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Death in fiction is a very important topic because it can add to the dramatics of the story being told. From Homer and Shakespeare to the modern day, lots of writers have used this tool to up the stakes of their stories and get a reaction from their audience, which is why it has become such a popular option. The feeling of not knowing if your favorite character is going to make it or not can be quite exhilarating.
However, when it comes to shonen manga and anime, death has become a very controversial topic. In recent weeks, Katsuki Bakugo from My Hero Academia was brought back to life while Satoru Gojo from Jujutsu Kaisen was killed. Both are characters with huge followings and their respective comeback and death had strong reactions, which begs the question: Is death in Shonen necessary to make a good story?
Let’s cover some key points to understand both perspectives and also to explain why people often get annoyed with fake deaths or the absence of them in the medium.
The Nature Of The Series In Question
First of all, the nature of the series is something that takes a huge role in the value of death. If a Shonen series is like Slam Dunk, which is a story about basketball set in real life, then characters dying are not really necessary because the plot doesn’t demand it.
However, while that is true, most Shonen series deal with a lot of action and violence, so some characters dying seems to be a logical conclusion. If you are a warrior who is fighting heralds of death, superpowered villains, or conquering aliens, then dying is a very likely scenario.
It’s true that a character or two dying isn’t going to make the story good and that is a very valid argument. But the problem lies when a lot of writers want to have their cake and eat it, which is the typical shonen act of bait and switch. And speaking of which…
The Good Ol’ Bait-and-Switch
While this trope is not exclusive to shonen manga and anime, they are arguably, along with Western comics, the one industry that abuses this concept the most. The bait and switch is very simple: a character seems to have been killed and then it was later revealed that he or she survived, thus eliminating all the value their potential death could have had.
This happened with Bakugo in 2022 in the My Hero Academia manga and One Piece author Eiichiro Oda is probably the biggest culprit in this area. Oda has crafted some of the best moments in manga history but he has also messed up in not letting some characters die, with Bon Clay during the Impel Down saga perhaps the best example of bait and switch in the medium’s records.
Bon Clay was a former enemy of the Straw Hats who would end up becoming a valuable ally to Luffy during the Impel Down arc and he would even go as far as sacrificing to allow him and others to escape. It was a very powerful moment and something that cemented the character in people’s minds… only for Oda to reveal later on that he is still alive.
While there is a chance in the manga for Bon Clay to come back and be useful to the plot, his being alive undermines this moment and makes the world of One Piece feel like there are no major consequences when every battle is to death, according to the series. Many other Shonen series have the same issue and this lowers the tension.
The Need For Stakes
Considering how most series of this ilk have violent conflicts, death seems like a necessary element to maintain people’s interest, although it can also be abused. Hirohiko Araki’s JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure series seems like a very good example of what to do with death and shows the author’s courage in that regard.
Araki’s decision to kill Jonathan Joestar, the protagonist of the first part of the series, Phantom Blood, while controversial at the time, gave him the freedom to take any character’s life at any given moment. This is something that has helped the franchise as a whole: the feeling that any character could die, which ups the stakes and makes the entire journey feel a lot more poignant.
After all, death is a part of life, and even more so in war. When soldiers go to war, many of them die. It should be no different in these stories where the main characters are fighting enemies who could destroy entire cities on their own.
Cases Where Death Can Be Underwhelming and Unnecessary
Of course, all of this doesn’t mean that killing any character off will make the story better. That is the counterargument to this discussion: the fact that a lot of characters should have the time to grow and develop as that can enhance the story. It’s true that death is mostly untimely and a lot of people can close their personal circles before moving on but fiction shouldn’t necessarily work like that because it’s meant to be entertainment.
Yuki Tsukumo’s death in Jujutsu Kaisen is a textbook example of a character death gone wrong: she was a very capable sorcerer with an interesting backstory and ideology, only to then be killed off in her only serious fight against the series’ antagonist, Kenjaku. While there is no shame in dying against an enemy like this one, it makes the character look underwhelming and underdeveloped, which feels like such a waste.
Death in fiction, like everything else, needs balance. A writer should be capable of finding a happy medium as leaning too much on either side can be troublesome for the story.