Believe It! Looking Back at the Legacy of ‘Naruto’
It's been one year since the end of one of manga’s modern epics, Naruto. After 15 years of weekly publication and 700 chapters, Masashi Kishimoto wrapped up his shonen masterwork on his own terms, with critics and audiences behind him every step of the way. A look back at the series reveals a deep story about legacy, dreams and — like all shonen manga — the power and meaning of friendship.
With all 72 volumes now available in English from Viz Media --- the last volume was released in October to coincide with Masashi Kishimoto attendance at New York Comic Con as a guest of honor --- I’ve been reading the entire manga over the last couple months. It’s a great lesson in what happens when a talented creator is given free reign over his own imagination and fully fleshes out his core concept into something really meaningful.
If you’ve never heard of Naruto, or if you've forgotten, the plot starts like this. Long ago, the chaotic Nine-Tailed Fox Spirit rampaged across the ninja village of Konohakagure. It was only stopped when the village leader, the Fourth Hogake, defeated it and sealed the monster inside the body of a newborn. That newborn was Naruto Uzumaki, and he grew up so despised and ignored by the villagers for having a huge monster inside him that he turned into a goofy brat just to get attention.
Nonetheless, Naruto dreams of becoming the next Hogake, and of besting his brooding rival Sasuke and winning the heart of the cute-yet-violent Sakura (who loves only Sasuke) and the respect of all the villagers. Under the guidance of super cool sensei Kakashi, Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura (known collectively as Cell Number Seven) train with many other students to become great ninja.
It’s basically, “What if Hogwarts taught fighting and only fighting?” It’s great fun and there are a lot of spectacular one-on-one fights that are fun to read and expertly staged. But even at such an early stage, before the crazy revelations begin and the huge villains make their move, it’s obvious Kishimoto is playing the long game.
An example of that is how Kishimoto tackles the notion of legacy. It’s not just about Naruto having to surpass the legacy of the Nine-Tailed Fox. It’s also about Sasuke striving to escape the horrific shadow of his brother Itaachi. It's about Gaara — a sand ninja who has a monster inside him and starts out as a sociopath — struggling to connect with people after what is quite possibly the worst childhood in all of comics. And ultimately, it's about acknowledging the mistakes of the past — going back to the beginning of time — and moving forward from them. Surprisingly deep for a comic about teenagers fighting.
In addition to that strong central theme, and the many wonderful supporting characters (my favorite is probably Shikamaru who is basically “Batman if he could possess people with his shadow”), and the well-constructed mythos and world, there’s a clear plot laid out from beginning to end. It’s a classic hero’s journey, yes, but it’s a well told one. While some of the big plot twists — like the identity of Naruto’s dad — can be seen coming from a mile away if you're familiar with the tropes, some — like the true history behind Itachi, or the true nature of the Nine-Tailed Fox — land as surprises that never feel forced or stretched.
Additionally, far from the cocksure, catchphrase-spouting brat of the anime, Naruto here is immensely sympathetic. He’s a deeply lonely goof who finds a way to move past that, achieve his goals, and become an inspiration to himself and others around him. Watching him grow and develop over the course of the series, it’s easy to see why others rally around him.
In a funny way, Naruto is the inverse of another shonen epic, Akira Toriyama’s Dragonball, at least in Western popularity. While it was Dragonball’s second act — known as Dragon Ball Z in the States and elsewhere — that became immensely popular, Naruto’s first act hit it big in the US. But as ubiquitous as that orange-jumpsuited loudmouth shouting “Believe It!” was for a while, that Naruto is only around for 27 volumes. The bulk of the series is a huge war epic that not only sees the characters age two years and the Fourth Great Shinobi War break out, but also jumps back to see the origins of the modern ninja world and the very concept of things like chakra and biju. (Big kaiju made of energy.)
It’s a shame the series didn’t retain its huge mainstream audience to the end, because it ultimately feels like a huge YA epic, akin to that other previously alluded to tale of a special teenager, Harry Potter. Additionally, Naruto occupies a richly realized world that's wonderful to explore. Even a potentially grating character like Killer Bee — an immensely strong ninja with atrocious rap skills — comes off as fully realized and endearing.
True, it’s not all perfect. The toll of weekly serialization means some confusing, rushed art crops up on occasion. And while most of the antagonists here are memorable, intriguing characters, some are just bad and drag the whole plot down. The huge arc involving the villain Pain and the destruction of Konohagakure should be devastatingly brutal, but just comes across as brutally dull with a cheap ending. Also, the less said about Deidara — an annoying weirdo who has mouths in his hands to chew detonation clay, who rambles on about “true art” — the better.
But ultimately, despite its intimidating length, Naruto is well worth reading. It’s a crash course in how to read modern shonen manga, a sprawling fantasy epic, and a well told story. I highly recommend reading the official Viz Media translation, either through the 72 individual volumes or the new 3-in-1 omnibuses. The books are well-paced (albeit with some strange cliffhangers), and many contain anecdotes by Kishimoto about his life, such as how he constantly drew Doraemon and played videogames as a kid, or the time he almost got his entire baseball team killed by wild monkeys.
Given that Kishimoto is continuing this universe with his “Start of a New Era” project involving Naruto’s kids, it’s safe to say this story of a blonde, loud ninja will be with us for some time to come. It’s a story well worth reading.