Why are shonen anime characters so stupid?

Important Note: I haven’t been blogging recently due to the fact that I got a job working for USPS. It’s a temporary holiday job that will end in late December. I work overnight from midnight to 8:30 AM, six days a week. As you can image, I don’t have much time left if I include sleeping. I just wanted you guys to know that in case you were wondering why I stopped blogging. I’ll be back in full force in January.

A common question among anime and manga fans for decades has been, why are anime characters so stupid? This question is specifically asked when referring to shonen manga. It should be noted that “shonen” isn’t technically a genre, as it refers to a targeted demographic. However, within anime culture many fans know what’s being referred to when you mention, shonen. Shonen’s main demographic is young teen males. Intended for boys between the ages of 12 and 18, shonen series highlight the themes that generally matter most to this demo. Primarily, fighting series focuses on action packed battle scenes with friendships between boys being emphasized. To make characters more appealing to the young male demographic they tend to begin as young boys.

It’s Akira Toriyama’s fault

But, I think the reason that shonen feature “stupid” protagonists is primarily due to the admiration and influence of Akira Toriyama. A Japanese manga artists and character designer, Toriyama, first achieve success with his Dr. Slump manga series. It won him the Shogakukan Manga Award in 1981 and went on to sell 35 million copies. As a character designer he has been successful for Dragon Quests, Chrono Trigger and Blue Dragon series. However, Akira Toriyama is best known for his follow up manga series Dragon Ball. Having sold over 250 million copies, Dragon Ball is the second best selling manga of all time. Considered to be a primary driving force in increasing manga sales from the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s, Dragon Ball’s impact continues to be felt till this day. Akira Toriyama is credited with popularizing shonen manga beginning in the 80’s continuing to this day.

The invention of the Stock Shonen Hero trope

It is this influence that is responsible for the trend of “dumb” shonen characters. To be more specific, it is Dragon Ball’s main protagonist, Son Goku that is the template that shonen heroes are built upon. Considered to be the most influential manga characters of all time, he’s a saiyan that was sent to conquer Earth as a baby. After hitting his head as a child, he loses his aggression that comes naturally to the saiyan race. As a result, he is no longer able to conquer the world. As Goku ages, he makes friends, enemies, gets married and has children. He’s presented as being profoundly stupid, but innocent at heart. Always has mercy for his enemies and is capable of brilliance during combat. Goku, like all saiyans, takes pride in his strength. Goku has been credited with giving birth to the “Stock Shonen Hero” trope.

This trope describes a “big hearted, energetic kid,” that is not too bright. They have pride in their fighting strength. These heroes are willing to train hard to achieve even greater strength. However, their true power comes from the friendships they have gained and the sense of justice they possess. The “stock shonen hero” is always ready to help the weak, risk their lives for strangers and friends, while often showing mercy towards enemies. Every character that is inspired by Goku has many of these qualities as well. Akira Toriyama and his Dragon Ball series has been cited as inspiration for many manga artists. Eiichiro Oda (One Piece), Masashi Kishimoto (Naruto) and Tite Kubo (Bleach) have all claimed to have been influenced by Dragon Ball. Oda’s Monkey D. Luffy, Kishimoto’s Naruto and Kubo’s Ichigo, all share the parts of the tropes Goku made famous.

A genre that priorities the physical strength of a character over their intelligence, is obviously going result in dumb characters with epic battles. Making characters dumb is considered to be a great way to make them appealing to a larger audience. What they lack in book smarts, they make up in “street smarts.” Meaning these characters are able to think on the fly and can problem solve when needed. In shonen manga this “intelligence” is often shown during fights. While shonen anime existed before Akira Toriyama, it’s his Dragon Ball series that popularized the genre. Toriyama’s Goku was the inspiration for many future protagonist, making stupid heroes the norm.

12 thoughts on “Why are shonen anime characters so stupid?

  1. So this in an interesting idea. I’ve always wanted to watch Fist of the North Star. I’m not sure how stupid the main character is in there, but it it would probably prove your point.

  2. Agreed, DBZ really showed that a lead like that would be really popular. Nowadays they dial it up to 11 for some characters, but I also think it’s why people really love titles like My Hero Academia or Attack on Titan because the lead really goes in a completely different direction. Imagine how those series would be with a Goku type lead

  3. Being stupid/goofy is an easy character trait to display. That and Shonen series tend to follow a tired and true path most of the time. So, yeah, blame Goku.

  4. You make pretty good points. The generic tropes surrounding shonen heroes and their invariability is what really put me off from pursuing most of these shows. Man, I can’t believe it took me this long to discover this essay! 😅

    1. Better late than never right. LOL. The stupidity of Shonen characters use to entertain me but as I got older they started to annoy me. However, I’m no longer bothered by them.

      1. I mean I’m not bothered by them as well but I get your point – after a while the trope basically grinds on you after you’ve seen it over and over again. It then basically becomes deja vu at this point – that’s all shonen is I find lol

        For example: Izuku Midoriya/All Might from BNHA. Nothing against them but having grown up with the Daniel LaRusso/Mr. Miyagi pair from The Karate Kid it was hard to separate these two as being basically the same. Same character tropes, same relationship, same kind of bullies and basically the same storyline, just with different characters and scenarios… 😅

  5. Its a trope, but I like it. It gives other characters an opportunity to shine and helps with this ‘everything will be revealed in the future’ type of stuff. A good example of the opposite end of the spectrum is Eumenes from Historie

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