I’m not ashamed to admit that I adore shounen anime, but it's a rocky romance. Consisting of dizzying highs of compelling fights followed by the bitterly crushing disappointment of tedious filler, the genre in itself becomes a love/hate affair. With all the extensive publicity, fanboyism and build-up surrounding the series, I had foolishly come to anticipate that Naruto would be different; however, as I soon came to discover, I was wrong.
Twelve year-old shinobi-in-training, Naruto Uzumaki, lives in the hidden ninja village of Konoha. Shortly after he was born, the powerful nine-tailed demon fox was sealed inside him and, as the host of this monster, Naruto has spent his life as the village outcast. The show follows him in the early stages of his career and the deadly foes that not only pose a threat to Konoha, but also to himself and the entire ninja world.
No matter how I look at it, Naruto doesn’t attempt to push the boundaries of the shounen genre all that much. Instead it joins a plethora of other similar shows and happily falls back on a box-ticking exercise. Lively, young male lead protagonist with an unusually strong power – check. Said character rapidly improves and becomes more powerful with each passing mission – check. Group of friends whose bonds are stronger than any foe – check. Nevertheless, despite following this conventional recipe, I still found the plot wholly gripping.
Though initially the series appears to focus more on Naruto himself, attention soon shifts more towards the bigger picture and the introduction of the show’s main villain – Orochimaru. I find that this is when Naruto becomes far more intriguing as, with each event, more details came to light about the character’s pasts. This allows the series to become more than simply a young shinobi completing his missions.
Also, as is typical with such anime, the series includes a healthy dose of comedy. For me, the inclusion of well-placed humour can make or break a shounen anime. Luckily, Naruto balances the comedic content perfectly with the kick-ass action and riveting fights. I found myself completely enthralled in the world of the Konoha ninja; in particular, the Chuunin Exam, Hunt for Tsunade, and Sasuke Retrieval arcs had me so engrossed, that even getting up and going to the loo became an unforgivable interruption.
It was all going so well until I was unceremoniously dumped into an eighty-five-episode run of filler – goodbye quality storytelling, hello mediocrity! The extraneous episodes add nothing to the plotline, and honestly I couldn’t give a flying shuriken about the hidden star village, or some rare beetle with an incredible sense of smell. Half a point goes to the ‘Curry of Life’ arc, which at least raises a smile, but the rest fail to make a lasting impression. While marginally better than the dismal turds of filler that Bleach foists upon its viewers, I would still rather repeatedly stab myself in the leg with a kunai than sit through this third of the series again.
Naruto doesn’t boast any exceptional animation, though from a long-running series, I don’t anticipate much else. However, the fight scenes do demonstrate some respectable movement, helping the viewer to engage with the action.
The series’ character designs are acceptable, but standard. Each character displays an odd visual attribute to match the quirk of their personalities. Details such as Kiba’s emphasised canine teeth help to re-affirm that he comes from a clan that works with ninja dogs, while the ‘Inner Sakura’ provides ample humour throughout. Though these idiosyncrasies aren’t spectacularly inventive, the result is nonetheless effective.
Toshio Masuda delivers a first-rate score to accompany the visuals. Each piece ideally suits the tone of the scene and serves well to heighten the series’ comedy, tension and drama.
I found that Naruto’s myriad opening and ending themes would often leave little lasting impression at first, but in time I would find myself humming or singing along to many of them. The series’ first opening, ‘Rocks’, deserves particular mention for sounding strangely reminiscent of a corny and rather dodgy eighties rock track. As such, it satisfies my occasional desire for some truly cheesy music, and makes it onto my list of favourite anime themes.
As typical shounen fare, Naruto’s cast neither appears to aim for, nor achieves, any particular level of ingenuity. The characters are entertaining and appealing in themselves, but they don’t exceed expectations. Naruto himself is the archetypal lead protagonist – lively, powerful, and a bit dense. While some of his antics and lack of awareness may invoke a sense of irritation at times, Naruto’s unrelenting determination and loyalty to his friends make it difficult to entirely dislike him.
In stark contrast to Naruto’s vivacious personality comes the series’ secondary protagonist, Sasuke. As the polar opposite of his teammate, Sasuke is a quiet and highly intelligent ninja, though his composed and egotistical nature makes him appear little more than a complete asshole. However, with his often disagreeable temperament and his entire life being driven by a rampant desire for revenge, Sasuke becomes one of the show’s more fascinating characters.
Meanwhile, the remaining cast simply seem to fit into nice little labelled boxes. Here’s the cool one; and there’s the evil genius guy; oh, and don’t forget that funny one, you know, with the massive eyebrows and freaky hairdo. While this is entertaining and helps to establish each person’s role, this stereotyping inevitably limits the amount of creativity in their characters.
One of the more impressive aspects of Naruto’s cast comes from its character development. Naruto starts out as an oblivious attention seeker, but soon becomes a slightly less oblivious and far more capable ninja who is determined to protect his friends at all costs. His lonely past also makes this evolution in Naruto’s personality effective in a second way. As he gradually gains the trust and respect of the other ninja, those around him also begin to change. The admirable development of the series’ cast enables an array of easily pigeonholed characters to advance past the chains of some of their stereotypes and gain a greater depth of personality.
So, does Naruto really merit all the hype surrounding it? Well, kind of. If I were rating this purely on enjoyment, then the nines would be flowing; I became hooked and couldn’t get enough. However, while the bulk of the plot is worth watching and has the ability to draw the viewer in, Naruto dedicates over a third of the series to superfluous and mundane filler arcs. Consequently, I cannot honestly call it a masterpiece of Japanese animation. This series is very much a prelude to its successor, and only seems to scratch the surface of the plot. Fans of the shounen genre should definitely check this out, though you might want to do yourself a favour: skip the filler following the Sasuke Retrieval arc and move straight onto Naruto Shippuuden.
Naruto Uzumaki is a young ninja who bears a great power hidden inside him, a power that has isolated him from the rest of his village. As such, his only dream is to become the Hokage - the most powerful ninja, and leader of the village; but first he needs to graduate! With his inability to perform even the most basic ninja techniques, it seems that all Naruto has going for him is his determination to succeed no matter what. Teamed up with the genius Sasuke, book-smart Sakura, and their team leader Kakashi, Naruto embarks on his quest to become the Hokage. But with outside forces posing a threat to the entire Hidden Leaf village, Naruto discovers that he must become much stronger if he ever wants to realize his dream and protect the friendships he's forged.
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While I like a variety of different genres, if you give me comedy or slice of life, I'm bound to be happy – and if it's dark humour, all the better! I'll review whatever takes my fancy at the time, and whether you agree or disagree with my opinions, feel free to drop me a line.