Masashi Kishimoto's Naruto
Reviewed by Anson Leung
Kishimoto’s Naruto is about a young boy, Naruto Uzumaki, who dreams of becoming the leader in his village to gain respect from his peers. Having a rough childhood, he faced discrimination and fear for having a mythical nine-tailed fox sealed inside of him—the same fox which caused great damage to his village when he was still a newborn baby. This is a story of a young man who, through earnest effort, starts off as the weakest ninja, and eventually becomes worthy of the title Hokage. The Hokage is a great leader, and the strongest of their respective village. Each village is made up of clans, a group of distantly related people who reside in their own section of the village. A clan shares bloodline talent, meaning only they can do a certain technique. For example, one clan can control shadows and force them to immobilize opponents. Another clan can shut down chakra points and stop a ninja from performing any special techniques. Naruto will have to become stronger than them all to become Hokage.
The start of his journey has Naruto graduate from Ninja Academy. Having the basic skills of the ninja world, such as kunai throwing, stealth, and the ability to transform oneself into an everyday object, like a rock—yes, I’m not making this up—he confidently wears his headband and calls himself a ninja. He teams up with 2 kids his age, Sasuke and Sakura, who have their own goals and ideas of what a true ninja is like. Together, they are a team as they strive to pass the Chunin Exam, the exam that grants them the ability to take on genuine ninja missions. These harder missions include bodyguard duty and spy work. As they are fresh graduates, their team’s current jobs range from pet walking to protecting clients against basic, low-level thugs.
The series consists of 15 main young ninjas as the focus. There are 3 other teams around their own age from the same village also taking the exam, as well as a talented team from the Hidden Sand Village. These 15 people are not the only exam takers, but they are the ones that will get the spotlight. For the first time, at least for some of them, they will face true life or death situations in order to graduate, with adversity from both the forest, and other enemy ninja who have infiltrated the exam in order to kick off a coup against the current Hokage. Through these trials, Naruto and the other 9 ninja from his village will gain strength and experience as they work together to get to the next stage of the exam. Since each team holds either a Heave or an Earth scroll, and an objective of the exam is to take a scroll from an opposing team in order to end up with both scrolls, they will also have to fight each other. The 3 Sand Village ninja are not in the same group, and will play a more sinister role later in the exam. Their level of talent puts them well above everybody else, and this serves as something exciting to look forward to as Naruto eventually has to face and defeat the most powerful among them.
Faced with danger at every corner, Naruto must rely on not only his own quick thinking, but also, the nine-tailed fox sealed inside of him. The entity that made his life a living hell will now be his greatest ally in saving him from the hell around him. Drawing on its power is a double-edged sword, as it makes him lose control of his sanity. But it might be his only hope in the most desperate of situations.
Initially, the reader may think of this book as a mere children’s story. There is action, comedy, slapstick humor, cliché storytelling and, being a shonen comic book, the original target audience of this book is mainly children in Japan.
However, looking past these aspects, lies the true heart of what makes this series one of the best-selling manga of all time. Indeed, even professional athletes, most notably NBA player Zion Williamson, hold a strong love for Naruto. Children’s themes or not, these themes are universal, and Naruto delivers them well to the audience.
The themes of “never giving up”, and “giving it 100%”, are present, but not just in the main character. Every character of the main cast, including the side characters, and the villains themselves, have their motivation and hardships. They are all, in a way, the main protagonist. They are all the underdogs, whose stories appeal to a broad range of different target markets/audience members. Their stories might seem trite, due to how repetitive they seem on paper, but they never fail to inspire, nor do they diminish the struggles of the main protagonist Naruto himself.
One of my favorite scenes is from the Chunin Exams. A character named Rock Lee is one of the most optimistic, smiling, positive ninja in the entire series. One of his fights has him struggling bravely against one of the powerful 3 Sand Ninja candidates. He has no special powers, not even able to turn into an everyday household object, or create basic clones of himself, and is mocked for it. He only has his above-average fighting skills and weapon handling to fall back on. This is his inferiority complex. This boy has trained his entire life to get the others to respect him, and was mocked for even trying to become a ninja when he had no special powers. But he never gave up while he was training. He never once wavered in his beliefs that he could become strong with hard work.
Or, so it would be in every other shonen manga depicting a scene like this. But there comes a point in his flashback when eventually, he does give up. He stops training midway through his already intense routine, and his teacher/sensei intervenes. His sensei, named Might Gai, asks him what’s wrong, since he never stopped training before. Lee then resumes training and doesn’t really acknowledge him. Might Gai realizes that Lee is depressed since his training still hasn’t allowed him to catch up to his peers. He tells Lee that he is weaker than his peers, but working hard is his talent, and is what makes him a talented ninja, too. To the surprise of everybody in the audience, Lee does not embrace this as fact and persevere with the belief that he will one day be stronger than his peers. Instead, he states that he used to believe such sentiment and platitudes, but over time, after repeatedly trying and failing to surpass his peers despite working much harder, after still being ridiculed despite the inhuman amount of effort he put into his training, his confidence in himself is broken. He tearfully states that he is “no match at all”, and that “he kept thinking all his efforts would pay off, but it is always the same”. Most notably, he says, “I do not know if I can take it. Sometimes, it seems like the whole thing is pointless, like I’m a loser, and will always be a loser. I do not know what to do.”
