By Patrick Young
When I sat down and watched the first episode of Naruto in December, I wasn’t expecting the grip on my life the series would have for the following months, or how much of a fan I would be upon finishing it.
I had been looking to tackle a big anime series for some time. It was likely going to be one of the “Big Three” of shonen––Dragon Ball, One Piece, and Naruto. My brother watched Dragon Ball, and I in turn experienced much of it from his accounts and partaking of whole episodes; as for One Piece, between the art style and the 1000+ episodes, it just wasn’t for me yet. That left Naruto.
A couple things to note before I discuss this any further: I didn’t go into the series totally blind. While my interest in anime was blossoming a couple of years ago, and already knowing about the rivalry between Naruto and Sasuke, naturally I looked up their fights. I never knew the context of these battles, but at the back of my mind, these moments were there, lingering, awaiting my arrival. Part of my growing attraction to the show was the journey to that fight, the growth of Naruto, Sasuke and the rest of the cast.
The other aspect of my watch experience I need to mention is that I used a watch guide to skip the filler. I asked a friend before watching the shows about how I should navigate them. Gracefully, he warned me about the amount of filler, and sent along a guide. While there is more about this I want to say, I will leave it at this for now: I sympathize with everyone who watched the show as it aired, and commend them for enduring the litany of filler barrages, especially those that litter Shippuden.
What follows, then, are my thoughts on both the original Naruto series and its follow-up Naruto: Shippuden. Once I have caught up with Boruto: Naruto Next Generations, in another post, I will share my thoughts about it and the series as a whole.
Naruto – An Excellent Beginning
A boy sealed with a demon fox who dreams to become Hokage; a lone survivor of a legendary ninja clan determined to have his revenge; a girl trying to prove herself to her peers; and a legendary mentor just trying to keep them all alive. Together they form Team 7.
Thinking back on the original show, I appreciate the simplicity of its premise and the dynamic of its characters. While steadily building out its world, Naruto manages to provide intriguing scenarios for Team 7 to go through that constantly feel fun and engaging. From the team working together for the first time in their fight against Zabuza, to surviving the Chunin exams in the forest with Kabuto, there is a genuine sense of comradery that develops, that in turn makes the characters more likable. This all starts with Naruto though.
From the very beginning, his ambitions and behavior are clear and more importantly, relatable. Although Naruto’s family history and the purpose of him having the Nine-Tailed Fox are eventually retconned in Shippuden, his preordained importance exponentially growing, in Naruto, he is just a boy trying to make friends and survive this tumultuous ninja world. We become attached to him through the relatability of his situation––outcast, shunned by peers and adults alike, yet desperately trying to prove himself and be recognized. It is the earnestness of his character, the lengths he goes to follow through on his ‘Ninja Way,’ that he becomes likable. He is the perfect shonen protagonist.
Sasuke and Sakura serve as fitting companions to Naruto. They are never too antagonistic to be unlikable, but also are never too friendly such that Naruto’s motivation of being outcast seems out of place. It is a perfect relationship where Naruto can always be the butt of the joke, but unspokenly, they are united in their cause.
While Naruto and Sasuke can oftentimes handle themselves, I would’ve liked to have seen Sakura have more involvement in the essential crises that would arise. She has awesome moments in the Chunin exam arc, but other than that, she is often relegated to a sideline position, either being too powerless to make a difference or in need of protection by someone else, like in the Zabuza fight or the Sasuke retrieval arc.
Regardless, the show’s pacing does a great job at expanding on their relationship, as well as making their individual growths seem believable. A big part of the shonen journey is the escalating power of the protagonist, and the characters surrounding them. The original Naruto succeeds in balancing the main characters’ strengths with other more clearly powerful characters, showing the destination for Naruto and his crew.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this first show. Before starting the series, the discussion always seemed to circulate around Shippuden, but I think Naruto really holds its own. It is smaller in scale, more intimate with its characters, and in some ways, the more fun of the two shows, as it is has a fresh, “eye-opening” sort of quality to it; while Naruto is learning about the vastness of the shinobi world, so aren’t we.
Naruto: Shippuden – An Epic Conclusion
When I made it to Shippuden, I had a sense of pride that I never quite experienced yet while I have been watching anime. Growing up and seeing Naruto in comics, or hearing other kids talk about it, it was always so unfamiliar to me. Starting Shippuden was like the completion of a circle, then––I had finally arrived.
And fortunately for me, Shippuden did not disappoint.
In the same way that the Harry Potter series gradually becomes darker and more mature as it progresses, Shippuden ages the characters and the conflicts. Yes, these are the same kids we watched in the first show, and there are still plenty of comedic moments, but generally, the stakes are different now; Sasuke has gone rogue, the Akataski are collecting Jinchuriki, and Naruto must prepare for confrontations with both of them.
I will never forget the first episode of Shippuden. It opens in widescreen, with Naruto, Sakura and a mysterious third character (who we later learn to be Sai) running through dimly lit corridors, searching for something––or someone. They end up outside and standing up on the ridge above them is Sasuke; we see that he has grown older, as have Naruto and Sakura. They exchange threats and as Naruto is about to move, Sasuke closes the distance between them in an instant and puts his hand on Naruto’s shoulder. In that moment, the characters and the audience learn how the game has changed. Suddenly, Naruto, Sakura and the rest are fearful––how did Sasuke become so powerful? Sasuke begins drawing his sword and before we can see what happens, it cuts.
This opening is so effective, so clever, because it sets the stage for the show to come. We have no indication where this whole scene takes place chronologically, but as we continue to watch, it will remain in the back of our minds. It encapsulates Shippuden’s ambitious storytelling, how grand the conflict eventually becomes. Beloved characters die and the true motivations of the villains are toyed with; we jump around in time, learning about the pasts of many characters, whose lives are pivotal to the current conflict. The audience is led around on a fluctuating string, never allowed to get too far ahead of the drama yet always given enough information to devise theories about where it’s headed.
Many of the revelations that Shippuden conceals, I suspect, will not be favorable to everyone though. Boldly, Shippuden retcons a lot of the framework of the original show, like why the Nine-Tailed Fox attacked the Hidden Leaf Village, and why Itachi slaughtered all of the Uchiha clan, amongst other reveals. Personally, I liked these plot twists, as they sophisticated my understanding of the show and its characters’ motivations. It helped the show continue to be entertaining while forcing me to constantly have questions about various events.
However, these changes raise questions about the original show. For instance, would it really have been that damaging to Naruto’s upbringing had he learned about who his parents were? Or further, was there really no one who could have provided him a sense of parental love in his real early years before meeting Iruka-sensei? Additionally, towards the end of Shippuden, the conflict of ninja combat (that might be the initial draw for some) is somewhat replaced by monster/kaiju battles. They are quite the spectacle when they get going, but one questions how far we’ve come from the early battles of the original show.
Either way, I think Shippuden ultimately succeeds at following up Naruto, with the series overall being one of the best anime stories I’ve experienced yet.
The journey of Naruto, from the original show through Shippuden, his ascension through the ninja world, never stagnates and is consistently heartwarming. In the end, it is a story about love in all its form: friendly, romantic, paternal, comradery and most importantly, brotherly. It is a series about the importance of the connections we make, the place we hold within one another’s hearts and how we can impact them. And at the end of the show, the characters will likely have places in your heart too. They are entertaining, likeable, and simply, just fun to watch. After spending hundreds of episodes with them, it is awesome being able to have watched them grow. As I watch Boruto now, I am excited to see them as adults and what new adventures they will share with their children.