The world of shonen anime has a handful of well-established storytelling tropes and recurring themes, from the virtue of never giving up to the power of friendship and being rewarded for hard work. Usually, the young protagonists embody these noble traits, while their adult mentors and teachers may directly or indirectly guide them in that direction.

One example is the concept of a competitive examination, where each competitor is told to look out for themselves to score points and win. On the face of it, shonen students are being pitted against one another, but as many recent shonen titles have shown, the competition is just an illusion — the real lesson is for the young examinees to team up and get the job done together, even if no one told them to.

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When Shonen Exams Use Reverse Psychology to Encourage Cooperation

Naruto Kakashi holding bells

In certain anime exam scenes, the young protagonists are given the rules, and those rules encourage self-centered strategies. The exam, on the face of it, will sort the examinees into winners and losers, usually by providing too few points for everyone to win or other limited resources. These exams come as a shock, with the examinees being friends or classmates who are suddenly asked to turn on one another to fight over limited points or prizes, with Kakashi Hatake’s bell test in Naruto being a classic example. Three genin are fighting over two bells, and anyone who doesn’t get a bell loses their genin rank.

Another example is the Harvest Festival in Welcome to Demon School, Iruma-kun!, with Babyls students competing alone or in pairs to collect enough ingredients to score points. They’re even allowed to steal from each other, so long as students directly harm one another in the process. The scores are tallied at the end, and there can only be one winner, so demon students are indirectly prompted to act selfishly and steal points whenever they can, even if that means betraying friends.

That’s all just reverse psychology, however, because the real test is a mental one, not a points-based physical exam. Naruto and Iruma-kun! are shonen anime, and they would send a bad message if the students really were supposed to act selfishly and turn on one another in a survival of the fittest free-for-all. These students aren’t just allowed to cooperate to claim victory — the exams are set up so that they have to, and the teachers secretly hope the students will realize that for themselves. Kakashi knew that no single genin could take a bell from him, so Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke were secretly expected to cooperate to take the bells, no matter who ended up failing in the process.

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Similarly, the Legend Leaf in Iruma-kun! was worth a massive 100,000 points, and only with teamwork and the power of friendship could anyone have claimed that leafy prize. The Legend Leaf itself said so, and Iruma Suzuki, an unusually cooperative and selfless student by Babyls standards, was the only one who could have pulled it off. Both this and Kakashi’s bell test prove that on a meta level, most mentors and teachers in shonen anime know what shonen is about, and they use reverse psychology to cultivate those values in their students’ minds.

Students must see past the seemingly selfish rules of any exam and fight together. A third example is the entrance exam in My Hero Academia, where UA hopefuls fought against villain bots and competed for points. The rules rewarded selfish acts to get points, but Izuku’s noble rescue of Ochaco Uraraka allowed him to pass even with a score of 0. All Might knew that it takes more than Quirk strength and points to prove oneself a real hero.

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When the Power of Friendship Rewrites a Shonen Exam’s or Tournament’s Rules

izuku vs shoto my hero academia U.A. Sports Festival

Many shonen exams and tournaments encourage the power of friendship, sometimes as a psychological test, but other times, the power of friendship invites itself into the exam unprompted. Deep down, most shonen heroes are cooperative and team-oriented people, even the antiheroes or lone wolves like Sasuke Uchiha and Katsuki Bakugo, and even the mentors might be taken by surprise. Some shonen tournaments or tests actually do expect the young examinees to fight for their own sakes, but the shonen heroes will still team up or nobly rescue one another on their own accord.

One example was the UA sports festival tournament, a series of single-elimination duels. Izuku faced Shoto Todoroki in a memorable battle in round two, and even if only one of them could win at the expense of the other, Izuku still empathized with Shoto and encouraged Shoto to realize his full potential and fight for real. Shoto did so, and even if it cost Izuku the match, Izuku felt it was worth it, as did Shoto. This was a turning point for Shoto’s character arc, and Izuku didn’t need any tournament rules or reverse psychology to make it happen.

Anime fans can find other, more minor examples to reinforce this theme, such as the final exam for demon slayer trainees in Demon Slayer. It was every slayer for themselves in that mountain battle arena, but Tanjiro Kamado still risked his life to save other examinees from dangerous demons, whether or not he got rewarded or even thanked for it. Finally, the feuding Kyoto and Tokyo sorcerer students teamed up at once when the curses attacked, with Yuji and Aoi Todo going from brutal rivals to instant “brothers.”