Shounen, particularly Shounen battle manga, is probably the most well-known type of manga today. In it you have your Dragon Ball‘s, your Naruto‘s, your Kenichi‘s. You have good shounen fighting series, you have bad or mediocre shounen fighting series, and you have ones that start off as one but gradually turn into the other. I won’t say which is which, and the above titles are not respective examples of each category.
The odd thing about the descent in quality in a lot of shounen series (or even titles which are already poor from the start) is that the same mistakes seem to happen over and over again. The most prominent mistake is that long stretch where the series just drags on and the series appears to have lost all direction. Why does this happen? That’s the thought I want to get at today.
There are certain essential characteristics for a modern shounen battle manga. You need a main character to whom the young boy readers can relate but whom they can also idolize. You need a rival or at least a series of antagonists to continually provide challenges to the hero and to act as measuring sticks for the hero’s progress. And of course you need fighting and lots of it, or at least the story’s concept of “fighting,” even if it’s throwing chickens off of rooftops to see which one flies the furthest. And then you need that extra X-factor, the thing which makes a series different (but not too different). With few exceptions, I think that shounen fighting series have to capture a feeling of action, excitement, and change, and it starts from essentials such as these.
However, I think these same ingredients for success are also what potentially drag titles down to the depths, acting as the hand which dipped Achilles into the River Styx, simultaneously giving a series its strengths but also establishing its weaknesses. As a series continues, it becomes more difficult to maintain those qualities in the right proportions and to also incorporate all of the elements which exist between those essentials. After a while, because the people behind these manga and anime are well aware that their readers look to them for certain specific things, the series start to run on auto-pilot, and that is where the seams start to really show.
For example, I think this is why the most painful filler tends to be the fight which lasts for seemingly an eternity. The manga’s staff know that they need a hefty amount of combat in their series, but they don’t quite have the vision at that point to guide the battles, to have them work towards a definite direction which inspires the readers. As a result, they stall. Battles which should have lasted two volumes last ten. Here, a quick breather chapter or two might solve the problem, but that small break might be unacceptable for a series which relies so much on continuous battles which mark the characters’ progress.
You sometimes get people who criticize shounen fighting manga for being shounen fighting manga, hating these series for the very same reason people love them. But to some extent they have a very valid opinion, as even those things that the people who follow shounen series list as positives can eventually lead to the negatives.