Friends;how many of us have them? I’m talking bout friends; ones we can depend on. Friends is a word we use everyday. Most of the time, we use it in the wrong way. Now you can look the word up again and again but the dictionary doesn’t know the meaning of friends…
As many of you may have guessed from that shameless rip off of Whodini, today on Shonen Smackdown we’ll be discussing the hero’s support group; his group of friends. To use a Japanese loan word like good little weaboo in training that I am, I’ll refer to the hero’s extended support group as his nakama.
Basically, you have your friends, you have your good friends, you have your best friends and then you have your nakama. Friends will bail you out of jail, good friends will bail you out and pick you up, best friends will be sitting in jail with you saying “That was SO AWESOME”. But nakama will break you out of jail, kill the guards, burn the jail to the ground, dance on its ashes and declare war on the legal body that arrested you. Nakama is hardcore friendship done in over the top shonen fashion
The average shonen nakama has the hero, the team mom who keeps everybody from killing each other, the smart guy, the big guy, the kid sibling of somebody and the guy who’s totally not your friend he just keeps showing up and saving you at the right time and comes to all your parties but he’s just there for the cake, really. I direct you the DigiDestined from Digimon as UR Example.
They say you can’t qualify or quantify friendship…but take that as a challenge! I put friendship to the test and smackdown the hero’s closest friends and how the author handles their friendships, romantic relationships and general interactions. THIS…is Shonen Smackdown: The Side Characters.
WARNING: LONG POST IS LONG!
The Konoha 11
Role: Classmates and Comrades of the Main Cast
Pros: Fleshed out and intriguing
Cons: Unevenly developed
Coolest Member: Shikamaru Nara (Middle)
Be honest; would you want to go to war with the kids you went to school with? If you’re anything like me who to school with the largest collection of vapid flakes, spazes and stoners west of the Sierra Nevadas, you wouldn’t trust your ex classmates to pick up your dry cleaning let alone have your back in a superpowered kung-fu fight.
Fortunately for the titular character from Naruto, his classmates are not total zotes, dweebs or lameos. They are motherfucking ninjas, fully equipped with quirky, over-specialized powers and eager to aid our spiky haired hero in his one man war against the Akatsuki. The Rookie Nine plus two, an entire class of Ninja managed to advance through the ranks to be entrusted among the elder ninja as protectors of their village and hunters of dangerous criminals.
“Hey guys, Keanu Reeves wants to play Spike in the Cowboy Bebop Movie!”
A manipulator of shadows with an IQ over 200. A civilian without the ability to manipulate magical chakra beating enemies to a pulp with straight martial arts. A human hive of insects. A master of beasts. A mind controlling social manipulator. A medic with a megaton punch. Two pressure point fighters capable of paralyzing with a touch of a finger. A wrestler with the ability to enlarge himself to staggering sizes. A weapon master who summons thousands of blades.
I will give Kishimoto props for making Naruto’s circle of friends instantly likable and memorable. Each character is evocative with a distinct personality that makes them pop out from the other mostly colorless ninjas that people the Hidden Leaf Village.
Quick, what are their names?! Anyone? Okay how about just one of them…anything?
Of course, when you have such identifiable character concepts, it becomes shoe-chewingly frustrating when they’re not used to their potential. Granted, Naruto and Sakura are the main protagonists but Kishimoto is not above focusing on side characters for extended periods of time (coughSasukecough). This is especially egregious once Shippuden happens since we ping-pong back and forth between Naruto’s team and Sasuke’s team. True, Shikamaru’s team gets their own arc but it still feels like the characterization is unevenly spread.
For example, there is a side-arc where Team 10 (Shikamaru, Ino and Chouji) avenges their sensei like the good little ninja stereotypes they are. We focus on Shikamaru as he grapples with his fears of failure and inadequacy in the wake of his mentor’s death but we’re never given insight into Chouji or Ino’s reaction. As far as we know, they were all cried out by the funeral and we didn’t get a good look at how they emotionally developed. As a result, Shikamaru came out of the arc more developed than his teammates. I know it’s hard for the author to give everyone their time to shine but if you’re going to pick and choose characters to characterize, be consistent. Otherwise, we end up with a few well defined characters in a field of cardboard cutouts.
