The problem with anime power scaling

In case you didn’t already know, I love shounen anime and manga. (You don’t say – Ed.) It’s the stuff I grew up on and the type of series that I can, and will, always return to; when all is said and done, Shounen Jump is still king. Don’t get me wrong, I love some of the more obscure and out there stuff as well; I have pieces on this very website praising series like Monogatari and the like.

Even with my eternal love of this genre, I must say that it has some of the most frustrating pitfalls that are more common than I would like, and it all comes down to power scaling. I want to talk through some of my frustrations when it comes to this particular pitfall and how it, in some cases, takes away from the good parts of the series. 

The Problem with Anime Power Scaling

Naruto lost its way

As someone who grew up watching anime in the golden era of Shounen Jump’s Big 3, I of course watched Naruto and subsequently Naruto Shippuden. I loved Naruto growing up! I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of Naruto the character, but the parts of the series that I did like, I loved! 

The series’ choreographed hand-to-hand combat was something that left you stunned and amazed. The sheer amount of effort you could physically see that had been put into every frame of each episode was tremendous, and something that I remember Naruto incredibly fondly for. Even if you haven’t watched Naruto, I can almost guarantee you’ve seen the scene of Rock Lee removing his weighted clothing and then moving at incredible speeds, backed by one of the greatest soundtracks in Naruto. 

As the series progressed our characters began to learn more and more about chakra and the abilities that this gave them. In the beginning, it was awesome! Each character showcasing an entirely unique and interesting way to manipulate this power, but it was never something over-the-top or overwhelmingly powerful — it simply accentuated the already great parts of the series.

Eventually, however, we arrived towards the end of Naruto Shippuden and the once incredible and beautifully choreographed Taijutsu was replaced with what I can only describe as chakra Megazords. I liked Naruto all the way up to the end, but I still think that something people really loved about the series — the choreographed fights — was lost along the way. 

Fairy Tail’s endless power-ups

Ah Fairy Tail. Whenever I talk about this series it’s like I’m purposefully opening up old wounds. I will tell you all right now that at some point in my anime-watching life, I really enjoyed Fairy Tail. If my memory serves me here, it was right up until the Tower of Heaven arc that my opinion on Fairy Tail was overwhelmingly positive.

It was doing good things and developing characters well, introducing new powers and expanding on its pre-existing ones. The world of Fairy Tail was intriguing and filled with colourful characters, environments, and mysteries. 

However, all good things must come to an end. For Fairy Tail though, this wasn’t the end of the series, it was the end of the power scaling making sense and the beginning of its infamous ass-pulls. Time and time again the same pattern would be used in Fairy Tail when it came to Natsu, the main protagonist, overcoming the odds and defeating the antagonist of the arc.

Every single time he would lose, he would then receive some form of power-up, whether that be in the form of a special type of fire, or maybe lightning, or maybe it’s just a bottomless well of friendship. You take your pick, Natsu has probably won because of it.

(Erza Scarlet’s still hot though – Ed.)

One Piece does it right

I’m definitely starting to look like a biased One Piece fan at this point, but just know that I do try to look at things from an objective perspective and I always look for multiple other perspectives online to gain a wider look at the general consensus. With all that said, One Piece is an outstanding example of power scaling done well.

Throughout the 1,000+ chapters of One Piece that I have read, I have never felt like Luffy, or any of the main characters for that matter, won a fight that I felt they shouldn’t have. The series establishes very early on exactly where some of the big players stand in terms of power. Episode 23 (manga chapter 49) is when we are first introduced to Dracule Mihawk, a world-famous pirate who holds the title of World’s Strongest Swordsman. 

This is the man Zoro, Luffy’s first mate, aspires to overthrow. Not only does Zoro get annihilated, but Mihawk displays just a fraction of what he can do by destroying an entire fleet of pirate ships with a single swing of his sword. A thousand chapters later, and Mihawk is still regarded as one of the strongest characters in One Piece. 

There are also numerous times in which our main characters lose in places they should lose. Marine Ford, one of the most insane arcs in One Piece, has Luffy taking part in a fight between the Navy’s top admirals and some of the strongest pirates in the world. Outside of a couple of glorious moments, Luffy is continuously outclassed and ultimately meets a defeat here.

Power scaling is a tricky thing to balance, but when it is done well, things just make more sense. However, when you find yourself questioning how on earth a character just beat someone they should have clearly been overwhelmed by, it can be quite jarring. But such is the way of shounen manga and anime!

What are your favourite and least favourite examples of power scaling? Let us know down in the comments, or write us a letter for the Rice Digital Friday Letters Page!

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Conor Evans
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