Shounen anime is not a genre but rather a label for an anime’s intended audience. If you are a long-time anime fan, you probably know that such Japanese words describing an anime usually refer to the show’s target demographic. On that note, “shounen” literally means “boy” and typically refers to young boys below fifteen. Thus, shounen is anime aimed at an audience consisting mainly of young boys.
Although these shows usually focus on action and adventures involving young male protagonists, it’s not uncommon to find Shounen comedies and series with female heroes.
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History of Shounen Anime
Most anime/manga historians agree that manga has been in existence since the 18th century, but demographic-focused ones started rolling out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And while Shounen manga has been around since then, the Shounen anime series came about much later. The first Shounen anime to be broadcasted was Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy). It was aired in 1963 and was an adaptation of the 1952 manga series; Tetsuwan Atom.
From then on, popular Shounen manga titles started getting successful anime adaptations. In the late 60s, young anime fans got adaptations of Speed Racer and Star of the Giants, and in the 70s came Devilman and Shameless School, among others. At this time, most Shounen stories were centered around sports and competitiveness.
In its early days, women in Shonen anime didn’t serve any purpose other than looking pretty or just being a love interest. In the 80s, battle Shounen was on the rise, and most boys were just interested in the testosterone-fueled fights and acts of swift justice that heroes like Kenshiro provided. Heroes of this age were genuinely overpowered muscular male characters.
The manga series Dragon Ball, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Slam Dunk were the hits of the 90s, and this received highly successful anime adaptations that carried on to the 2000s. This time also saw the introduction of underdog young protagonists, like Deku from “My Hero Academia,” who cries a lot. Such heroes were probably developed to appeal to meek anime fans who lacked a muscular build or had poor social skills.
From then on, Shounen’s protagonists have been a mix of powerful unbeatable characters and underpowered heroes who undergo hardships to achieve their superior strength. Today’s plots are also more diverse and usually feature sports, robots, martial arts, horror, science fiction, or mythological creatures.
Most Popular Shounen Anime
1. Death Note
Light Yagami, a bored high school prodigy, stumbles upon the Death Note- a book that kills anyone whose name is written on it. Realizing the divine power at hand, he decides to use it to rid the world of all criminals, leaving a pile of dead criminals in his wake. The police quickly realize that they are dealing with a serial killer targeting criminals and seek the assistance of the world’s best detective to stop him.
2. Attack on Titan
Humans are on the brink of extinction, and after a hundred years of peace, the monstrous Titans suddenly reappear and descend on the surviving human population. During this attack, Eren Yeager witnesses a horrific personal loss and, as a result, dedicates his life to destroying the Titans by joining the Survey Corps.
3. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
During a failed human transmutation attempt, Edward Elric loses an arm and a leg while Alphonse, his brother, has his soul trapped in a suit of armor. A few years later, the brothers and their allies are on a mission to find the Philosopher’s Stone, believed to have the power to give them back what they have lost.
4. My Hero Academia
While 80% of humanity is reveling in their newly discovered superpowers, Izuku Midoriya is amongst the unlucky few to remain ordinary. Determined to become a hero, Izuku meets his idol and number one hero, All Might. This encounter leads him to enroll in a prestigious high school for heroes despite not having any powers.
During Naruto’s birth, the destructive demon Kyuubi wreaked havoc on the village of Konohagakure. To save his town, the Hokage sacrificed his life to seal the beast inside the newborn Naruto. A growing Naruto struggles to find his place in the village as he is shunned due to the Kyuubi inside him. Fueled by the desire to become the Hokage, the young ninja encounters new friends and deadly foes.
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6. Hunter x Hunter
Twelve-year-old Gon Freecss dreams of becoming the best Hunter and find his father, who was also a Hunter. As he chases his dream, he befriends Leorio, Kurapika, and Killua, and the four friends embark on an adventure where they meet and battle with lots of monsters, weird creatures, and other characters.
7. Dragon Ball Z
Though Dragon Ball Z isn’t the first shonen anime ever, it’s definitely the most influential. In one way or another, almost every other series on this list has taken inspiration from Dragon Ball Z. After all, what’s a shonen series without a transformation? A training sequence? Even time skips were popularized with this series.
It’s true, Dragon Ball Z’s lack of character development and generally simplistic plots can leave something to be desired even amongst shonen series, but we still have to pay homage to the genre’s origins and acknowledge it’s one of the most popular series of all time.
8. One Piece
Gol D. Roger was the “Pirate King,” but his capture and execution by the World Government completely changed the world. His last world revealed the existence of One Piece, the greatest treasure in the world, ushering in the Grand Age of the pirates – men who dream of finding One Piece and claiming the unlimited riches and fame that come with the title of Pirate King. The story follows 17-year-old Luffy and his crew on a quest to find One Piece and ultimately become the Pirate King.
This unconventional anime has a promising plot with an engaging cast and lots of fantasy elements that have made it popular over its 1000+ episode length.
9. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba
After sheltering a strange man’s house, Tanjirou Kamado returns home to find demons have slaughtered his family, and his sister turned into a bloodthirsty demon. Shattered and angry, he vows to avenge his family and teams up with the Demon Slayer Corps to slay the responsible demons while protecting whatever little humanity remains in his beloved sister.
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Ichigo Kurosaki is a 15-year-old-boy who has an ability to see ghosts/spirits. Because of his ability, he is able to meet a female death god (AKA Shinigami) named Rukia Kuchiki. To save his family and friends from unwanted soul-eating spirits (Hollows), Rukia transfers her Shinigami powers to Ichigo.
As Rukia takes on a human shell, together they solve mysteries involving spirits and Hollows until from the spirit world come two other Shinigami, who explain that it is illegal to transfer Shinigami powers to humans and that Rukia exceeded the time limit to stay in the human world. After they sentence her death for breaking the law, Ichigo snaps and swears to everyone he will retrieve Rukia by breaking into the spirit world.