Manga and anime geared toward the shonen demographic are easily some of the most popular, and that’s only become more obvious in recent years. The rise in popularity of anime has been pushed by a few franchises in particular, with a few of them actually surpassing the current hype of old stalwarts. Part of why they’re doing so is that they’re noticeably far darker than most other shonen series out there.
Jujutsu Kaisen, Chainsaw Man and Hell’s Paradise: Jigokuraku have been lumped together as the “dark trio of shonen” due to their similarly cynical outlooks and gritty aesthetics. On top of these elements, their subversion of shonen tropes and refusal to be generic has united them, making this unholy trinity a great example of what shonen manga and anime can be.
What Is the Dark Trio of Shonen?
Hell’s Paradise was the first of the dark trio to debut in manga form, although all three came out in 2018. The series is based around Gabimaru, an unkillable assassin who is tasked with finding an elixir that would grant the shogunate similar immortality. Of course, the journey is destined to be arduous, with all the previous expeditions having resulted in numerous casualties. Next came Jujutsu Kaisen, another spooky shonen series with an unconventional color palette. The protagonist, Yuji, joins an occult club at school, only to discover that the members are actual sorcerers. When he becomes entangled with a demonic presence, he is forced to ward off the evil seeking him out, protecting his friends while staving off his own inevitable death. Lastly came Chainsaw Man, set in an alternate history where devils run rampant. When he’s killed by the yakuza, main character Denji is bonded with his pet devil Pochita, becoming the body-horror hero Chainsaw Man.
Not only did all of these franchises start around the same time, but they’re all receiving or have already received an anime adaptation from the well-regarded studio MAPPA. This animation studio has had several hits on its hands, mostly notably Kakegurui, the prequel series Kakegurui Twin and the final season of Attack on Titan. What most unites these three together as a morbid trinity, however, is their macabre take on shonen tropes.
Jujutsu Kaisen, Chainsaw Man and Hell’s Paradise are the Anti-Shonen
Given the presence of devils, demons and loads of gore, it’s easy to argue that the Dark Trio deserve their name. Compared to colorful and lighthearted shonen stories, these three manga are full of grittier fare. This extends to the violence, which really sets these series’ apart from their predecessors. Shonen manga have had demons and wanton brutality before, but not quite at the same level as something like Chainsaw Man.
A seeming increase in leniency regarding violence in these stories has seen the mangaka take full advantage, allowing them to do things that would never happen in more lighthearted manga and anime like One Piece. The stakes feel higher and more realistic, making the dark stories feel almost like a seinen manga or anime at times. Reliance on the power of friendship is nowhere to be seen, with many of the characters having bleaker, harder lives. In many ways, these developments are throwbacks to the manga of the 1980s and 1990s, where even shonen books were a good bit darker and grittier.
Another way that the Dark Trio subverts shonen archetypes is that there’s not much in way of an immediate end goal. For instance, in One Piece and Naruto, the protagonists wish to become the King of the Pirates and the Hokage respectively. Though Jujutsu Kaisen and Hell’s Paradise have endpoints that the plots build up to, it’s much less of an adventurous journey like in more traditional shonen. There’s also a lot less focus on any sort of structured battles or tournaments, which is almost anathema to the demographic genre that was put on the map by the Dragon Ball franchise. Hopefully, the success of the Dark Trio will see shonen manga and anime begin to experiment more with their tones and narratives, resulting in more hellish success stories.