More often than not, anime characters have some sort of inhuman power or ability. Whether it be an energy blast, super strength, or the ability to fly, superpowers make stories more interesting. They add a sense of wonder and escapism, giving the readers something larger than life. However, with the number of super-powered characters in anime and manga over the years, a popular trend has- developed: power-scaling. These levels mark exactly how strong a character is, making it easier for fans to follow their progression. Sadly, what was once a clever idea quickly became a cheap gimmick.

Poor Power-Scaling Dismisses Progress

Power-scaling first became popular when introduced in Akira Toriyama’s DRAGON BALL Z. The story’s first arc revolved around Goku’s origin as a Saiyan, an alien warrior. Goku was sent to Earth to destroy it, but after losing his memory, he grew to love the little planet. Later, when two new Saiyans come to destroy the world, it’s up to Goku to fight them. When the duo arrives, their scouters (devices capable of recording someone’s power level) pick up something strange.

Vegeta breaking his scouter upon finding out Gokus power level.
IT’S OVER 9,000!!! | Image: Prime Video

The scouters reveal Goku’s abnormally high power, something neither of the Saiyans expected. In this instance, power-scaling was a great way to show how strong Goku had become thanks to his training. The payoff was increadibly satisfying. Since then, however, various anime and manga have tried and failed to recapture that lightning in a bottle. Even the DRAGON BALL franchise.

During their fight at the end of the first arc, Goku and Vegeta were the two most powerful beings on the planet. In the subsequent arc, the creator needed to raise the stakes. So, we saw Goku travel to another planet to fight the most powerful being in the universe. During this fight, Goku transforms into a Super Saiyan, multiplying his power level by 20.

What followed was arc after arc of transformations and increased power-scaling. Now, in DRAGON BALL SUPER, Goku is infinitely stronger than he was during his first fight with Vegeta. Keep in mind, during that fight he was the most powerful being on the planet. By depending on power levels so regularly, the anime has dismissed any of Goku and co.’s accomplishments by making their power irrelevant. What’s the point of watching a character train for 20 plus episodes if their power won’t matter once a new villain arrives?

Erratic Changes

Another issue with power-scaling is that they must always be adhered to. If not, the story becomes inconsistent. This is especially important in long running anime. For example, at the end of the main NARUTO series, Naruto and Sasuke face off in an epic showdown, utilizing the techniques they learned throughout the series and outclassing even the highest level shinobi.

Naruto and Sasuke showing off their power levels, an example of poor power-scaling
What a rivalry. | Image: Viz Media

Much like Goku’s big reveal before his fight with Vegeta, this point in the show set a precedent. It would make sense that each of them would at least be this strong in the anime going forward. However, that didn’t seem to be the case. While it wasn’t a part of the manga, the anime followed that fight up with a filler arc before the release of NARUTO SHIPPUDEN. During that arc, none of the villains were as powerful as Sasuke during the final bout. And yet, each and every one of them gave Naruto a hard time.

Without any explanation, this progression is illogical and disappointing to follow. No one wants to follow the exploits of a hero who may or may not succeed for no particular reason. At the end of the day, it’s just lazy writing.

Oh, How Convenient

Speaking of lazy writing, outrageous power-scaling offers an easy solution to writers who have worked themselves into a corner. We see this problem time and time again in Tite Kubo’s BLEACH. Ichigo is often faced with enemies stronger than him. Instead of looking for an alternate way to solve the problem, the Soul Reaper usually just performs some miraculous transformation that drastically increases his power level.

In BLEACH, inconsistent power-scaling is especially apparent because some characters can’t even be hurt by people with too low of a power level. That means that Ichigo could be unable to touch the bad guy at the beginning of the fight, but is magically able to kill them by the end of the episode.

Ichigo and Renji striking their Zanpakuto, displaying their power levels.
Just a couple of Soul Reapers! | Image: Viz Media

Afterward, the transformation is usually explained, but that doesn’t really solve anything. Without being given some context ahead of time, the bulk in power just feels like a deus ex machina. The show doesn’t carry the same weight as it should because we know that Ichigo will probably just become more powerful after coming close enough to death. It never feels like he’s in any real danger.

A Step In The Right Direction

Luckily, after years of abusing the cheap gimmick, it seems as though the industry is moving away from inconsistent power-scaling as the baseline. We see this in series like MY HERO ACADEMIA and ATTACK ON TITAN, who use skills or abilities to set their characters apart. More often than not, characters need to have their wits about them, they can’t just power up and hit their problems harder.

Saitama and Genos posing heroically, displaying their unspoken power levels.
One punch!!! | Image: Viz Media

No anime does this better than ONE PUNCH MAN. ONE PUNCH MAN subverts the use of poor power-scaling while actively poking fun at the long-running cliche. The story revolves around Saitama, a salary-man who wanted to become a superhero. After training every day for three years, Saitama gained immeasurable strength.

There in lies the genius of the story. Saitama’s greatest conflict is that no one is as strong as him. He pursued the superhero industry because he loved the thrill of the fight. Sadly, with so much power, no one can give him a proper challenge. The show serves as a commentary on so many series that abuse power-scaling, pointing out how flawed the narrative tool has become.

Not Worth The Risk

When used organically, proper power-scaling can lend itself to a story. However, it seems as though the cheap trick usually does more harm than good. In fact, it’s the cause of a lot of complaints about anime. Filler wouldn’t be so noticeable if writers didn’t have to dodge serious conflict to avoid calling attention to power levels. When a character’s strength is quantified and augmented with each passing arc, it invalidates how strong someone is in that moment. While there are ways to neatly incorporate progressive power-scaling, they offer a myriad of problems that seem to hurt stories more often than not.

For more on bad anime tropes, check out our article on The 10 Worst Anime Tropes of All Time. Is your favorite anime guilty of poor power-scaling? Let us know in the comments below!

Feature Image Courtesy of Funimation.

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