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I've been a fan of anime since Star Blazers in my childhood, but... I wonder about an overused cliche in anime action-adventure series: teenage prodigy heroes.

For example, the most popular action-based anime (as opposed to comedy or relationship-based) currently on Netflix and Hulu (as well as StackExchange tag frequency): Attack on Titan, Black Butler, Bleach, Death Note, Fairy Tail, Fullmetal Alchemist, Knights of Sidonia, Naruto, One Piece, Sword Art Online. All of them feature unusually capable teens as the lead protagonists. Adults are supporting characters, or entirely absent.

Certainly there are exceptions (Samurai Champloo, etc), and this trope is also seen in the US (e.g. Adventure Time, Avatar, Young Justice, etc) but it's a matter of degree. Non-child heroes are not a rarity in western animation (Avengers, Batman, Tranformers, etc).

Is this a real thing in Japanese culture, and if so what does it mean? Or is it just a USA-based artifact of marketing (i.e. this particular subgenre is actively emphasized for translation) or audience (i.e. non-child anime is just as common but has less active fans)?

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Most probably because the target audience is teenagers. "Look, these cool guys are teenagers, just like me!" Kids make it not serious enough, and adults or elders make it too serious. –  user1306322 Aug 4 at 16:44

2 Answers 2

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Action/Adventure anime is typically catagorized under shounen - which means adolescent males.
People like other people who are like themselves. In this case, adolescent males empathize and therefore like shows about other adolescent males being heroes.

The "exceptions" you listed are typically listed under seinen, which don't target just young people.

As for the difference, there are plenty of novels written for young adults featuring teen heroes, just look at Hunger Games or the slew of vampire books or harry potter. You just see so much more of it in Japan because there are so much more teenagers reading manga, reading novels, and watching anime.

Please see these questions for more information - What are the differences between types of anime? or Why is most anime centered on fighting?

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Actually, children and adolescents prefer stories about people somewhat older than themselves that they can both relate to and look up to. The target audience is usually at least a couple of years younger the main protagonist(s). Most of High School Musical's fans weren't in high school yet, to give a western example. –  Ross Ridge Aug 4 at 21:39

It's to increase the appeal to the target audience, and I believe all of those series you listed are shounen (for young boys). I think those manga series that are action that are made for an older target audience (seinen rather than shounen) do not as commonly get made into anime, or if they do, they are not usually as long running or as big in merchandising. But these series do tend to have older protagonists.

I believe also that there's also a spotlight effect happening that may be affecting your perception. Those series that tend to do well and get licensed for television in the west also tend to be shounen action anime.

I'll also note in those western series you mentioned where the starring character is not a child or teenager, they have a history of trying to insert children/teens as "sidekicks" in order to increase appeal for a target audience. It's kind of funny you listed Transformers as an example though, since it was first created by Takara Tomy (a Japanese toy company) and Hasbro, and so I see it as just as much a Japan thing as a western thing.

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