Naruto created a sensation in its first years, and unlike most anime that get forgotten after a few months, it became the quintessential fighting shonen people are still talking about decades after it began airing. There were a hundred different things one could find to talk about when it came to the story and its characters, as well as everything it was based on; namely the still up until then semi-mystical Japanese history and mythology. And just like every show that becomes a world-wide sensation, it was also an easy way for someone to blend in at anime conventions. Are you a newbie who doesn’t know anyone nor has an opening for starting a chat? All you needed was a headband, memorize a few hand seals, and run like a retard with your hands stretching behind you. In a few minutes someone would approach you, asking who your favorite characters are.
There were stuff going on that you wouldn’t see in earlier years, because the internet wasn’t as fast or as widespread, and anime were not promoted that heavily yet. As famous as Dragonball was during the 90s for example, it was not everywhere on the same volume as the Big Three. You couldn’t believe how many young people had become weeaboos thanks to it (not me, as I was already over twenty at the time, and was more into mecha, space operas and super violent OVAs). You would go into a net cafe and see dozens of people doing a Naruto marathon. You would see others improving their drawing skills just so they could sketch their favorite characters. There were also those learning Japanese language and history, after they got fascinated by the themes and the philosophy of the show. And of course there were the shipping wars, the theory crafting, the versus battles with characters from the other Big Three, and a gazillion other things to keep you preoccupied for a decade.
It’s very easy to see why it was so successful. It was tapping into the need of young people to stand out in the crowd, which was a really big issue for most teenage millennials of the time. Having a war-torn setting was also an easy excuse for action and adventure, while victimizing children at the same time for having to grow up in a suffocating society that expects too much out of them. It was a relatable excuse for empowerment fantasy when it came to young people with first world problems suffering from social anxiety.
Obviously, the more the show kept going the less relatable it felt, partly because its audience was growing out of its angsty teenage phase and partly because of how the writing was becoming progressively worse. It began losing its magic once other shows with far better production values came out (namely Suzumiya Haruhi and Death Note) which stole the spotlight and made it obvious that it was just another poorly paced, badly animated studio Pierrot series. By the late 00s only hardcore fans were still giving a damn about it, with the rest seeing it as just an excuse to make money through episode and chapter reviews. It was a milk-cow everyone was tolerating because it was vital for the anime industry to keep going. Quality had nothing to do with it. Today it’s a shadow of what it used to be, nostalgic if you were once a fan, but otherwise something you most likely regret having invested so much time, money, and effort.
In retrospect, lots of things did not make any sense from the very beginning. Ninjas don’t run around in bright-colored jumpsuits and are sort of needless in a world where anyone can use computers and machineguns. Also, how dangerous can ninjas really be if not even professionals can’t tell apart a real body from a clone, or a little boy can easily bypass all security and steal top secrets? You can always suspend your disbelief, but deep inside you know there is never going to be any realistic approach to its interesting themes. The foundations of the power system are broken, since most of the so-called tactics come down to people exchanging places with a log whenever it suits the plot. Even so, if you break it down to core elements, you can easily find ten reasons for why it was so easy to appeal to most anime fans. It became much worse as time went on, but the first arcs are still some of the best in any fighting shonen.
1) An underdog protagonist who nobody takes seriously and struggles to be acknowledged
2) A cool rival who gets the spotlight all the time and makes the protagonist jealous
3) Focused on a small cast of fleshed-out characters
4) Tragic flashbacks in a captivating war-torn setting
5) Using stealth and tactics instead of mindless raw power
6) Treating mentors and villains as equally important and fleshed-out
7) Death was ever-present, permanent, and meaningful
8) Easy to follow plot
9) Very catchy and memorable soundtrack
10) Relatively ok pacing
1) In specific, the Wave Country arc was only 20 episodes, and served an introduction to the main characters, the setting, and the power system. It also featured two interesting villains who were not a one-time psychotic rapists and did NOT become allies or recurring opponents. Also, despite the protagonist defeating one of them with the obligatory hidden power than came out when he needed it the most, his victory felt hollow and horrible, thus becoming a major twist for the formula. It had drama, tension, comedy, all the good stuff, but it was also dragging for many episodes, so I am giving it an 8/10.
