As much as anime is beloved, it cannot be helped that writing cliches will eventually find their way in.
Since shonen manga as a genre has been around since the early 20th century, more than a few cliches and tropes spawned. From fanservices to tournament arcs, the entire genre is populated by standard tropes and cliches. Over the past decade, plenty of anime and manga have subverted a lot of these cliches.
Note: This article is strictly the opinion of the author. Also, spoilers for all anime discussed.
Braking down how these anime ditched shonen cliches
1) One Punch Man - Escalation denied
Shonen battle anime often have an escalation factor, wherein the next arc villain will be stronger than the last. This cliche often repeats until the power ceiling is broken, if it ever existed.
One Punch Man breaks this cliche by having Saitama punch the daylights out of villains and, usually, end battles with one punch. It’s a gag most of the time, but it’s a neat subversion of the typical escalation that occurs in a series like Naruto or Dragon Ball.
2) RWBY - Trauma isn’t good
Another shonen anime cliche is of a traumatic experience granting strength. Whether it’s breaking their bodies in half through training from hell or losing their family, a host of notable characters usually get stronger from experience (Goku and Vegeta in Dragon Ball, Sasuke from Naruto, etc.)
Rooster Teeth’s RWBY rejects this assertion outright.
Just as an example, the lead characters of Team RWBY have been: emotionally manipulated and physically abused, leading to withdrawal and self-hatred (Blake); poisoned with racist ideas, manipulated2, and neglected, leading to entitlement and racism (Weiss); exposed to parental abandonment and neglect, leading to trust issues and a mask of optimism hiding deep-seated issues (Ruby and Yang).
Other examples include Jaune Arc’s death wish following Pyrrha’s sacrifice, and when Illia Amitola turned terrorist after her parents died in a Schnee Dust Company mining explosion, and she endured racism.
The only way characters can get better is through help. Jaune gets talked out of his death spiral thanks to his team, and Illia gets helped via forgiveness as well as aiding the good guys in stopping Haven Academia’s bombing.
3) Dr. Stone - Brains over brawn
The Dr. Stone series focuses on rebuilding humanity after a devastating cataclysm leaves civilization devastated and humanity turned to stone. It focuses on the efforts of Senku Ishigami and Taiju Oki in rebuilding and depetrifying the world.
Most shonen have heroes beat villains with unusual powers or significant transformations. Senku doesn’t do that. Instead, he uses his brain like an anime Sherlock Holmes!
Outsmarting opponents, making gunpowder, stopping a lion by knowing exactly where to hit it, and knowing when to flee when needed? Very smart for someone who isn’t quite the strongest person.
4) Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable - One place, many points of view
Most shonen anime have at least two or three locations/major sites across their series. Examples include villages, islands, and even entire planets to add to their worldbuilding. This can get very cliche, especially if the viewer is expected to keep track without sufficient callbacks or a wiki.
Fortunately, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable takes place in the single town of Morioh. A fictional town in Japan, based on series creator Hirohiko Araki’s hometown of Sendai, Morioh was a small and failing town before money was put into it in the 80s. It was relatively peaceful until Stands began being introduced via the Stand arrows.
Across the series, Morioh begins to see development as a town. It grows its own landmarks: the Anjuro Rock (a popular lover’s spot after Josuke fuses a serial killer with a boulder); Boing-Boing Cape (a fisherman’s bluff where Koichi stopped Yukako from falling to her death); the ghost girl alley (where the dead girl Reimi haunts); the Trattoria Trussardi Italian Restaurant (where the food is chosen for customers thanks to Tonio’s Pearl Jam Stand).
Speaking of characters, another subverted cliche is that lead character Josuke Higashikata isn’t primarily in focus for most of the anime. It mostly chooses to focus on his best friend Koichi Hirose as the deuteragonist or otherwise has other people it focuses on.
Most shonen anime keep their leads in the picture or otherwise in focus.
5) My Hero Academia - No Chosen One trope
The Chosen One trope often declares that fate will choose someone to do something significant: stop a great evil, save a kingdom, bring balance, etc. There are quite a few of these in anime: the Super Saiyan legend and Bardock’s visions of Goku killing Frieza in Dragon Ball Z, the Cain and Abel story Naruto Shippuden became, the Digidestined in Digimon, The Senshi in Sailor Moon, and a host of others.
My Hero Academia shoves that right out the window. Izuku Miidoriya is not only nothing special (being born quirkless) but wasn’t even the first to be chosen to inherit One For All from All Might. The previous seven weren’t even special at all; it’s what they brought to the table against All For One that counts.