If you really want to get smash plastered drunk, pop in a DVD of Naruto and take a shot anytime anyone mentions “bonds” or “comrades.” People under 150lbs will die of alcohol poisoning before the ending credits and the rest will experience hallucinations of blond ninjas asking them to believe in “it”.
The little squads of ninja serve as mini-families for characters who by and large have crappy home lives.I again direct you to Team Ten who remain close even after they get moved around to other units once they graduate. Naruto’s
love friendship with Sasuke drives him throughout the story, creating a goal that remains consistent as antagonists come and go and driving home Kishimoto’s favorite Aesop of redemption. Naruto is determined to save Sasuke almost as much as he is determined to become Hokage.
Friendship plays a large and fairly well handled role in binding the story together. Romance on the other hand…is a complete fucking disaster…
Seriously. Romance in Naruto is a hot, slimy mess of unrequited love dodecahedrons that never get resolved. Hinata loves Naruto loves
Sasuke Sakura loves Sasuke…or does she love Naruto? And every time we approach completion, Kishimoto backs off or derails the plot or never mentions it again. Seriously, Hinata’s confession and near sacrifice for Naruto went nowhere and while her admiration for Naruto is a central point in her character development, it’s all a sorry tease if nothing happens once its revealed. Imagine if Darth Vader revealed that he was Luke’s father and no one ever talked about it again. Romance serves as cheap, flash in the pan drama to intensify a particular scene. But once that scene is done, there’s never any concern with what comes after. Naruto didn’t even send Hinata so much as a get well card before he bungled off to play with giant animals on the back of a turtle…
No, I am not kidding. Yes, That is Spiny Norman in the front. God yes, I hate Shippuden.
Role: Rescue Squad
Pros: Devoted group of friends
Cons: Little Relationship Development
Favorite Member: Chad
Ichigo may be the grumpiest of the three shonen protagonists but not without reason. If chunks of semi-Japanese mythology kept beating me up and kidnapping my friends, I’d be pretty irritated too. By that point, I would also probably think about investing in some friends who could protect themselves from any wannabe kidnappers so I wouldn’t have to rescue their asses every other week.Though by now I have a theory that his mother’s death instilled in Ichigo the compulsive need to protect everyone around him to avoid suffering the same trauma again.
Still, once Ichigo rescued himself some friends they proved to be just the sort of rag-tag team that is the bane of all shonen villains and for lack of a better term, I dub Ichigo’s group The Ryoka (Intruders) because they’re always intruding on something or other, breaking up evil organizations or just smashing through walls and interrupting evil luncheons.
PICTURED: Ichigo ruining another one of Aizen’s tea parties
Ichigo and friends are often found sleeping in circles in the local parks and are mistaken for extremely pretty hobos.
Substitute Shinigami with Hollow powers. Ranked Kido master with the power of a Vice-Captain. Last of a race of mystical archers
with a passion for fashion.Half-Mexican Hollow powered strongman. Kooky reality warper with magic hairpins.
As far as quirky Shonen groups go, this one is by far the most normal. When compared to freakshows like Naruto and One Piece, Ichigo and Co. are downright regular. This meshes well with the urban fantasy vibe in that the characters are the most human. Even Shinigami like Rukia are far more down to Earth than some of her superiors, even compared to Renji.
Each character really feels like their own person without being wacky for the sake of being wacky. Take Chad for example; he’s an actual pacifist unlike your standard anime “pacifist” that is only peaceful until negotiations break down. Chad refuses to fight back to the point that Ichigo has to bail him out when the first meet. He later makes peace with the fact that some fights can’t be avoided but It was nice to see a character stick to their guns and actually follow through on their own personal moral codes.
Overall, The Ryoka are a pretty dedicated group of friends who will drop everything to help one of their own out…
I just don’t know why…
Here’s a question I have for you guys; why is Ichigo friends with Uryuu? If they weren’t sticking together for mutual security against Hollows, would they hang out?
This is the main problem I have with the relationships in Bleach; they’re few and far between. Ichigo has friends certainly but I can’t really see why he has so many. If I had to whittle it down, I’d say Ichigo’s only real friends are Chad, Tatsuki and Rukia. Orihime hangs out with them but I get the feeling that they’re only friends through Tatsuki. Keigo and Mizuro are only there for comic relief, Uryuu only helps them out because it makes Hollow hunting easier and Renji…Renji’s just kinda there. Part of this problem is that there’s never anytime to cool down between rescue arcs and really flesh out the characters and their relationships. As a result, Ichigo establishes his only real friendships in the arc leading up to Soul Society.
