I have never watched Naruto, and never plan to, so it is very unfair for me to make any assumptions about his character. But this is what I have been able to pick up from the general synopsis. Naruto is characterized as rash, impulsive, and aggressive. He purposefully looks for a fight and runs into an obstacle headfirst. Aang, on the other hand, is witty and tactful. He tries to solve his problems by being quick and clever, and only uses fighting for necessary defense. Naruto goes to school where they teach him to fight and kill like a ninja. Aang was raised by monks who taught him that all life is sacred and to detach himself from the world so his spirit could live in peace. Naruto possesses the spirit of a demon fox inside him whose sole purpose is destruction. Aang is the resurrection of a long line of Avatars, the bridge between the real world and the spirit world, and whose duty is to master all bending disciplines and keep peace and balance among the four nations of the world.
In other words, Naruto is Sith, and Aang is Jedi. Believe it!
…Okay so this statement is straight from one of my earliest articles as a guest writer here at Toy-TMA, and good GOD do I sound like an A-hole. I have gotten more slack and notoriety for this than probably any other opinion I have expressed in the two years I have been writing for this site. I would like to make an apology to all Naruto fans right here and now. It was not right for me to make such a rash accusation about a series I had never even given a fair chance. I would very much like to fix that right here and now by giving a new, more accurate, up-to-date review on the series.
That’s right. Since I fully caught up with One Piece a while ago, I decided to begin tackling the second of Shonen Jump’s Big Three. Currently, I have read 30 volumes of Naruto’s original manga and have watched all the big fight sequences in the first two seasons of the anime. Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto claimed that vol. 27, concluding with what my otaku friend notoriously calls “the waterfall fight,” would be the spiritual end of the first part of the series. Therefore, that is the portion of the story we will be talking about today.
To recite was is easily the most well known superhero back-story in Japan since Goku’s, the story begins 12 years ago when the gigantic demon 9-Tailed Fox ravaged the Hidden Leif village of Konohagakure. To save the village, Konoha’s leader and protector, known as the Hokage, sacrifices himself to imprison the fox by sealing his spirit inside the body of an infant boy. Fast forward to now, and that same infant boy would grow up to become the village menace. A loud-mouthed, boisterous little brat whose very first act in the entire series involves profusely defiling the sacred statues of what is essentially the Feudal Japan version of Mount freaking Rushmore.
I would like to start on my true opinion of the show’s title character, Uzumaki Naruto. This has probably been influenced by years of watching the hosts of X-Play rag on the character because they were force to review so many of the series’ long line of video games, but the general sensuous I was exposed to for so long was this: that Naruto was a whiny, obnoxious, 13-year-old who shouts “Believe it!” every other sentence, is always griping for attention, and he’s a sorry excuse for a ninja because he wears a bright orange jumpsuit and doesn’t even know the meaning of stealth.
Well, after spending some time with the series myself, I can say that many of these accusations are only half true. In reality, I actually like Naruto a lot. I enjoy his upbeat gung-ho attitude. Sure he’s a bit rash, has anger issues, and a terribly lackluster sense of judgment when it comes to people’s choices or simply the situations around him, but that’s almost part of his charm. He starts off with very notable flaws, yet he refuses time and again to be thwarted by them. Here’s a kid who, thanks to the demon Fox he’s been cursed with since infancy, was shunned by the villagers, and with no family of his own, he was essentially all alone growing up. However all it took was a little sympathy and kindness from a few people, starting with his elementary teacher Iruka, to pull Naruto out of what could have been a downward spiral of despair and emptiness. Soon after, Naruto is placed in a three-man cell with his classmates Sasuke and Sakura, and under the direction of the brilliant Ninja Master Kakashei, Naruto begins the next chapter of his life, riddled with unorthodox training exercises, ninja shenanigans, high stakes missions, trees, bridges, dudes that look like chicks, talking samurai frogs, and most importantly, sappy fun-loving memories that will bond him to his new found friends for years to come.
Perhaps much of the critics’ annoyances to the character was compounded by how obnoxious his voice in the English dub turned out. I’ve heard it myself a few times and… yeah I’ll admit it’s pretty bad. It’s got the same raspy tone that Luffy’s English dub has going on, and they completely overdid it with the “Believe it” catchphrase in the translation. While Naruto does a lot of talking about believing this and believing that, if there is one thing he makes clear he doesn’t believe in, it’s being tied to your supposed fate or destiny. Anyone has the power to change the course of their life, and Naruto plans to prove this by becoming the greatest ninja Kanoha has ever seen. He, the laughing stock of the academy, will win the respect and admiration of his teachers, his fellow students, the very clan members that once shunned him, and rise as their next Hokage.
