Manga Musings: Naruto

Holy shit, it’s finally over.

So, Naruto. One of the Big Three (joined by Bleach and One Piece), unless their status has changed. No matter, though. Anyway, I did use the word “finally,” indicating that it’s something I’ve waited for for some time now. It’s true. Somewhere along the line, the sheer length and meandering pace got me turned off of Naruto, so it was a happy moment when I noticed that it had ended, since I’d give me a reason to pick it up again. Like running, it’s easier to read when you have a goal. So, what about this ninja story, 15 years in the making?

Naruto is a good manga.

By VitalikLoL over at deviantart

This’ll have two parts – one with no to minimal spoilers, and a second, spoiler-filled part.

Having its start way back in 1999, Naruto is one of the modern successors of Dragon Ball, in theway it places its values and builds its story. Like Goku, Naruto starts out virtually alone. Naruto, though, is alone because of the fear the other villagers holds for him. You see, inside Naruto dwells a monster – A monstrous nine-tailed fox that nearly levelled the village before it was sealed into Naruto. Despite his social seclusion, Naruto has a dream: To become Hokage, recognised as the most powerful ninja in the village. And so starts the trials and tribulations of Naruto. He’s quickly placed in a team with Sakura, a girl he’s liked from a distance for a time; Sasuke, the sole surviving member in the village of the incredibly powerful ninja clan Uchiha; and Kakashi, a world-renowned ninja with an unorthodox teaching style. Together, they form Team 7 and go on missions and adventures together.

It’s kind of hard to judge the story of Naruto at first, because it’s kind of aimlessly chronicling the growth of Naruto into a more mature young man (he’s not even a teenager when the manga starts). It’s an interesting set-up for a shounen manga, considering it puts the characters in situations where they have to kill as they are just children. But the ninja world has not a care for your age, just your capability- is what I’d like to say, but good luck pushing out 700 chapters of a bleak, survivalist manga through Weekly Shounen Jump. Naruto instead falls into its oft-criticised “befriend them to death”-formula, where Naruto’s sheer perseverance and good-heartedness lights a path to victory. Maybe it sounds like I’m dissing it, but I really like it – to a point. The first part is a very strong manga, thanks to some great character work and rather brave story-telling that you don’t normally see in straight shounens.

To the characters, then. Surely the most important aspect of a long manga. Does Naruto succeed in creating memorable characters that keep you coming back? The answer is obviously yes, due to its enormous popularity, but in a very limited way. Hardly any characters except for the main quartet gets any real development, and one in the quartet itself is so poorly written it feels like an affront to manga in general.

“How’s Naruto, then? Surely the main character is well written?” Yeah, I’d say so, and I’d say that Kishimoto succeeds in having the story led by Naruto’s motivations and actions, rather than Naruto always being led around the nose. That said, he’s uncompromising in a way that is endearing at first, but becomes ridiculous naïvety as the manga grows older. Like with almost all other aspects of the story, Naruto’s growth through the story doesn’t work with the growth of the readers. Say you were 15 when Naruto started. You’re 30 now. Still, the tone of the manga and the characters have hardly moved an inch. It’s weird. I’m an adult now, but Naruto’s still a kid with training-wheels. Harsh, yes, but so was reading the final act.

A lot of that can be simply attributed to the fact that Naruto is just a young man throughout the manga, even if he does grow up, to an extent. But his growth is made nearly void at times, with other characters having become leaps and bounds more mature and responsible. While he’s still young, a lot of the focus of the manga is pointed at young ninjas having to grow up quick or die.

As far as the character itself, Naruto can be looked at quickly and have you say “he’s just another stupid, strong lead character.” Thing is, Naruto is about as far from that trope as you’ll get in shounen manga, while still being forced into its trenches. He’s brash, crude and very rash, yes, but he’s also very intelligent and compassionate. He can both plan ahead and come up with tactics in a hurry, given him being very flexible. That’s what makes it even more frustrating when Kishimoto makes him into a staunch redeemer who basically befriends people to death. Where’s the Naruto that makes tough calls for the greater good (the greater good)? He sure isn’t in this manga. Having been possessed by the Kyuubi since birth, you’d expect Naruto to be more pessimistic at least some of the time, and make some bad decisions out of old hatred. But we can’t have darker character development, can we, Kishimoto? That’s not to say that Naruto doesn’t have his share of dark moments, but I feel it’s an area that was sorely unexplored.

