When the Soul Eater manga came to an end in 2013, it took a bold stance and chose to have a win for peace, with no fists or weapons pointed at the enemy. Instead, weapon Meister Maka, the transforming human-scythe Soul and friends lay down arms to impede an unceasing wave of madness in their world, which threatens to corrupt their fellow students at the Death Weapon Meister Academy. Fans of the manga and the anime, which had ended some four years before, were disappointed in the loose ends left by author Atsushi Okubo. Certain plot threads were dropped to bring the story to a close, and rather than being defeated, the evil of the Kishin was recaptured and guarded in the blood cocoon it first escaped. The lack of a decisive battle and defeat might also have been at fault for the manga feeling unfinished for some. Nonetheless, the final choice it made for perseverance over violence is part of what set this particular manga apart from the general shonen framework.
By comparison, in the final episode of the Soul Eater anime, Maka reaches new depths of her connection with Soul to become part-weapon herself, then performs a disabling punch to the Kishin’s grinning face. It appears that many viewers of shonen both expect and want this destructive outcome, as it gives a definitive ending to a story they have devoted themselves to for months or years on end. This response might also be attributed to the wants and needs of shonen manga’s main audience—namely young boys
Shonen works through the power fantasies and frustrations of boys, soothing and empowering in equal turns through victories for the good guys and the moral of killing with kindness. This psychological factor has been internalised and churned out in endless variations of the basic hero’s journey, fighting the bad guy to claim the treasure. But certain characters in the shonen and seinen marketplaces still make attempts to fight off this notion through pacifist characters.
Take Trigun for example, and protagonist Vash the Stampede, whose catchphrase is “love and peace”. In a welcoming turn against the merch-making emptiness of many a slogan, here Vash’s words are simple, universal and honest. Much of the humour of his story is based around him trying to sneak out of violent situations without bloodshed. His ability to do this is such that his reputation precedes him, and so his bounty snowballs and yet more seek his sixty billion double dollar bounty. But at heart he is a pacifist. The only reason he leaves behind such a long paper trail is that he has an innocent gift for wriggling out of trouble by the most destructive means possible. By enemies and strangers he has been nicknamed ‘The Humanoid Typhoon’, and his bounty is cancelled out when insurance workers Meryl Stryfe and Milly Thompson class him as a natural disaster.
Violence for profit, its being 2D aside, is the name of the game in the shonen manga market. Trigun wrings it for all its worth with most of the violent antics being on the part of the greedy and incompetent antagonists. Sharing Trigun’s theme of placing humanity above personal glory, One Punch Man’s Saitama won a devoted viewership with his character’s satire of violence for the sake of violence in media. Professing himself a “hero for fun”, he only became a hobbyist justice warrior because it appeared the only viable route for making a positive difference in a world that venerates the loudest voices (if not the loudest costumes). It is made plain within the first episode that Saitama’s main reason for his voluntary occupation is his own sense of spiritual and physical wellbeing. Yet by the end of the first season, the show descends into the repetitive weekly villain-punching structure of those series it made fun of in the first place.
When it comes to being anti-conflict, for a break from frenetic destruction, an otaku tends to draw away from the action serial slog and either turn to slice of life, shojo, or to anime film. Hayao Miyazaki is famously pacifist in his politics, and as one of his heroes most in tune with the masculine youth, Princess Mononoke’s Ashitaka is in constant battle with his frustrations and hatred of violence, embodied by a curse which spreads from his right arm. Ashitaka fights for peace wherever he travels, and eventually heals his curse by virtue of becoming attuned to nature’s cry for non-violence from humans. But the long string of anti-war anime movies from Ghibli and beyond suggests that a message of peace can only be fleeting.
Time and again, characters from otherwise pacifist anime series fall into committing violence for the greater good of humanity. Or, in the case of Vash, they are revealed to be beyond the ire of humanity by genetics. Even shows which claim to be more adult in theme, such as From the New World and Maria the Virgin Witch, punish its main characters for having visions of a peaceful world. When the latter’s titular witch is caught using her magic to break up battles, angels intervene and ensure that the moment she loses her virginity, she will forfeit her gift for magic.
Perhaps the only shonen flagship which can be crowned in any way pacifist is Naruto. The episodes-spanning battles are all in place, but Naruto Uzumaki repeatedly talks his opponents down from their rage and let them glimpse their inner light. He works to defeat their shadow selves with the charisma and compassion he is beloved for, eventually doing the same for himself in what is his greatest achievement. Confronting one’s own demons, as we know, is far more difficult than helping others face theirs. Instead of declaring battle with the leader of his foes, the Akatsuki, he remains true to his path up until that point and talks with him. When the ego would yearn to be freed and lesser heroes would unleash their hidden wrath, Naruto chooses kindness.
The peaceful conclusion of the Naruto manga and anime go to show that there is hope for adventurous shonen stories, without the careless violence. Trigun mangaka Yasuhiro Nightow has explained in interviews how conflicted he felt about people always dying in action movies. He created Vash as an embodiment of his wish for a hero who could put down his gun and say, “Hey, sorry. Love and peace?”. The enduring popularity of his character proves the worth in the shonen fandom seeing his like again.