A great narrative arc needs more than just an interesting plot and captivating action. While these are both appreciated, the best arc shounen anime also feature exquisite writing that takes the cast into uncharted territory. All great shounen sagas are packed full of intense fights and brutal takedowns, but they also feature incredible moments of victory, tragedy, redemption, and deceit. It's these terrific ingredients that make them the best shounen anime ever made. After all, who wants to read the same old boring thing?
Naruto Shippūden's "Invasion of Pain Arc" can be seen as a re-exploration of the second half of the "Chūnin Exams," with the stakes raised up to 11. The Village Hidden in the Leaves is attacked by the Akatsuki and their leader Pain, a villain whose desire for peace through violence eerily resembles Naruto's own principles.
The battle between Naruto and Pain is one of the most intense matchups in the series, featuring a shocking sacrifice and a horrifying transformation. The "Invasion of Pain" saga answers longtime questions surrounding the series, such as the origin of the Akatsuki, and the death of Naruto's long-time pervy sensei Jiraiya left many fans in tears. Most importantly, the "Invasion of Pain" arc finally sees Naruto receive love and admiration from his fellow villagers. He's been dreaming of societal acceptance his whole life, so the moment is amazingly gratifying.
The "Soul Society Arc" expands upon the lore underpinning the fascinating spirit world of Bleach. Rukia Kuchiki is captured and sentenced to execution by her former comrades, which offers an in-depth look at the politics that govern the afterlife. At the same time, the incident gives Ichigo Kurosaki and friends a new opportunity to develop their powers, which is always fun to watch.
This story arc raises the stakes of the series, and does so without throwing in an overpowered enemy who seems undefeatable by the show's previous standards. Instead, it offers a rich narrative filled with twists and turns, as the true mastermind behind Rukia's execution is one of the smartest anime villains of all time.
Even after he comes back from the dead, Yusuke Urameshi of Yu Yu Hakusho is still a smart-ass kid. However, in the "Dark Tournament Saga," Yusuke takes his first steps towards maturity, as he's forced to enter an underground tournament filled with vicious killers. If he refuses to participate, his arch nemesis Toguro will kill everyone he loves in a matter of seconds.
Toguro pushes Yusuke to his breaking point, as he dreams of dying in battle, and Yusuke's struggle to match Toguro's power is heart-wrenching. He endures excruciating physical torment to inheret Genkai's spirit energy, but it's still not enough to get the job done. It takes the death of Genkai — one of the most important mentors in Yusuke's life — and a brilliant fake out by Kazuma Kuwabara to motivate Yusuke to unlock his inner strength and defeat Toguro once and for all.
In Naruto's "Chūnin Exams Saga," the titular hero gains a better understanding of his own identity as he goes up against Gaara, another cursed individual. While Naruto's damnation simply caused his neighbors to give him the cold shoulder, Gaara wasn't so lucky.
The "Chūnin Exams" teach Naruto what it takes to be a true ninja, while introducing him to the ugly politics that exist beyond the gates of his home village. Orochimaru — the main villain of the series — makes his introduction, and begins corrupting Sasuke Uchiha, setting the stage for some intense late-series moments. On top of all this, it's the first time viewers get to see all the ninja students demonstrate their unique abilities. Showdowns such as Rock Lee's incredible match against Gaara make the "Chūnin Exam" a delightful watch.