It's almost unbearable, isn't it?… the pain of being all alone. I know that feeling, I've been there, in that dark and lonely place, but now there are others, other people who mean a lot to me. I care more about them than I do myself, and I won't let anyone hurt them.
That's why I'll never give up, I will stop you, even if I have to kill you! They saved me from myself, they rescued me from my loneliness, they were the first to accept me as who I am. They're my friends.
-- Uzumaki Naruto to Gaara of the Sand
I have written previously about the inspiration and awesomeness that I found in Dragonball/Dragonball Z by Akira Toriyama. What Toriyama did in creating Dragonball from the Journey to the West, his fascination with Western fiction ranging from spaghetti westerns to the Terminator films, and his own twisted imagination was impressive, and at times stunningly awesome.
Yet there were certain limitations and flaws in the Dragonball universe; the most obvious, perhaps, was in the characters. While some of the characters do experience growth and change, none of them are terribly complex, and they tend to remain archetypes, sometime stereotypes, than fully-realized people (although they are much more so than many people would tend to guess from just randomly watching episodes). The other major flaw is that once it abandoned the quirky thread of humor that was a strong component of the original Dragonball, it became mostly a series which would bring up a new super-powerful villain and his henchmen for the Z-Team to oppose. While there were sometimes worthwhile plotlines within these (particularly during the Android/Cell sequence), it fell short of what it might have due to these and other limitations.
Naruto accomplishes all of the promise of Dragonball and far beyond.
The main character of Naruto is the eponymous Uzumaki Naruto (or in normal English order, Naruto Uzumaki). When we first meet Naruto, he's a loudmouthed, overconfident prankster with a bitter edge that we don’t quite understand, who is treated as a pariah in his village.
Said village, Konohagakure no Sato (roughly, Village Hidden in the Leaves or the Hidden Leaf Village), usually just called Konoha, is one of several villages in its world which are effectively training communities for what they call shinobi or "ninjas". Rather than merely being stealthy assassins/agents as were the ninja of history, the shinobi of the world of Naruto are martial artists who can wield various supernormal powers generally divided into three categories of ninjutsu, genjutsu, and taijutsu. These shinobi are employed by various other communities and organizations on missions which can range from the trivial to the earthshaking, depending on the skill and talents of the shinobi.
Accordingly, everyone with a trace of shinobi talent is trained in the schools of Konoha – schools which can be, shall we say, rather hardcore. Then again, one would expect this to be the case, given that the shinobi will be expected to go on military-style missions… possibly by the time they're in their preteen years.
Naruto, we learn, is shunned by the village due to the fact that he has, sealed within him, the Kyuubi, or Nine-Tails Fox Demon, a being of vast malice and evil which very nearly destroyed the village shortly after Naruto was born; his own father and mother sealed the Kyuubi into Naruto in what was a desperation move to protect the entire village and possibly the rest of the world (the Kyuubi's power is on a moderate Dragonball scale, more than capable of wrecking a continent if it really gets moving).
It should be noted that his parents died in the process of doing this – Naruto is an orphan. We later learn that there are actually eight other "Tailed Beasts", each sealed into the body of some poor child; these bearers of the beasts are called Jinchuuriki.
Thus, Naruto is an outsider, feared and shunned through no fault of his own. He has thus developed a personality that seeks attention – any kind of attention – rather than being ignored. So he's a prankster and a clown and sometimes a braggart… and clearly a child with major problems that boil down to desperately wanting someone, anyone, to acknowledge and care for him.
This characterization is very intentional and calculated; Kishimoto, the creator of Naruto, is very, very, very much aware of the characters he is creating, what kind of people they are, and how they interact with each other and what drives them to be what they are. While there are – undeniably – a lot of awesome combat sequences, the central part of Naruto is, quite bluntly, the characters and their interactions, and the consequences of choice on you and those who follow you. Kishimoto has worked out at least three to four generations of the people in his world – that is, he knows the people who were the grandparents, or even great-grandparents, of every significant character in the universe, and how they interacted with each other, and how the choices of people three generations ago are currently affecting everything that's happening in Naruto's world now.
This is what makes the series worth watching; we know who Naruto is, what he's like, and why, and the same is true of all the people he encounters – heroes and villains alike. The characters grow and change, and do so in believable, realistic ways (given their circumstances), while keeping the core essence of their personalities at all times, just as real people do. Kishimoto includes details that show multiple different types of psychologies, too; Naruto himself is clearly ADHD (he reminds me of one of my kids, actuallY), while he has others who show traits on the Aspergers or autistic spectra, and others more "normal" … and much LESS normal, especially in the case of their adversaries.
