And now we come to the post-timeskip content, known as Naruto: Shippuden in the anime. This is where a lot of people say it started to go wrong, and it’s not hard to see why.
The Kazekage Rescue arc through the Itachi Pursuit arc were generally solid throughout. The new Akatsuki members that started to show up were all memorable villains that had a real sense of menace, even if they weren’t particularly deep. The plotting was about the same as a lot of the pre-timeskip content-solid entertainment that moved at a decent pace, even if it wasn’t particularly deep. It even improved on the earlier content by giving Sakura some good content. Her and Chiyo’s fight against Sasori was easily the highlight of the arc, which was a welcome change from her role (or lack thereof) in the previous arcs. All in all, the early post-timeskip content was solid without being particularly impressive. Unfortunately, this didn’t last.
It was around the end of the Itachi Pursuit arc that the show’s first major issue cropped up: Sasuke’s motivations. His motives up till this point had been fairly straightforward; he wanted to get strong enough to kill Itachi and avenge his clan. Everything he did, from becoming a ninja to leaving the village to join Orochimaru, contributed to this goal in some way. Avenging his clan wasn’t a particularly complex motive, but it was more than sufficient for the audience to understand Sasuke’s actions from his perspective, even when they were wrong. I bring this up because the exact opposite happens after he kills Itachi and discovers that Itachi killed the Uchiha clan and fled the village on orders from the leaders of the village. After learning this, Sasuke decides to destroy the Leaf Village to punish it for putting Itachi through so much pain. The problem here? That’s the exact opposite of what Itachi wanted. Itachi’s goal from start to finish was to protect the village, so Sasuke’s new goal runs completely counter to Itachi’s life. This would be fine if the series ever acknowledged his hypocrisy, but the contradiction never even comes up. One conversation where Naruto, Sakura, anyone really, threw that fact in Sasuke’s face would have fixed this, but instead we were stuck with a co-lead who had paper-thin motivations for hundreds of chapters/episodes. Kishimoto likely wanted to keep Sasuke as a pseudo-villain for longer so his inevitable change of heart would happen at the climax of the series, but forcing the character into that role longer than the story demanded destroyed any connection we had with him. Before, his motives were understandable, even if his actions were obviously wrong. Now, his motives didn’t make any sense, which is the kiss of death for a character. There are very few ironclad rules of writing, but a general rule is that characters have to have coherent motivations for their actions. That lets them feel at least somewhat real to the audience and lets us connect with them. Characters who have no motivation or motivations that don’t make sense are hard to invest in and tend to be frustrating. This is compounded when the character in question is so important to the story.
The next arc, the Invasion of Pain arc, further highlighted Naruto’s growing flaws. Naruto was away training for most of the arc while the supporting cast was desperately trying to repel Pain, the leader of the Akatsuki. Pain was a great villain for much of the arc. His backstory with Jiraiya gave him a tangible personality and set of motives for what he did beyond being straight up evil. His abilities also made him seem almost unbeatable, which added a lot of tension to his fights with the Leaf ninja. The problem wasn’t so much the idea behind the arc as how it was executed. Pain’s fights with the supporting cast were solidly executed across the board, but ultimately pointless in the larger context of the arc. All of his bodies that were defeated got revived shortly after, and nobody made any real headway against Pain until Naruto arrived. Giving secondary characters something to do is important, especially when a story has as large a cast as Naruto, but it has to be something meaningful. The way the Invasion of Pain was structured, virtually everything between Pain’s initial attack and Naruto’s arrival could have been skipped with no substantial change to the story. It initially seemed like the impact of that part of the arc was how Pain killed so many people, including major characters like Kakashi. That would have made for an interesting twist in the story, but Kishimoto ultimately undid it with one of his worst storytelling mistakes: having Naruto essentially lecture Pain into switching sides and Pain using his power to revive everyone he had killed. This was a colossal cop-out that undercut any drama the arc had built up and made the way Kishimoto killed off so many characters seem lazy and manipulative. Deaths in a s tory have to have some kind of meaning, and killing characters only to revive them shortly after removes all tension from both the previous deaths and any subsequent deaths. It’s a Pandora’s Box that no writer should ever open because it can cause a story to completely collapse. I won’t say that Naruto completely collapsed here, but sloppily reviving so many characters was one of Kishimoto’s worst mistakes.
On a similar note, Pain’s sudden change of heart was just as poorly handled and is emblematic of another flaw that became apparent during the Invasion of Pain. Kishimoto had been mentioning all the hatred in the world and how to fix it for some time now, but by the end of the arc, it became obvious that he didn’t have anything to actually say about it. Naruto never gave a solid answer to what could be done about it, only saying that he would break the cycle of hatred. Even if that was what Pain had believed in his youth, having a character switch sides for such a vague statement felt forced and unnatural. Kishimoto was clearly trying to say something, but he didn’t seem to have anything to say. There was never anything profound beyond “hatred is bad” and “we should break the cycle of hatred,” which is about as deep as a fortune cookie. At this point, it seems like Kishimoto’s ambition for his story outpaced his abilities as a writer. Part of what make early Naruto good was that it was focused on being a good shounen and never overreached. By the Invasion of Pain, Naruto was trying to be more than that but failing to accomplish anything. It would have been better off if it had stuck to its roots instead of trying to say something without having anything to say.
I had originally planned to cover all of Naruto in two parts, but there’s just too much to cover. I’ll have to cover the War arc and the final battle in part three next week.