I rag on Naruto. A lot. Nearly every article I've written about anime has included some kind of jab at the titular series, usually with a simple seemingly out-of-context image of Masashi Kishimoto when I'm talking about bad writing. Naruto, as a series, is a complete cluster fuck of plot holes, nonsense “twists”, and baffling character decisions that just don't jive with what the manga painstakingly established previously. But it wasn't always this way.
You might wonder how I, as someone who seems to hate the series so much, knows so much about it in the first place. I've written enormous breakdowns in the past of just how meandering and strange the plot of this show is with an amount of detail that perplexes even me. And often when I'm writing something disparaging about the series I'll double check my facts before posting the final product. This is because a long, long time ago, when the series was new, I absolutely loved it.
Me after chapter 14.
It was a different series then, a series that seemed to have its head on straight and was really going somewhere. So, in a show of good faith to the Naruto community, I'm going to compile a list of things that Naruto has done in the past that wasn't just good, they were downright brilliant.
Then I'll crush that good faith by pointing out how Kishi completely shit all over every wonderful thing he's done. (I'm not) sorry.
1) It Emphasized Squad Tactics And Teamwork Over Individual Power
Shounen manga is prone to falling into the same trap over and over again: the main character becomes a raid boss that can only be adequately challenged when they encounter another raid boss, and the two duke it out at such a high level that no one else can realistically get involved. While this is good for fans of the main character this tends to leave everyone else in the dust, and eventually it gets to the point where you wonder why there's a supporting cast at all if the main character's the only one who can take care of business.
What made this series interesting to me back when it started was that it challenged this aspect of the genre by showing in no uncertain terms that in this universe people who try to play the hero will fail. And probably die.
Before Naruto can even go about the business of being a ninja Kakashi got the ball rolling on this point with the entry level ninja test, the bell test. The purpose of the test was simple: it was to teach new applicants that they had to work together and that acting alone was foolish and almost guaranteed failure. As kids who maybe had some training from home thanks to family ties to the ninja way of life (which, in Naruto’s team, only Sasuke had) they had basically no hope of retrieving the bells from Kakashi's belt. But actually getting the bells wasn't the point, the point was to make the kids realize that they couldn't do it alone and that they had to work together to even stand a chance.
The manga even went so far as to state that no one had ever passed Kakashi's test before, a not-so-subtle jab at other shounen manga out there that featured ludicrously overpowered main characters who could do just about anything with very little effort or training (Hunter X Hunter anyone?)
Teamwork and squad tactics came up again and again as the manga continued, from the Land of the Waves arc all the way through to the Rescue Sasuke arc, with the manga devoting a ton of time to demonstrating that only idiots go into a fight without a plan. The entire first phase of the chunin exam, the written part, was designed specifically to make potential applicants think outside the box and put them in a situation where they were essentially cut off from their team and could not easily communicate with them.
Making written exams interesting: the ultimate test of fictional writing.
When Shikamaru, Kiba, Chouji, Neji, and Naruto set out to retrieve Sasuke during the rescue arc they take the time to establish a proper squad formation in case the enemy engages them before they're ready. And even when they become separated and must fight one-on-one with enemies that outclass them it's made very clear that they're fighting for a purpose greater than themselves. If they don't win, or at the very least stall, their opponent is just going to go off and probably kill one of their friends. It's their job as members of the squad to hold their own and delay them as much as possible so that they can accomplish their goal: to retrieve Sasuke and bring him home.
How It Was Eventually Ruined
To put it simply, Shippuuden happened.
And Shippuuden being awful is Sasuke's fault, so basically Sasuke is to blame somehow.
But to be more specific we'll have to talk about Naruto and his supporting cast a little.
Because the series had such a strong emphasis on teamwork it was necessary to build up a large cast of supporting characters who weren't just competent but were very powerful on their own. This is a bit tricky as a writer because it runs the risk of making your main character look a little lackluster by comparison. All throughout the series up until Shippuuden Naruto himself floundered about between states of uselessness to moments of sheer brilliance. Sometimes he was downright worthless because he still hadn't found his groove and more specialized characters had to take the lead. In fact, his strongest ability was something he had no control over and was something he actively avoided: going berserk and unleashing the nine-tailed fox.
He was inconsistent because, as the vehicle by which we learned about the world, it was necessary for him to be pretty clueless about even basic ninja things so that he could figure out everything as he went for our benefit. And while he was given some great tools for coping with these sudden steep learning curves (his enormous natural chakra reserve as well as a Wolverine-like ability to regenerate wounds) he still struggled to find an identity for a long time. He basically survived on brute force and his penchant for coming up with unconventional tactics in the field. But again, it was tactics and clever thinking that got him through some of his hardest battles, like when he went toe-to-toe with the taijutsu specialist and wall hacker Neji Hyuuga.
But when Shippuuden happened it was abundantly clear that he didn't have the tools to compete. He returned after a 3 year training sessions with an old man out in the woods to a village full of people his age who had been busily building upon the already-formidable strengths they had when he'd left. Even after all that time Naruto wasn't on even ground with everyone else, he even kinda sucked a little in comparison.