Naruto himself is often the "Idiot Hero", although he is much less stupid than he appears to be; his desire to be looked at makes him a clown, and often an apparently less competent clown than he really is. Eventually he grows out of this and we have slowly begun to see just what he's capable of as time goes on. He can draw on the power of the Nine-Tails within him, giving him a reserve of "chakra" (spiritual power, equivalent of "chi" or "ki" in other anime) that dwarfs that of anyone other than another Jinchuuriki. This often allows him to pull off tricks that other shinobi, even some much more skilled and highly trained, simply cannot – perhaps most notably his signature move "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu", or Shadow Clone Technique, which allows him to make fully functional duplicates of himself. Really highly trained shinobi with the talent can duplicate this technique and produce one, two, or maybe even three "shadow clones". Naruto can produce hundreds. As he gets older, he also shows a talent for learning certain types of difficult techniques and combining them in ways other shinobi won't, or can't.
Despite this, his greatest power is his personality, the fact that despite being a loudmouth and braggart at first, there's still something likeable about the little twit, something that keeps him from being entirely despised and that eventually tends to draw people to him. This is almost entirely due to his inherent… transparency, I suppose would be the best word. He is exactly who he appears to be, with no tricks, no deceptions, and what he appears to be – in addition to a loudmouth – is at heart a boy who believes in doing the right thing, in fighting to protect what he cares for, and in convincing other people to do the same.
This characteristic of his emerges over time, becoming stronger and more obvious as time passes. It is given strength through Naruto's other obvious characteristic – stubborn, unbending will. He simply will not give up, even against an opponent vastly superior to him in almost every way, and this willingness to push beyond his limits will often force a foe to re-evaluate what they're really doing. Many of their adversaries do have to simply be beaten to the ground, true… but there are times when their opponents realize that they have chosen the wrong path, and decide to change that path.
The early part of the manga and anime could be easily described as "Harry Potter in Ninja School", as seen through a somewhat inverted mirror; Naruto is the vessel of the ancient evil, rather than its nemesis, and is avoided rather than sought out. But the idea of a school for those with extraordinary powers – a school with sometimes frighteningly extreme teaching methods – remains, and so is the progression of young people being forced to work together and, perhaps, become friends along the way.
The teachers in Konoha are, themselves, strong characters, and sometimes they are as much front-and-center as Naruto and those of his generation. Certainly this is true of Kakashi, often called the Copy Ninja for his ability to see a technique once and replicate it, and of his fellow teachers Might Guy (who is as strange as one might expect from that name) and Asuma.
A village that creates superhuman warriors for hire, however, can expect to have enemies, and said warriors will often encounter opponents of similar powers. Kishimoto has spent at least as much time in designing and understanding his villains as he has his heroes, and because of this he has created a huge, diverse, and amazingly unforgettable array of adversaries, some of them being the greatest villains ever put to paper.
The top billing there has to go to Orochimaru. Once a shinobi of Konoha, and in fact one of the three "Legendary Sannin" ("Sannin" being a high rank of shinobi), Orochimaru became obsessed with defeating death – partly for the sake of someone precious to him – and with learning all the techniques ever developed. This obsession led him to delve into even the most forbidden techniques, including using other living people as his experimental animals; when he was caught, he escaped and began a campaign of manipulation, betrayal, and corruption whose scope is still not entirely revealed. Orochimaru is vastly powerful, skilled, very much aware of his own weaknesses and generally able to compensate for them, and a chessmaster par excellence. He has found ways to cheat death from virtually any source, and has manipulated both the good guys AND the other bad guys to his own ends. At this point, it's not even clear what his ends are… yet it's clear that he does, indeed, have a goal, or goals, and thus far, the most anyone's been able to do is momentarily impede him, even if they think they've just killed him.
The Akatsuki (or Red Cloud) organization presented multiple worthy, and fascinating, adversaries, whose backgrounds, personalities, and motivations were as diverse and interesting as their bizarre powers: Deidara, capable of molding harmless clay into mobile explosives and considering explosions as the true expression of art; Sasori, monstrous sociopathic puppetmaster who turns his enemies into still more puppets; Kisame, shark-themed cheerful warrior with a savage heart; Itachi, possessor of the feared Sharingan Eyes, dark, brooding, with a secret he has to keep for the sake of things beyond the mere goals of the Akatsuki; and others.