As far as romance goes, it’s better than Naruto but that’s not saying a whole hell of a lot. People ask why I ship IchiRuki like a spastic fourteen year old girl and honestly, it’s because their relationship is the best developed on both sides. Kubo has gone on the record saying their relationship isn’t quite romantic but it certainly has the best foundation. I don’t dislike IchiHime and there are times where I can really get behind it. But this is the same problem I had with Avatar: The Last Airbender. We get a whole lot of development on one half of the relationship and absolutely none on the other side. I have to see that both people involved are interested in the other before I start liking the relationship. Otherwise, it just seems half-assed.
The Straw-Hat Pirates
Manga: One Piece
Role: Pirate Crew
Pros: Dedicated and Uniquely Varied
Coolest Member: Brooke
In real life, being a pirate sucks. You’re in constant danger from unpredictable weather, hostile nations seeking your death, scurvy and other vile diseases and rogue ninja attacks forcing you to declare your supremacy. Nowadays, calling yourself a pirate gets you laughed at while US Navy Seals fix you in their crosshairs. But fortunately for One Piece’s Luffy, the biggest problem he has to deal with is rounding his crew out and making enough friends to start his own fleet of pirate ships.
The Straw Hats represent the most focused group of friends on the list, each recruited for their special talents and their ambition to sail the seas. They are a fully functioning crew and a more cohesive unit than Naruto’s extended squad or Ichigo’s group of friends. However, their professional relationships serve only as the framework for the friendships forged and family created on their run from the Royal Navy.
Go ahead; laugh at the giant reindeer carrying the bazooka…
Mr. Fantastic’s Pirate Clone. A Swordsman with three weapons. A cat burglar who can control the weather. A slingshot wielding sniper. A miniature reindeer as the doctor. An archeologist with the ability to replicate her body parts. A chef who fights with his legs. A cyborg shipwright. A Skeleton that plays violin.
Yup, this is the freakshow. No other way to put it. In any other setting, this crew would be bizarre and even off-putting but Oda somehow makes it work by building a world that supports such flamboyantly odd characters. Each character is uniquely crafted, serving a larger role in the team while still maintaining their individuality. We get character development enough to know the Straw Hats but not too much to the point where it slows the story down. Backstory comes up in the main plot (ala Nami’s servitude to Arlong) and the whole story moves as a result of each character working together…and work together they do…
And here’s where One Piece shines. Actual. Genuine. Friendship. Between the main cast. Out of all the series here, the Straw Hats feel most like a family, willing to go to extreme lengths to avenge and assist their crew-mates for more than just their value on the ship. Time and again, they’ve put aside their personal goals for the goals of their friends.
Though non-canon, I think the most triumphant example of this is the movie Strong World where Nami gets abducted by a sleezy crime lord in exchange for her friends’ safety. First, this shows Nami’s evolution from the greedy thief she once was to part of the Straw Hat family as she is willing to sacrifice her freedom for the safety of her friends. She even leaves a recording asking the crew not to follow…which they ignore as they proceed to don their pimpiest attire and rescue her in the most explosive fashion this side of Hueco Mundo. And it is awesome. And it is heartwarming. And Luffy rides a giant duck but that’s not important.
As far as romance goes…there is none. Seriously. Oda has gone on record saying that he doesn’t write romance because he doesn’t feel like it needs to be there. I really respect when an author has the restraint not to include something that he feels would take away from his work. It says something when the best romantic writer on this list is the one who doesn’t include romance at all.
And The Winner is…
The Straw Hat Pirates: One Piece
I thought each cast of characters worked equally well for the setting they were in so it came down to how the author handled friendship and romance.
Though I thought Bleach and Naruto handled their friendships well, Bleach lost points for failing to develop the friendships and Naruto lost points for its disastrous love dodecahedrons. One Piece painted a picture of a loyal, devoted cast of characters that conveyed genuine affection.
The Konoha 11-1
So Naruto stays in the rear as One Piece increases its command of the field. But can a darkhorse come back for the win? Find out next time on SHONEN SMACKDOWN!!!!!!!!!
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Yikes, that was a long one! Thanks for reading and thanks to everyone who started following me, including kimberly-chan, churchprime, girltype and nice-vibe!