Kishi's solution? Power him up. A lot. Like, way too much. And by the end of the book Naruto was basically a god among men, completely undoing all of the careful writing done previously about working as a team.
2) Clear Levels Of Power Were Established
Think back, way back, to when Naruto first laid eyes on Zabuza.
Try to forget the cow pattern sleeves, though.
That was an important moment in the series for a few reasons, but most relevant to this point is that it demonstrated something that Kakashi was trying very hard to drive home since he began training Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura in Team 7: that there were people out there in the world beyond the village's formidable walls that are completely beyond your understanding who will want to kill you. Kakashi himself made it clear what a jounin-level ninja was capable of during the bell test. Naruto and Sakura stood absolutely no chance against him, and when Sasuke demonstrated slightly greater aptitude than he expected Kakashi very easily put him in his place as well. Between the kids and Kakashi the difference was pure, raw experience and training. He hadn't just ventured beyond the wall, something none of the kids had ever done at that point, he'd participated in the previous ninja war. He'd seen some shit, done some shit, and nothing the kids could even imagine would ever hold a candle to what he'd experienced. And so had Zabuza. And seeing him for the first time drove home the other point about jounins: they're fucking terrifying.
As powerful as Kakashi was he'd never actually tried to kill the kids before (that's what the chunin exams are for). But when Zabuza, a battle-hardened warrior with years of experience and psychological ruin going on in his head, was standing in front of them it was a whole other ball game. It's soon made very clear that Zabuza is on Kakashi's level in ability and that he has no reservations about killing anyone. His discipline granted him the ability to summon mist and move noiselessly through it to strike a killing blow, and he'd done just that dozens, maybe hundreds of times before. He was highly specialized and good at what he did. This is what a jounin was in the ninja world: a skilled, capable murderer that could end you in a second and you wouldn't even know you'd been killed yet.
Then you had the ANBU, a shadowy bunch even by ninja standards who were even more specialized and dangerous than jounin. They went about their grisly business while wearing unsettling masks, forgoing any attempt at giving their targets any hope of identifying them before executing their attacks. They were the ninja who, among other things, hunted rogue jounin, relentlessly tracked them down, assassinated them, and disposed of their bodies to keep the secrets of their village safe. They were hand-picked by their kages - the most powerful ninja in the village - and their identities were kept secret while they actively served as ANBU. They were the special forces among special forces -- you did not fuck with these people.
But soon jounin and even ANBU-level ninja were eclipsed. By children.
How It Was Eventually Ruined
Unfortunately, the meticulously crafted power structure in the series began to break down in the series fairly early.
Most of this has to do with the emphasis placed on the latest generation of ninja, especially those found in the Hidden Leaf. This new batch of youngsters was following a tradition of outshining the generation that preceded it. Remember the first referee dude from the chunin exam?
That's Hayate Gekko, a young sword specialist who was selected to oversee part of the exam and help bring the next generation of ninja into the world. When the Sand village began operations to occupy the Hidden Leaf he was among the first casualties. But before he went down he surprised his attacker by executing a famous sword technique at a level much higher than he should have been capable of. Ultimately he failed to defend himself but he was so good that his killer couldn't help but remark that the ninja the Hidden Leaf was producing were getting way too good way too early and that they had to be stopped. He had no idea how right he was.
And it was actually during the chunin exams that this point was made crystal clear. The Forest of Death part of the exam was designed to weed out (i.e. straight-up fucking murder) more children than it actually did, meaning that there was surplus of un-murdered children to deal with before the exam could move forward. Because of this a preliminary set of randomized duels were held so that a more manageable number of applicants could progress to the third and final stage, and it was during these duels that it was made abundantly clear that this generation was going to outclass the previous one in every way possible.
Even at the low end you had characters like Tenten who, despite her young age, is able to use and quickly master just about any weapon you hand her on the spot. Think about that: an instructor at the ninja academy could hand Tenten any weapon and she could master it within seconds of laying her hands on them. That’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it? But she’s nowhere near the height of power these kids have already obtained in their short life spans.
At the mid-level you had kids like Kiba Inuzuka who were just using traditional and time-tested abilities passed down to them from a long line of ninjas. Kiba wasn't re-inventing the wheel like some other people in his age group were, he was working with abilities and technique he'd been training with since he was just a youngin'. But like Hayate up there Kiba demonstrated an amount of mastery that was pretty advanced for his age (though his family would never admit that). Then you had people like Hinata who'd only mastered the basics but were still seriously strong opponents because their line passed down ridiculous abilities like being able to see through walls and almost 360 degrees around them.
Then you had the really goddamn horrifying people like Rock Lee, a kid who was so advanced he was opening up gates that most adults probably didn't know existed. He almost single-handedly took down Gaara who, let me remind you, turned out to be carrying a tailed beast inside him, making him one of the most powerful forces of nature in the book’s entire universe.
Lee also basically went Super Saiyan in a show about ninjas. So, there's that.
Seriously. Holy shit.
And all these kids were 12 - 13 fucking years old at the time (except Temari, she was 15).
