A few weeks ago, the long-running manga series Naruto ended at chapter 700. And as it has been one of the most popular mainstream manga and anime of the past decade, I decided to read it—all 10,000+ pages of it.
But before we get down to the review proper, it's probably a good idea to tell you about my history with the franchise. I discovered Naruto in mid 2003 when, as a freshman in college, a friend gave me a set of burned CDs containing the first two dozen or so episodes. It didn't blow me away, but it was still a fun, cool little adventure. So when I ran out of episodes, I continued on by reading the manga. While I never read it week to week, I did read it in bursts until sometime in 2005 when I dropped the series hard and never looked back (a story for another time).
Still, even then, I planned to revisit Naruto when it finished (much as I intend to do with the similarly lengthy Shonen Jump manga Bleach). And now, after a nine-year break and with the benefit of a total read-through, it time to get down to what works and what doesn't.
Naruto is the story of battling ninjas, sure, but on the more personal level, it's a story of growing up. At the start, the main three characters, Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke, are very much children. They go to school, have classes, and are assigned to their very first team as apprentices to a master ninja. Then the story transitions into their learning to be a team and facing conflicts in their local area before moving on to steadily grander threats.
Over the course of the approximately five years of the story (some of which are skipped in their entirety), all three struggle to overcome their respective pasts. For Naruto, it is a battle against all that comes with having been a lonely outcast for so long. For Sasuke, it is his inner battle with his need for revenge—to hunt down and kill the one who killed his entire clan. For Sakura, it's dealing with overcoming her feelings of love in order to do what is necessary. It's through facing these internal conflicts—as well as many external ones—that they enter into the realm of adulthood.
Better still, their growth toward maturity is always a gradual change and never a light switch. The events and revelations of the manga build on one another to shape the characters—especially when it comes to Sasuke.
The main story of Naruto covers everything from life in a ninja school, ninja training, and a ninja tournament to an attack from ninja terrorists, a ninja kidnapping, and a giant ninja war. However, it's outside of the main plot that Naruto does its best work.
Free from the constraints of the main story, the side-story flashbacks are dark tales of life before Naruto's generation. The histories of Kakashi, the Fourth Hokage, the First Hokage, the Sannin, and Pain are all excellent little tales that pack more emotional punch than any part of the main plot. These are stories that carry far more in the way of tension and danger as, unlike in the main story, the worst can and often does happen—leaving friendships broken and friends dead.
What's even more interesting is how these tales not only flesh out the supporting cast but several also serve as a mirror tale to the lives of Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura. Many deal with a love triangle of ninjas—a team of two boys and a girl. Some then deal with one of the three going down a dark path. Most include a loving mentor character who takes the three under wing to train them. Through these past tales, we are able to see how badly the relationship between Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke could get without ever having to—necessarily—take it there.
Of course, it's not just the characters in the flashbacks that really shine in Naruto—the supporting cast is also full of awesome characters. There are ninjas that can fly, ninjas that can take over other people's bodies, ninjas that can heal grievous wounds, ninjas that can copy other ninjas' skills, ninjas that can raise the dead, ninjas that can turn into paper, ninjas that can control the sand or water or shadows or insects. Hell, there's even a ninja who is basically a superpowered Bruce Lee. With 700 chapters, there’s time for nearly every single character to be given a distinct personality and background—especially the ones that come into direct conflict with Naruto at one point or another.
Unfortunately, these characters are often established and then simply forgotten about as the story once again refocuses on Naruto, Sakura, or Sasuke. This is a bit of a double-edged sword as, more often than not, the side characters are more interesting than the main three—especially more so than Naruto himself.
While Naruto may mature and become less silly as he grows up, at his core, he never changes. He is defined by the ever popular Shonen manga themes of friendship and never giving up. Because of this, his character tends to be caught in a repetitive cycle: Naruto gets into a battle, says he won't lose heart because he's supported by his friends, starts to lose heart anyway, is supported by his friends (either physically or emotionally), and triumphs over his opponent. Most of the time, he manages to teach the villains the meaning of friendship as well and then adds them to his ever growing group of friends.
For most of the manga, Naruto has two goals. One is to become Hokage, the greatest ninja and leader of the ninja village. The other is to save Sasuke from his all-consuming need for revenge. Very nearly every action he takes in the manga is to achieve one or both of those goals—and thus Naruto becomes an incredibly predictable character.
The funny thing about a long-running manga like Naruto is the relationship between time in the real world and in the comic world. A battle that takes up one day can easily last a year of weekly releases in our time. Consequently, Naruto—like many long-running works of fiction—has several layers of plot all running at once; so every few chapters the viewpoint jumps to a different concurrent story so as to further it as well. This keeps the plot story fresh and prevents it from being bogged down by endless pages that are just more of the same.
However, this technique can also fracture the sense of time in a work. And while it may not be noticeable reading week to week, when you read the whole story at once, it becomes clear that there are a few times where the time frames of the different concurrent plots do not match (especially in the Pain arc and ninja war).
Like many shonen fighting manga, Naruto's length and pace often work against the story being told. Single fights can go on for a dozen or more chapters because no enemy is ever simply defeated. Rather, every fighter has two or three secret techniques to fall back on when things appear lost, and that can drag the battle on for a few more chapters.
Another fighting manga trap Naruto falls into is the training and power up cycle. Each time a new major enemy appears, Naruto must train and learn a new move or transformation. Of course, by the time the entire plot reaches its climax, Naruto has done this so many times that his power is godlike—allowing him to re-defeat past enemies en masse like they are nothing.
But characters who have not leveled up similarly somehow are still able to stand toe-to-toe with enemies that even Naruto is unable to defeat. This incongruity means that, in retrospect, some supporting characters were at that level of strength the whole time—meaning they could have easily dispatched many of the manga's early villains who gave Naruto and his friends so much trouble.
Moreover, to keep the story interesting over its long run, we are treated to one revelation after another—many of which eventually prove to be false or at least half truths by subsequent revelations. This revelation conga line, while often feeling exciting at the time, loses much of its power in retrospect. There are times when villains’ actions and plans make far less sense when their true motivations are revealed.
Naruto had its ups and downs over its run. However, what is most important when it comes to making a final judgment on a work is to understand what it was trying to be. In this case, I think it's no stretch to say that Naruto strives to be an exciting, action-filled shonen fighting manga. And in that, it succeeds in grand fashion. It builds a colorful world full of ninjas with unique powers and personalities. It has battle after battle where the fate of our heroes (if not the world) seems in question—leaving us enthralled as we wait to see how, exactly, they come out on top. It also does some darn good storytelling in its character backstory arcs.
It is not without its faults—mainly those stemming from its pace, length, and reliance on shonen fighting manga tropes—but in end, if you're looking for a meaty manga full of fighting and adventure, Naruto is for you.
Naruto ran in Shonen Jump magazine in Japan from 1999 to 2014. Collected volumes 1 – 67 (of an expected 72) are currently available in English.
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