While Dragon Ball may not be the very first Shounen anime, it cannot be denied that it has a very strong influence on modern shounen. At the time, one thing that really set Dragon Ball apart is it’s rich and vibrant world — the more you watch Goku’s adventure, the more the world just sucked you in. It may be a battle shounen series, but the world has a sort of endearing charm that deserves as much of a merit as the exciting fights. Dragon Ball obviously drew it’s influences from Wuxia — from the fictional culture, lore and martial arts.
In fact, Dragon Ball is literally wuxia, and as influential as Dragon Ball is to the shounen genre, wuxia is just as instrumental to what shounen has become today.
“There’s a lot more to say about the Chinese influences in Dragon Ball—I haven’t even gotten started on the martial arts and clothing choices—but suffice it to say that when you add a healthy dose of Kung Fu magic to this mix, you end up with a goofy world where anything can happen.”
First of all, what is wuxia? Wuxia (武俠) is a popular Chinese genre that dated back to ancient times. The term is a compound in which “wu” (martial, military) and “xia” (chivalrous, hero), when combined together, can be translated to “martial arts heroes” or “martial arts chivalry”. Wuxia is a type of martial arts genre that is mostly set during imperial China, and a large part of what defines wuxia, especially during pre-2000s era, are the fantasy elements. Martial arts aside, it’s not uncommon to see exaggerated physical capabilities and even outright sorcery in various wuxia films and TV shows.
You might be thinking “hey, that sounds familiar…” And you’re right, it is. Wuxia can be more “anime” than anime at times and pull off shit you could have sworn they were high while producing the movie. Actually, I’m just going to say this right here — wuxia IS shounen.
“I could attempt to explain why Tuan Yu, the unlikely hero of the movie, is battling a gorilla in a prison cell while the nefarious “Yellow Robe Man” is using his fire breath, super extendo prosthetic bird legs, and inbred chum to decimate the army of the finger laser-shooting Tuan clan before T. Yu decides to swallow a glowing toad…………..but I’m not going to.”
~Mr. Sardonicus on Battle Wizard
The “fantasy” part is an interesting point of discussion here. When you think about it, “martial arts” and “fantasy” is a weird mixture of genres. While some milder titles just have their characters possess incredible leaping strength (the infamous “wire-fu”) and overpowered strikes, some goes out of their way to emphasize on the “fantasy” part so much that put even Harry Potter to shame. Wuxia movies like Battle Wizard, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Mr.Vampire and Five Element Ninjas feature things so wacky that even Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure seems tame in comparison. Fire-breathing wizards, thunder-hurling demons, jiangshi (basically Chinese vampires) and ninjas with legitimate Naruto-like techniques weren’t exactly uncommon.
And to be fair, a lot of these wuxia titles have a strong mythical base so fantasy elements seem oddly fitting somehow. Journey to the West featuring the ever-iconic Monkey King is a no brainer, as the popular wuxia novel has been adapted into numerous movies and TV shows (even Dragon Ball is based on it too!). Other ancient Chinese folklore, legends and literature have also seen adaptions into wuxia as well, ranging from Investiture of the Gods, Legend of the White Snake, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils and so on.
Another thing that ties wuxia to anime is the fact that most wuxia settings is like a standard JRPG. Some very common character archetypes you will see in wuxia includes martial artists, monks, princesses, thieves, beggars, merchants and so on — practically roles you can find anywhere in MMORPG. In fact, there are already countless MMORPGs based on wuxia — Silkroad Online, Age of Wushu, Water Margin Online, just to name a few. The fact that wuxia and RPG goes hand-in-hand augmented the fantasy influence of wuxia even further.
The world aside, let’s talk thematic exploration in wuxia. Aforementioned, “xia” means “chivalrous”. Wuxia focuses in theme of honor, morality and chivalry. These brave heroes have their own code of chivalry, and fight for what they believe is right. Wuxia tales, despite the fights, generally have a positive message to tell and is more conservative in nature.
And this has effortlessly crossed over to most shounen anime. Naruto’s “way of the ninja” for example, is pretty much the same exact mentality of a typical wuxia protagonist. More examples include One Piece’s familial theme, Hero Academia’s underdog theme and so on — all common themes of wuxia as well. There is a reason why the main characters are called “good guys” because they are…. well, good. Most wuxia and shounen use a less ambiguous approach when it comes to morality, with clearly-defined roles of protagonists and antagonists operating on blatantly opposing principles and ideologies.
