Exam arcs are some of the most defining in battle shonen anime series. They put the characters through the wringer, forcing them to prove why they're worthy of advancing through the ranks. Many are intense, like Naruto's iconic Chunin Exams and My Hero Academia's training camp in the Beast Forest. Training arcs are crucial to character development and show how much certain heroes improved their strength in many shonen series. However, many of them share one specific detail: their setting.
Many exam and training arcs in anime are set in a forest. In any fictional medium, forests have a certain otherworldly appeal. The characters may get lost the deeper they venture inside, and danger is possibly lurking around every corner or behind each tree trunk. In anime, this makes forest training or exam arcs even more compelling to the audience and intense for the characters. Though it may seem repetitive for every shonen exam arc to be set in a forest, there are few better settings for such a pivotal moment in the characters' journeys.
Forest Tests Present Specific Challenges to Anime Characters
Shonen training arcs are expected to be arduous, but characters are put through a unique series of difficult trials when it takes place in a forest. For one, they have to adapt to the surrounding terrain. In My Hero Academia's exam arc, this meant that Katsuki Bakugo and Shoto Todoroki couldn't use their flames and explosions, lest the entire forest burn down. By the same token, Dabi took advantage of this with his Blueflame. Earlier on, the students were also forced to fight monsters created by Ryuko's Earth Flow. Forests present many challenges to their inhabitants at any given moment.
In Yu Yu Hakusho's "Genkai Tournament" arc, fans saw Yusuke Urameshi stubbornly rush into a forest full of traps. His bullheaded brazenness is usually a strength, but the forest's terrain made viewers rethink this behavior as irresponsible naivety that did more harm than good. Dangerous terrains require characters to rethink how they'll charge into the next challenge. What works everywhere else definitely won't be carte blanche in a dark, unstable environment.
Additionally, the eerie atmosphere of a forest at night is reminiscent of horror movies like The Blair Witch Project or Friday the 13th. Forests are difficult to escape when danger strikes, but impossible to find one's way out of. During the Chunin Exams in Naruto, the Forest of Death's haunting atmosphere cultivated the perfect segue into Orochimaru's chilling introduction. Choosing a forest for an exam or training arc is brilliant for the narrative's tone and for a character's growth.
The Immersive Atmosphere of a Forest Keeps Viewers Entertained
A forest setting is definitely challenging to the characters, so what exactly makes it so compelling to the viewers? Continuing with the horror movie comparison, forest arcs are somewhat of a survival of the fittest situation for the characters. The eerie atmosphere instantly immerses the viewer into the story, but they become totally engrossed once the challenges start presenting themselves. Most horror movies have some aspect of a monster lurking in the shadows. Anime evokes the same fearfulness with characters like Orochimaru or MHA's League of Villains stalking in the dark.
Forests often present life-threatening situations for the heroes, and viewers are enthralled with watching how their favorites overcome those situations. Whether from a villain looking to hijack the exam or dealing with the natural environmental challenges that come with roaming around the forest, viewers cannot help but root for the heroes as they show off their problem-solving abilities. Any battle shonen anime worth its salt focuses on character development.
This makes the forest setting even more compelling to viewers. The eerie atmosphere helps, but fans especially love seeing their favorite characters grow after enduring hardship. More often than not, many fan-favorites are forced to grow up and change how they do things during a forest exam arc. In shonen anime, these stories bring out the best in their heroes by forcing them to endure horrible, possibly traumatic situations. They face various challenges, from villains to figuring out how their powers work in the forest's difficult terrain. Characters who wouldn't otherwise work together are forced to if they want to make it out alive -- or at least pass the exam.