Depending on who you ask, anime in 2019 can be largely summarized in one word:
Whether you loved or hated the genre, the trapped in another world trope stuck around for a good portion of the year with no signs of slowing down. 2019 will be known for a lot of things: the year that the streaming wars intensified with more exclusives being held behind their respective services. The year that brought us several new beloved shows and some thrilling conclusions/reveals for old favorites. And yes, the year of isekai. It was also the year that marked a transitional shift to one of my favorite genres: shonen.
Looking back at the last decade, it’s hard for me to pick a definitive year that truly defined shonen as a whole and the direction it is headed now, though the case could be made it started with 2013’s Attack on Titan or the 2015 – 2016 period that brought us beloved titles such as One Punch Man, My Hero Academia, and Mob Psycho 100, to name a few. That said, it’s tough to argue that 2019 was not a reflection of the current state of shonen with older titles handing the reigns over to a new generation, long standing series reaching new milestones, and plenty of new titles with their own spin on the genre. For this final Decade In Review piece, I look back at some of my favorite shonen titles from the past year and pick out some of the best moments of each as I reflect on my first year at AniTAY and how far the genre has evolved.
As an Editor’s note, I’ve divided these into sub categories based on a common characteristic (two shows per section), noting any trends or significant milestones. This will not be a comprehensive list of every shonen from last year due to time restraints (and I haven’t watched all of them), but hopefully you enjoy this abbreviated take on 2019. ***Naturally, these will contain brief spoilers, so proceed with caution.***
I should also note that this will have some notable exclusions as I wanted to focus on relatively new shows (1 – 2 seasons), excluding the first two entries. The idea behind this being if you’re watching season 3 – 5 of something, you’re probably heavily invested in it already. I had to cut this short as the original list had about 12 - 15 different shows and it became difficult to manage and organize it in a logical order. If I exclude your favorite, I encourage you to post it in the comments as there were quite a few I didn’t get around to or simply didn’t feel confident in my ability to articulate it.
Before the start of the decade, long running shonen were a common staple in Anime with series like Dragon Ball and One Piece popularizing the trade. With popular titles like Naruto and Bleach ending their runs earlier this decade and Fairy Tail and Hunter x Hunter (for those watching on Toonami) coming to a close last year, 2019 was a strong reminder of the shift towards seasonal schedules and that it is possible to succeed and maintain interest even without a full time animated presence. The next decade will likely see even less continuous shonen anime once the last remaining few end their runs, though when that may happen is debatable.
One of the newer entries, 2017’s Black Clover has had an interesting run since its debut. I remember at an anime convention the following year when the series was still in its first season recalling a conversation between convention attendees at the time noting a lack of a physical presence with the only notable merch being a T-shirt at the time. Sometime after the fact, it’s weird for me to see how quickly the series has grown in two years, quietly filling the void Naruto Shippuden left behind after it concluded. And while it may not have the name recognition or legacy that Boruto enjoys, 2019 was a pretty good year for Black Clover.
Reaching the 100 episode milestone is child’s play for many of the longest running series (if One Piece’s 900+ episodes is a measurement to go by), but Studio Pierrot clearly had something special in mind to mark the occasion. And while most of its run hasn’t strayed too far off the beaten path, episode 100 managed to exceed expectations with one of the most memorable fights of the series. Taking on the newly revived Licht, Black Clover delivers with one of the series finest battles, making a notable impression with fans and even non-fans alike.
The last remaining hold out of the Shonen Jump “Big 3,” 2019 was a big year for One Piece as it marked the 20th anniversary of the anime. This was also the year I finally decided to get caught up after pushing it aside for an extended period of time. Pacing issues aside, I can safely say the Whole Cake arc ended up being one of the stronger arcs in recent memory as author Eiichiro Oda displays no signs of slowing down even with the manga entering its final stages.
Though there was several notable moments this year for One Piece (the Katakuri fight and SNAKEMAN transformation, the start of the Wano arc and reunion of the Straw Hats, the Romance Dawn special), the most memorable events didn’t actually take place in the anime itself; for me at least. The first was the announcement that the English dub was returning. Regardless of your opinion on subs vs dubs, it’s hard to deny that many were eagerly anticipating this announcement given the anniversary milestone and Funimation was well aware of the growing demand after going on an extended break.
Coinciding with the previous announcement, the second was the theatrical release of One Piece: Stampede in both sub and dub format. While the movie itself won’t win any new fans and doesn’t quite reach the story highs of Promare or even Dragon Ball Super: Broly, it was a welcome return to the series that I think longtime fans or those who may have long since moved on from the franchise will appreciate.
