I’ve been hiding away for a while to go a bit deeper into the anime realm. As I decided where my next stop would be, I passed by an anime that escaped me as I was growing up. An anime that had a large part in introducing a generation of kids to anime. I was a little iffy about starting it because it is such a big commitment, having 2 separate series that add up to 720 episodes in total, but here I am. I’ll only be talking about the first series here, which covers 220 of those episodes. Also, so I can go into some detail on my points, there will be plenty of spoilers. I never thought I would say this, but let’s talk about Naruto.
Naruto follows Naruto Uzamaki, a young aspiring ninja from the Hidden Leaf Village who hopes one day to become the Hokage. The Hokage is essentially the person who runs the Leaf Village. There are different villages that have their own type of Kage. All you need to take from that is that Naruto wants to be the best. It’s not the most original idea, but it leaves room for the story to go in a lot of different directions.
In this world, ninja are assigned to squads of three at a young age and are expected to complete missions as a team. They’re also given a squad leader to help guide them and help them develop into the best ninja they can possibly be.
Right from the start we’re introduced to the squad that would shape the entire series moving forward. Naruto is of course a part of this squad along with Sasuke and Sakura, with Kakashi as their leader. It doesn’t take long to realize that their character interactions would be reminiscent of shonen series of the past. Naruto is the naive idiot, Sasuke is the brooding rival, and Sakura is the bumbling fan girl who is head over heels for the brooding rival. It’s honestly not the most interesting group of main characters.
After the introduction of the series is actually where Naruto shows that it has the ability to be more than an average anime. The bell training that the group does with Kakashi is a good indication that our main squad has no idea what they’re doing. They’re shown as being completely outclassed and it gives us as the audience the sense that there needs to be a lot of growth for them to be good enough for the battles that lie ahead.
After the training, the group goes out on their first big mission, and it lands up going south. This is when we’re introduced to the series’ first actual villain, Zabuza. Much like the bell training, Zabuza is another reminder that the main characters are not fully prepared. Zabuza is a character that lands up going toe to toe with Kakashi in the show’s first big battle. They’re shown to be at about equal footing and the fight goes nowhere until Zabuza eventually traps Kakashi.
This is where one of the highest points of the series is first introduced. With Kakashi trapped, the team has to come up with a way to beat Zabuza. They eventually come to terms with the fact that they couldn’t possibly beat him head on and instead decide on a plan that would get Kakashi free.
Yeah you heard that right, the characters actually have to come up with a strategy to complete a specific goal as a three person team. Or in this case there are two people teaming up, while Sakura sits back and watches. I definitely have more to say about that later on.
Eventually, Kakashi gets free and their fight temporarily stops after Zabuza manages to get away. When we transition to the later fight which involves Zabuza and his right hand man Haku, we explore a little bit more of what this world has to offer.
The ninja in this world fight with different type of jutsu, which are just different types of abilities. For example, Naruto is able to use the shadow clone jutsu to make actual clones of himself to help fight, while Sasuke often uses the fireball jutsu. A lot of these jutsu are usually only seen done by one of the characters, but there are common ones like substitution jutsu that pretty much everyone uses. On top of that there are abilities referred to as kekkei genkai, which are abilities that are passed down genetically depending on the person’s clan. Examples of this would be Haku’s ice release, and of course, Sasuke’s sharingan.
The fight gives us a look into what certain kekkei genkai can do and honestly had me curious as to what other abilities might be out there. The fight itself is fine, but it dragged on and overstayed its welcome. This is without a doubt the biggest flaw of Naruto, the pacing.
Being at the mercy of the manga’s release dates can put a big strain on the production of the anime. This is something that many longer running shonen series run into after a while, and Naruto is no exception. The amount of padding that some of these episodes have is ridiculous. The beginning minute and a half of every episode for a while was pretty much the ending of the last episode. There are flashbacks and constant reminders of things we don’t need. It slows down the series and can take the audience right out of a moment that they were previously enjoying.
Don’t worry though guys, because after the fight is over and Sasuke nearly dies, the story moves on to what I have found to be most people’s favorite part of the anime.
The Chunin Exams
In Naruto, the ninja also have certain ranks. The lowest rank is Genin, which is what our main characters are. The next level up is Chunin, and the level above that is Jounin, which Kakashi falls under. The Chunin Exams are a series of tests put together by the Hidden Leaf Village to determine whether certain Genin are good enough to earn the Chunin rank. The exams are opened to Genin from other villages as well, which makes the exams extremely competitive.
