Like it or not, power systems lie at the heart of modern shonen manga. Ever since Fist of the North Star introduced the titular Hokuto Shinken style in 1983, the idea of having some sort of superpowered framework has stuck, even making its way into seemingly unrelated genres. Modern sports hits such as Blue Lock are almost as much about sporting-themed superpowers as they are actual sports, giving rise to the specialized term ‘spokon.’
With this in mind, the question is: what makes a good power system? Plenty of authors have tried and failed to invent their own, suggesting that we can offer at least some basic suggestions. To take a recent example, Guardian of the Witch took possibly the least amount of time ever to progress from a magical training arc to an early cancelation. That’s about the only thing it will be remembered for, to be honest.
In any case, answering that question also requires exploring what doesn’t make a good power system. We’ve all read series that eventually become endless successions of big burly men throwing massive shiny orbs at each other: that’s usually because the author has failed to ensure proper power scaling. There’s also the simple fact that a good power system isn’t a substitute for a good story or characters, even if it is very important in the world of shonen manga.
Easy to Grasp, Hard to Master
To put it bluntly, the ideal power system should operate by some sort of simple central concept that can then be taken in different directions by an inventive author. Often, it can be useful to root this central concept in a kind of mantra or express it by way of a formula: the more you put in, the more you get out, and so on and so forth. Yet, there should always be drawbacks to using certain powers at certain points, lest things become meaningless.
One of the best examples of a simple power system is the alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist. Enshrined at the heart of Hiromu Arakawa’s series is the iconic phrase: equivalent exchange. To gain something in alchemy, one must always offer something of equal value and transmute between similar substances: the law of the conservation of mass and the law of natural providence. This idea is so compelling because it also applies to our own real world.
Nevertheless, Fullmetal Alchemist isn’t really about this power system per se. Very early on, the protagonist is freed from its constraints for very understandable plot reasons, instead placing the onus of the story on the journey of our main characters and the people they meet. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as we’ll discuss later, but doesn’t really help us understand the further development of an otherwise simple power system.
For that, you only have to turn to Yoshihiro Togashi’s unfinished masterpiece and the undisputed king of power systems: Hunter x Hunter. Much like Fullmetal Alchemist, it takes the simple concept of ‘aura’ that so-called psychics have been claiming for centuries and transforms that into a vehicle for superpowers. The abilities are much more complicated, granted, but still operate by vows and limitations very similar to that of equivalent exchange.
If the author has done their job properly and ensures that the audience can easily understand their power system, then the field is open for them to up the complexity in the future. That being said, it should always adhere to the central concept and not bend the rules for the sake of convenience. Jujutsu Kaisen arguably has a problem with this: it starts out with a Hunter x Hunter-like aura system, but very quickly moves to outlandish and confusing superpowered moves.
Power Scaling and Development
One problem that can easily occur if the author fails to up the complexity and instead remains on the surface level is that of poor power scaling. Simply put, this is a term that refers to the relative level of strength enjoyed between the characters: if someone is more powerful than another, then they are higher on the power scale. Yet, great care should be taken to ensure that any jumps up on the scale come at a gradual pace and not all at once.
Part of the reason why Naruto remains one of the most egregious examples in recent memory of Weekly Shonen Jump series going downhill is because of poor power scaling. Instead of thinking about how he could explore more interesting concepts within the framework of chakra and up the complexity, Kishimoto remained on the surface level and simply gave the characters bigger and better powers. By the end of the series, Naruto was essentially a god, throwing big balls of energy at his opponents for good measure.
The same goes for Dragon Ball. Contrary to what the title of this article might suggest, Akira Toriyama’s seminal series did not have a good power system: it suffered a similar fate to Naruto because it simply revolved around sets of characters punching each other harder and harder until everyone turned into Superman. If the power scaling had been kept under control, then perhaps this wouldn’t have happened.
It’s not an age thing, either. Hunter x Hunter was a contemporary to Naruto and debuted only a couple of years after Dragon Ball ended, yet still managed to keep the power scaling under control and favor complexity over simple powerups. Even now, the Dark Continent arc is more about different types of Nen powers than stronger ones per se, while the relative level of strength arguably peaked with the Chimera Ant arc, not having reached the same level since.
Returning to Fullmetal Alchemist, perhaps one of the reasons why it does not feel so defined by its power system is because it kept the power scaling relatively tame throughout the series. Each one of the State Alchemists uses equivalent exchange in a different way that has its own set of advantages and drawbacks, while the big bad is just as much bound to the laws of the universe as the protagonists are. The entire final arc is about how they accomplish goals despite that.
A Good Power System Isn’t Everything
All of that being said, a series isn’t necessarily good simply because it has a good power system. Plenty of series succeed perfectly well without them, while other elements of the story may cause you to overlook an otherwise flawed framework. That’s certainly the case for a lot of older action series that came before the innovation.
On the whole, a good power system is only one part of what makes a series so great. Into the mix also goes narrative and story, characters and their development, artwork and presentation, as well as themes and ideas. Unfortunately, giving each one of these elements a particular level of importance or fitting them perfectly into a formula also simply isn’t possible, because criticism isn’t one big power system. Everyone is different.
In my mind, at least, a good power system must come alongside good characters and be rooted in their own objectives. Supernatural abilities can be an interesting way to visually and thematically represent any given character’s journey, but they are not the story itself. Take Edward Elric for example: his quest to learn the secrets of alchemy is ultimately tied to his desire to get back his brother’s body and heal his limbs. This is what Fullmetal Alchemist is actually about, not alchemy itself.
Someone wise also once said: ‘If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything at all.’ If all your series has to say for it is an interesting power system, then it isn’t actually interesting in the slightest. Creating special abilities for characters and having them duke it out is actually more akin to game creation than it is writing fiction: so many modern light novel series are so irritating for me because they read more like video game manuals than actual stories. Think about what you want to do with your work and what makes it worth making in the first place.
Is it actually possible for an author to grapple with all of these things at once and create the perfect story? Well, yes. In my opinion, Hunter x Hunter hits all the notes that I’ve hopefully outlined during the course of this article: a good power system with a simple central concept, good development and control of power scaling, as well as fantastic characters and plenty to say about the state of shonen manga itself.
The only problem is that it is currently on an infinite hiatus, so perhaps that is the law of equivalent exchange kicking into action: for something this good to exist, it must also not exist for practically the same length of time.
Such is life!