Despite that, this seems to only apply for most shounen titles post-Dragon Ball era, interestingly enough. For some titles pre-Dragon Ball or running concurrently with Dragon Ball, examples of the more popular shounen titles during this time period include the likes of Saint Seiya, Fist of the North Star and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Judging from the vast differences in style for these three shounen titles alone, you can clearly see “the wuxia trend” still has yet to set in. Saint Seiya is perhaps the only one out of those three that resembles modern shounen the most. On the other hand, Fist of the North Star has a more darker tone unlike most typical shounen while Jojo is well… Jojo. And to be fair, half of these titles would have been considered seinen by today’s standard.
Furthermore, the “transitional period” for shounen is an interesting thing to look into. You can see the industry seems to favor certain tropes over others at this point — for example, old action anime loves the huge, macho physiques, but modern titles have since prefer the more ordinary physiques. One Piece, which was debuted just right during this transitional period has a little bit of both. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure passed through this transitional period as well and you can see how the series sometime later prefers the ordinary physiques too (i.e: Josuke, as opposed to his “Jojo predecessors”). This is just one example but either way, Dragon Ball is the set-off point where changes started to take place — people don’t claim Dragon Ball being an influential anime for nothing.
Speaking of genre trajectory, I feel it’s interesting to look at the martial arts genre as a whole since wuxia essentially belonged in it. Wuxia is still a prominent genre today, but other tropes and subgenres in martial arts have also become just as prominent in recent times. Most notably, martial arts genre post-2000 has shifted it’s attention to realism — it can arguably be said that influential people like Bruce Lee, whom among his many accomplishments, one of them being the founder of Jeet Kune Do; and Jackie Chan, who is famous for his CGI-less and wireless stunts, have set the trend for years to come. And as we all know, realism did take precedence over fantasy. The wire-aided high-flying, computer-generated special effects are no longer as apparent as people enjoy realism and wireless stunts. Some of the more popular martial arts movies post-2000, like Ong Bak, SPL, Flashpoint and The Raid are all no-nonsense movies when it comes to martial arts — simple and hard-hitting. Even wuxia doesn’t have as much fantasy elements in them anymore. Jet Li’s Fearless in 2006 has very limited wirework and Donnie Yen barely even left his feet off the ground in 2008’s Ip Man, which was amazing considering just how much Chinese martial arts directors and action choreographers love aerial moves.
Shounen doesn’t seem to have changed in this regard, if anything, shounen is embracing the “fantasy” part of the action a lot more than it’s counterpart. It’s easy to do that too since anime are technically “Japanese cartoons”. It doesn’t look as awkward seeing characters pulling off supernatural moves in anime as opposed to characters acted by real people, pulling off computer-generated supernatural moves while wearing medieval China armor. After Dragon Ball, shounen titles like One Piece, Naruto and Bleach took it’s place, each extremely fantastical in their own rights, with their own takes on the chivalry trope. Shounen has become more assimilated with fantasy wuxia and eventually, became it’s own identity through it. It actually feels weird now /not/ to see supernatural feats in shounen battles
Even for sports anime which by all rights should have been grounded in reality — I actually enjoyed myself watching KuroBasu pulling off exaggerated athletic feats compared to watching a realistic basketball anime. To illustrate this even further, I also don’t know how many times I have rewatched the Takamura VS Bear fight in Hajime no Ippo as opposed to other normal boxing matches. I just find myself drawn to the fantasy aspects more (and I suppose the bear fight is easy to watch as standalone since it has little to no story context). Even non-battle shounen anime in modern times like Bakuman and Shokugeki no Soma feature tropes like underdogs, honor and chivalrous characters which are all classic callbacks to wuxia.
To that end, there’s no denying that wuxia played a huge role in shounen. Inspiring Akira Toriyama to give us the gem known as Dragon Ball, which would then went on to become one of the most influential anime of all time. Most shounen titles’ roots can be traced back to Dragon Ball and of course, wuxia. Wuxia is an important medium that has shaped modern shounen into what we know of it today.