This article will contain moderate to major spoilers, ‘cause it’s Naruto. Most people have either already seen it, or don’t care enough to ever see it. Also to be clear, this is not about Shippuden — everything I say is just about the original 220 episode Naruto.
As always, this piece is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my articles are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
I don’t think it would be a stretch to call Naruto one of the most beloved, or at least most nostalgic, franchises among the anime community. Alongside Bleach and One Piece, the show was a juggernaut in the mid to late 2000s, responsible for introducing hordes of fans to the medium at large. But — not me. Only coming to anime in August of 2013, Naruto was before my time. Sword Art Online and Attack on Titan were my Narutos. And today, most everybody who’s seen Naruto, even partially, did so at its height. The now several hundred episode length is just too high a barrier to entry for most people, very understandably so. In this day and age, no one just goes and watches Naruto.
So I guess I must be crazy. In February of this year, over ten years since the conclusion of the original Naruto series, I sat down with Episode 1 and (holding almost zero prior knowledge of the franchise, despite its massive sway and popularity) proceeded to watch the whole thing, the whole first series that is. And I did this because I thought it would be interesting. I felt it would allow me to present, not necessarily an unbiased perspective on Naruto, but at least an un-nostalgic one, one with literally zero prior emotions.
Before I get into my thoughts, to let you know exactly where I’m coming from, let me recap what I did know about Naruto before watching. The only characters I knew by name were Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke and Hinata. Kakashi and Rock Lee (as well as anyone else with a headband I guess) I would’ve recognized as being from Naruto, but wouldn’t have been able to name them. I knew Naruto and Hinata got married at the end of Shippuden, as well as Sasuke and Sakura. I was vaguely aware of some imagery, like Naruto glowing all orange and Sasuke all purple, but I knew nothing of the world or story except that it was about ninja and Jutsu. So, you could say I went in pretty much as blind as possible.
Let’s get started, shall we?
So we open on the Nine-Tailed Fox decimating the Hidden Leaf Village. The Fourth Hokage seals the beast into a newborn babe, jump forward a decade or so, the kid is a brat who’s terrible at school, so to balance out the Ninja teams he gets grouped up with the cool cat best in the class and the girl he likes but doesn’t like him. That is, Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura. Kakashi’s saddled with them as their mentor, there’s some training and they go on a mission and almost die but don’t and that’s what this first arc is about. It’s a fine enough warmup. The characters are nothing to write home about, y’know the plucky shounen protagonist, the too cool for school, and the girl, but they play into their archetypes well enough and Kakashi is a welcome no-nonsense presence, who can also kick a lot of ass.
There are definitely some things I liked with this arc. I like how they start with trivial, almost pointless tasks. They have to train. Our cast isn’t thrown into death-defying situations right off the bat; they are pretty soon, but — aside from the one-off plotline to hook you in episode one — it’s not literally the first thing that happens. And even when they are thrown into life or death situations, it’s clear that, Sasuke aside, Naruto and Sakura are very ill-equipped to handle actual combat. They’re basically trainees, they are weak, and can’t beat everyone just with wits and grit. The show really emphasizes at this stage that they are ninja, they can’t just stumble through life as selfish unthinking brats. They’re a team, and teamwork makes the dream work.
At this point, it’s hardly a great show, but it’s a perfectly functional one, and I can see why it would appeal to especially a younger audience. The characters have a clearly-defined chemistry, the villains are fleshed out just enough to feel like actual sympathetic people, and - I think this is the biggest thing — the powers are really f*cking cool. Not even going to lie, the Jutsu gimmick is brilliant. Ninja can make clones, change appearance, spit fire, walk on water, control minds, anything you can imagine just by throwing a few handsigns together. There’s inherently something badass about summoning a dragon like it’s nothing, and this is something that persists throughout the series. The powers are just cool, they grab your attention, not with depth but with spectacle, and that’s okay. That’s certainly an effective tactic, as I think the success of the franchise would indicate. With this first arc, you’re roped in by the potential, and then bewilderingly enough, the next one actually follows through.
The Chunin Exams cover a lot of ground. The main thrust of the plot is the characters passing this multi-stage exam to be promoted as Ninja, but it also serves to facilitate a number of key character introductions, including several antagonists, and plant the seeds of the overarching main plot. The Exam itself is split into a written test, a forest combat stage and culminates in a one on one tournament. The written test easily gets overshadowed by the other two, for good reason because while fine, it’s lacking in both length and importance. The characters are taught a lesson on what it means to be a ninja, yadda yadda yadda.