These words hit hard with the audience, as most people would have felt this way at one point in their lives, and are most likely still dealing with such obstacles. It takes a poignant look at his mental state, and does not sugarcoat it. It takes a real example, Lee’s sensei conveying the story of him overcoming his own struggles to become the 2nd best ninja of the village, to convince Lee to strive on with his path.
Surely, this is the part where his efforts pay off? Throughout everything, he never permanently lost belief that he would succeed through effort, and effort alone. This is the part of the story where he succeeds because he never lost faith in himself, just like every other manga in this genre…
Except, it isn’t. Naruto doesn’t always have a fairytale ending. What happens instead is the most emotional sequence I have witnessed in this genre. Multiple points which on their own would be a “winning shot” for any manga are condensed all in one story. Lee manages to use his most powerful move, the only “super powered” move he can use, that ends up damaging his own body the longer he uses it. When it still isn’t enough to beat his opponent, Gaara, he still insists on persevering, only to lose anyways. And as Lee stands up, his sensei simply tells him to stand down, since it’s clear he’s in no shape to continue. Might Gai starts crying when he realizes that he’s standing up unconscious, still ready to prove the world who mocked him wrong, and that he can still be a great ninja. Sakura wants to comfort him, but her—and Naruto’s—sensei, simply stops her. He says “there are times, when sympathetic words only make things worse. There is nothing you can do for him right now.” The saddest part is where it is later discovered that his body has taken so much damage from his own attacks that he ends up permanently disabled. Lee can never be a ninja—his efforts were truly for nothing after all. This is master-class storytelling, and this is just one of the students the story focuses on.
A fault of Naruto is the power scaling. The characters all get stronger as time goes on to ridiculous lengths, but nobody seems to mind. For example, Kage is the strongest role in the series, and by the end, their powers are rivaled by quite a few non-Kage characters, and are no longer special. It shows how good the emotional storytelling is to hook the audience into liking this series despite this rather glaring fault.
Naruto’s drawings are somewhat unique, but in a subtle way. The author originally had a talent for drawing manga targeted to adult audiences known as “seinen manga”. Since his drawings would have been more at home being targeted to adults, he needed to change them to make them more palatable to children. The end result is Naruto, whose drawings look mostly at home in a “shonen” demographic, or a children’s market. However, even subtly, cooler characters like the dark-haired Sasuke have a more “mature look” to them that a seasoned manga reader can appreciate, when compared to most other shonen manga looks.
Naruto has fantastic fight scenes, especially closer to the beginning of the manga. While the later half of Naruto increasingly focuses on bigger and bigger techniques in order to be flashy and cool to the audience, the beginning of the manga focuses more on intelligent plays, and out reading the opponent. A prime example is Naruto’s fight against Zabuza, an elite level ninja, right after Zabuza has trapped his sensei, Kakashi, in a water sphere prison. Naruto knows he cannot beat Zabuza, but his plan has him force Zabuza’s hand off the water prison by first transforming into a ninja weapon, having Sasuke throw the ninja weapon at Zabuza, then transforming back at the last moment to throw a kunai in a surprise attack. Once Zabuza lets go, Kakashi is free, and the playing field is far more even, as Naruto’s side now has a powerful adult ninja to help them.
As an aside, I found issues with the story’s very noticeable inconsistencies. In Lee’s fight against the powerful Sand ninja, he opens 5 inner gates, and uses his power to pummel Gaara badly before running out of stamina and being rendered nearly immobile due to the damage of sustaining his own technique. Gaara is still conscious. Naruto, on the other hand, later fights Gaara and uses relatively weak headbutt to beat him into defeat. Lee had the power to jump into the air, and move so fast that Gaara’s body was suspended in the air where it was being pummeled non-stop. Naruto was, once again, using a normal attack. A plot hole I disliked was when Sasuke wanted to leave the village to seek out further training. The village branded him a traitor for no other reason than wanting to move. Imagine wanting to move to the United States, only for Canada to deem you a national enemy and send people to actively stop you from doing so. Apparently, his knowledge as a teenager in the village is enough to be deemed worthy of treason if he were to actually leave the village.
The characters in this manga range from simple to somewhat complex, and they are all worth investing some attention into. Naruto is a naïve but hard-working young man whose goal to become Hokage of the Hidden Leaf Village stems from his emotional abuse at the hands of his fellow man for something beyond his control. Sasuke wants to get revenge on his brother Itachi for killing everybody in his family, his neighbors, and the rest of his clan. Neji, a member on Lee’s team, is the most talented member of his clan—even including the adults. However, he comes from the “lesser branch” of his clan, meaning he can never become head of the clan overall. He feels trapped by faith, and feels that no matter how much he struggles, he cannot overcome it. Lee has already been discussed thoroughly, and presents the “soul” of what Naruto has to offer in emotional intensity.
Naruto focuses on heavy emotional payoff, involving each of its main characters. As much as this story is about becoming the strongest ninja, it also involves overcoming the strongest traumas. As the audience, don’t expect a perfect action story, but do expect to cry your eyes out.
Anson Leung is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s Bachelor of Commerce program. He is an Alberta-based writer who loves all forms of writing, including poetry and article writing. In his spare time, he loves playing tennis and board games.