I mentioned once before that 2019 was the year that rekindled my passion for shonen. Over the years, I’ve picked up many series, but surprisingly, I’ve never had a strong “favorite” anime (it’s usually dependent on my mood!). When I think shonen, the ones that come to mind are the ones that had the most influence on me, whether it was shaping my anime interests or the ones that resonated with me emotionally. To that end, I only have 5 from the last decade that come to mind whenever this comes up: Blue Exorcist (2011), One Punch Man (2015), My Hero Academia (2016, though 2017 was when it hit its stride), JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (2016 when Toonami picked it up and every season on), and Bungo Stray Dogs (2016, season 2 and this year’s 3rd season) which is technically a seinen but has a certain “shonenesque” quality to it.
This year, I added two new series to that list:
A series that no doubt found its way onto several Anime Of The Year Lists (including your humble author) Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba took the anime world by surprise with one particular episode going on to “break the Internet.” Though many have gone on to tout it as one of the best episodes of the year and even the pinnacle of shonen, I had a slightly different take on it.
My biggest takeaway from Demon Slayer actually came long before “Hinokami” went viral, starting with Tanjiro and noting how his character represents something of a shift in main character personalities and the move away from the standard “Stock Shonen Hero” into what some have nicknamed the “Good Boy” type. This isn’t the first series to do so (notably MHA’s Deku), but for the entirety of the first season, Tanjiro himself is the greatest deviation from the typical battle formula, highlighted by his kindness and gentle demeanor. Towards the end of almost every fight, he takes a moment to show mercy to the demons he faces and holds no real grudge or resentment. One of my favorite moments was the first fight during the Final Selection when he avenges his teacher’s previous students. But even as the demon fades away, Tanjiro holds its hand, crying as it feels the demon’s regrets when it was human.
The series that I’ve credited for breaking my shonen slump, it wouldn’t be a stretch at this point to say Radiant is my favorite series from last year, and that’s after any sentimental attachment I might have from being the first series I covered as an AniTAY author. Though it has fallen under the radar, Radiant’s first season came into its own in the second half at the beginning of the year with a powerful climax that to this day I still list under my personal “Best Episode of 2019” list. With a greater emphasis on characters and relationships, author Tony Valente distinguishes himself from the series that initially inspired him as Seth becomes aware that his actions and words carry consequences.
I’ve written enough about the series on this blog that it’s hard for me to pick one definitive moment that sums up my feelings on Radiant, so for this piece, I wanted to highlight a recent episode. “Now, Feel The World” marks the halfway point of the season and the transition from Seth’s training arc into the bigger plotline. When he makes his final attempt to tame the darkness taking over, a light breaks through. Seeing his mentor who guided him, his friends who believed in him, and a familiar face who opened his eyes to the world, he overcomes his curse; no longer alone or carrying the burden and guilt of becoming a monster. With the added goal of making a better world for Myr and Jill’s unborn children, he discovers his power can be used for more than destruction. When he awakens, a small tree sapling is standing beside him, symbolizing his growth and newfound resolve.
It’s not by any means the best of the series (“To Stop The Sound Of The Wind”) or even the best of the second season (“Seth in The Forest of Time;” pretty close though!), but it’s the one that I think best exemplifies what makes this series so special. Even as the definition of shonen expands beyond the typical genre conventions, it’s these familiar themes of friendship/family, love/empathy, and the power to change in Demon Slayer and Radiant that serve as a reminder of why the genre continues to endure.
Up until now, I’ve been mostly looking at battle shonen. If there was one recurring theme for anime in 2019 (aside from the rise of isekai), it’s the gradual diversification or broadening of shonen. In other words, what is a shonen today?
Often cited by many as the most indicative of the direction modern shonen is taking, The Promised Neverland surprised many last year with its increasingly dark tale in a seemingly bright and cheerful orphanage. AniTAY reviewed it at the end of Winter 2019 and I shared my thoughts back then (my first collab review!), so I’ll refer you to that if you want a detailed breakdown.
Neverland bucks many of the trends and tropes that have defined the genre, mixing thriller/horror elements in between more familiar shonenesque themes that I’ve highlighted before. It’s three main characters also remix and remake the typical “shonen trio” with Emma filling the main character role as the headstrong protagonist with a heart of gold and her two companions Norman and Ray operating as the brains and tactician, respectively. Over the course of the season, you begin to see different sides to them as they begin their escape plan from the orphanage when they learn the horrifying truth about their home.
As far as definitive moments, my first pick is the pilot which does a wonderful job setting the stage of what’s to come. If you haven’t watched it, I’ll skip the twist, but through the use of subtle hints and some deceit, Neverland carefully weaves uncertainty and subverts the audience’s expectations when they least expect it.
The sequel that had everyone talking, including here at AniTAY, Mob Psycho 100 II returned with even greater ESP hijinks and surprisingly down to earth content as the series explored Mob’s personal growth from introvert in season 1 to a more active participant in his personal orbit as he begins to open up to people and starts living on his own terms. In contrast to a lot of other series, Mob presents an unorthodox take on the shonen formula. Though Mob is almost never outmatched with his psychic ability, his true ability is to see through the invisible walls and facades of other people, bringing out the real “self” and seeing the hidden potential one possesses on their own.
