What do you do when you are a minor critic, whose only contribution has been swearing and peanuts, and quite possibly the most successful anime ever nears 700 episodes?
Talk about why it’s bad of course!
The last time I did one of these was…the Korra review. And who remembers that, really? So consider this one of my very occasional indulgences.
I do count Naruto (used here to refer to the combined series Naruto and Shippuden) among some of my fondest anime memories. And simultaneously, a series I have grown bitter about.
As someone who got into Naruto around 2007, my opinion of it remains very much the same as most people who got into it around that time or earlier: After 14 years it is hard to care anymore. (14 being tentative from the launch of the series)
But for me, it goes one step past simple burn out. To me, Naruto is over already. Its arc completed long ago, and everything since then has been so much stalling to keep the subscriptions (in manga) and episodes (in anime) coming.
We have to go back in time quite a few years. So come along with me! As we pretend to enter the world where Naruto’s storytelling did not consist of seven weeks of flashbacks and one week of fighting! I know. Crazy right?
The Underdog Series
Naruto’s greatest contribution to anime, and fiction in general, actually, was its depiction of the Underdog AS an underdog.
Naruto’s victories in the early series were not because he overpowered villains. They were, and you’ll forgive my application of a football term, armchair quarterback fights that his superiors could say “Well, any shinobi could have done it had they been there, but good work on doing your job, Naruto.” His victory was getting INTO the Chuunin exam. His victory was -deterring- Zabuza. His victory was beating Kabuto, while the legends around him dealt with Orochimaru.
And, every now and then, he got his ass handed to him. Indeed, in some arcs, such as Gaara Retrieval, he was mostly a hindrance to his team.
This was a good thing!
It was an incredibly optimistic time for the series! In Naruto we had a character who was genuine. He had his determination, and while it was a little obnoxious listening to him blab about becoming Hokage at the drop of the hat, when we saw him overcome the elitist pricks he often went up against, after so many stories about how he is just a BAD shinobi…we rooted for him. Even if we didn’t like him as a character.
I also think that it helped contribute to the ensemble nature of the show. While it was okay to humor Naruto, to tolerate his presence because every Shonen series needs a spunky, teen male viewpoint character, most of our favorites back in the day were the periphery characters. Orochimaru, Itachi, Sasuke, Kakashi, Hinata, and Gaara would probably have all made favorites markers ahead of the title character back in the day. Not even counting Tsunade, Kabuto, Lee, Sai, or really any of the Rookies at the time. I knew at least half a dozen other people who were watching Naruto before me. None of them really liked Naruto. We found him a positive presence, a necessary spark of hope among the jaded shinobi, but he was never “the favorite”. And this was an incredible strength of the series. It may have been about Naruto, but the show did not feel “Naruto-centric”.
It’s difficult to explain, certainly one might say “But Anna, every character and his dipshit brother is getting a flashback in the Shinobi War”, and that’s true. But the world has become centered around Naruto. I don’t even mean, “we must fight a war to protect Naruto”, that’s fine. But the outcome of said war is completely dependent on him. No other players feel like they truly matter anymore. They’re just stalling until Naruto can swoop in and kill Tobi (no spoilers!) and Madara. The world prior to this first went about its business. Orochimaru attacked Konoha for reasons OTHER than Naruto. He interfered in the Tsunade Retrieval for his own reasons. The Akatsuki were the ones who needed Naruto, and it wasn’t even about him, but the kyuubi he hid inside himself.
Naruto turned from “Greek Hero”, that is, while he was a central figure, he was elevated to that position by his friends, peers, and superiors by his ability, attitude, and victories. Once the whole Shinobi War starts, by this point he is firmly entrenched in the “Persian Hero” status. The chosen one. He will lead not because of merit, but because DESTINY! *jazz hands*
This is a disservice to the series. But it’s not even the worst one.
Trickling of Villains
One of the best features was the Akatsuki. Hands down, bar none, one of the most well executed cadre of villains in anime history (though they could have used a couple extra lady bits among them).
That was…really, the JOY of early Shippuden. Unmasking them one by one. They had been teased well over 100 episodes before in the Itachi/Kisame raid on Konoha. And wisely, many were held in reserve, operating in teams of two, and in the cases where one was occasionally knocked off, like Sasori, they would be replaced, unmasking (figuratively) the new Tobi in his stead, able to keep the known factors to a bare minimum. It gave us a sense of progress, almost a calendar of how the arcs would progress, and we knew that as more Akatsuki were defeated, it was indicative of our heroes growing up, and assuming the mantle as full, respected shinobi.
Pain was unmasked in the most spectacular of ways: Murdering Jiraiya. That was where we finally got to see him in his full glory (Konan too).
