Some anime series of a shonen nature have gotten completely out of control. Mostly in a good way, but there’s a reason why so many people think that these long-running series are nothing more than two people standing at opposite ends of an arena, staring each other down, and thinking really hard about maybe possibly getting around to doing a special attack and filling the middle 20 minutes with a lot of wholesome angst.
That is, of course, something of a misrepresentation, but it does have a little foundation in reality.
Some series can make it work. It’s fun to get lost in a 100-episodes-series. But 600 episodes? Now you’re not so much talking about binge viewing as you are changing your lifestyle to accommodate a very demanding significant other.
Still, conquering that many episodes straight through, from the first to the last, can be fun and entertaining and just possibly for the betterment of humankind.
It can be even more fun when you score this accomplishment with someone else.
But what if that person isn’t a huge fan of anime – or at least not huge enough to think of 150 episodes as a great way to blow a couple months or so?
You’re going to have to sucker them in… er… catch their attention from the very first episode. That first 23 minutes has to draw them in and give them a reason to weather the filler episodes, follow every arc, and want to see how it all turns out.
So, for this review, we’re taking a look at the first episodes of some of the most popular shonen anime that are currently streamable. Let’s just see which ones can sell the series and which ones rely primarily on the popularity of their manga to engage their viewers.
Why These Series?
The way I chose the series for examination was not exactly scientific. I wanted to go with the ones that were “popular,” but it basically boiled down to something like this:
I went to both Hulu and Crunchroll to see which series were in their “most popular” categories. Then I went with those that had at least 150 episodes. (With the exception of Hunter x Hunter which is in the “meh, close enough” category.) That left us with:
- Naruto Shippuden
- Fairy Tail
- One Piece
- Hunter x Hunter
Bleach Episode 1
- Title: The Day I Became a Shinigami (死神になっちゃった日)
- Original air date: Oct. 5, 2004
- Total eps as of publication: 366
Bleach tells the story of one Ichigo Kurosaki, a 15-year old who can see and talk to the spirits of the dead. He seems like a pretty good guy, beating the crap out of some skate-punks for knocking over some memorial flowers that had placed where a small girl was killed in an accident. He can see and speak with the girl’s spirit, and he has to help her later when it seems like some monstrous spirits, called Hollows, come after her.
Turns out, they weren’t exactly after her. By the end of the episode we learn about the Shinigami (Soul Reapers) and see that Ichigo is more powerful than we realized, and that the creatures were actually after him. So when one of them shows up at his home and wrecks the place up and threatens his sister, he, of course, gets involved in a properly aggressive way.
Naruto Shippuden Episode 1
- Title: Homecoming (帰郷)
- Original air date: 15, 2007
- Total eps as of publication: 441
This one is a bit of a challenge to consider all on its own because it isn’t technically an episode one. There’s 220 previous episodes that it is building on. So it’s totally valid to assume that your viewers are familiar with a certain amount of background information.
And it does. A lot.
Even so, it’s not hard to follow. We’re looking a story that involves Naruto and Sasuke, two kids who apparently used to be really tight but are now at odds with each other. It’s a classic story, but if it took them 220 episodes of the previous series to get to this point, this is probably a lot more significant that it would feel to someone who is starting with this episode.
As far as action and the like, this episode is surprisingly low on it. There’s a little running around, but mostly this episode is clearly meant to establish how things are different from the original series. It gives you ninjas, it gives you a society and some world building, and some fun elements as well.
Fairy Tail Episode 1
- Title: The Fairy Tail (妖精の尻尾)
- Original air date: Oct. 12, 2009
- Total eps as of publication:263
My first impression of this one was that the animation felt more dated than it really was. Not bad, just strangely light on frames of animation. They do an amazing amount with just a few static images. It also felt like they tried to cover this fact by being as energetic as possible. It’s possible that no person in this world can speak without at least two exclamation marks at the end of the sentence!!
But having said all that, I found both Lucy and Natsu fun and engaging characters. Natsu is apparently searching for something/someone for some reason and Lucy just wants to join a magical guild. The show takes place in a fantasy world where magic is an everyday thing, and Fairy Tail is the name of one of the top guilds that Lucy has always wanted to join it.
