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What the Big Three Anime Have in Common, Besides Their Massive Popularity

Naruto smirking

What separates the men from the boys? Or, in this case, the men from the shounen? Allow me to explain.

For those of you who do not know (or maybe just have robust social lives and don’t NEED to know) there are many different categories of anime. We’ve got your “shoujo” anime, which basically means “anime for young women” (think Sailor Moon). Then we’ve got your “isekai” anime, which means “anime where the protagonist is transferred to another world.” We also have “seinen” anime, which is anime meant for adults. And yes, I would say that “hentai” is a subcategory of this kind of anime. There’s “yaoi” anime about gay men, and “yuri” anime about lesbians. But among the thousands and thousands of anime genres and subgenres, one kind of anime reigns supreme.

The shounen anime.

“Shounen,” meaning “young man or boy” is anime targeted at—you guessed it—young men and boys. It is the most popular type of anime IN THE WORLD. Dragon Ball Z? Shounen. My Hero Academia? Shounen. Any other anime that makes gobs and gobs of money? Shouuuuuuuunen.

But not all shounen anime are made equal. In fact, there are some shounen anime that, like Goku, have surpassed the theoretical limit of power and influence that an anime can have. Of all the anime in existence, a trio of anime reign supreme. These anime are known as The Big Three. But what makes an anime a member of the Big Three? Is it the sheer amount of episodes it contains? That’s part of it. Is it the ungodly amount of money it has made? That’s part of it, too.

Or is it because it has a certain je ne sais quoi? Something about it that allows it to be universally beloved and accessible? Oh yeah, that’s part of it as well. Most definitely.

So, what are the Big Three anime?

Drumroll please …

The Big Three, The Titanic Trio, The Most Exalted Anime Trinity is …

Naruto, One Piece, and Bleach.

There it is, folks. There you have it. The three biggest anime series of all time. Each one of these series has been around for DECADES, and one of them *cough* One Piece *cough cough* is STILL GOING. YES. ONE PIECE HAS BEEN AROUND SINCE THE ’90s AND HASN’T STOPPED YET. NOT EVEN THE MANGA IS FINISHED. IT’S OBSCENE. IT’S WILD. IT’S A TESTAMENT TO THE ENDURING POWER OF ART. OR THE ENDURING POWER OF DRAWING THINGS OUT TO MAKE BOATLOADS OF MONEY.

But I’m not exactly being fair, am I? Each of these stories is regarded as their creators magnum opus. Their greatest creation. And for those of you who are still awaiting the next A Song of Ice and Fire book, you know that magnum opuses (magnum opi?) take a loooooooong time to finish. I mean, George R.R. Martin has also been writing since the 90’s. And at this rate, we won’t finish the series until 2076. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series took him nearly 40 YEARS to write. And for the seinen manga readers who are in the know, the seminal manga Berserk took so long that the creator, Kento Miura died before he could finish it. As of now, his ASSISTANTS are picking up were he left off. AND NO THE SERIES STILL ISN’T DONE.

But what is it about these three, these Big Three anime that allow them to endure in a way that other anime only dream of? The cynic may say it’s the sunken cost fallacy. People who started watching these anime as kids want to keep watching because they already put SO MUCH TIME into the story and need to see how it ends. But that doesn’t explain it. These anime appear to be popular across generations. People are STILL discovering these series. Hell, I just started giving Naruto another try. There’s just something about these series; something that makes them really rewarding to watch. But what is that thing? Well, if I had to guess, I think it all comes down to the power of the protagonist.

What do the Big Three anime protagonists have in common?

Naruto Uzumaki, Monkey D. Luffy, and Ichigo Kurosaki. What is it that ties these three together? If I had to draw a similarity off the bat, I’d say this: they’re all knuckleheads.

Seriously. These kids don’t necessarily make well thought-out decisions. I don’t know, Luffy, maybe you shouldn’t stow away in a barrel on a dangerous pirate ship after eating a mysterious fruit that could have totally been poisonous? I don’t know, Naruto, maybe you shouldn’t go messing around with the vicious Nine Tailed Fox demon living inside of you so you can become the political leader of a village of people who abandoned you? I don’t know, Ichigo, maybe you shouldn’t go waving a magic sword at monster demon-ghosts because they’re threatening your not-girlfriend?

But if these characters made rational decisions, we wouldn’t have a story now, would we?

Humans are irrational. And there’s perhaps no species of human more irrational than a young boy. They’re energetic, they’re hungry for glory, and they think that they’re invincible. In short, they’re the PERFECT protagonist. Caution is the enemy of a good story, just as in the real world, caution is the enemy of an interesting life. We as humans are fascinated by people who dare to go where no one else has gone before. These are the people whose legends fill the pages of our history books. These are the people we are fascinated by, the people we look up to, the people we aspire to be. Each of these three characters dare to try to achieve something that no one else has achieved, and to do that, you have to be a little bit of a fool. And yet these characters are the PERFECT role models for young people. Be brave. Be kind. Believe in yourself. Never give up.

Aside from the whole stowing away in barrels thing, these characters represent everything that a young person should aspire to be. Life is hard, and it only gets harder as you grow older. You can’t change that truth, but you can make the world an easier place to live in if you change your outlook. Naruto Uzumaki, Monkey D. Luffy, and Ichigo Kurosaki’s greatest strength is their ability to believe in themselves no matter what, and unlike running on water or wielding magic swords, that is an ability that every human being on Earth is able to achieve.

(featured image: Pierrot)

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