What I like about this arc is how many characters we’re introduced to. Up to this point we’ve seen other Genin from the leaf village, but have only focused on Naruto and Sasuke, while Sakura is in the back watching. I’ll be getting to that very soon I swear.
There are 12 Genin from the leaf village (that you need to know about) participating in the Chunin exams after being elected by their squad leaders, nine of which are considered rookies. We already know our main team is there, but now we’re introduced to the team of Shikamaru, Ino, and Choji as well as Kiba, Shino, and Hinata. The non rookie team from leaf village consists of Neji, Rock Lee, and Tenten. Along with them there is a team from the sand village that appears at the beginning of the arc consisting of Kankuro, Temari, and Gaara.
There are a lot of names there to be sure, but over the course of the arc you’re able to see a large majority of them showcase their skill. With all of these names introduced it’s easy to identify that this arc will at some point turn into a tournament arc. It executes a lot of that arc nicely, but falls short in a few areas as well.
An important part to any tournament arc is the build up that happens before the tournament begins. This gives us a sense of what we can expect from each fighter once we get there. The arc does this about as well as you can hope by opening up with the introduction of the sand village team. They’re presented as being much more aggressive than the ninja from the leaf village, and we assume they’re very strong. Naruto is made to look like a complete idiot during this exchange, while Sasuke and Gaara come across as the top guys.
On their way to register for the exams, Sasuke is confronted and challenged to a fight by Rock Lee. The fight works as a fantastic introduction to Rock Lee’s character who easily beats Sasuke in the fight. It also helps us further round out who the top players in this upcoming tournament are going to be.
When everyone gets into the hall we see the big crowd of Genin participating in the exams. Here we are introduced to a few more characters. There is the single team from the mysterious sound village, consisting of no one interesting. There’s also the introduction of Kabuto, who is a medical ninja that has taken the Chunin Exams several times and hadn’t passed yet. He carries around cards with him that work as a sort of stat sheet for all of the ninja.
The actual exams begin and the written exam works as one of the most creative challenges that the ninja face through the entire series. They’re given a nearly impossible set of questions to answer and are forced to cheat using their jutsu without getting caught. It’s actually a pretty genius way to get the students to work together to accomplish a specific goal. It also gets rid of any ninja that aren’t capable of getting the job done.
The Forest of Death portion of the exams was way less inventive, but still cool in its execution. There are two types of scrolls and each team is given one of them. To move on to the next part of the exams you must take the type of scroll you are missing from a different team then meet up at a predetermined location. It means that at most, half of the teams will make it to the next round.
The events that happen during this exam really shape the overarching plot of the series. The main villain, Orochimaru, kills off a team and enters the tournament. While it’s not completely explained at that point, he wants Sasuke. He lands up fighting Naruto and Sasuke while Sakura sits back and watches, and leaves a curse mark on Sasuke’s neck before they eventually get away. At the same time, it’s also revealed that the sound ninja are taking orders from Orochimaru and are there simply to target Sasuke.
With Naruto and Sasuke not able to fight after their encounter with Orochimaru, the sound ninja attempt to take Sasuke out. This means that Sakura now has to take on all of the ninja herself. Can it be true? Will she step up and do something useful for the first time? No, because Rock Lee comes out of nowhere and decides to help her out. After Lee is eventually put down, Sakura is forced to fight, and it’s actually not bad. There is a legit sense of urgency with every move she makes and you can tell it’s done out of sheer desperation. When she can’t stop them, Shikamaru’s team comes out to help after watching the events play out behind the bushes the entire time. Their jutsu is pretty cool, especially Shikamaru’s shadow possession which allows him to use his shadow to take control of the movements of his target. Eventually, Sasuke wakes up and uses the ridiculous power of the curse mark to eventually get the sound ninja to retreat.
When the Forest of Death exam finishes we’re left with seven teams. None of which are really to any of our surprise. The four leaf teams make it along with the sound village team, Kabuto’s team, and the sand village team. It’s a predictable outcome, but it’s the only outcome that really makes sense. Apparently, 21 Genin is way too many, so to cut the number down they make the exam into a series of prelim matches where the winners of each match move on to the final exam. This prompts Kabuto to drop out from the exams, which conveniently leaves 20 Genin.
This is where I expected the series to put its best foot forward to promote their characters in the best possible way, but for the most part these first round of fights are disappointing. Sasuke gets a win over one of Kabuto’s teammates to start us off. Shino goes against one of the sound ninja next and emerges from this as a character who has potential to be one of the coolest characters. His insect based jutsu is actually very interesting and allows him to stand out from a lot of the others. Kankuro gets an easy win over the other member of Kabuto’s team, completely eliminating them.
