Tuesday, 31 May 2011

ナルト / Naruto (pre-timeskip)

Naruto has become the series everybody loves to hate. Well, Dragonball Z once held that position, until it was rehabilitated by nostalgia, and I feel quite confident that Naruto will eventually go through same treatment, once people forget about the debacle of a year’s filler episodes and the mess of Shippuden, or at least can balance it against the excellent first few years. Because Naruto started out very, very good and only became a laughing stock much later.

I heard of Naruto before it was big. I don’t want to sound hip or smug about this – it’s simply true. In 2002-3 I would check Toriyamaworld.com daily for their translations of Hikaru no Go and HunterXHunter. The site was a real hub of the anime community back then, far smaller than it is now. And they not only scanslated but provided anime subtitles for Naruto, then not long out of its first plot arc. I remember that all the character biographies on the site were from the Haku/Zabuza arc long after it ended. I resisted it for some time, not liking the first episode much, but eventually watched more. By the time the chuunin exam arc began, I was hooked, and I don’t care how reviled the series has now become: I have a great affection for the characters, the mood Kishimoto spun and the degree of clever foreshadowing he once had.

And thus, here are my thoughts on the series from way back in mid-April 2005: ‘High time I got around to talking about one of my favourite anime: Naruto. Now well past its hundredth episode, Naruto is one of the most successful anime in Japan, and (if the dub doesn’t butcher it, which it almost certainly will), may yet capture the imaginations of western children. Deeply indebted to Toriyama Akira and his Dragonball Z, Naruto spends a lot of time building up to a fight, a little while on the fight itself, and then another lengthy spell explaining the fight, or showing its deeper emotional conflict through flashbacks. However, at its best, it transcends this derivative format and gives real emotional depth to its characters.

It has some dreadfully cheesy moments, and animation standards have fallen considerably since the beginning, but because nothing can touch it when it’s at its best, I rank it higher than the more consistent but never quite as brilliant One Piece. The story revolves around a young boy, Uzumaki Naruto. Sealed inside Naruto’s body is the spirit of a powerful demon that almost destroyed his village, and because of this, he was ostracised. Nevertheless, he finds companionship and competition when he is put in a team with Haruno Sakura and Uchiha Sasuke, the latter of whom is a tortured and aloof boy, the last of his clan. Proceedings kick off with a truly amazing opening story arc, in which this trio, with their teacher, Kakashi-sensei, are pitted against a dangerous criminal ninja and his apprentice, the androgynous, powerful and deeply emotionally disturbed Haku. The art, direction and story here was superb.

This was followed by the introduction of several unforgettable characters. Because the story is loosely defined, with the protagonist’s aim distant and unlikely, there is much scope for subplots. One of these is an exam for the young shinobi, where we meet Naruto’s peers, along with his rivals from other villages. A wonderful pantheon of larger-than-life but still believable characters appear: the hilarious but formidable Rock Lee, with his teacher Gai; the reticent, vulnerable Hyuuga Hinata and her jealous, powerful relative, Neji; the lazy genius, Shikamaru; the dark, merciless, tortured Gaara…

As in HunterXHunter, It is these characters, and their interactions, which drive the series, and the full range of emotions are explored, concisely and intelligently. The stock characters are given life by their backstories and quirks: something of which many writers should take note. While sometimes ridiculous, and sometimes trying far too hard, when Naruto gets it right, it really is a work of genius. Outstanding, if not for everyone.’

Six years later, not much has changed, except that I would retract that part about One Piece, which has since reached much higher degrees of brilliance. However, the enthusiasm I had back then can only be tempered with my disappointment in what Naruto has become. Despite that, though, I will strongly defend the show against the now-numerous detractors who claim that it never had any worth and has always been a terrible show. Because that simply is not true.

Movie 1: link
Movie 2: link
Movie 3: link


  1. Oh jeez, I forgot about Toriyama World, feels like forever ago!

    I tried out Naruto a few years ago, I read the manga up to about chapter 190 (somewhere after the Gaara and Rock Lee fight) and felt like I couldn't continue. Just didn't grab me enough. The problem was also that I assumed it would be on the same level as One Piece D; And was, of course, disappointed, being the die hard One Piece fan I am ^-^;

  2. Toriyamaworld was the best!

    Naruto has a different feel to One Piece - less silly, able to be slightly more serious. Unfortunately it's squandered that now, but I was really enjoying at the time you read up to!