I’ll be first to admit this dream of his sounds just like another variation of “to be the very best… like no one ever was,” which by no means is a new concept. Though I do believe the goal of his dream does serve his own unique purpose that varies from, say… Luffy’s dream to find the One Piece and become Pirate King. To compare, Luffy’s world is currently trapped in an era where Order and Chaos are at constant odds with one another, and Freedom is the most coveted prize of all. That is what Luffy gains becoming Pirate King. Naruto, on the other hand, exists in a world where unity, duty, strength, and respect for your Nation are the greatest honors one can achieve. As a misfit, Naruto respects and desires those honors more than anyone.
So while Naruto takes strides to develop into yet another archetypal Shonen Jump hero, at least he remains spontaneous and endearing in his own unique way that keeps me compelled. Unfortunately that’s more than I can say for his cell mates, whom, for the course of the first 27 volumes, never once manage to move beyond their stereotypes. For starters, remember those comparisons I found between Naruto and Avatar Aang? Well, here’s another one that may be even more relevant.
Filling the token rival spot of our tale, Uchiha Sasuke, whom you can probably predict every facet of his character just by taking one look at him. Naturally gifted fighter, check. Overbearing melodramatic backstory including brutal murder of family, check. Unrelenting internal self-loathing, check. Power envy so strong, willing to sell his body and soul to obvious Lord Voldemort ripoff to achieve it, you bet your ass that’s a check.
Somehow, all this quantified to Sasuke being rated the Number One most popular character following the events of vol. 27, which honestly, given his final actions, I find quite sad. Yeah sure, Zuko had his own laundry list of problems, and his actions at the end of Book 2 sucked just as bad, but I still get his popularity because he still had redeeming qualities to counter them, like his endearing relationship with his uncle, a legitimate girlfriend, motives that were about winning his family’s acceptance and love and not just revenge, and at the end of the day, he does eventually redeem himself and in the process, restores the honor of the entire Fire Nation. But with Sasuke, it’s just hopeless. The Uchiha Clan was renowned for their enforcement of the law and a strong sense of justice. Sasuke, the last remaining heir of the Uchiha clan, cares nothing of that, wishing only to get the allotted power he needs to kill his older brother, Itachi, and ultimately get his revenge, even if it means becoming the very thing that destroyed his family in the first place. By the end of the first half, Sasuke has fallen so far under the influence of the dark side that any of you hopeless romantics still holding out any chance of seeing Sasuke’s redemption are only setting yourselves up for disappointment.
Speaking of hopeless romantics, we now come to Sakura, the token “girl” and third ring of Naruto’s cell. In the entire first half of Naruto, Sakura’s sole purpose in the plot consisted of doing two things:
- Spouting superfluous dialogue on the five nations, the use of chakra, the various forms of jutsu, and other expository crap, more for the sake of the audience than anyone in the actual show.
- Obsessing over Sasuke.
There was a portion in the beginning of the series where Naruto had an obvious crush on Sakura as well. What I like though is how it’s implied that over time, Naruto eventually gets over her (probably realizing she’s never getting over Sasuke any time soon), and the point where he starts to accept her as just a friend is the point when the two of them finally start getting along and building some decent chemistry as teammates. This, however, is more development on Naruto’s behalf as suppose to anything Sakura really does.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just a problem that stays with Sakura. All the early female characters in Naruto are sadly underdeveloped. Yeah yeah, it’s Shonen Anime, what do you expect? But just for the sake of argument, let’s compare them to the women of One Piece. Say what you want about how much they are sexualized and used for cheep thrills, the female members of the Straw Hat Pirates possess talents and dreams that are just as big and ambitious (if not more so) as their male counterparts. Nami charts every single island she visits and is working to create the very first map of the entire world. Robin is an archeologist seeking to uncover the truth behind a hundred year void in history the World Government has hidden from society. Vivi, a Princess of the Alabasta Kingdom, ran away from home and condoned herself to piracy for a chance to save her people.