Sakura is up next and I was kinda excited about it. I was wondering who she would be put up against. I didn’t think she would win, but if she could show that she could hang with a top contender, it would be worth it. They land up putting her against Ino, who is about as bland as Sakura is. They’ve been friends for a long time, but their motivations solely lie with who will get Sasuke. It’s such a basic and uninteresting set up for a fight, and that’s exactly what the fight lands up being. The only good part about it is that no one wins so I don’t have to watch either of them take much more screen time in this arc.
Even the fight that followed between Tenten and Temari was much more interesting, even if it was a one sided fight. At the very least Temari established herself as an actual contender in the tournament. Shikamaru was up next against another sound village member. While the fight itself wasn’t very interesting, the ending is downright hilarious. Using the shadow possession to make his opponent hit her head on the wall and knock herself out is as good as it gets.
Naruto against Kiba is next fight, and this one is actually pretty entertaining. Kiba fights with his dog Akamaru, and together they do some pretty cool stuff. We know Naruto is gonna win this fight, but it’s the way that he does it that I think is genius. When Naruto decides to emphasize tactical precision over sheer force, the series is at its best. Naruto demonstrates in this fight that he’s not really all that dumb, even though his clownish personality would make you think otherwise. He turns Kiba’s abilities against him and gets the win.
Hinata vs Neji gave me answers to some questions I had. They look very similar so I assumed at the very least that they were from the same clan. Neji gives a lot of context to his relationship with Hinata and why he dislikes her to the point that he actually tries to kill her during this fight. Neji wins and looks like a supreme asshole doing it, while Hinata comes out as the sympathetic hero that I had hoped Sakura would be.
At this point there are only four Genin left to fight, with two big names that haven’t been called up yet. It only makes sense that they would go up against each other. Rock Lee vs Gaara is THE fight of the series. Without question it is the best demonstration of what good fights can be if you’ve laid the ground work well enough.
At this point we don’t know much about Gaara outside that he enjoys killing people and casually did so during the Forest of Death exam. On the other hand Rock Lee has been presented as the perfect underdog for this world. Ninja typically use abilities that fall into the categories of taijutsu, ninjutsu, and genjutsu. Rock Lee only has the ability to use taijutsu, which means he’s restricted to physical attacks. His motivation lies in his refusal to let that handicap deter him from becoming a great ninja. Add that to his upbeat attitude and you have a character that is extremely easy to root for. Considering he’s going up against one of the tournament favorites who has the ability to command sand at his will, he’s not expected to win.
This is the stage that set up a fight that made everything that came before it mean absolutely nothing. The lengths that Rock Lee goes to try and win this fight is inspiring, going as far as risking his own life using certain techniques. It’s a great display of will that after a while throws the tactical aspect away to demonstrate how much it really means for Rock Lee to prove everyone wrong. Of course, he isn’t able to get the job done as Gaara proves to be too much. Gaara wins by crushing Lee’s arm and leg which leave him crippled and possibly unable to continue with his ninja training. It’s an outcome that pushes Lee’s character arc further while Gaara establishes himself as near untouchable.
The last fight is between the leader of the sound team and Choji. It ends in about a minute with the sound ninja easily taking care of Choji. The remaining Genin all draw numbers to find out their next opponents and are told that they have a month to train for the next round. I’m not really a fan of this long delay. It kills the momentum that was established during the prelim matches and asks the audience to wait. This month isn’t exactly short in terms of episode length either. It gives a lot of context to the story, but it’s hard to care when there’s a tournament looming over everyone’s head.
When tournament finals begin, we get Neji vs Naruto. This is also a pretty good fight, but not because of the actual fighting. The most interesting part of this fight is the difference of ideals between the two characters. Neji, still a smug asshole, believes that people have set destinies and there is no reason to try to go against it. Naruto at this point is still mad at him for what he did to Hinata and uses the entire fight to challenge Neji’s outlook. Naruto does eventually beat Neji. After the fight Neji is given a piece of paper that changes his outlook on life and makes his character do a complete 180. Neji is not a good character.
Shikamaru is up next against Temari in a fight that really explored Shikamaru’s character. We already knew that he doesn’t like fighting girls, which is why it’s funny that he has to fight two back to back. We also learn of his genius level intellect. This isn’t something many people know about because of how lazy he is, but it shows up here. He formulates a genius level plan that gets him into a winning position, but lands up conceding because if he won he would’ve had to keep fighting and he didn’t want to.