The next two stages I remember much more fondly by offering several climactic fights in addition to a plethora of strong character moments. We get greater insight into Naruto himself, with for instance a scene revealing that despite his raucous and oblivious temperament, the laughter and mockery he’s perpetually suffered does get to him. Sakura too finally gets her time to shine, stepping up to the plate and chopping off her hair in the most painfully cliche display of turning over a new leaf imaginable, but it’s nonetheless a welcome development (and one I wish wasn’t forgotten over time, but more on that later). The b est character in the arc though isn’t Naruto, it isn’t Sakura, it isn’t Sasuke, who’s at one point attacked by Orochimaru (the series villain) — no sir, it’s…
Rock Lee. Rock Lee goes through very nearly an entire character cycle over the span of this arc, from introduction, to growth, to turning point, and to bitter resolution. Set up as a ninja who is extremely deficient in certain areas of the field, he’s solely devoted himself to the areas where he can make a difference, giving it his all despite an utter lack of inborn ability. He’s an excellent crystallization of the classic struggle between effort and talent, and it comes to a head in his tournament match with Gaara, a Ninja from the Sand Village who is at this point a pretty serious and powerful antagonist.
Despite the apparently overwhelming gap between them, Lee fights valiantly, he fights hard, but just as things are coming to a head, he goes too far. In a last-ditch attempt to overpower Gaara, he shatters his body irreparably. The go-get-em, optimistic boy he had been is left a husk, his goals forever out of reach — and he just has to live with that. The scenes — a couple arcs later— where Lee is faced with this realization, the fact that he can never become a Shinobi, are heartbreaking. They hurt, but they hurt so good. Seeing this kid give it his all, and lose everything, is a sobering development, a tragic reminder that there is some wisdom in restraint… and then they backpedal on all of that a couple arcs later. Stay tuned.
Another thing I really think the series nails starting with this arc is the idea that very few are actually born evil. Plenty of the show’s more menacing, cynical characters — Gaara, Neji, even Sasuke — once you’re privy to their past and childhood, it’s clear that they weren’t born broken. It’s always a matter of their experiences, the pain and trials they were forced to go through, that made them into who they are, which is most clearly articulated by the duality between Naruto and Gaara. They started from similar places, as children endowed with supernatural abilities, and one received love, but the other didn’t, so one grew cheerful, and the other bitter. Of course, since this is a shounen series, once these vaguely antagonistic characters are properly characterized they become the best of friends with Naruto, so they can all fight by fight side against the one true evil that is actually irredeemable, but that’s okay. It’s not like I expect everyone to kill each other despite mutual depth and sympathy in a series like this.
The Exam’s tournament that I’ve mentioned in passing a few times now is in my opinion the highlight of the arc, and probably the series. It’s strongly reminiscent of something like Hunter x Hunter with respect to its handling of combat — battle after battle which are all fairly strategic and entertaining, while also implementing that character building I mentioned earlier (though not always with the utmost grace, i.e. extended flashbacks). And every once in a while, the animation quality shoots up too, which is great!
So yeah, the Chunin Exams were super solid. Good fights, good characterization and on the whole reasonable animation. There were a couple moments where the pacing sagged, especially at the arc’s beginning (which may perhaps have been a sign of things to come), but nothing too grievous at the moment. And with the next arc, sh*t gets real.
I don’t have a ton to say about the intricacies of Konoha Crush, because it’s mostly just a lot of action, as Orochimaru’s forces invade the Hidden Leaf Village. My personal highlight, moreso than even the climactic Naruto vs. Gaara fight, was the confrontation between Orochimaru and the Leaf’s leader, the Third Hokage, which displayed a level of ninja power on a scale we’d never seen before, animated fantastically to boot.
What’s most important about this arc is not exactly what it does in the moment, but what it means for the future. Konoha Crush really marks the point where the writing, and especially pacing, start to take a downturn. The show had hardly been immaculately paced up to this point — it very much felt like a shounen series, peppering flashbacks into conversations, starting an episode with a few minutes of recap — but it never reached the point where that actively weighed down the overall experience. There was enough progression, and enough growth, on an episode by episode basis, to at least not feel like your time was being wasted.
That all starts to change here. Take for example, the battle between Orochimaru and the Hokage, the same fight I just praised. As the exchange nears its conclusion, the combatants come to a stalemate, a stalemate that lasts a solid five or even six episodes, where literally no progress is made. We just keep popping in for one scene every twenty minutes, as if to remind you “don’t forget, this fight is still teetering on the brink of resolution”. I’d have preferred they just didn’t come back to the fight at all until the episode in which it wrapped up. That might have been a little annoying, but it would’ve let me focus on the other stuff the series was presenting (which was, at the time,other fights by other ninja throughout the village), rather than constantly reminding me of the one I was most looking forward to seeing and not progressing with it. But eventually, once all the battles do finally get settled, resulting in the Third Hokage’s demise, we move to the next arc...
