America’s New Favorite Shonen: Queen’s Gambit

SPOILER ALERT – Heavy Queen’s Gambit spoilers below

I had a moment of clarity around the Fifth Episode of Queens Gambit as to why I was enjoying the show so much. You see Beth, our orphaned chess child prodigy, had just experienced a humiliating loss at the hands of the large, unfeeling, Russian international chess Champion: Borgov. In the tense moment between these two titans, I was struck with the realization that the most effective narrative movements of Queens Gambit are structurally identical to Shonen Anime.

Shonen is a subgenre of YA Anime that was popularized in the late 90s that centers around orphaned prodigies who obtain ridiculous power in the name of fighting evil and honing their skills. I love Shonen for its broad appealing, archetypal, mythic based storylines. Good vs Evil, how to live a moral life, all the classic conflicts surrounded the action with flashy stylized heroes utilizing strategy and intelligence to overcome their rivals. Queen’s Gambit successfully takes these Shonen narrative tropes and makes them even more appealing to American audiences by adding sleek ‘modern’ mad men cinematography and direction.

Queen’s Gambit contains a multitude of parallels to Shonen Anime, but here are a few for fun:

The Emotionless Big Bad

Nearly every Shonen Anime has their ‘big bad’ antagonist – in Queen’s Gambit we’re given the Chess-Bot: Borgov. Borgov provides a satisfying narrative parallel as Beth: she is someone who drowns their own emotions in messy ways where Borgov is seen as ‘suppressing’ his emotions to be more critical and successful. Toguro in Yu Yu Hakusho, Broly in Dragon Ball, Father/Dwarf in the Flask in Fullmetal Alchemist all follow the ‘rejection of emotion in pursuit of power’ trope as Borgov has. The trope eventually inverses itself, showing that the protagonist can only overcome by accessing their true emotions in the face of such steely obstacles. More on that in a few.

The Addictive Nature of Heightened Power

At Beth’s Orphanage the administration would use tranquilizers these to keep the girls emotionally suppressed. The girls begin hide and horde the tranquilizers as they are secretly overdosing to get high. Beth uses the ‘highs’ to access greater ‘power’ as they give her the ability to visualize and replay games in her head. This trope mirrors with the addiction and abuse of ‘power heightening’ drugs and substances across Shonen Anime that cause the user to ‘lose touch’. The Zero systems’ in Gundam Wing and the Saiyan Tail Moon transformation in Dragon Ball series are good parallels. Each allow the user to access primal levels of combat precision – with the side effect of losing touch with reality and morality. The subsequent loss of morality has direct consequences on the plot.

Returning to the Masters’ Grave for Inspiration

I may have literally screamed to my wife, “NO THEY DID NOT,” at the opening of Episode 7, when Beth returns to Mr. Shaibel’s office after his funeral. This tracks with the classic trope of having the defeated prodigy return to their master’s grave for clarity and understanding. Yusuke Urameshi is made to face the killer of his master Genkai, who is massively stronger than himself, and travels to her grave to ‘unlock his feelings and restricted power’ before the final fight with Genkai’s killer. Beth cries at the realization of Mr. Shaibel’s care and love for her allows her  to access her emotions and gain true insight. This allows Beth to move past her period of being, as Genkai called Yusuke, “emotionally constipated” for most of the series.

The Ultimate Power: Friendship

In Queen’s Gambit Beth must reface Borgov for a fated rematch (another Shonen trope), but she is afraid. This is just before the dreamy Townes snaps her out of it by bringing all her friends on one group international phone call give her the hyperbolic power boost of friendship. Beth is forced to confront her limitations as a solo competitor and lean on those around her. Relationships and personal connections are the basis of nearly all power in Shonen anime. Beth is literally pulling a ‘lend me your spirit’ ala the 3-episode long Spirit Bombs of Dragon Ball Z. It’s a ridiculous trope delivered with a wink – the writers know the audience wants the satisfying, even if false, narrative conclusion that involves every single character we’ve come to love along the way. 

As the reviews for Queens Gambit rolled in, I found myself getting upset at the critical acclaim. The same critics who would pan Shonen as uncomplicated YA were calling Queen’s Gambit ‘addictive’ and ‘so fresh’. Once I calmed my bruised millennial ego, I was able to come to a more rational conclusion Maybe Queen’s Gambit’s success means the American Critical Community is finally ready to accept Shonen as a legitimate narrative genre.

Well, at least chess based Mad-Men draped Shonen.

Timothy Norton is a multi-genre writer from Norfolk, Virginia with fiction published in The Roadrunner Review and forthcoming in Fiction Southeast

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