With Easter approaching this Sunday, Beneath the Tangles is posting thematically connected articles each day in commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection. For 2021, our theme is “Arise.”
I’m making my way through the excellent shonen series, Jujutsu Kaisen, and am currently at the point where protagonist Yuji Itadori, who as the human host of the extremely powerful spirit Sukuna, is training as he prepares not only to become a jujutsu sorcerer, but also for a tournament where he’ll be matched up against other students and sorcerers. His training consists of the usual—exercises and discipline, crafted and sometimes taught directly master sorcerer Gojo and along with some on-the-job training. Though the manga on which it’s based is much too long for Itadori to emerge from this singular training as all-powerful, the expectation is that he will have grown in strength several times over and will be ready for the combat ahead, both in the tourney and on missions.
The training arc is a regular part of long-running, shonen action series. Traditionally, protagonists of these shows are full of guts and perhaps talent, but are also usually unshaped, undisciplined, and unlearned. It’s a right of passage of sorts to undergo such training and become a craftier and smarter fighter, an idea deeply embedded in martial arts, but in sports, too, where a “training camp” is usual for full teams as opposed to individual players (though Hinata Shoyo was lucky enough to get one of each!).
I’ve related how while I’ve never been to an athletic training camp, I’ve often retreated from the world spiritually, which is very similar to those mentioned above—including in how fun they can be. Such arcs (and real-life activities) are often meant to evoke a sense of enjoyment as well as hard work (“Let’s go to training camp!”). But some training arcs are darker than others. Think about Goku dying and choosing to train for when he would return, or even Jujutsu Kaisen, where Itadori kind of dies, too (I’m still not clear on the concept of dying in this series, to be honest), and is hidden by Gojo to continue his development and eventually resurface at some later point.
The recent period of training, one that most all of us are undergoing, is also dark. In fact, it’s not much fun at all. It’s frustrating and dangerous. None of us applied for it, and we probably don’t even consider it a training camp. I’m speaking, of course, about life under the cloud of Coronavirus.
Wait…the pandemic is training camp? No, no, that’s quite a silly and perhaps insensitive way to look at this past year. And yet, I can’t help but see it as such. As with a traditional training camp, while quarantining, I’ve been closed off from the rest of the world. I’ve been left to do things a little differently, with fewer people (and often entirely on our own). And also, one day soon, I’ll emerge from all this craziness.
But when that happens, I wonder, how will I look? Will I be figuratively all buff, Goku style? Will I have mastered some new technique, like Naruto? Will I be able to say I leveled up and learned new skills, like Itadori?
Or will I have wasted my time entirely?
The thing about training arcs in shonen series is that they’re exciting to watch at first, but then they become boring. You’ll notice that most of these arcs aren’t terrifically long, some for only a couple of episodes. Many skim over details, with specifics either seen mostly in flashbacks or skipped through while other events are occurring (think of the de-emphasis on Naruto in the series that bears his name during time his with Jiraiya). Even in Jujutsu Kaisen, a whole month flies by and suddenly, Itadori goes on a mission. After all, no one really wants to see the hard work that goes into such preparation.
No one much wants to participate in training, either, especially when there’s no fun distraction, when there are few or no other people around, epecially not when it’s hard and discouraging. And that’s exactly what this pandemic has been. I feel like a shut-in, not shonen protagonists, like I’m being beaten over the head without getting “growth through pain” in return.
But also unlike anime, I can’t just skip the boring parts. The work has to be done, repeatedly, with determination and focus. Whether is has to do with athletics, a health goal, school, work, or fashioning some single talent, it takes discipline, and this time is invaluable—we may not get so much alone time for many years, decades even.
For Christians, this time is particularly crucial. I’ve known that to be true from the very beginning, and yet, I haven’t trained very hard at all, even though my faith is abundantly clear in stating that God has a plan even during troubling times. It should be immediate to me that this horrible pandemic that has torn so many lives apart and taken so many away also provides this bizarre opportunity to bless God and others, and to prepare to do even more when it’s all over.
But I haven’t been doing that. I’ve been delaying in practicing the disciplines I should have been developing over all these months, which for me includes putting more emphasis on my prayer life, setting aside proper time with God, and reaching out to people in love, whether by phone or just a text. And yet, there is no better time to do all this than within this bubble, in a training that really is all about how I might grow so that when it’s done, I can bless God and others.
If all these 15-16-17-year-old shonen protagonists can do it, I know I can do the same, and come out on the other side ready to fight the good fight, and armed more than ever to do so.
It’s time to train.
Featured illustration by くりす たくみ (reprinted w/permission). Jujutsu Kaisen can be streamed through Crunchyroll.