There’s enough here to hold my attention, but it has to be said that was more interested in the characters than the plot. So the question is whether or not the characters (!!!) are interesting enough to carry you through hundreds of episodes.
One Piece Episode 1
- Title: I’m Luffy! The Man Who’s Gonna Be King of the Pirates!” (俺はルフィ! 海賊王になる男だ!)
- Total eps as of publication: 930
- Original air date: Oct. 20, 1999
Since this is the longest of the series in question, one might assume that either it really started off great, or it really relied on the popularity of its manga.
And… eh… hard to say.
Basically, what we’ve got is that there are a lot of pirates in the world, and they all want to be the new Pirate King.
So we launch into some piracy action and…
Well, we’ve got a crazy lady as the first pirate, a whiny kid who doesn’t want to be a pirate at all, and a stretchy kid who is apparently worth rooting for. Don’t really know why. Well, he does hit the whiny kid a couple times on the head, and each time he did I found myself very grateful, so I guess there’s that.
And while I’ll admit that this episode was one of the better arguments that “stretchy dudes” can actually be valid super heroes (Elastigirl is still the best example), he seemed all too sure of his own awesomeness to be cool or interesting. Luffy, the wannabe pirate king, didn’t have any empathy for anything going on around him, so it was hard to have any empathy for him.
He’s just a kid who wants stuff. He helps the whiny kid a bit. But that’s about it.
Hunter x Hunter
- Title: Departure × And × Friends (タビダチ×ト×ナカマタチ)
- Total eps as of publication: 148
- Original air date: Oct. 2, 2011
Full disclosure, I may have gone into this one with some preconceived notions. YuYu Hakusho does, after all, remain in my top animes of all-time list, and this is by the same creator. So I can’t help but draw some direct comparisons between the shows. But let’s try to be objective here.
In this story the main character, Gon, is a 12-year-old who wants to become a Hunter to find out why his father left him to become a Hunter so long ago. Apparently people have to have reasons to become Hunters aside from, say, actually having a desire to hunt something. Not everyone can be a Hunter, though, so Gon is going off to take the Hunter’s test.
We quickly learn that everything, including the ride to the Hunter test, is a test. This is where we meet two more characters and the first comparisons have to happen. In basic terms, we have Leorio, who is basically Kuwabara+Pheonix Wright, and Kurapika who is pretty much Kurama+older Trunks. Which works out well enough because Gon is basically Yusuke+Young Goku. (Spoiler: we’re going to meet a Hiei+young Trunks later in a couple episodes.) So the YuYu Hakusho gang is basically all here one way or another.
They progress toward the test and Leorio and Kurapika have a little conflict. We get some pretty cool animation on the storm that’s raging around them, and I started thinking: “Whoa. Lawyer-looking dude with a switchblade versus androgynous dude with two wooden short swords and a tunic. This could be a pretty freakin’ cool fight.” And… well, they went for a character building moment instead.
Some Direct Comparisons
Now that we’ve got a basic rundown of each of the episodes, let’s compare how they stack up against each other on some important story elements.
Bleach – Ichigo Kurosaki is a fairly normal kid, with his only real standout ability being the tendency to see and interact with ghosts. He’s shown as a fighter in his first scene, but for him it’s a little different than the other characters in these shows.
Out of them all, he’s the only one who doesn’t fight because he loves fighting or loves finding the next challenge or proving he’s stronger than everyone else. He just fights because he has to protect people, and now he has to try and cope with a sudden change in circumstances.
Naruto Shippuden – This episode wants to make it clear that Naruto has grown, at least a little, since the previous series, and seems to know that there’s more to life than being the strongest. However, since everyone spends the first half of the episode wishing that Naruto was around, it’s safe to assume that he’s already done a lot of “proving his strength” in the previous series.
The thing that this series has over the others is the relationships that are already in place. It’s clear that something bad happened and that someone who was a really good friend is now something of an enemy. Characters with that level of background make story-telling material.
Fairy Tail – The question you first have to answer is who the main character actually is. On the one hand, this is very obviously Lucy’s story, and most of it is through her viewpoint. On the other hand, Natsu is the character who dominates the title images and is the one on the mission. So while they’re both “main” characters, for this comparison, we’ll look at Natsu first.
