What are seinen manga and anime? How do they differ from shonen manga and anime?
Some anime fans outside of Japan may be unfamiliar with the term seinen. They may even accidentally mislabel a seinen work as shonen.
That’s unfortunate, because seinen has an important role to play in understanding different types of anime and manga. If a shonen series seems unusually deep, mature, or realistic, it might not be shonen at all.
First of all, Japanese manga publishers aim certain magazines at specific audiences and demographics. So, Weekly Shonen Jump will only publish shonen manga.
Seinen manga and anime are aimed at young men, rather than the older boys, teens, or adolescents of shonen. While the distinction may sound minor, it can make a huge difference. It’s similar to the differences between high school and college students.
Seinen vs. Shonen
While shonen stories are aimed at readers who still have some growing up to do, seinen stories are aimed more at those who feel like they’ve already graduated from childhood.
Since the intended shonen audience is still learning, shonen protagonists often train to achieve some unrealized, unfulfilled dream (the greatest pirate, ninja, wizard, etc.). The seinen hero is less likely to focus on this. Whatever dreams they may have will likely be tempered by harsh reality.
In both artwork and tone, seinen shows are often more realistic, and frequently darker. They can also be philosophical and thought-provoking.
Keep in mind that seinen characters are not necessarily older than shonen or shojo protagonists. For example, Kill La Kill’s main characters are in high school, but the show is undeniably seinen. In this case, it’s obvious that adult, mature themes subvert the usual high school slice-of-life comedy stuff.
Exceptions and Expectations
Seinen does not have to mean dark or gritty. “Cute schoolgirl comedy” shows such as K-On!, Non Non Biyori, and Yuru Camp are also categorized as seinen.
These seinen school comedies may give older audiences a feeling of nostalgia or escapism (in addition to being funny, of course). There’s a definite feeling of escape in Yuru Camp’s healing, relaxing camping stories.
In addition, there are seinen romantic comedies, such as Maison Ikkoku, or My Dress-Up Darling. These typically have a less idealistic, more mature view about love and relationships.
In seinen stories, we can expect:
- More mature themes. This could include more explicit sexual allusions, but also more adult problems (such as financial troubles).
- More realism in plot developments, if not always in art style
- Subversions and deconstructions of popular shonen stories.
- If it borrows from a popular shonen genre (science-fiction, action-adventure, giant robots, superheroes, etc.), it will often (but not always) be darker or edgier.
- It can also be deep and philosophical.
Best Seinen Anime to Start With
These seinen anime series are all quite good:
Cowboy Bebop — This science-fiction space series features bounty hunters, not your typical shonen heroes. The main characters all have past lives which they are running from, not dreams to pursue. They are often broke, hungry, and cynical.
Trigun — It’s a literal space western with a gritty feel. It’s fun to watch, but there’s also a lot of dark, deep philosophical stuff underneath the surface.
Kill La Kill — This series deconstructs a lot of school anime memes. Clubs are serious business, as is the school trip. It’s funny and cartoony at times, but it always returns to deep, mature themes. Beneath it all is an alien conspiracy.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica — The creators used lots of tricks to make it look like a magical girl story. They gave it a deceptive theme song, avoided dark references in the merch, and gave the girls typical color-coded hero outfits.
However, Madoka turns out to be a grim subversion which deconstructs the genre. If you were expecting Cardcaptor Sakura or Sailor Moon, you were wrong.
Examples of Seinen Manga
Some good examples of seinen manga would include:
Death Note — This series has a supernatural killing device as its primary MacGuffin. But at its heart, it’s a dark, creepy, and psychological detective story featuring two chess masters. On one side, we have the God-like assassin Kira/ Light. And on the other, we have L, the clever detective hunting for Kira.
One-Punch Man — This superhero series takes the typical shonen fighting manga (Dragon Ball Z) to its logical conclusion. What if you have a jaded hero who’s so powerful, he actually gets bored of fighting bad guys?
Akira — The anime movie version is more famous — and it deserves the accolades it receives. But the manga that it’s based upon is quite good as well.
The manga is different from the movie (for one thing, it’s longer and more detailed). But, it’s still a fascinating, dark post-apocalyptic vision of rebel gangs, fighting friends, and uncontrollable psychic power.
Berserk — This long-running and rambling manga series features wandering swordsman and anti-hero Guts. He travels through a gritty, medieval fantasy world, seeking revenge against his many enemies. Along the way, he manages to have a few heroic adventures, and gain a handful of companions.
Of course, these are just general guidelines and not unbreakable rules. I hope this helps you better understand what seinen is, and what it isn’t.