The Search for Tsunade likewise leaves me without much to say. It felt, like the series’ first arc, functional enough, but not an exemplary package. Its greatest impact was setting up narrative pieces that would be mainstays in the series going forward, like Sasuke’s brother Itachi, the Akatsuki at large, Tsunade’s ascension to the role of Fifth Hokage and Naruto’s Rasengan training, being his special move for the remainder of the series. Tsunade’s presence also solidifies the Sannin trio’s role in the plot, as well as laying the seeds for each of their mentorship over Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke.
However, the biggest ramification of Tsunade’s introduction as a Medical Ninja, as far as I personally was concerned (spilling into the next arc here, but it fits since I’m already talking about Tsunade), was her ability to operate on Rock Lee and fix his broken body, a plot point which I still have very mixed feelings about.
On the one hand, Lee is such a genuine, kind kid and it’s really sweet that he’s able to once again pursue his dream. On the other, this feels like regression for the sake of it, removing the inconvenient consequences of prior plot so that a fan-favorite character can take the spotlight once again. It throws any development he may have had to the wind, for the sake of another fun buddy in Naruto’s repertoire. This also diminishes the impact and credibility of the show’s storytelling at large, because now you have this nagging feeling in the back of your mind that anything outside of literal death can probably be undone by the will of the author. (And who knows? Maybe even death is up for grabs come Shippuden.)
Speaking of death, the Third Hokage’s death is obviously a turning point for the story, sending ripples throughout the cast, and while mostly the plot moves on pretty quickly to “we need to find another Hokage”, we do get some nice depictions of grief, my favorite — if that’s the right way to put it — being the Hokage’s grandson, Konohamaru, who refuses to let the new Hokage take over his grandfather’s office since it is the last vestige of his presence.
The final especially notable thing about this arc is that it’s bookended by our first filler arc, after 100 entire episodes. Good job, Naruto. And the arc’s a relatively short one, only five episodes. It’s okay, it’s forgettable but it’s okay… and of course, it’s only but a taste of things to come. Before we get to that though, we have the last canon arc of the series...
The Recovery Mission’s main problem is one of repetition, and even predictability. The idea of the story here is that Sasuke leaves the Leaf with Orochimaru’s minions, seduced by a gift of greater power, while Naruto and friends make chase. That’s fine enough on paper, and I’ll come back to what this means for Sasuke’s character, but the actual events of this arc are slow, bordering on tedious (and let’s not even touch the super strained logic to justify a bunch of kids being the only ones sent after Sasuke). Anyway, as Naruto and company pursue Sasuke, they naturally come into conflict with the bad guys he’s travelling alongside. The routine is this: they catch up, one good guy and one bad guy peel off to fight mano a mano, and the pursuit continues for everyone else, eventually as you would expect leaving Naruto to chase Sasuke alone.
The problem is, every one of these minion fights is exactly the f*cking same. Sure, there are different details (different powers), but the actual progression of these fights is identical. The good guy has all but won, but then the bad guy powers up, and things are looking bleak, but then the good guy pulls off a death-defying trick to win for good. In a few of the later fights, that last step is replaced with “another good guy shows up to save the day”. Same difference. You’ve probably seen this comic. That’s every fight in this arc, save one. And since each takes place over at least two or three episodes, the pacing takes a real hit.
And what annoys me more than that is the arc’s treatment of Sakura. Sakura got her whole big moment in the Chunin Exams, about stepping up and playing a more active role in her fate, remember? I remember, but it’s as if the plot forgot as soon as it happened. In Konoha Crush, her chief role was as a damsel in distress, and here, she literally just sits at home and cries while Naruto goes out to fight. I get it, I get that you want to end on the big Naruto and Sasuke showdown, but this feels like such a disservice to someone who’s supposed to be one of the main characters. She had no role to play in the grand finale of the series, for zero reason. She could’ve easily been on the pursuit team, or even taken the place of Rock Lee, who as much as I love him, shows up out of nowhere to save the day. There’s no use further belaboring the point — it just really blows that Sakura does nothing but whine and cry while this is all going down.
Now I’ve been pretty negative about this arc so far, but there is one key aspect I think they nail: Naruto and Sasuke.
