This past week was a major milestone in Naruto’s history: the Boruto anime finished adapting The Seventh Hokage and the Scarlet Spring storyline. This may not sound significant, but The Seventh Hokage and the Scarlet Spring was the last Naruto story written by Masashi Kishimoto himself (Boruto is written by Ukyō Kodachi and illustrated by Mikio Ikemoto, with Kishimoto only serving as an editor). With a milestone like that behind us, now is as good a time as any too look back at the franchise, where it began, how it became a hit, and where it started to decline. Bear in mind that while I’ll be criticizing a lot of it, I still like Naruto. It was one of the first anime I ever watched and it’ll always hold a special place in my heart. Any criticisms I have are coming from the perspective of a long-time fan. Another quick note before I begin: I won’t be talking about the fillers at all. That horse has been beaten to death, resurrected, and beaten again. There’s nothing else I could add to that discussion, so I won’t be mentioning fillers from here on out.
Before I get to the show itself, I want to talk about my history with the franchise. Like a lot of people, my first experience with Naruto was watching the dub every week on Toonami. Seeing as I was 10 when it first started its US broadcast, the main draw for me was the action. I loved watching the cool fights, the new jutsu, and getting sucked into the world every week. Naruto had the kind of action that I had never seen before; no American cartoon was like it. Back then, the writing was less important to me than the simple coolness of watching super-powered ninja fighting. My perspective has changed quite a bit as I’ve gotten older, but I still have a lot of affection for Naruto, especially the earlier arcs. It’s the sort of show that I’ve never been able to dislike, even when the later arcs are pretty flawed. Naruto was part of my childhood, and it will always be important to me, regardless of its issues.
Now that that’s out of the way, here’s my retrospective of how Naruto holds up in the cold light of adulthood.
Even now, the early content holds up pretty well. It wasn’t anything that hadn’t been done before in other shounen, but it had a likable cast, good action, and it was easy to get invested in. Naruto was an instantly likable underdog, with a lot of the enjoyment coming from watching him grow stronger as the show progressed. The scenes like him defeating Garra or mastering the Rasengan are still classics. Even Sasuke, who a lot of people grew to hate later on, was a crucial part of the main cast. His serious demeanor and natural talent provided a perfect contrast to Naruto’s immaturity and struggle to grow stronger. In spite of their differences, there was a clear bond between them that only grew stronger with time. It’s this bond that made their eventual battle at the end of Part 1, which I’ll get to shortly, so tragic.
Before I get into the Naruto/Sasuke fight, there’s one arc that needs to be addressed: the Chunin Exam arc, which was where Naruto really hit its stride. Prior to the Chunin Exams, there wasn’t a lot of long-term storytelling. Naruto had mostly been Team 7 getting to know each other and learning to become ninjas. The Land of Waves arc had more story too it, but it was still pretty self-contained compared to the Chunin Exams. When the Chunin Exams came around, Naruto’s scope exploded. Instead of focusing exclusively on Team 7, the Chunin Exams introduced the rest of Naruto’s class as supporting characters and did an admirable job of developing all of them. This is where fan-favorites like Shikamaru, Rock Lee, and Neji all first appeared and left their mark on the show. Thanks to the tournament in the later part of the arc, every character got a chance to shine and show off their powers. Kishimoto used this section to drastically increase the scope of what ninja in his world can do, giving every character a distinctive power and fighting style while still keeping things grounded in the system of powers he had established at the start. Shikamaru’s Shadow Possession Jutsu is completely different from Neji’s Gentle Fist, but both exist in the same world and have the same rules so that the fights never seemed inconsistent.
The Chunin Exams are also noteworthy for introducing Orochimaru, who was easily Kishimoto’s best villain when he first showed up. His snake-themed abilities and off-putting mannerisms were creepy enough to leave a strong impression, and the way he so easily took down Naruto and Sasuke set him up as a legitimate threat to everyone (Steve Blum’s deliciously evil performance in the dub also helped). Orochimaru was a great villain who was able to establish a powerful presence without upsetting the balance of the show. It was obvious that Naruto and Sasuke were no match for him, so Kishimoto never tried to force it so early on, instead choosing to give them other opponents and letting the more powerful characters fight Orochimaru. This seems like a small thing, but kept the show from jumping the shark or relying on excessive power-ups for it’s main cast. All in all, the Chunin Exam arc was easily one of the best arcs of Naruto, only matched by the Sasuke Retrieval arc. There’s a lot to say about the Sasuke Retrieval arc, but what I want to focus on here is the final battle between Naruto and Sasuke.
There’s a reason the first Naruto/Sasuke fight is so iconic. It was a clash between friends that shook a relationship the audience had grown invested in to its core. Combine that with one of the show’s best fights yet, and it’s no wonder it left such a lasting impression on the fandom. When it finally ended, Naruto was beaten and Sasuke left to join Orochimaru. It was the first time in Naruto where the protagonists were completely beaten at the end of an arc, making it a major turning point in the story. Naruto and Sasuke’s relationship in the later arcs was completely defined by this moment, with Naruto constantly trying to get through to Sasuke and Sasuke refusing to listen. In a way, the fight never really ended until the very end of the series when Naruto and Sasuke fought again and ended up with a draw.
For all that I’ve praised the early content, it wasn’t without flaws. The humor was pretty hit or miss compared to the action, and it had some noticeable pacing problems. The pacing was never awful, but some moments like the Third Hokage using the Reaper Death Seal on Orochimaru started to feel dragged out beyond what was strictly necessary. Some of the flashbacks surrounding the Naruto/Sasuke fight also started to get redundant, which made the show feel like it was spinning its wheels a bit too much. Thankfully, it was never a major problem and the show was able to get by in spite of that. Similarly, Naruto never relied on shounen clichés to the detriment of the story. While it never did anything too novel, it also avoided relying on too many clichés and the distinctive cast and fights kept it from seeming like just another shounen. Back then, Naruto was a solid entry in its genre that used it’s tropes well and was an great gateway anime for younger fans. It didn’t tread any new ground that previous shounen hadn’t already covered, but that was okay. It was still an enjoyable show, especially for younger teenagers who were just discovering anime. Unfortunately, it started to show cracks shortly after the timeskip, which I’ll cover in Part 2 next week.