What is shounen?
To deal with One Piece in any kind of analytical way, we first need to take a look at the genre in which it belongs. One Piece is unashamedly a genre work. It doesn’t undermine or experiment with the shounen manga structure: it sticks to the formula almost to the letter.
For better or for worse, shounen is the face of anime in America. Shoujo hit Sailor Moon is all but a memory except for its devoted fans. Cowboy Bebop is over 10 years old. Popular shows that the average person on the street would recognize are Dragonball, Bleach, Naruto, Fullmetal Alchemist, Pokemon and Death Note. More artistic works from Miyazaki, Kon, Oshii, Hosoda and others may be recognized, but are rarely lumped in with what is considered mass-market commercial fodder.
So what is shounen?
Wikipedia says shonen manga “refers to manga marketed to a male audience roughly between the ages of 10 and 18… it is typically characterized by high-action, often humorous plots featuring male protagonists.” Other books, however, give the age range for shounen as around 12 to 18. Others 10 to 16. This may be the intended audience, but as the statistics for One Piece show, shounen manga is being read by both men and women, from 10 to up to 50 years old. From an analytical standpoint, this tells us nothing we need to know. That there’s action and adventure with male protagonists is also generally true, but the same could be said of a lot of seinen manga. Or American superhero comics: they tend to have lots of action and male protagonists. But they’re structurally very different from shounen series.
Let’s see what someone with more experience in the field says. In his Complete Manga Guide, Jason Thompson says:
Modern-day shounen have vast diversity, ranging from comedy to sports, romance to hobby/occupational stories, detective stories to battle manga. The last of these genres, possibly the biggest, ranges from modern day martial arts stories to elaborate fantasy and science fiction.
It is true that there is diversity in shounen manga, but anyone who’s read several shounen series knows that there’s a general accepted formula, as parodied in the image above. Isn’t there something we can say about that?
Thompson provides more: Shounen magazines come and go, but three main ones have stayed popular and relevant: Weekly Shounen Magazine, Weekly Shounen Jump, and Weekly Shounen Sunday. Jump is the most well known, having a version available in English. Most well known shounen series in America are Jump series: Dragonball, Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, Yu Yu Hakusho, Death Note, Fist of the North Star, City Hunter, Kimagure Orange Road. While Weekly Shounen Magazine eclipsed Jump in the 1990s, Jump is the current home of all of the bestselling hits.
Thompson says of Jump:
A Japanese institution, Weekly Shounen Jump combines aggressive new talent searching with a give the readers what they want attitude, relying on reader polls and feedback. As a result, it contains some of the most individualistic art styles and the most formulaic stories, usually involving fantastic battles or contests in which the hero extends the hand of friendship to defeated rivals.
Forumla? Exactly what we’re looking for. An extremely hands on editorial policy makes sure stories hew to the formula, and the popularity of the series helps to exert commercial pressure towards certain types of stories. For instance, One Piece’s counterpart at rival publisher Kodansha’s magazine is said by Thompson to be Rave Master. As with all commercial art, the desire for success creates a certain homogenization of material. If we look at Jump’s successful formula, we can find a basic framework for what it means for a series to be shounen.
Frederick L. Schodt in Dreamland Japan describes a survey held shortly after Shounen Jump’s founding in 1968. Readers were asked three questions:
1. What is the word that warms your heart most?
2. What is the thing that you feel is most important?
3. What is the thing that makes you the happiest?
Yuujou, or friendship, warms our heart most. Douryoku, or hard work, is the thing we feel is most important. The thing that makes us happiest is shouri, or victory.
Friendship, hard work, and victory? Yeah. We can work with that.