Sasuke’s turn to the dark side is the crux of the narrative; everything that had happened in the plot up to this point was essentially building to this pivotal betrayal, and thankfully, I do think the turn works very well. It’s a natural extension of Sasuke’s character, taking to the logical extremes his self-loathing, his rage at his brother, his jealousy of Naruto, his desire for power, and the subtle seduction of Orochimaru, who for better or worse has certainly displayed his extraordinary abilities. Sasuke is a man on a mission, and if a lackadaisical slacker like Naruto has already surpassed him, then clearly something’s off. Something has to change (or so he thinks).
When Naruto finally reaches Sasuke, Sasuke doesn’t just refuse to come back to the Leaf. He doesn’t respond, he never even turns and looks at his increasingly agitated friend, eyes set on bigger and better things. The scene is handled tremendously, Naruto’s crescendo of desperation and disbelief, intercut with all the happy memories they shared and backed by a somber, dramatic score... granted, this is Naruto, so it takes ten whole episodes before that buildup is properly followed-through — but what a follow-through it is.
The ultimate confrontation between the two culminates in a breathtaking fight scene, easily the visual highlight of the entire series. It’s a nonstop twenty-minute barrage of kickass animation, inventive power use, and palpable emotion. Tactics in combat had been somewhat on the wane since the end of the Chunin Exam, but in this particular case, that’s okay. You don’t want this battle to be a mindgame, this is a fight of raw passion, reduced to pure instinct, neither side willing to back down on the path they have taken.
And the chilling conclusion is one that I’m sure most of you already know: Naruto loses. Sasuke leaves for good, to join Orochimaru. Pure force of will — just wasn’t enough. And here the story ends, Naruto crushed but determined to get stronger, Sakura depressed but likewise the same. But before they hit the books, and get serious about their training, there’s just one thing left to do: eighty episodes of filler!
The thing about filler is that it exactly fits the name. I wouldn’t call it unwatchable, but everything that happens is, well, filler. There’s no plot progression, little to no character development, it completely lives or dies on how much you like the cast, and would enjoy watching them no matter what they’re doing. However, some of it is definitely better than others.
Land of Rice Fields Investigation Mission (Episodes 136 - 141)
The first filler arc, from episodes 136-141, is perfectly fine, and doesn’t even feel like a waste of time; it instead feels like a reasonable extension of the actual plot. The characters are gathering intelligence on Orochimaru, and in the process this arc does do some neat things. It sets up how Orochimaru is a broader villain outside the narrow scope of the story, how he’s made many other people suffer beyond what we are immediately aware of. It also tries to make up for the previous lack of Sakura, by having her come to the same conclusion as the viewer, asking “what the hell was I doing when everyone else was fighting?” and resolving to do better (though I’m disappointed to report that the final results are still mixed, feeling like just a rehash of her Chunin Exam moment).
But what I’ll most remember about this arc is episode 139. Not for anything to do with the plot, but for its fascinatingly offbeat sense of aesthetics. This episode chronicles a foray into one of Orochimaru’s lairs, and everything from the color design to shot composition creates this pervasive feeling of dread and unease. Episode 146, in the next filler arc, bears many of the same visual techniques, and after a bit of research, this can mostly likely be attributed to the presence of one Masahiko Murata as the episode director on both. Not much stuck out to me from his resume, but he did direct a couple episodes i of Serial Experiments Lain, so I guess his clear penchant for the eccentric does makes a certain level of sense — and that vaguely interesting connection was literally the most worthwhile thing I got out of watching the filler, so I’m just gotta lightning round through the rest of the arcs to finish this off.
Mizuki Tracking Mission (Episodes 142 - 147)
Episodes 142-147 are kind of dull. Not much here if you don’t enjoy fights and action for the sake of it, and the attempts to make the villain feel sympathetic come off as flat and half-baked.
Bikochu Search Mission (Episodes 148 - 151)
Episodes 148-151 are maybe a little more interesting since they attempt to masquerade as real progress, by focusing on Hinata honing her technique (to the point that she’s actually a bit of a badass), but there’s also an annoying ending to keep things irrelevant and return to the status quo.
Kurosuki Family Removal Mission (Episodes 152 - 157)
Episodes 152-157 feel refreshingly like an actual narrative with a clear villain and such, at least in the beginning, because after watching episode 152... I gave up. I’d wanted to watch all the filler just to have an opinion on it, which was a lofty goal, but as the days went by the pointlessness of my endeavor was starting to sink in, and I felt there were much better uses of my time than watching hours and hours of Naruto filler, only to come away with the impression that everyone in their right mind already had: it’s just not very good. It’s watchable, but only that.
Before I finish, this’ll be the part where I talk about some general things that were part of the overall experience but wouldn’t fit solely in any one particular arc.
