Naruto is one of those franchises which often finds itself called this generation's equivalent of Dragon Ball. whether it is regarded as such for it's position as one of the premier players in Jump magazine, it's focus on a loud-mouthed yet determined protagonist, power-level heavy characters and secret techniques, the contrast to Akira Toriyama's seminal manga has left a bad stigma to what otherwise is a genre focused shonen story.
Despite Naruto often being cited as the main point of entry into the world of Japanimation for many Otakus of the past decade, it is ironic that I have only recently taken the time to indulge in it's hefty 220 episode strong anime. What is more hilarious however is that those 220 episodes only covers the first half of Masashi Kishimoto comic, with the second part in Naruto Shippuden now exceeding 300 episodes long. Fact of the matter is, next to One Piece, Naruto is one of the longest running shows I've seen and while it pays off for the first hundred episodes of Part 1 to this adaptation of the comic, it also becomes it's undoing as filler episodes try to compensate for the limitations of the source material.
So in quickly summarising the premise, Naruto follows the antics of it's titular character, a brash twelve year old ninja who holds ambitions into becoming the next leader of his home, the Leaf Village, as Hokage. While the plot initially highlights Naruto's fight to prove himself as worthy to the title of Genin and acclimate himself in his position in Team 7, it eventually deepens into a gripping conspiracy, with the archetypal tournament arc in the Chunin Exams and a further rescue arc signfiying the transition from Part 1 into Part 2, or so it should have been.
The appeal to Naruto for me wasn't so much its plot, which as described follows many of the standard conventions in an action-orientated story yet rather it is in the characters and the humour surrounding them. How they play off one another ultimately decides who we end up rooting for in Naruto with the core of the narrative consisting of three in Team 7: the solemn Sasuke Uchicha, volatile Sakura Haruna and the insouciant team leader in Kakashi Hatake.
Kisimoto's writing plays with the dynamics of Naruto's rapports and all of these characters, often for comedic effect. It is easy to spot the patterns, with Naruto's advances on his crush in Sakura played much to her chagrin and the contrasting differences in Sasuke and Naruto's attitudes, often forcing them to out-do one another in a rivalry crucial to the first part's finale. Kakashi's role tends to reflect that of the audience witnessing the internal conflicts in Naruto's squad but his position is likewise critical in pushing the characters through their respective "training from hell" sessions when facing real threats such as Zabuza during the Land of Waves arc.
It doesn't end there however. Like it's other contemporary in Bleach, Naruto has an copious cast of supporting characters, many of whom receive their own backgrounds and subplots. The likes of initally ruthless figures in the noble blooded Neji and sand ninja Gaara are given the necessary screentime to make them not feel as if one-dimensional foes simply in the way of Naruto's growth. It would take forever to really go into detail how many of these relationships unravel, especially considering the setup to a Naruto's corpulent filler material, which commencing from episode 136 stretches out until the conclusion of the anime.
My feelings about Naruto's filler are incredibly mixed. It is pellucid as to why these episodes exist, Naruto the anime furiously outpaced Kishimoto's manga by mid-2005 and it is likely that a combination of high ratings and executive demands forced the animators to work on original stories. Even so, the quality of this exclusive material pivots uncontrollable into different directions. Individual, self-contained episodes, such as 168: "Mix It, Stretch It, Boil It Up! Burn, Copper Pot, Burn!" were healthy entertainment yet mini-sagas such as the Bikochu Beetle arc were plodding in pace, introducing new elements into the plot without sufficient explanation. It doesn't help either that two of the core characters are written out for the majority of these mentioned episodes. Under this guise, it is a real wonder that the show survived as long as it did.
In my closing thoughts to this review, I will quickly acknowledge that the animation and sound are both within A-grade parameters for a show of this calibre. Frames are recycled modestly and action is captured from all angles. The detail can be limited but it really pays off in motion when you have ninjas who look as though they could realisitcally manipulate the elements and other natural forces believably on-screen. There are no truly offensive errors in the art although openings 7 through 9 felt hastily put together, which is a shame as up until that point the opening credits had been one of the best aspects to Naruto in both design and music. My favourite openining has to be "Rocks" by Hound Dog, which immediately sets the tone for the show.
As to whether this is worth watching in sub or dub? Both are servicable. The English ADR does what is necessary to make the Japanese names and words work in another language and fortunately because the jokes are largely slapstick in nature they translate in performance rather naturally. Your preference in voices would depend on what you think of the actors themselves as the likes of Malie Flanagan can make Naruto sound as if he smokes atleast fifty cigarettes a day.
It is easy to recognise why Naruto is as beloved as it is internationally, with such memorable characters and a story you can follow. Although while we naturally want the titular character to succeed, prove his detractors wrong and become the hokage, it is a underdog legend you can't invest in because it has been done thousands of times before. Naruto's story doesn't branch out too far from the usual norms in a shonen-based comic. While enough has been said about the rescue arc and chunin exmas without divulging too far into spoiler territorty,the characters are the appeal to this tale. Dare I say as well that when the source material does eventually end, in place of the filler, we notice how restricting the fiction is because it never dared to subvert the tropes or make us think too far beyond the Leaf Village and it's function in the world. Kishimoto would eventually approach Naruto's world in Part 2 thus making the filler all the more antequated. Still, Naruto is a beautiful anime thanks in part to some solid animation and music decisions, with an acceptable English dub furthermore. This may not be the next Dragon Ball but Naruto as an anime is a worthy watch when put under consideration.