Avoiding the Shounen Power Creep

Shounen fighting is quite possibly the world’s most popular anime and manga sub-genre. Whether it’s Saint Seiya in South America, Naruto in the US, One Piece in Japan, or Dragon Ball around the world, the idea of heroes fighting villains and getting stronger along the way is an idea just about any boy in any country can understand and get behind. But one of the common problems with shounen is the idea of the “power creep,” where newer and more powerful villains keep appearing to challenge the hero to the point that the earlier villains who once appeared legitimately threatening begin to look pathetic by comparison. Tao Pai Pai in Dragon Ball may have been one of the few capable of defeating Goku early on, but by the time Goku turns Super Saiyan 3 the assassin is little more than a distant memory.

I think all shounen fighting series creators are well aware of this danger, but only some try to circumvent it, at least temporarily. As such I’ve included a few examples of attempts to quell the Power Level beast.

The first two series of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure had some degree of power creep, but starting with the third and most popular series starring Kujou Joutarou the series became about outwitting the opponent instead of outpowering them. Here, characters were given their own power sets which changed little to none over the course of the entire series, and all advancements came from figuring out new ways to use abilities already known to the readers, instead of acquiring entirely new powers.

Hokuto no Ken saw fit to make its main hero Kenshiro already absurdly powerful. Kenshiro is not a youth who needs to learn the ways of fighting and to live up to his potential, but a man who already has received the title of master of the world’s deadliest martial art. As such, Kenshiro’s victories are generally won through willpower and using the right moves in his encyclopedic collection of head-exploding strikes. The other move Hokuto no Ken makes is to establish its main villain Raoh relatively early and make him a proper end boss, and also establishing the fact that as far as fighting ability goes, both Kenshiro and Raoh are at similar levels. Even when the series goes crazy with Kaioh and such, this is never quite a problem.

Digimon Adventure 02 saw a problem when it realized that, if left the way things were, the already powerful Angemon could just go Ultimate and leave an unfortunate stain where the evil Digimon Kaiser (Digimon Emperor in the English dub) was once standing. To get around having to make the villain more absurdly powerful than the final opponents in the first series, the concept of the “black rings,” devices which prevent digital monsters from evolving, was created. The solution was that the heroes had to find an alternate means to “power up” which, while incapable of reaching their old heights, gave them a fighting chance. Eventually they overcame the Digimon Kaiser and new villains appeared, but at least for a time the shounen power creep was stayed.

Those are three examples. Can you think of any others?

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11 thoughts on “Avoiding the Shounen Power Creep

  1. It’s interesting you bring it up.. I always think about how this is one of the hardest things to swallow about some stories.

    Questions like this make the world just a little bit less believable.

    Like Naruto: if anybody from the later episodes appeared “3 yrs ago”, they could enslave every country out there.

    Rurouni Kenshin was interesting: the main character is absurdly strong, but the later episodes add “challenge” by exhausting the main character, not by coming up with guys that are stronger like they came from another dimension.

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  2. I would recommend Ruroni Kenshin as well. Even there the main characters learn some new techniques it only happens once for a character and is accompanied by character development.

    I found Hunter x Hunter to be good in this department as well not because their isn’t power growth, it’s that it’s kept under control noting that Gon and friends aren’t the most powerful people in the world and have to think their way out of problems even if they like to train. In other words new abilities are treated like useful tools that might allow you to succeed, not “I win” buttons that must be upgraded with even more trainings in the next arc.

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  3. Well, in some shows (such as the recent Pandora Hearts) the protagonist already has huge powers, but for some reason he has to hold back and keep his badass moves as a last resource, so that there’s a battle but the mangaka can still finish them easily. Trigun is also pretty much the same thing, the protagonist is very powerful but since he doesn’t kills he has a huge handicap. Also, on To Aru Majutsu no Index/To Aru Kagaku no Railgun, the protagonists power is to negate the other’s power using his right hand, so that he only needs to find creative ways to use that.

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  4. While watching Kenshin for the first time, a light totally went off in my head when Kenshin was fighting the various guys before getting to Shishio when I realized “Hey, this is totally a clever way to wear him down so we don’t need absurdly power enemies!”

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  5. Alucard from Hellsing is another example of a show with a protagonist that’s powerful but doesn’t use the full extent of his power for the weaker opponents. As far as I’m aware the reason for this isn’t explicity stated but in at least some cases he just likes to toy with opponents. An attitude which I found somewhat refreshing in a sense.

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  6. I remember in Yu Yu Hakusho, after the Dark Tournament arc that was all about power creep, the next arc, the Chapter Black Saga, features an end boss that’s self-admittedly weaker than Yusuke himself. The enemies instead have tricky powers that limit the heroes’ strengths and set up game-like challenges that test intellect and strategy.

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  7. Negima has had the power creep, but has done it without making one of the initial villans seem week. Eva, despite being the first proper enemy of the series, is still considered one of the most powerful that little Negi has faced, subsequent volumes making to clear that Negi fought Eva when she was in a weakened state and only won the battle through good luck.

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