The fact is, I can't even begin to describe Naruto and do it justice; this is a superpowered soap opera,except that the characters actually make sense and grow – it's not just a constant and never ending story. This is a dramatic adventure covering years that, perhaps, may be nearing its end, but that has become nothing but steadily more awesome as time has passed; where most people fade out, becoming stale and unremarkable after an initial awesome beginning, Kishimoto is clearly driving towards an incredible finale that he had planned perhaps ten or more years ago. Where Dragonball ended up repeating itself, just on bigger scales, Kishimoto simply pulls back the curtain to show us new views of the world and causes us to completely re-evaluate everything that happened before.
This isn't to say that Naruto is perfect; few things, if any, are. For me and Kathleen, it's probably certain forms of humor that we find least tolerable, especially the peeping-Tom habits of Jiraya-Sama, the Toad Sage; the ecchi Old Master was an old and outmoded trope before Kishimoto ever put pen to paper, and it's not funny any more (if it ever was – I never found it so). Admittedly they play that bit down more and more as the series goes on until it's only a minor in-joke by the time Jiraya makes his (completely awe-inspiring) exit. Other similar tropes are also present on occasion – although for the most part they, also, become less prevelant as time goes on. This may reflect another parallel with Harry Potter – the series becomes more mature as its protagonist gets older, so it's possible that the humor shift is specifically due to writing in the mode of the age group of the protagonist; that is, there's more crude humor in the beginning because that's what a ten-year-old would find funny.
The single biggest flaw in Naruto, aside from the occasional juvenile humor, is … well, the world makes no sense if you think about it too much. Oh, the people make sense. And – given the strange assumptions that the world's based on – the politics and other aspects of the story make sense.
But the world doesn't make sense. There are no signs of major manufacturing complexes, or scientists, or engineers of any significant skill or knowledge. Yet sometimes they have computers. During one sequence early in Naruto Shippuden (and some considerable distance in the manga), Team Kakashi and Team Guy keep in contact… with little tiny radios they wear in their ears. And yet the villages communicate over distance with… carrier pigeons.
So it's best to try to ignore the appearances of 20th-century technology and pretend it's magical technology. Maybe they have special chakra-based technology summoning techniques! Yeah, that's the ticket…
I'll note that in the mystical "technology" area, i.e., the system of powers that Kishimoto bases his world on, he is very detailed, and apparently very consistent. When someone comes up with a new chakra technique, they have an explanation for how it works – and that explanation is consistent with the other techniques we've seen. More, we can then make deductions about what that technique can and can't do, based on prior stuff we've seen, and we'll be right, because Kishimoto does indeed know how his ninjutsu, genjutsu, and taijutsu powers work.
But really, that's a comparatively minor flaw, because the focus of Naruto is on the interactions, not on the technicalities of the world (outside, that is, of the special combat techniques).The emotional depth in Naruto is immense and complex and layered; there are certainly a lot of super-powered fights between shinobi, using their powers in inventive and impressive ways, but the motivations for the combats, and for the characters' actions out of combat, are the reason that we care what happens in these battles. It is through these sequences that we see Naruto and his companions grow and change, and that Naruto proves what it is that makes him the central character of his world in a time when entire nations hang in the balance.
The opening quote to this article is from one of the most intense moments of the early manga and anime; Naruto is facing off against Gaara, a sociopathic monster who also happens to be, like Naruto, a Jinchuuriki, and the two of them beat each other near to death. Gaara is completely taken aback by Naruto; it's clear that Naruto is no match for him in skill, yet something in Naruto outclasses Gaara in every way, something that Gaara can't comprehend… and that speech by Naruto finally, somehow, gets through to the child buried within Gaara, the little boy who just wanted someone to care, and in Naruto realizes he has met someone who really, honestly does understand him, because he has been shunned, scorned, abandoned, for the exact same reason Gaara was.
In that sequence, Gaara is transformed, has an epiphany that changes him from a monster to a man, a young man who sees past the clown and brash loudmouth exterior of Naruto to see the essence of his character, and says to himself, "I want to be like him."
These moments – when a character reaches their potential due to understanding who and what they are, what their real place in the world is and how they will follow that path – are ones of tremendous emotional impact, and Naruto is full of these moments – as well as full of moments of pure dramatic awesome that is almost unmatched by any other manga or anime, ever.
Naruto has not quite ended. It is possible, I suppose, that Kishimoto could fumble the dramatic ball and end it with a trainwreck, but he has so far managed to negotiate the most tricky dramatic and plot moments without a bobble. I have hopes that he will conclude the manga as well as he has executed it thus far… and if he does, this will be my favorite manga of all time, I think.
So go, give that little loudmouthed ninja a try.