Remember that episode of Gintama (銀魂), which advises every mangaka to make characters that can be instantly recognized by their silhouettes? If an obvious silhouette is what it takes to make a successful protagonist, is there a rigid formula to make a successful shonen manga hero?
As a die-hard fan of Weekly Shōnen Jump for over 20 years, I practically have read every shonen action manga and watched its animation. However, it was not until recently when I started to watch the TV anime of Black Clover (ブラッククローバー), that really made me ponder over the question above. Black Clover is set in a world where every person is born with magic powers, everyone but the protagonist Asta (アスタ), who is seemingly born without any magic powers, but has the dream of becoming the next Wizard King.
The character setting reminds me of Izuku Midoriya (緑谷出久), who is the protagonist of superhero manga series My Hero Academia (僕のヒーローアカデミア), a lot. Midoriya too is born without a Quirk (superpowers) in a world where people with a quirk is the norm. He also has dreams of becoming a hero himself.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy both of the manga very much and is captured by their fun adventure story. I strongly agree that every shonen manga is distinctive on its own and this article is not trying to compare who is better or not. My point is, not just Asta and Izuku, there are usually some common features shared by these Jump heroes and it would be interesting to raise a discussion. And of course, there are exceptions and the following examples do not represent all shonen manga.
▍Determination and Perseverance Beats Talent
Without question, positive personalities are of utmost importance to make a successful shonen manga protagonist. Most of the Jump protagonists are no genus, but they showcase determination and perseverance that lead them to the road of success. They never give up, even in a situation when it is better for them to retreat, they persevere and try again and again with different methods until they succeed. They believe in themselves and do lots of training in order to achieve their dreams. This sheer commitment and determination to keep-going-no-matter-what allow them to beat the opponents who are stronger than them. It also demonstrates that there is no luck to be a hero, you need hard work to become one.
Naruto Uzumaki (うずまきナルト), who is the protagonist of Naruto (ナルト), is the perfect example. Growing up as an orphan, Naruto is always treated as a pariah by the villagers due to his special position of having a tailed beast sealed within his body. He was not particularly talented and always came last in the class of the Ninja Academy. However, he never gave up his dream of becoming the Hokage of the village even though he was teased by his peers.
Adversity seems to make Naruto stronger. I still recall the scene of the Chūnin Exams when he shows a disadvantage during the battle against Neji Hyuga (日向ネジ), a well-received genius in the class. Naruto eventually won the battle through a combination of the demon fox’s power sealed within him and sheer belief in victory. His saying “Somebody told me I’m a failure, I’ll prove them wrong,” really defines the core of this character and demonstrates the importance of believing in yourself even though the world doesn’t.
Naruto’s perseverance can also be shown by his determination of bringing back his rival/ friend Sasuke Uchiha (うちは サスケ), even though it is Sasuke’s decision to leave the village to get revenge on the one who killed his family. Later when Sasuke becomes an international criminal, Naruto still refuses to give up on him. Even though things can’t really go back to normal, Naruto believes in the bonds they share and decides to save a best friend from dooming himself and ruining his life.
More example includes Izuku Midoriya from My Hero Academia and Asta from Black Clover mentioned above. They are born with a deficit with no superpowers/magic, but they change their fate and become heroes through hard work. They know that they are different from others and work extra hard to achieve their dreams.
Efforts appear to be more crucial than natural talents. It indeed sends a positive message as talent is an inborn quality and not everybody is born as a genius. But if you are hand-working enough, you can make the impossible possible. Anyone can have an idea, vision, or dream, but it takes that 99% working hard to make it closer to becoming a reality.
▍Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover
I also find that most of the shonen manga protagonists have a weak appearance and is usually looked down upon by his enemy/ rival. But the protagonist always finds a way to break their prejudice and defeat enemies that appear to be taller and stronger. It undoubtedly makes a dramatic effect in the manga and further leaves a great impression on the reader’s heart.
We have Tetsuya Kuroko (黒子テツヤ) from Kuroko no Basket (黒子のバスケ), who is apparently too small build for a basketball player. Indeed he is usually neglected by his opponent and none of them think that he has the ability to be useful on the court. But Kuroko makes use of his feature as unnoticeable and create his unique skill of ‘misdirection’, which allows him to diverts the opponents gaze and support his teammates to win the match. Even though he is not the player who actually shoot the ball and get the score, he well demonstrates the importance of a supporter in a basketball march. He knows that he has limited power and cannot compare with other players physically, but he still makes himself irreplaceable in the team.
Another protagonist not to be overlooked is Nagisa Shiota (潮田 渚) from Assassination Classroom (暗殺教室). Nagisa is seen as one of the weakest students in the class due to his small stature and mediocre physical abilities that are comparable to some of the girls in the class. However, he is actually the most talented to become an assassin out of all the students.
He is able to draw closer whilst hiding his existence to make a surprise attack and is able to make his opponents falter through his blood lust alone. Nagisa also makes meticulous and detailed plans before the assassination, which one time almost kill Koro-sensei, an alien-like creature which Nagisa’s class is asked to assassin, in one of the attempts.
Another example is Hinata Shoyo (日向翔陽) from Haikyu!! (ハイキュー!!), who is labelled as too short to play volleyball and Tsunayoshi Sawada (沢田綱吉) from Reborn! (家庭教師ヒットマンリボーン! ), who is known as “No Good Tsuna” (ダメツナ) for his poor grades, bad luck, and lack of athleticism.