Even so, that’s not explicitly stated in the beginning.
6) Jujutsu Kaisen - No real filler episodes
Filler episodes aren’t always awful, and sometimes, they can make for good worldbuilding or character development. The sheer abundance of them makes for rather terrible viewing, especially if fans follow weekly, and whole arcs being filler are frustration incarnate.
Look at Naruto with its hundreds of filler episodes and ditto with Boruto.
Jujutsu Kaisen is a relief for having no true filler episodes. Each anime episode is canon to the manga and goes at a good pace to keep the story and characters in focus. There’s no padding to lengthen the story.
7) Demon Slayer - No tournament arc/death and wounds are irreversible
Tournament arcs are usually there to test heroes’ mettle, or otherwise just as padding until the next arc of the story starts. Major events can happen in an anime during a tournament, interrupting or stopping a tournament entirely. Examples are Majin Vegeta destroying the stadium in Dragon Ball Z, the attack on Konoha in the Chunin Exams arc in Naruto, or the Fall of Beacon shattering the Vytal Festival in RWBY Volume 3.
Likewise, death and wounds don’t tend to stick in shonen anime. As a clarifier, in anime such as Dragon Ball, where people can be revived, the cliche is that death is more of a revolving door rather than a stop. Wounds usually get healed unless a character loses a limb and cannot get it back.
None of the above happens in Demon Slayer. There’s no tournament arc to test the characters when there are demons to kill, and horrifying wounds and death are permanent. Injuries that occur in the final battle don’t fade with time. Some have to be lived with, such as Tanjiro’s head scar getting worse and losing his left arm.
8) Hunter x Hunter - Lead character falls into darkness
If characters do fall to villainy, the cliche is usually a side character or someone who may already have attitude problems. From Berserk’s Griffith wiping out the Band of the Falcon to Sasuke going rogue to seek vengeance in Naruto, it’s rare that the lead goes complete villain.
So, anyway, Gon Freecss in Hunter x Hunter went villain! Okay, not a total villain, as it requires some explanation. During the Chimera Ants arc, he loses himself and goes feral on the arc’s main villain after the latter kills a good friend of his.
Gon killed this villain by powering himself up to an adult body and burning out his Nen supply. This cost him an arm and generally having a more severely awful outlook, while his black and white view of the world shattered. All the while, he broke the villain’s body with more violence than needed.
He got nastier and nastier, even holding people hostage so that the villain would fight him.
It’s a relief that he comes back, but as of now, he’s powered down seemingly permanently and is trying to find something else to do with his life. Like all that school work he missed out on!
9) Saiki K - A protagonist who just wants peace and quiet
Protagonists in shonen anime usually want something tangible, like the ultimate fight or a position of power to change things. That’s a cliche. But what about protagonists who just want some rest?
In a very relatable way, the character Kusuo Saiki from the comedy The Disastrous Life of Saiki K is generally a subversion of the cliche that shonen characters want something grand. He just wants peace and quiet, so he uses his psychic abilities to avoid situations that would grant him grief.
10) Kill La kill - Fanservice and nudity is not tantalizing, while all major characters and leads are women
Most shonen anime tend not to concern themselves with plot-relevant female characters, as they are only there for fanservice. It’s an annoyingly sexist cliche.
Kill la Kill has two differences from shonen anime: the fanservice and nudity are not tantalizing, and most, if not all, the prominent players and leads are women.
Nudity and non-nudity are plot-relevant and used to tell the story of fighting against authoritarianism. Kamui feeds off blood, first off, and needs the user to be as hotblooded as possible to use (hence the skimpy clothes).
The clothing that everyone wears? REVOCS forces everyone attending to wear the same life fiber imbued uniforms to one day overtake them, and anyone/anything different is violently attacked.
Senkentsu is ‘shameful’ and grounds for much discipline in the anime itself and is fighting against the militarized conformity that Honnouji Academy forces on its students! No individuality, no self-expression, no chance of escape.
The show also has a bath scene featuring Ragyo Kiriyuin and Satsuki that rivals the infamous hospital scene from the End of Evangelion for its level of subverting fanservice.
The central theme is summed up as: abandon shame, irony, and self-hatred, and embrace and unconditionally love yourself.
While there are plenty of shonen anime cliches, plenty of anime exist to subvert this. There are doubtless many more subversions to be seen if one knows where to look.