Kankuro lands up forfeiting before his match against Shino, which leaves Gaara vs Sasuke. That one sound ninja was supposed to be in the finals too, but Gaara killed him during the month they had to prepare. The Gaara vs Sasuke fight is fine up until it ruins the entire arc. My main problem with this arc is that the tournament never concludes. The attention gets shifted to a fight against Gaara that is WAY too long, and not nearly as interesting as it thinks it is. Gaara’s backstory is done through flashbacks and I honestly couldn’t care less. I’ll just skip to the end it and say Naruto eventually beats him and somehow changes his outlook on life too. This isn’t nearly as left field as Neji’s turn, but it’s still not the best.
There’s a whole other arc that happens after this, but the only way I can speak about it is by first speaking more on…
The Character Writing
This is something that really bugged me during the entirety of Naruto. When you really look at it, there is very little effort into fleshing out any of the characters. Most of the characters are defined by their abilities rather than their personalities. It’s like the writer doesn’t know how to flesh out most of these character so he leans more on making them “badass” so people will like them. It doesn’t work like that.
The characters that do have character traits to them like Rock Lee and Shikamaru are the shining characters of the series. Rock Lee is my favorite character because of that effort to flesh him out. His story is endearing and watching him fight and train as hard as he does reminds of something I would see on Hajime No Ippo. His relationship with his teacher is also charming. He admires Guy to the point that Lee has based his entire look on Guy in hopes of one day becoming as great of a person. It’s all there and it’s executed effectively.
There are the “cool” characters of the series that people tend to gravitate toward like Sasuke, Kakashi, Neji, and Gaara, who land up being some of the worst written characters in the entire show. We know nothing about Kakashi by the end of the series. Neji’s character had such a sudden switch that it’s still hard to take it seriously as character development. Gaara was written in a way for us to have sympathy for his upbringing, but he’s a guy who literally says he enjoys killing. How can I root for that guy? Luckily he does get better.
Sasuke is probably the worst character here because by the end of the series he has no redeeming qualities. He talks down to everyone that considers him a friend and makes a major character decision that honestly didn’t make any sense. When he was out of the series for majority of the last major arc, he wasn’t missed.
This brings me to the women of the show. It’s really sad that they couldn’t find a way to include a single interesting woman in the cast. Ino is generic, Tenten is useless, Hinata only cares about Naruto, and Temari didn’t have enough time to develop. The worst of them and easily my least favorite character in the entire series, is definitely Sakura.
Every time that the team is in a fight, Sakura is given some task that ultimately results in her standing in one place while Naruto and Sasuke fight. Her character is also so attached to Sasuke that it becomes hard to watch at times. This is summed up beautifully in the scene she has with Sasuke before he leaves the leaf village following the Chunin Exams. Her crying plea for him to stay despite him never showing that he cared for her at all, turned her from a useless character, to a truly pathetic one.
That’s why I was so glad that she was left out of the…
Sasuke Recovery Mission
After the events of the Chunin exam it was decided that everyone who competed in the exams would remain Genin, except Shikamaru. He showed enough during the exams that he was the only one that got the promotion. When news got out that Sasuke had left the village they decided to put a mission together to recover him that would be led by Shikamaru. He decides to take a specific group of ninja with him consisting of Naruto, Choji, Kiba, and Neji. Shino was unable to go because he was out on a mission already, and Rock Lee was still recovering from his injuries.
Shikamaru really shines in this arc. He knows the strengths of each of the people he’s chosen, so he comes up with a plan that utilizes them all to their full potential. His explanation of the plan is honestly my favorite part of the entire mission.
When they begin the mission they assume that Sasuke is being accompanied by other people, so they take precautions. They figure out that he is with other ninja and they’re forced to fight them. These fights are honestly pretty lackluster. Choji steps up and has a really cool moment, but it wasn’t worth the length of the fight. Neji’s fight is actually awful. Nothing interesting happens the entire way through. Shikamaru’s fight is okay because we get to see his thought process during the fight. Kiba’s fight was the only one that felt like it had serious emotion. It could just be because I like dogs, but it worked for me. Kiba is one of those characters that is constantly okay, but never anything more than that.
Naruto gets to fight Kimimaro, who is actually really overpowered. Naruto can’t really do anything to Kimimaro so it looks like he would be stuck there for a while. This is until Rock Lee shows up fresh out of his operation to come help. He’s in no way 100%, but he allows Naruto to keep going while he fights Kimimaro.