Though the power levels in the series didn't really crash and burn until Shippuuden, when you had the Akatsuki taking on entire cities full of chunin, jounin, and ANBU single-handedly (and once with a nuclear bomb because why not?), things were already getting a little silly before all that. Even the battles fought during the Sasuke Rescue arc, which are among some of the most intense and awesome fights in the whole book, were pretty over-the-top and established that yes, the kids in the Hidden Leaf were going to change everything.
3) It Painstakingly Created Rules And Then Followed Them
Ask any writer with any degree of success in fiction and they'll tell you that one of the most important aspects of creating a new world is establishing the rules that govern how it works. This is important because you want readers to be active participants in the story later so that they know the severity of a situation with as little description as possible. When you read Naruto you'll get to a point where you know things that you never would at the beginning. You know that a chunin is generally more of a threat than a genin, and that a jounin is more of a threat than both of those combined. You get to the point where you don't have to be told these things because the story spent a good long while making sure that you understood them.
The way Naruto handled these lessons was a little bit heavy-handed at times. Sometimes you had an instructor explaining something in dialogue only, with the camera panning around to show you the reactions of the characters who are taking in this knowledge at the same moment you are. Sometimes that same instructor might magically pull out a pointer and slap it against a detailed map that just popped up out of nowhere to give you a very literal visual aid. But Naruto is an action comedy, this sort of stuff wasn't just acceptable it was downright fun. It was really interesting when you were about to learn something new and you'd often get little visual gags as someone explained how replacement techniques worked. It was all good fun, and it was informative because this stuff made a lot of sense.
Remember when Naruto and the gang were first learning how to walk up walls? The way this is all explained is actually pretty clever. First, you had the dramatic demonstration as Kakashi unceremoniously walked up a tree and stood upside down on a branch above. Holy shit! That's awesome! I wish I could do that! And that's exactly what Naruto goes through. So, now you're interested because you know in this universe walking on a wall is something that totally happens. Thing is, there's some theory behind it, and it's not that easy. So after the big reveal that it's possible you have to get to the nitty-gritty of how to do it, how to train for it, and that's where real progression takes place. This is the cornerstone of shounen manga, the process by which the characters become stronger, and some do it better than others (and do it brilliantly like Hajime no Ippo).
This came up again and again and showed that every single thing you saw had a process behind it. When you saw a character run up a wall you knew how much effort it took for them to learn that; when you saw someone use a summoning technique you know what an impressive accomplishment that is; when Naruto pulls off the rasengan for the first time you're as relieved and happy as he is; you were there for all of this, you watched characters struggle through it, so every time you saw another character do it you could give them a curt nod and acknowledge how much fucking effort it took to do that. You know because you've been through it with your homie Naruto.
How It Was Eventually Ruined
Thanks in no small part to the previously-mentioned power scaling problem, the book soon outgrew its own rule set and basically anything could happen with little to no explanation at all.
At the micro level this was bound to happen at some point, even if the book went on to become a masterpiece (which it most certainly did not). The long lesson of how to walk on walls by moulding one's chakra would have eventually lost its edge because, well, every ninja is expected to be able to do that. You couldn't really be a ninja without that crucial ability. Eventually, you were bound to either not really notice it anymore or to just brush it aside as a menial, low-level ability. Which it is. You'd be right to think that.
But even on a higher level this got out of control pretty quickly. Soon it wasn't just wall-walking that every ninja could do, suddenly every ninja Naruto ever encountered didn't just know about his coveted shadow clone technique they could easily defeat armies of them all by themselves. This really sucked the fun out of one of Naruto's most-recognized abilities, the thing that made him stand out early in the book. It got so bad that they had to make up a whole new use for it later in the form of the elemental affinity test where, despite never mentioning it before, it is revealed that he can learn faster by performing the same task with a bunch of clones and then canceling them. Christ, Kakashi. Think you could have mentioned that sooner? Like back when Naruto first became a genin maybe?
When the technique Edo Tensei was first used it was a big goddamn deal, and not just because it was used to resurrect some of the most powerful ninja in history to fight against the good guys. It had the ability to bring back the dead as puppets that were slaves to the will of the user. That's incredibly powerful and was appropriately rare. The entire fact that almost no one knew how to use it and that it was as difficult and limited as it was made it all the more impressive. Then some guy who never displayed any ability to perform it prior was suddenly an expert on it to such a degree that he could summon a small army of dead puppets. And they eventually regained their humanity and become self-aware. And could remember their past lives. And one of them could even break away from the restraint of the technique and go rogue. Because reasons.
Pictured above: Kishi just not giving a single fuck anymore.
At a certain point, and it's hard to pinpoint just where it happens, Naruto took its entire rule set and tossed it out the window. All of that careful and deliberate world building was lost just so that it could create brand new enemies who didn’t follow them to make them feel more threatening. It’s a cheap trick and it’s confusing for anyone who was paying attention before. Like me.
Talk about disappointing.
3 Things Naruto Did Amazingly Well (But Eventually Ruined)
KT takes a look at the strengths and weaknesses of one of the most popular anime of all time
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