Natsu starts off the story as a major power and serious fighter. He’s got the “big motive” and his only real flaw is extreme motion sickness. He’s an entertaining character, but that kind of flaw isn’t really an interesting problem to overcome. It’s there for a joke, not to build character. As fun as it is to watch him, it’s pretty clear he is going to be a little more clichéd about being the anime character who always has to get stronger and always fight the next person.
Hunter x Hunter – Gon is already the “best of the best” and everyone automatically likes him. His one character flaw, if you can call it that, is that he’s absolutely innocent and trusting. Some of that fits with his youth, but some of it is also to be the guy who always knows what to do. It’s unlikely we’ll ever have to worry about him making the wrong decision.
One Piece – Luffy also starts the series as a fighter already tough enough to defeat an entire ship of pirates. He’s got his special power and he has the overall goal to be the pirate king, but he’s not exactly an empathetic character. Sure, he’s kinda nice to the whiney kid, but on the whole, there really isn’t much too actually like about him. He’s just a kid in a hat with a stretchy body.
Bleach – Rukia brings us the mystery of the show. She’s a tough girl who is confident with her job, but by the end of the episode she experiences as big of a change as Ichigo. At the same time, she starts with some great subtle characteristics that are fun to see, like the way she draws visual aids and the way Ichigo questions her skill. So she may be the secondary character, but there definitely seems to be a lot to work with.
Naruto Shippuden – There are a lot of other characters in this episode, but the most likely one to call a secondary character is Sakura. Again, she had a relationship with Naruto and Sasuke from before, and she brings a different perspective to the show. She also helps establish how much things have changed in between the series. With so many characters though, it’s pretty obvious that she’s not going to be the main secondary character, but just a recurring character, so it’s hard to get invested.
Fairy Tail – Lucy (not really “secondary” but we talked about this already) is fun, kind, smart, and can hold her own in a fight. While she doesn’t have the same level of power of Natsu, and her only apparent goal is to get into the Fairy Tail guild, she’s the more naturally flawed and more naturally interesting. I think her story will be more engaging Natsu’s.
Hunter x Hunter – Leorio and Kurapika both seem really interesting at first. I was really looking forward to the fight between them, but I guess taking the opportunity to show off their other characteristics was fine, too.
One Piece – What can I say? I wanted to punch the whiney kid myself. Repeatedly. Actually cheered once when Luffy did it for me.
Bleach – We’re set up from the very beginning with tons of questions that need answers. Who is this girl? Why can Ichigo see dead people? Why are the Hollows coming after him? What is a Soul Reaper? There are a lot of things to keep watching for.
Naruto Shippuden – A lot of the hook of this show definitely depends on previous knowledge. Though the story of previously good friends now at odds isn’t exactly new, it works well when it’s done right. The only real questions or mysteries come from not knowing anything about the previous series.
Fairy Tail – The main hook is Lucy wanting to join Fairy Tail and Natsu wanting to find someone, but the whys and wherefores are kinda lacking. Sure, you like Lucy enough to want it to happen, but it’s too easy to see and assume that it will. So what comes after that?
Hunter x Hunter – There’s one big hook. Can they make it to the Hunter’s exam, and what kind of test is it really? Is that enough of a hook? Only barely. And you get the feeling that the real story starts after they finish the tests, anyway, so it’s not exactly a hook at all.
One Piece – Luffy wants to be the Pirate King. He can fight and seems to have fun doing it. He’s got a whiney sidekick, but at least he also has a small boat. The only other obvious element that will carry over is the girl. So we have a couple people telling us their goals in life, and that’s about it as far as a hook.
The Final Choice
Given the characters and the hooks, Bleach is the best choice for bringing someone in for a mega anime binge. (Please provide a round of dignified applause.) It has the best story hook in the form of questions that need to be answered, and you can actually relate to the characters because their motivations are things like family, friends, and discovery of a whole new world.
The roots of the story are things that anyone can understand, and the paranormal stuff just adds a lot of interesting possibilities on top of a number of likeable characters.
So if you have to go with one of the five, you could do worse than starting your shonen anime binge here. (Disclaimer: this article makes no promises of the quality of the series 100 episodes or more in. That’s your own problem.)