Once again this is a fight that Rock Lee doesn’t win, but he still manages to steal the show by showcasing the drunken fist. All of the leaf ninja (including Choji even though he already won his fight) get very close to dying before being saved by the sand ninja team. Temari helps Shikamaru, Kankuro helps Kiba, and Gaara helps Rock Lee.
These interactions aren’t really focused on besides Gaara and Rock Lee. Gaara appears to be a changed man and his change is a lot easier to understand than Neji’s was. It’s a redemption story for a character who at one point had no redeeming qualities about him. I gave it a chance and his interaction with Rock Lee got me on board.
None of the sand ninja fights really stood out either. Gaara vs Kimimaro was okay simply because of the absurd stuff Kimimaro was doing. It wasn’t overly impressive though.
We finally get the main event of the series, Naruto vs Sasuke. Something that had been building up since the beginning and it honestly did not disappoint. Of course this fight played out more like a DBZ fight than a Naruto fight, but it was still entertaining. It didn’t reach the level of the Gaara vs Rock Lee fight, but it worked well as a final battle.
This is essentially where the story stops progressing. “But wait there’s still 85 episodes left, what happens now?” It could only be…
Filler is something that I’ve always wanted to speak about. When people hear that there are filler episodes they tend to automatically have a negative reaction to it. There are those who would say “it wasn’t in the manga so it doesn’t count” to which I will say is bullshit. The episodes actually exist so we should look at them for their own merit instead of the merit of the manga. Remember kids, when talking about an anime, the manga is mostly irrelevant.
So what do these filler episodes show us? They’re side missions that different combinations of characters land up going on. Some are infinitely more interesting than others, but there is certainly some enjoyment to be had.
These episodes can be used to give certain characters more time on screen in case they didn’t get enough already. They definitely take a step in the right direction with this, but it doesn’t go over well when the characters have very little to them. For example, there are a few missions where Naruto (who is on all of these missions) teams up with Neji and Tenten. Those characters have literally no personality so every interaction is dull and lifeless.
The best of these episodes come from Rock Lee, Hinata, and Shino. Rock Lee’s personality adds some upbeat and funny episodes. There is the arc involving someone named Raiga which includes a tale of Rock Lee and Guy running while they were asleep. It’s actually hilarious. In a different episode they also explore how Lee still has lingering problems after the Gaara fight despite getting an operation. Hinata’s shining moment came during the beetle arc, where she was determined not to be a burden to her teammates. She landed up showing off a new jutsu and saved everyone. It was really intense and gave her the character moment that so many other characters lacked. In that same mission Shino was also a stand out. He was the leader of the mission and he proved to be a stern and knowledgeable one. There’s a certain interaction he has with Naruto where he keeps telling Naruto that he is the leader of the group that I found hilarious. My absolute favorite of these episodes was a random one about Rock Lee opening his own dojo. It’s so wacky and easily enjoyable. It’s the funniest episode in the entire series.
A lot of the episodes were easier to watch because of the dope…
I watched the entire series in the English dubbed form. The first episodes were a bit rough, but once the cast hit their stride I found the dub to be really enjoyable (especially Guy and Rock Lee’s voices). Steve Blum is definitely the stand out performer here, lending his voice to both Zabuza and Orochimaru, along with a lot of additional voices.
Because there are so many episodes, it means that there are also a lot of openings. Some of the openings are great with openings 2, 4, and 5 being my favorites. They’re more high energy than the other ones and really reflect the fast paced action that should be going on. There are also some duds, especially the first opening which puts me to sleep.
The soundtrack is also playful enough to get the job done. There were so many episodes though and they never switched up the music so it got really repetitive after a while.
Naruto has a lot going for it. It’s a cool world with a lot of things to explore. The squad concept emphasizes tactics over brute strength. There are some fights that are highly entertaining and one that stole the entire series. There are even a couple of characters that I legitimately like. It doesn’t stop the series from having some problems though.
The character writing at times is some of the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to justify certain character decisions and the complete mishandling of every woman in the series. The pacing gets so slow that the episodes sometimes become a chore to watch. I hope studios understand how much strain you put on your people to produce these episodes weekly without getting ahead of the manga. It makes the episodes bloated to a point that the large portion of a lot of the episodes could easily be cut out.
I can say that despite all of the glaring issues that Naruto suffers from, I still managed to find some enjoyment in it. There are enough good things going for it that I can understand how it got as popular as it did. It still feels like people let the show slide for things that are obvious though.
Naruto gets a 65/100