spamming energy blasts at each other. When it comes to battles, it is more important for the audience to care about the combatants than the actual battle itself. Sure, a well-choregraphed battle is entertaining, but we need to care about who is fighting and what they are fighting for. If the battle means the world to the characters involved, then that’s all the stakes needed to get the audience’s full attention. We need more series that remember this key factor.