2) The Chuunin Exam was triple in size with 60 episodes, and served to flesh out all the secondary characters. Unlike typical exams and tournament arcs in shonen, it was not treating most of the participants as cannon fodder. Each one of them felt like a possible protagonist of his own show and had the potential to be the hero of his own story. This never happened, but for the time being it multiplied its cast several fold, so anyone could choose a different character to root for. This is when the shipping wars and the versus battles blew up, creating a huge circlejerk of shonentards.
This changed the third reason of why the show was appealing, but it didn’t damage it yet, since the tournament structure was giving the spotlight to the two participants, while everyone else was reduced to spectators. It works when nobody else is allowed to do something and fails only when everybody is fighting at the same time.
It was also the arc that showed us all the secondary ninja villages and the frail truce amongst them. The tournament was not just a bunch of teenagers trying to level up in the ninja hierarchy. It was about politics and maintaining peace through a power display of every faction. There was even a major conspiracy which threatened the village and caused the death of a major character. It was in overall another great arc, with the only negative being several characters who were simply not interesting despite getting the spotlight. I am giving it a 7/10.
3) The search for Tsunade begins the slow decline of the series. Without the excuse of a tournament to give focus on everyone by limiting the rest as spectators, now you clearly see how there are too many character who are not doing anything or are vital to the plot.
It even begins to take away negative consequences. One of the most memorable participants during the Chuunin Exam was Rock Lee, the true underdog of the series. Not Naruto, despite Kishimoto wanting us to believe he is one too. The nine tails gives him a broken superpower with which he can rival opponents with ten times his experience, he masters new techniques ridiculously fast, and he’s never punished for his mischief. Rock Lee on the other hand never had any ninja magic, and had to train hard just to keep up with martial arts. That’s an underdog.
The Chuunin Exam was great for not favoring underdogs, as is the case with most shonen. His duel with Gaara left him permanently crippled. Because, just in real life, no matter how much you want to succeed, you are not indestructible. Nobody’s plot armored and him getting crippled was a great way to make that clear. And then they take it away in the next arc by magically healing his otherwise permanent injuries.
The one who healed him was Tsunade, a character who initially had a tragic backdrop and an interesting personality. This positive first impression was quickly trashed once she became just another background character who is not doing much. The only thing Kishimoto did was replacing the wise mentor of the village with a drunken pair of boobs.
4) The damage continues to escalate in the Sasuke Retrieval arc, by having the rival highjacking the plot. Up until now, it was about a dozen nations and hidden villages in a constant power struggle. This is all thrown in the trash for a mission of revenge by a guy who belongs in the most overpowered race in the world. Naruto completely forgets his quest to become Hokage and spends most of the rest of the series in an almost homoerotic quest to bring back a guy he barely knew for a year, and who was constantly stealing his spotlight. Sasuke’s motivation for betraying the village was foreshadowed and excused from the very first episodes. Naruto’s motivation for wanting him back so much wasn’t.
There were also many secondary fights in this arc, which didn’t matter in the longrun. There was no point in the good guys fighting the Five Sounds. Nobody important died and Kimimaro’s tragic past was getting really old by now, since pretty much everyone had a similar tragic past. It was just dragging out the plot until the final confrontation at the waterfall, which was really hyped up at the time; videos about it were everywhere. The battles were fun and the hype for a rematch was enough to keep you watching, but really, there wasn’t that much going on and the focus shifted towards something far less interesting. I give it a 6/10.
After that there were about 100 episodes of awful filler nobody cares about. Shonen Jump was paying actual money for them, just to make sure the narutards won’t lose their interest by the time the show continues normally. That’s right, Studio Pierrot couldn’t stop making episodes, even if they were awful, because that would kill the popularity and everyone would lose their money. That’s how much everybody cared about the actual quality of Naruto and the reason we are all making fun of it today.
