The 3 rules of great tournament arcs

If there is one thing that shounen anime loves, it’s a tournament arc. It’s a chance to pit characters against each other, showing off old moves and new techniques while having a structured format to the action. A good tournament arc can bring out the best parts of a show, highlighting the things that make shounen such a fun genre in anime.

There are dozens of examples of tournament arcs in anime, but what makes the best ones work so well? In the grand Internet tradition of overanalysing the things we love, let’s have a look at what the best examples have in common.

Tournament arcs need real stakes

Goku vs Jackie Chun Tournament Arc

Not everything needs to be life or death stakes. In fact, the show that helped popularise tournament arcs in anime, Dragon Ball, famously had rules against killing opponents in the World Martial Arts Tournament. However, the first time that Goku and Krillin face off against one another remains a brilliant example of how a tournament arc can be gripping without the fate of the world hanging in the balance. This isn’t because the stakes are low — but because the stakes are high for the characters involved.

Goku’s primary motivation in life is to become the strongest fighter in the world. He enters the competition to test himself against the best of the best. Over the course of the tournament arc, we realise that what is at stake is this core character trait. If he succeeds in winning the tournament at such a young age, the fear is that he will become complacent and never reach his full potential. By the end of the arc, the audience is rooting for Roshi to win out over the hero and preserve the thing that makes Goku so interesting. The stakes of the tournament arc are huge without lives being on the line.

Give us something unexpected

Tournament arcs are a formulaic way to advance the plot of an anime. There are rules and proper procedures to follow to move from one stage to the next, so it is easy to fall into the trap of sticking to a known template. Giving audiences something new and unexpected is the best way to keep the audience engaged. This can be new and interesting characters introduced to stand in the way of the hero’s progression, or it can be a plot twist near the climax of the arc.

The Dark Tournament in Yu Yu Hakusho plays with the tournament format from start to finish. In addition to the ratcheting tension caused being the only humans on an island filled with demons, our heroes have to continually deal with the fact that the organisers of the tournament are actively working against them. This includes making questionable rulings in favour of their opponents, and changing the format of fights to keep them guessing. The result is that each round feels different — and the audience can’t necessarily predict what is coming next.

Character growth is the key

Naruto Chunin Exam Tournament Arc

Even in a genre dominated by flashy explosions and contests to see who can shout the loudest, characters are still at the core of any tournament arc. Sometimes the best thing for a character isn’t to win the fight. Sometimes they gain the most by simply pushing themselves harder — and revealing a little bit more about their character in the process.

The Chunin Exam in Naruto showcases how sometimes losing can bring out the best in a character. Shikamaru loses his fight against Temari — but ends up passing the exam in the end because of his resourcefulness. Sakura and Ino finally have their fight to decide who would go on to be the most inconsequential female character in the show. And most exceptionally, Rock Lee gives us the most incredible fight of the series in a sequence where he almost ends up dead. The Chunin Exam gives each character involved a chance to grow and develop, even when they don’t come out on top.

What are your favourite tournament arcs in anime? Be sure to let us know in the comments below, or via the usual social channels!

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