As for the other main characters:

Kakashi is the team leader, and the adult of the group. Having become a high-level ninja at a young age, he knows how to make tough decisions and has no great qualms about killing. As a teacher, he is strict, but loving, and comes to see his three trainees as children with time. He’s calm and collected, nearly always finding time in battle to come up with a plan to strike. He’s also obsessed with reading a certain romantic series that later becomes embraced as a running gag and story development. He’s also got a special tool – one of his eyes house a special eye (kind of hard to explain, but special eyes basically make you able to use better ninja-techniques) that allows him to easily see his opponents’ moves and intercept them with incredible speed. Being a high-level ninja, Kakashi is proficient in every sort of jutsu (technique, as in “ninjutsu” = ninja technique) around, and he seems to have virtually no weaknesses.

Sasuke is a pretty standard shounen cool-guy character. He’s handsome, calm and collected, and of course he’s incredibly talented. He’s also got a bloodline limit (aka a power limited to those who share a specific bloodline) that is ridiculously powerful, and whose evolution throughout the series becomes even more and more far-fetched. I went from initially hating Sasuke, to actually kind of accepting him, and then hating him again. What’s frustrating with Sasuke is that, like many other characters in the series, his rationale and actions are haphazardly altered to fit the story. This leads to some awful reasons for his actions and his constant switching between good and evil, which grows extremely tiresome. It’s also hilariously predictable to see where he’s going to end up, so most of his scenes become a drag.

Onto Sakura, the most frustrating part of the main cast. Is it because Sakura is a bad character? Well, duh. Sakura is this series’ damsel in distress. That’s not to say that she’s absolutely useless, or that she doesn’t have any redeeming qualities, because she does have some good moments. But it’s all brought down due to her basically being a love-slave to Sasuke. Whether he tries to off her or is just being a standoffish douche-hat, Sakura is perpetually enamoured with him. Even as she grows up to be a (supposedly) more mature young lady, she still clings to this saddening pretence of what love’s supposed to be. The subject of love in manga/anime is almost always a source of vitriol for me, as it’s almost always written abominably bad. The Sakura-Sakuke dynamic is another one of those. At least the series’ other major (major being arguable) romantic angle, Hinata being into Naruto, has some legs to stand on (despite how rarely Hinata has any meaningful part in the plot) as she actually gives reasons for being in love with our goofy lead man. Sakura’s like a programmed woman, designed to submit herself whenever Sasuke shows up. It’s kind of a slap in the face where Sakura ends up after having been given no deeper explanation during the series’ 700 effin’ chapter run. I think ladies reading Naruto will feel insulted, and with good reason. I don’t think Kishimoto hates women, but I do think he’s clueless to how to write them.

Most of the supporting cast are what they need to be and are playing their simple roles. There’s the gutsy ones, the comedy relief ones, the cool ones, the smart ones, and so on. It’s very standard fare for shounen manga.

Finishing up with art: It’s nice. Sorry, I’m not an artist. The initial art starts out very so-so, as Kishimoto is finding his style, and moves on to be quite sleek and very pretty. The backgrounds can be quite lazy, but it’s not my biggest complaint, so no bother.

Finishing up the spoiler-free part, Naruto isn’t really something I’d recommend for anyone else but someone who wants to read a big shounen adventure. Naruto might be right up your alley, or you might absolutely hate it. I’ve learned to tolerate it, and think there are enough redeeming qualities in it (I mean, I finished 700 chapters of this saga) to warrant a passing grade. Naruto uses a lot of build-up that ends up going nowhere and/or being shafted for more “acceptable” reading. I get the reasoning, but it’s not for me any longer.

I’m looking to go more into the ninja theme with Nabari no Ou next, for what it’s worth.

Alright, lads. Spoilers are on from now. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

Naruto‘s main problem to me is the lack of a focus, as it just leads to five different plots at once. Naruto going off on his own and other characters given time as well. The second part of Naruto is the glaring example of this. After the time-skip, characters just haven’t changed in general, which makes it pretty fucking meaningless.

Most arcs after the time-skip are sooooooo looooong, and the ninja war being the biggest offender. Everybody gets a mega level-up and are epic-ing their faces off at everything moving and it’s just become so blasé at this point. The Akatsuki arc has a promising start, but loses traction very early and just spins it’s wheels until Naruto shows up to pummel it to dust, with kindness. Sigh. Technically it lasts until the end, but nobody really thought of the ending as Naruto vs Akatsuki, did they? Thought so.

Also, how many training arcs are there? Man, Naruto stood on its own legs for a while, and then went complete Dragon ball with the characters’ developments.

The final pairings are also a complete joke in some aspects. Sasuke and Sakura being married has to be the most abusive relationship ever. I’m okay with Kakashi being named Hokage, even if it didn’t seem like a role he’d ever want to have. Others are just paired together due to fan demand, which I guess works.

Like many people, I think the series lost its way somewhere after the time-skip (even if the final arc before that was hilariously bad).

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