5) And even when the canon story finally continued, we had a time skip which turned out to be completely pointless. Everyone got a bit older and far stronger, but that didn’t mean anything as far as the plot is concerned. Also, the pacing was really dragging hereon. They were constantly throwing in filler scenes to slow down progression and stay away from the manga. That killed most of the excitement the earlier faster in pacing episodes had.
As for the actual plot of the arc, it was another rescue mission. Why do they give you the exact same plot and expect you to like it? Every arc should be something different or it might as well be the same one arc. And seriously, who cares about Gaara, another character Kishimoto never did something with, after Naruto made him an ally with a friendship speech.
He didn’t even have the guts to kill him after his beast was removed from his body, and at least have a tragic conclusion that would make it clear how they are still far from capable to protect their friends despite their power ups. But no, Gaara was too popular to die, so Kishimoto went for a copout solution where some granny we don’t care about sacrifices her life to save his. This instantly killed another good point of the show; deaths being permanent and meaningful. The fight with Sasori was amazing, but other than that it was a mediocre arc, and I give it a 5/10.
6) The next arc was the Tenchi Bridge, which despite being canon, you can skip it without missing a thing. They were just trying to bring back Sasuke, which didn’t amount to something. And there was a new character named Sai, who was a discount Sasuke for all I care and also someone Kishimoto did nothing with later in the story.
He also had a tragic past which doesn’t mean anything after a hundred slightly different tragic pasts, and they were constantly reusing clips from earlier episodes as yet another cheap way to stretch the duration with needless flashbacks. We don’t need to be remembered how fun it was before Sasuke left the damn village; we remember it just fine. There goes another good thing that got ruined because of the repetition. Since this arc was meaningless, I give it a 1/10.
7) The next arc was the Akatsuki Suppression, which is not bad in terms of drama. Shikamaru had the honor of being the only secondary character with an arc dedicated to him, and avenging his mentor was a legit motivation. The bad guys had some pretty inventive ways to fight and felt very menacing. If you stick to its highlights, which is the middle part of the arc, then you get a damn good fighting shonen.
If you see it as a whole, it has lots of issues. The introduction has the hosts of the multi-tailed beasts getting taken out way too fast, despite seemingly deserving a couple of arcs each. I mean, why did Kishimoto bother to draw them, only for killing most of them after a couple of pages? That’s stupid; he clearly did not plan ahead anymore. He wasted the previous arc on a new character we don’t care about, and then he killed off characters he was hyping for over a year. As for the ending, it was anti-climactic since they didn’t defeat the final bad guy with tactics. Naruto just jumped in and used his new power-up to take him out in an instant, leaving you with very little pay-off. As a whole, I can’t give it more than a 5/10.
8) The Itachi Pursuit arc was made to steer the status quo. Sasuke escapes the control of Orichimaru and kills his brother, seemingly ending his long-term objective. This would be a fine point to get his catharsis and move on with his life. But no, Kishimoto just had to ruin it by throwing in a plot twist that was taking all the blame to Konoha, so he would pose a threat for the good guys.
The idea was good on paper, but there was no foreshadowing for any of this. It was literally subversion for the sake of subversion. It made the main rival of the series to constantly flip flop in what he wants and to be on a non-stop killing spree just because.
That aside, although the major fights were cool, there was a lot of dead time. Almost half the arc was Sasuke looking for companions that never did anything and were effectively worthless, as well as fighting Deidara for no freaking reason. In effect, Kishimoto added two new characters and killed an Akatsuki without planning ahead. For that reason, I can’t give this arc more than a 4/10.
9) The Tale of Jiraya was focused on showing us the past of the sanin and served to hype the next major villain. It was a pretty damn good arc, full of suspense and mystery, ending in a tragic way for one of the most memorable characters in the whole series.
Unfortunately it was ruined by the addition of destiny. Turns out Naruto was never the underdog, he was always the chosen one of destiny. This was the biggest betrayal, trashing the entire premise of the series. He became impossible to relate to after that. Kishimoto realized he had ran out of ideas for what to do with Naruto and Sasuke, so he completely rewrote both of them in an attempt to continue milking the franchise with essentially a different story. Even if that meant the complete destruction of everything the fans liked about the show.
