Shonen Anime and the Myth of Meritocracy

During the pandemic, I found comfort in marathoning shonen anime. Hunter x Hunter, a series I started in my teenage years but never finished, was the one to start it all. Hunter follows 11-year-old Gon’s journey on becoming an elite Hunter to find his long-lost dad, as he befriends other Hunters, forms rivalries and allyship, and endures grueling training to overcome the increasingly more challenging obstacles in his way. I watched all 148 episodes back-to-back, cheering this boy’s journey on growing stronger and more confident. Each life-or-death fight and exaggerated decapitations felt soothing and familiar—not what I’d expected I’d be feeling watching these scenes.

Perhaps what I was responding to was nostalgia. Psychologists already noted why people have been marathoning on old TV shows during the pandemic. Though anime, manga, and the Korean counterpart, manhwa, were a regular part of my childhood in Korea, I’d thought it was something I’d grown out of as an adult. While watching anime, however, I recalled that feeling of rushing to the TV to watch anime after school, reading through stacks of rented manga with friends, my brother—sometimes even my mom would join in—perhaps they reminded me of simpler times with a lot of room for hope. Perhaps I was responding to the close friendships Gon develops in this story, friends who risk their lives for one another and never seem to grow apart no matter how much they disagree with one another. During a time of isolation, I could understand why I’d be drawn to stories that feature groups of friends traveling around the world together, fighting together, eating together.

Once I finished Hunter, I started watching the original Sailor Moon, wishing to fill the void in my heart with more episodes of close friends fighting monsters together. Arguably, this was the series of my childhood, what all the girls in my class were obsessed about before we obsessed over boy bands. I could still recall some of the episodes frame-by-frame from when I first watched it in the 90s. I realized, however, I wasn’t feeling the warm comfort I was feeling while watching Hunter. The close friendships were there. The nostalgia was most definitely there. Something was missing in this quintessential shojo anime that was very forward in shonen—the idea that the world is a meritocracy.

Shonen anime, such as Hunter x Hunter, Naruto, and One Piece, is primarily a genre targeted towards boys. To broadly generalize, this genre’s story arc tends to be this: A boy that is special but also an outcast sets out on an adventure; He meets a group of friends; He and his friends fights enemies along the way in order to meet their goal; The enemies get stronger as they get closer to their goal, and the boy and his friends train harder in order to beat these enemies, sometimes with the help of a mentor or a special item that boosts their skills; The boy gets his goal. Hunter most definitely follows this arc. Gon is rewarded for his hard training. When Gon loses a fight to a strong enemy, he blames himself for being weak and determines to train harder to become stronger. After training, Gon fights the strong enemy again and wins.

The theme of training hard to reach one’s goals are repeated in Naruto, who goes through grueling training to get closer to his dreams of becoming Hokage, the strongest ninja of the village. In One Piece, the protagonist Luffy trains hard to become stronger in order to reach his goal of Pirate King. (This trend seems to be noted by other people as well, as such as this personal trainer who created a series of fitness plans based on anime characters.)

Sailor Moon, a shojo anime targeted towards girls, shares some similarities with Hunter, at least on the surface. Usagi, the protagonist of the series, is a regular middle school girl though also secretly special. She finds a group of friends who become the Sailor Soldiers who have to fight monsters from space from sucking energy from humans on Earth. Noticeably, however, Usagi is never shown training to improve her skills, nor does she seem to have much desire to do so in her day-to-day life. Her skills are updated through magical accessories that are gifted to her by her cat and mentor Luna. Though Usagi does go through internal transformation in this process—from a klutzy, scared girl to a determined fighter who understands the importance of her role—it is through the repeated experience of fighting monsters that appear in front of her rather than through active training and determination.

I was struck by the subtle differences in messaging between the two series (not just because the creators of the two are married in real life), and to some degree, the two genres in general. Unlike shonen anime that focuses on hard work and training, shojo anime focuses on internal transformation but very little training involved. Much of shojo isn’t about fighting enemies with magic or strength at all, but rather around romance, love triangles, and friendship. Even in the Magical Girl subgenre of shojo anime, such as Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, or Wedding Peach, where young girls are tasked to fight powerful, supernatural beings, we never see the protagonists of the story training to get stronger. Instead, the girls are given more accessories that help them power up, prettier outfits, and stronger willpower to fight evil.

Obviously, just because a genre is targeted towards a gender doesn’t necessitate that only children of the targeted gender would watch the series. I consumed both shonen and shojo growing up, along with my brother. However, the messages we subconsciously chose to instill on our girls versus our boys do seem different. For girls, we teach them to grow emotional resilience, that buying pretty accessories makes them powerful. For boys, we teach them to work hard and they will be able to overcome their obstacles. In a way, we are preparing our girls to build the internal strength to take on the punches of the world that would perhaps treat us unfairly. We’re preparing our boys for a future where their hard work would be recognized, so make sure to put in those hours.

But even for boys, even for those born with silver spoons, the world is not a strict meritocracy. It was never a meritocracy, and the pandemic showed this to us even more clearly. Even the most diligent planners couldn’t have forecast a deadly pandemic where most of us would be sheltering-in-place for almost a year, longer than the conventional “good financial advice” given to save up six months living expenses. The ten richest people in the world boosted their net worth by $400 billion during this time while almost a million Americans are unemployed. People working full time jobs are still homeless; 13 million Americans work more than two jobs. Nothing in the world seems to make sense. The rules don’t seem to apply. We are working harder than ever but we don’t seem to be able to “slay our enemies.” The plans we had for the year were put on hold because of a virus that we cannot control or forecast. The virus doesn’t even have any ill-will towards us humans.

This was the crux of why Hunter x Hunter was so comforting, and why I refused to leave this world to face my reality. The world Gon and his friends lived in was one of strict meritocracy, where your hard work guaranteed a great outcome, and your life would be nothing but an upward trajectory. This was why I couldn’t fall into Sailor Moon as much, because I was tired of building emotional resilience, of accepting my fate. For 20 minutes at a time, I could escape in this fantasy of constantly improving skills that consistently resulted in ever improving outcomes. And in the end, I realized there is nothing wrong with escape for short periods of time, especially in this chaotic, unpredictable, decidedly unmeritocratic world.

So I paused my rewatch of Sailor Moon and continued my shonen marathon of Naruto. I watch Naruto grow stronger through his grueling training, surpassing the rising stars and born-geniuses from powerful families. It’s ridiculous, but also comforting. While I do recall Sailor Moon getting better towards the later episodes, and I’d never argue that the series is a classic, I only have limited time and energy I have for frivolous, non-survival related activities. I chose to dive head-deep in comfort that the meritocracy myth can bring me. Because this is one thing I can control during this time.

Minyoung Lee writes fiction and essays in Oakland, CA. Her work appears or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, Electric Literature, The Bold Italic, among others, and has been anthologized in Best Microfiction 2021. Her prose chapbook Claim Your Space was published by Fear No Lit as part of the Submerging Writer Fellowship, which she won in 2019. She is writing a novel based on her experience working on an offshore oil platform off the Louisiana coast.

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