The women of the first half of Naruto, however, all have dreams that amount to submitting themselves to whatever man they fancy at that particular moment. Sakura’s only goal in life is to win Sasuke’s heart. Her best friend Ino, exact same thing. The shy awkward girl Hinata, exact same thing. (Except she likes Naruto instead, which makes her totally different.) Hell even Tsunade, a 50-year-old woman, one of the three great shinobi and Konoha’s 5th Hokage, is first defined by the hunting memories of her lost baby brother and fiancé.
*Footnote: In the first three volumes I have read of Part 2, the roles of women, notably Sakura, have already made a 110% improvement thus far, so perhaps this series is finally moving in the right direction as far as the female demographic is concerned.
For me, the best parts of Naruto are when all the supporting cast members come into the mix. This is the point where I start to get a Harry Potter vibe from the series, only instead of a school of Wizards, it’s a school of Ninjas. Naruto’s fellow classmates all have their own distinct personalities, and each specializes in their own unique style of Justu. I especially like Shikamaru, whom we’ll call Shadow Man for now. He’s like this laid back unmotivated type who can only be bothered to get involved in a fight when it provides him with an opportunity to show off how much smarter he is than everyone else. (There’s also this running gag where every single one of his fights thus far has been against women.) His pal Choji, the uh… “fashionably plump” kid, is funny. He’s just an all around good guy, very reliable, and whose only vice is that he likes to eat. Kiba is Beast Man, is in touch with his animal instincts and fights alongside his pet puppy Akamaru. Shino is Bug Man, very quiet, probably speaks more to his fellow insects than any one person. Kinda creepy, but in a cool way. Also like Harry Potter, the teachers come in a wide variety as well. Instructors like Master Kakashi, Guy, and Jiraiya are all fun, welcoming additions to the cast.
What this amounts to is me being more intrigued by the less plot heavy arcs of the series when all the students simply gather together for a tournament or exam, and all their unique fighting styles are put on display. In fact, the first truly epic fight of Season One doesn’t involve Naruto or any of the main three. It’s between two supporting cast members, Gaara of the Sand and Rock Lee. Not only is their fight badass, but it highlights the two most contrasting styles of justu, and puts them at odds with one another.
Some people may make a weeping fuss about how ninjas are suppose to be silent assassins that stay in the shadows and wear all black, and how the hell does a school of rowdy 13-year-olds in brightly colored outfits, learning how to magically conjure DBZ style energy waves, bend the elements, create illusions, and summon demonic monsters within them have anything to do with Ninjutsu? Well to those people, I say SHUT UP and stop ruining our fun. No one complained when a group of mutated anthropomorphic turtles popped out of the sewer and tried to pass themselves off as ninjas. It’s not like all the pirates in One Piece are the same typical Anglo Saxon looking “Ahrrrg, scurvy!” kind of pirates that can be found in every over pirate tale known to man. That would be boring. Creativity is the splice of life, and because Naruto has created such a unique take on ninjas that is still appealing to young male audiences everywhere, the series has been ongoing well over a decade now, and is regarded as the most successful and bestselling ninja manga in the world. Of course we have to emphasize the word “ninja” in that statement, because as far as the manga universe is concerned, the Pirates are still going home with the gold.
To conclude, here is my final word on Part 1 of Naruto: It is a lot better than I expected. I like Naruto and most of the supporting cast. The character arcs and back stories for several of the minor characters are engaging and well integrated into the story. The action is often well choreographed and has a tone of variety. By no means is it my ideal show though. I have my gripes with the other two main characters, and some of the plots feel a bit weak. I wish the adventures themselves could be a bit more exciting and not all feel like tacked on expositions simply used to pave the way for more fighting. Like yeah, we need fighting, but couldn’t you be just a little more creative in building up to it? You know like… One Piece? (Man, I’m starting to sound like Little Kariboh’s impersonation of Iruka in his Naruto Abridged Series. )
In many aspects, the show is a lot like its main character: while it has some very obvious flaws, it’s so passionate and means so well that it’s endearing and you want to believe in it. I can now see why this show has such a strong following and I’m glad to now be a small part of it.
The first 220 episodes of Naruto are currently available on Netflix Instant Stream, and as an added bonus, it is in the original Japanese format with subtitles (score!) Fair warning, the show does share Dragon Ball Z’s slow pacing and filler problems. If you don’t have the patience for such things, you’re best off doing what I do: pick up the original manga at your local library and just watch the anime for the good parts.
Farewell for now my fellow Shinobi. I shall return once I’ve had time to fully catch up with Part 2 and give my thoughts on Naruto’s current whereabouts.