I’ve written about my favorite episodes before (notably this two parter), but there was one other episode that I wanted to highlight here. Approaching the near season finale, “The Battle for Social Rehabilitation ~Friendship~” starts off with Mob confronting Katsuya Serizawa, a high ranking member of Claw. Over the course of the episode, Mob tries to break through to him after seeing how much the two were alike. A psychic with anxiety issues, Serizawa closed himself off from the world until Claw’s leader took him in, taking advantage of his insecurities. Much in the same way Reigen took in Mob, but taking the opposite route as him, Serizawa is confronted with reality that he was being played from the start. It’s Mob’s empathy and experiences that ultimately wins him over and start anew at the end of the season. Like Neverland, Mob II breaks uncommon ground in the genre while highlighting the need to form connections and touching upon universal themes and broader topics.
Continuing from the last section, 2019 saw a greater number of new shonen titles that redefined the traditional setup. While The Promised Neverland and Mob Psycho 100 II looked at family and social issues, these last two series looked to the stars for inspiration.
Another AniTAY favorite, Astra Lost in Space took a lot of people by surprise during the summer season. Going in with absolutely no expectations or familiarity with the source material, it became my highlight of the season, going so far as to call it the “breakout shonen of the season.” A space camp adventure gone wrong, Astra becomes a journey for survival as nine kids find themselves stranded orbiting an unknown planet and abandoned space craft. As they make their way home, a number of disturbing revelations and truths come to light about the forces that brought them together.
While the full series is outstanding from beginning to end, there were two episodes that stood out as my most memorable. The first, “Star of Hope” revolved around Yun-Hua’s story and her lack of self-worth from her deprecating mother. By the end of the episode, she finds her self-confidence and comforts her friends with her singing; a gift that she previously kept hidden. The second, “Secret,” uncovers Ulgar’s ulterior motives involving Luca’s family, only to reveal more hidden truths about his upbringing.
My other takeaway from this series actually happened in real life. As one of the few shows last year I remember eagerly jumping on the group Discord as we discussed the latest developments and plot twists, there were a lot of internal discussions and side conversations after digesting the latest episode. AniTAY as a whole has a diverse set of opinions (if our latest AniTAY Award results are to go by) working on different schedules, so it’s rare for a majority to synchronize with a specific show. This is all anecdotal of course, but it shouldn’t take away from Astra. To put it another way, it was an unforgettable adventure.
The final show for this piece, Dr. Stone proved to be a somewhat divisive show around the AniTAY blog with multiple strong opinions on both sides. As someone who enjoyed the series for the most part, I came to understand some of the discontent with its slow start prior to the Village arc and story elements that won’t appeal to everyone if you came in expecting a traditional shonen (just don’t call it an isekai). Trading battle elements for science and some light comedy, I’m reminded a little of the first season of Food Wars which traded battles for dining and cuisine. Overtime, I grew to enjoy the science angle and story progression where logic and wit won the day. Though it lacks the visual spectacles and interpersonal character/world building of earlier entries, Dr. Stone’s ability to turn science into entertainment and poke fun of the genre it’s labeled under make it stand out example of where shonen is headed.
The episodes that stood out to me took place outside the story’s timeline in a flashback. “A Tale for the Ages” and “A Hundred Nights and a Thousand Skies” is a two part episode that tells the origin of Ishigami village and provides further context just before the petrification. Taking place from the perspective of Byukuya (Senku’s father), he manages to become an astronaut with some assistance from his son. But when the world is engulfed in a green light and all living organisms turn to stone, the last 6 humans return from Space in an effort to find answers. As the former space crew begins to live out their final days, Byakuya clings onto the hope his son is still out there and leaves him a parting gift. It’s back in the present that the significance of the Hundred Tales comes to light.
As the previous decade fades into distant memory, 2019 will be remembered for a number of milestones in the anime world: the debut of several new shows, series that reached major pivotal turning points, and the year that saw Shonen take the next step towards the future. With continuing series from the previous season wrapping up this Winter, upcoming sequels to popular shows from last year inbound, and the debut of new or long anticipated content, it’s hard for me to say what the state of shonen will be in the coming years or which series will continue to thrive. In the end, I’ll always remember 2019 as the year I discovered my voice here at AniTAY.
This concludes Decade In Review series. Once again, thank you for reading!
You’re reading AniTAY, the anime-focused portion of Kotaku’s community-run blog, Talk Amongst Yourselves. AniTAY is a non-professional blog whose writers love everything anime related. To join in on the fun, check out our website, visit our official subreddit, or follow us on Twitter.
Dark Aether is a writer/contributor for TAY and AniTAY. You can follow him on Twitter @UndeadAether. Not Dead Yet.