I guess a strong look is not the criteria of a successful shonen manga hero after all. Most of them appear to be normal and rather plain-looking (just like you and me). But every time when a crisis comes, they can be the man who works miracles and turn the table at the very last moment. It is indeed essential to take the best of your personality and turn your biggest disadvantages to your biggest strength.
▍Be Unpredictable in the Fights of Overpowering Enemies
It is almost a déjà vu for a Shonen Manga protagonist to face an overwhelmingly strong enemy, but it always makes an impressive scene when he finally wins the impossible fight. No matter how strong the enemies are, they always have a weakness. And a Jump Hero’s creative action will finally save the day. It also takes a lot of guts to stand in front of an enemy who is apparently more well-trained. Having a strong heart is indeed another quality that makes a good Jump hero.
Speaking of an epic fighting scene, you can not miss the battle in Dragon Ball (ドラゴンボール). There are so many examples showcasing Son Goku’s (孫悟空) unexpected action to beat a powerful enemy. A more classic scene includes Goku’s fight against King Piccolo (ピッコロ大魔王). This epic fight ended with Goku doing what he does best, being creative in a fight. By using a Kamehameha as propulsion, Goku was able to shoot himself through King Piccolo, head-butting a hole in the villain’s abdomen.
One interesting fact in Dragon Ball is that , the characters always become stronger and stronger every time they fight an enemy. The fight between Goku and Beerus in Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods (ドラゴンボールZ 神と神) is a good example. The fight is especially memorable for showcasing the new God Form that Goku was able to achieve with the help of the other Saiyans. Although the fight is ultimately stopped, we get to see Goku back in action and with new powers at his fingertips. It also showcases that when the heroes face a new challenge that is so intense, they have no choice but to become stronger than ever before.
▍A Hero is Never Alone
A Shonen Manga Hero takes pride in his strength, but his true power comes from his friends. He is not necessarily a natural leader, but he has certain charisma to gather a group of good companions. It is based on a simple reason that no one is perfect and unity is the strength. More importantly, the companions help the hero view life from a different perspective and complement the hero’s flaws with their strengths.
The companions could be a rival, a romantic interest, a teacher or parental figure, or a best friend/sibling figure. The shounen hero is often surrounded by a party or support group to symbolize the benefits of friendship. The companions aren’t always “secondary” characters, but their primary purpose is to enhance the growth of the hero.
The importance of good companion is particularly obvious in One Piece (ワンピース). The protagonist Monkey D. Luffy (モンキー・D・ルフィ) has a somewhat inexplicable charisma to him. From the very beginning of the manga, he is shown to have good judgment regarding others, only choosing crewmates who he considers to be “good.”
Luffy never doubts himself, automatically assuming that the people he has named as friends have his best interests in mind, and pursues them stubbornly. This reckless self-assurance draws people to him, and they begin to place faith in him as well.
Gradually, the tight bond Luffy forges with his crew pushes them to become better versions of themselves. The confidence he holds in his friends make them want to impress him and help one another. The care he provides them with fosters a positive environment that they will all fight to defend. Merely by being himself, Luffy can help others strive for self-improvement.
An obvious example can be found between Luffy and Roronoa Zoro (ロロノア・ゾロ), who is the swordsmen of the Straw Hat Pirates. From the very beginning, Luffy demonstrates that he not only supports Zoro’s dream of becoming the world’s best swordsman but also expects he will achieve it. After Zoro’s loss in a battle, he makes a vow to Luffy that he will never loss again. From that point on, Zoro tries to be stronger for both himself and to reflect well on Luffy.
It is true to say that Luffy never defeats an enemy entirely by his own, but he definitely is the reasons for making such a supportive and trust-worthy crew. Having won their loyalty, he is able to pull off one reckless scheme after another. As Luffy acknowledges himself, true strength derives from those who are willing to support you.
▍Uniqueness Always Impresses
The characters creation undoubtedly follows the Shonen Jump motto ‘Friendship, Effort, Victory’, which practically serves as the golden rules for every shonen manga. But as a fan of the magazine for so many years, I wish there are more variety in this hero-making formula and I hope there is a shonen manga protagonist that I have never seen before.
I still recall the thrills that I have when I first read Death Note (デスノート). It is just so different from any manga that I have read before and the protagonist Light Yagami (夜神 月) probably does not fit any features mentioned above. I guess he is the only protagonist in Shōnen Jump that develops a cold and ruthless nature as the story progresses.
At first, Light still has a strong sense of justice and would like to kill all the bad people in the world with the power of Death Note. But this quickly becomes warped as he starts to kill innocent people in order to achieve his goals. Many people even consider him as a villain, which is an extremely rare type of protagonist.
I am not suggesting that every protagonist should be a villain, but I wish there are more distinctive features for a shōnen manga protagonist. Or maybe it is time for a female protagonist to shine, just like Jolyne Cujoh (空条徐倫), who is the only female protagonist in the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure series (ジョジョの奇妙な冒険).
The Shōnen Jump manga magazine has published for over 50 years and it is really difficult to include all the Jump heroes in this article. There are many unique shonen manga protagonists that are not mentioned in the article, but they too, to a certain extent, share the features of above. You are welcomed to extend the list and share your opinions on this rigid formula of making a shonen manga hero.