To start, the show is definitely shounen, which is both good and bad. I’ve already covered the general pacing of the series as I walked through the plot, but there’s a little more to it. A typical fight in the series will have about a 70-30 split between talk and action, and the show is dotted with flashbacks, either to deliver inspiration, flesh out opponents, or just fill time by reusing old animation (which is obviously the most annoying of them all).Characters will deliver their entire backstories or full explanations of their powers in the middle of a fight, as you do, and the writing can really beat you over the head with the point, even outside of fights.
More than once the show spends half of an entire episode over-explaining things which should be pretty obvious, from simple character motivations like “why is Sasuke mad at Naruto” to the most basic of combat tactics. On that note, it similarly often feels like new jargon and explanations are invented at random to suit the immediate needs of the plot, to give characters an avenue to power-up when there’s no organic way to write them out of a fight. Nen this is certainly not.
Moving away from the pacing, the comedy could be worse, but I’d be hard-pressed to call it “good”. It’s typical shounen humor. Kind of lecherous at times, but almost always tone-shattering, sandwiching over-the-top jokes between pretty serious content, especially as the show goes on and only gets more and more serious (which admittedly is an issue that even the best of shounen struggle with).
Also typical of typical shounen, no one ever dies. A lot of fake-deaths, but actual character death (among the protagonists) is an extreme rarity. Like the comedy, this is more of a genre problem than a series-specific problem, and many may not even feel it is a problem. I just want more death in my anime, what can I say? I’m a closet edgelord.
As for the setting, in my experience, shounen worlds are always kind of an odd mishmash of wildly different societal ideas and technology with little care for consistency, and Naruto is no exception. I really struggled to make sense of the world. They’re ninja, in a ninja village and there’s occasionally the passing reference to a feudal society, but there’s also magazines and modern hospitals and business suits and photography and police tape; it’s — there’s no rhyme or reason. You just gotta roll with it. If the plot needs radios, then by golly we have radios (technically that’s a Shippuden example, but it’s the same world.)
The art and animation are exactly what you’d expect from a series that ran for over 200 episodes straight. The designs are fine, very occasionally interesting direction, and technically it tries its best with what it’s got — giving the best fights every 30 episodes or so some real animation — but it’s naturally far from a visual marvel. Some Jutsu techniques are afforded only the bare minimum of creativity (like inverting the color palette) and the locations themselves are incredibly bland, almost every scene outside of a village just taking place in “some field” or “some forest”.
In the show’s defense, I conversely made note of which episodes looked absolutely atrocious, and of the 152 that I saw, there were only six — three of which were filler, so I’m guessing the filler would have continued to drag the average down if I kept watching. It makes sense, you want to afford the actual story the best production values, not the anime-original schlock.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is pretty neat and probably one of the best parts of the show. It has a lot of personality, mixing traditional Japanese instrumentation appropriate for the general premise with more modern stuff like electric guitars and... xylophones or something. (I’m not a music guy.) The lighter, comedy tracks are mildly grating, but the dramatic pieces pull at my heart. They inspire hype just by playing.
The openings are great too ‘cause it’s a long-running shounen (why do they always have such solid openings?), while the endings are on a wider spectrum of quality, which is to be expected since there’s twice as many.
Lastly, this isn’t in any way the fault of the show itself, but Crunchyroll’s subtitles are not very good. The translation slants very literal, which gives the phrasing an awkward, unnatural feel, sometimes outright grammatically incorrect, plus an abundance of typos. It’s also annoying that the subs refuse to include curses, swapping every “Damn” for “Darn”, likely so at the time parents wouldn’t get too freaked out about their kids watching the fun ninja show where people kill each other. At first, the bad subs really surprised me, but on the flip side I started to think: how much work would it be to go and fix all those hours of likely years-old subs, and what would be the return? How many people are really going and watching Naruto in this day and age, besides crazy people like me?
When all’s said and done, Naruto managed to be entertaining in spite of itself. Contrary to my admittedly low expectations, it really wasn’t a hard watch. Once I got past the first handful of episodes, I rarely felt like I was forcing myself through mediocrity; it’s a show where I’d plop down with a bag of chips and just enjoy it for what it was. The series was at its best when it embraced the size and variety of its cast, like the Chunin Exams, rather than ignore it as the later arcs tended to. The pacing was sloppy, and the fights increasingly hit or miss, but I can say that despite it all, I liked Naruto.
This wasn’t intended as an actual review, just a general regurgitation of my thoughts, so I’m not going to be giving a rating (but if I did, it’d be around a B, not including the filler.) I’ve come this far, so might as well keep going with Shippuden, especially if you good people are interested in hearing my thoughts when I finally finish.
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