In recent years, a stigma around Shonen anime and manga has arisen. The idea is that they are bloated with horrible filler content, poor animation, and stories designed to appeal to little boys. One of the shows that has contributed to this stigma almost more than any other is Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto. As part of “The Big 3“ Naruto surged in popularity in the early 2000s and along with One Piece and Bleach, did much to ignite the western anime boom of that era and while One Piece went on to be the best-selling manga of all time I feel it is safe to say that Naruto was the best at crossing the barrier to the rest of the world. For examples of this, you need not look farther than many American television shows. There have been almost countless amounts of winks and nods to the series, especially in cartoons. In a brief survey I conducted for this topic I found that 30% of people in my immediate surroundings were at least passingly aware of what Naruto where as One Piece and Bleach both ranked bellow 15 and 10% respectively.
Naruto ended in 2014 after being extended beyond reason. The series’ last third tarnished the legacy that Kishimoto had been building up for the past decade and the several epilogue stories did little to fix this. Unfortunately, as a result of this, the series as a whole has been gathering a growingly negative reputation from fans, many of whom have taken to bashing the entire series for what I feel are unfair reasons.
I consider the initial third of Naruto to be the best part of the series. Virtually every bit of canon from the Land of Waves arc to the Sasuke Retrieval arc is stellar. I am a die-hard One Piece fan and had a brief love affair with Bleach, but I can without a doubt say Naruto’s first 27 volumes were consistently the best. Naruto was great at ramping up the gritty action from the beginning and that’s what garnered the attention of the masses. Out of “The Big 3“ Naruto easily grabbed the imagination of myself and countless other people the fastest. By the end of the 1st episode, a very firm tone had been established and we saw elements of virtually everything that would make the series great in the future. By the end of the 4th episode our main character has stabbed himself in the hand and stated his firm resolve to become strong. We had gotten a solid grasp on the premise of the show and its likely trajectory. It was the story of an ostracised boy, who happens to have a demon fox inside of him, working hard and making friends. It’s an inspirational story about working hard and the importance of friendship. It also boasted a diverse cast of likable and realistic characters. As previously stated, its ability to ramp up the excitement at times is insane. For proof of this, watch the Chunin Exam Arc and tell me the Rock Lee vs Gaara fight wasn’t hypest thing you have ever seen.
After the Time-Skip however, things begin to go downhill. You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise during the first couple of arcs. They do a good job of reintroducing the characters along with showing us the new people who will be a part of this story. We’re given a clear enemy in the form of the Akatsuki, who are already more menacing and threatening than almost anything we’ve seen before. Pre-Time-Skip, the series had a narrower scope. The widest we got was having a couple of characters from a different village and having a villain operating outside The Land of Fire but right from the beginning of the Post-Time-Skip, or Shippuden as it is called in the anime, we are traveling to a different land and fighting a centralised villain.
To understand what happened to the story next, we first need to understand how Shonen Jump works. Shonen Jump is a weekly anthology of a variety of different series. At the end of each issue, there is a survey where readers rank that week’s issues. If a series is ranked low-enough for long-enough it gets canceled. That means that not only does an author need to entertain on the whole but it also needs to be specifically entertaining each week. Because Shonen manga run for so long and come out so frequently the author needs to come up with new ways to keep the series entertaining. Since not every Shonen can change its setting and characters as often as JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, an oft-used method of entertaining readers is to increase the powers of the villain and since the hero needs to beat the villain, their powers need to rise too. This isn’t just restricted to Shonen or even anime. When this happens in Video Games it is called Power-Creep. Examples of Power-Creep can be seen in how Dragon Ball changed from a story about a boy with a monkey tail on an adventure to a story about an alien super warrior transforming and fighting in inter-universal tournaments or how in Yugioh, to make the Blue-Eyes White Dragon relevant again they had to invent a new version.
Since Naruto was drawn out to such an extent, power-creep was inevitable. I am of the opinion that the series should have ended sometime soon after the Pain arc. Sasuke had killed Itachi and Naruto had gotten the approval the village. My ideal scenario would have been one where Tsunade was killed, Kakashi was made interim Hokage while Naruto and a small group went to defeat the rest of the Akatsuki and bring Sasuke back to the village. Instead, Kishimoto decided to add an additional 250 chapters to the series and this is where it becomes almost of unreadable. By the end of the series, it is no longer about a boy who is struggling to get stronger and teaching the audience the virtue of working hard, but it is instead a story about a guy who happened to have been born with a demon fox sealed inside him and about him using that power. In the final fight, Naruto and Sasuke are fighting in these huge, Gundam-Mech-esque avatars. I feel that this is at the heart of the abuse this series gets. By the end of the series, much of the grit and realism is removed in favour of huge scale battles of mass destruction. There were other things that contributed as well. Sasuke’s constant changing of ideals and motives along with the introduction of characters that were never fleshed out. SwagKage made two great videos explaining Sasuke and Obito’s personality changes, which did alleviate some of the hate I had for them but not entirely.
Naruto is a series that I have a lot of personal history and nostalgia for. It was my first anime outside of Pokemon and Yugioh and the opening of the series is a beloved story that will live on in the hearts of many of its readers, but the elongated ending and the changing of the message tainted that memory for many people, myself included.