Naruto was the typical insecure boy who was seeking recognition from his peers. He wasn’t the smartest or the most handsome, and was jealous of a silent type pretty boy getting all the pussy for being a cold bastard. That’s why so many people liked him. And now it’s all gone. 4/10 just for that.
10) And if you thought that was the biggest insult, just look at what Kishimoto did with the Pain Assault arc. Wiping out half of the characters could have been the most impactful arc of them all. It could be the point where Naruto realizes his childish ideals of nakama and becoming Hokage come with a price. Sometimes you just can’t save everyone. Sometimes you can’t reason with the enemy and you have to kill him mercilessly. But then Kishimoto remembered he was making a lot of money out of those characters, so he had the villain realizing his mistake after a friendship speech and resurrected everyone. Pure bullshit. He gave you a situation that was demanding maturity, and then treated it as a fairy tale.
Naruto still got another power up, even if he didn’t have to since nothing beats his friendship speeches. It was a huge mistake to escalate the amount of damage he could do, since at this point the battles were closer to Dragonball than the crafty tactics and stealth we had at the early part of the story. They were mostly about spamming energy attacks and raw power, losing everything that was making them seem smart. Emphasis on seem; not even Pain can tell a clone from the real thing. Also, the power system was so broken at this point. If you have a Sharingan or a Tailed Beast on your side and the other side doesn’t, you pretty much have an auto-win. 3/10.
11) And finally, the ending of this dreadful series was the Fourth Great Ninja War. Great, my ass.
- Everyone came back to life, because death had absolutely no meaning anymore, and they had no personality; they were just there as fan service.
- The enemy was a mass produced army of faceless monsters. There was nothing tragic or interesting in a war where thousands of characters who don’t matter are fighting thousands of monsters with no personality.
- Despite the scope of the war, the only important good guy who died was Neji. And only because he was the one who pointed out to Naruto how ideals don’t matter before heritage. You know, the thing the show was all about after Kishimoto rewrote the main characters and had to kill the one telling the truth all along?
- It was also very confusing to follow the plot, as it was constantly changing the main villain and his motivations, each time becoming more absurd. First there was a guy who wanted to hypnotize everyone by using the moon, because he had the hots for an underage girl. The next was the ghost of a previous ninja who fused all the tailed beasts in one as means to take over the world, and then an alien space witch from a different dimension created a tree for eating the planet. I am not making this up; all that happened in the same arc.
- During all this mess, Sasuke changed his mind again, and now decided to help the exact same people he wanted to murder for a hundred episodes. As for Naruto, he falls asleep and gets the ultimate deus ex machina power up that makes him Jesus. Together, they fight the final villain and win in the most anti-climactic way imaginable.
- And once they win, they go back to the waterfall for a rematch that had no purpose of existing, since they were now allies. It just had to happen because Kishimoto was constantly promising it as fan service, even if it made no sense at this point.
- And then Sakura marries Sasuke, causing millions of narutards to burn their volumes because the only thing that mattered after all this bullshit was getting their ship, and they didn’t even get that. Why was that stupid bitch, who was completely worthless in the whole show, in love with Sasuke again? Because he was constantly ignoring her, and almost killed a couple of times. There’s your chemistry and carefully written romance, the level of which only Kishimoto can provide you with.
And that’s how you ruin completely one of the most popular anime in existence.
1) A chosen one protagonist everybody adores who was destined to win from the start
2) A rival who flip flops all the time, not knowing what he actually wants
3) Hundreds of useless characters
4) Tragic flashbacks repeating ad nauseam in similar ways for all characters
5) Stealth and tactics became worthless next to mindless raw power
6) Later mentors and villains are not treated as important and are not fleshed-out
7) Death becomes scarce, not permanent, and is often meaningless
8) Hard to follow plot
9) The soundtrack becomes generic
10) Unbearably slow pacing, stuffed with fillers