We’re back with take two on the Story Shot. I’m abandoning the three-part format this time, but as I’m still feeling out my style on these, let me know which format you prefer. Warning: minor spoilers for No Guns Life ahead.
Anyway, this time we’re going to look at how No Guns Life handles the shonen, or escalation, problem. For those who aren’t familiar, shonen is a genre of manga/anime marketed to young boys/men in elementary to high school. It often features young male protagonists, high action and adventure, big battles, etc. Examples include One Piece, Naruto, Bleach, Dragonball, and Pokemon.
No Guns Life, a cyber noir that features a full-on adult man “resolver” (think bachelor detective but for robot problems) named Juzo Inui with a literal gun for a face, is not a shonen anime. However, it does bump up against the escalation problem, so we’ll take a look.
The escalation problem stems from the fact that these shows often feature characters who are really, really strong. As in, blow up entire cities, punch Godzilla to the moon level strong. Problematically, however, a lot of these stories, and storytelling in general, is about protagonists that grow stronger over time. And while that might be fine if you start out as a powerless teenager in a superhero-powered society (*cough cough* My Hero Academia *cough cough*), at a certain point, powers become so ridiculously strong that they either jump the shark, cause more trouble than they’re worth, become impossible to escalate further in any reasonable manner, or lose all meaning. Imagine a city where both the heroes and villains are Superman and you have a dozen on each side and you begin to see what I mean.
There are a variety of ways that shows have attempted to handle this over time. Usually, this involves some form of increasing antagonism (stronger villains, rarer creatures, more dangerous settings, or larger/broader geo-political forces). But even with this sort of pace-matching with the heroes and villains, you still get to a point where the hero needs to blow up half of downtown to beat the villain or where the arbitrary number you’re using to gauge their power starts to get a little silly.
This is where No Guns Life really sets itself apart. Because, while it’s not a shonen, the main character Juzo is incredibly powerful, and, in another twist, he’s already war machine, super soldier-level strong when the story starts. In a more classic shonen setting, this is where you’d immediately start running into problems. Anyone weaker wouldn’t pose a threat/be relegated to a minion. Anyone stronger would begin the escalation arms race. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the author uses character, plot, and world-building to create a compelling, well-paced, and believable (within the confines of the world) escalation. Let’s take a look.
At the story’s beginning, ex-soldier/living weapon Juzo ekes out a living solving problems caused by his fellow cybernetically modified, or extended, citizens. The city at large consists of four loose factions, including independent citizens like Juzo and his friends, criminals, corporations, and the government. Juzo, as probably the strongest remaining super soldier alive, treads a careful line between negotiating faction politics and trying to keep his head down.
Based solely on the above, we can see how character, plot, and world-building start combining to effect. For example, because of his past in the war, Juzo holds a tenuous legal position, wherein he finds himself beholden to governmental powers. In an early episode where he uses his power too much, he winds up having to pay the piper. In others, he finds himself forced to prioritize defense or escape in order to protect his powerless friends and clients.
The world he lives in is also not optimized for powerful people in the same way as shows like My Hero Academia, which has a literal onboarding process for heroic children, or Naruto, which has entire tribes run and protected by the world’s most powerful ninjas. In fact, most of the extended are either disenfranchised criminals or veterans, subjects of horrible human experimentation, or corporate dogs. People like Juzo are not granted the autonomy, respect, or admiration that most Shonen protagonists are and are more often sought to be controlled or destroyed. To that end, showing off the full breadth of his power is actually a potential danger.
In this sense, despite Juzo’s immense power, the author actively dissuades him from using it. The other story elements create dilemmas that divert the classic Shonen battle response into other more interesting and diverse paths. They create mystery where we know Juzo has powers and strength beyond what we see. They provide opportunities for his powers and progress to link to and reflect his past.
This strategy also shifts the entire escalation problem. Most stories that struggle with this issue start with someone on the bottom rung of the high and mighty ladder. The quirkless boy. The failure ninja. By starting Juzo off as one of the more powerful entities in his world and letting the other characters and plot catch up to him, it gives the story a lot of lead time to explore and expand on other plot lines before he even has to level up. He still faces problems, they’re just of a different nature: navigating politics, helping clients, defending his friends. Then, when he does have to start escalating, the story has built itself out enough that the epic battles, overpowered villains, and life-or-death stakes feel justified. They also feel more new and interesting because, at least within that specific story, they are.
When dealing with powerful characters, using the constraints of the world, relationships, and settings you have will lead to more creative solutions than simply throwing ever-stronger enemies against them.
What do you think? Which stories have you experienced that handled overpowered characters well? Why did they work? Tell me below!