How was Tobi revealed? Just dramatically enough when we knew he wasn’t who he said he was? And revealed to be the exact person we first speculated him to be SEVEN years prior? That was sure worth the wait.
There was a very good buildup of powers in the earlier portions of the series. The metaphysics were finally hammered out when Naruto learns he is a wind elemental, and this makes him, power-wise, a world class shinobi, taking out Kakuzu with an attack that DESTROYED HIM ON THE CELLULAR LEVEL.
This stops after Pain. Now powers are all super-secret summons and pocket dimensions and breaking the laws of physics for specific purposes.
When the rules of relativity no longer apply, it cheapens to actual powers people are using. Why the fuck did we learn that elemental chakra nonsense anyway? It ultimately accomplishes nothing. How do they even come into play when people are shifting dimensions and countering world destroyers with world destroyers?
In this arms race, we lost the symbolism of the earlier series. For example…there was a heavy emphasis on the Snake/Frog/Slug trinity. To the point that the Sanin, who embodied these mythological animals, took on the three leads as apprentices. Not just students, as Jiraiya had done for Pain and The Fourth, but outright successors, who would carry on their legacy, not just their teachings.
Because, in early Shippuden, it was obvious how the conflict between the three was destined to end.
Sakura was to kill Sasuke.
Sakura’s powers, as established in Gaara Retrieval, were designed to counter Sasuke. That was the direction she had been developing over the past three years. First, and this goes all the way back to Zabuza, Sakura has perfect chakra control. Genjutsu, the primary power of the sharingan, is essentially useless on her because she can detect when she’s fallen prey to it, and disrupt her own chakra flow to counter the move. Second, and most importantly, she is a brawler. She beats the living hell out of people with her fists. Sasuke may be a genius, but for all his knowledge, physical combat comes difficult for him. We saw a precursor to this when Guy fought Itachi. Third, Sakura is incredibly intuitive, such as when she composites Sasori’s poison just by guessing the ingredients that made the most sense to her. This stems from a knowledge that she has since lost, but that genius could be applied to jutsu as well. The inverse of this applies, as well. As a Sage, Naruto is -all- energy. Something Sasuke could easily track with his eyes.
And perhaps the most damning argument in favor of this move: It made narrative sense. Sakura may have “loved” Sasuke (in that very Twilight sense of the word), but she was also far more ready to give up on him than Naruto at various points in early Shippuden. For Sakura to “be the grown up”, and finish off Sasuke after Naruto had failed, and having to look him in the eye to explain why she killed their friend….that practically writes itself.
This “new” meta system, where everyone is constantly one upping, not with tactics, but with secret macguffin powers that are legendary and said to not exist but somehow been acquired….Sakura has been lost in this shuffle. And it’s really a damn shame, too. Really, AS SOON AS this new paradigm arose, they actually HAD that conflict between Sakura and Sasuke, and it basically came off as “Oh, look at the girl, she thinks she’s fighting.”
You should have had super special blood or ginga-ginga chakra sucked from the leviathan’s dick! TOO BAD YOU’RE A LOSER!
How It Should Have Ended
If it isn’t obvious from the themes I have been presenting as some of Naruto’s strengths, and the timing of when the stuff I consider nonsense began…the series reached its conclusion after the Pain arc.
Naruto was no longer the student. He had surpassed his master, inherited his Will of Fire, and become the most powerful Frog Sage in known history. The village was in ruins, but the people had been saved.
Tsunade, first, should have died. Which, she would have, because her coma was not the result of violence, but of depleting her own chakra, by her own will.
Even barring that, though, you would still need to pick a Sixth Hokage. In fact, Naruto’s name was floated at that meeting, since he had established himself as the most powerful shinobi in Konoha.
And it should have been him.
To inherit the red hat, to finally put it on, with the knowledge it was because Granny Tsunade had died doing her best while he had been late. To finally achieve his dream, but realize it is not the celebration he made light of in his youth. Not that he would not do so unwillingly. But it was time for Naruto to learn to do it for the right reasons. Not for glory. Not for acceptance. Not for immortality in his village’s mythology. But to protect them. To shelter the weak, as he had once been weak. This was the moment he should have been bestowed that title.
“Not ready”? Naruto, NOT the Third, Fourth, or Fifth Hokage, had by this point brought the Sand and Rain villages into Konoha’s shinobi alliance. Personally. He had already changed the political landscape beyond comprehension for the elders of the villages to believe they would ever live to see such alliances. Yeah, maybe he would have needed a secretary or something to help with the paperwork. But, as a leader, as defender of the village, and as “head of state”, Naruto had more than proved his worthiness. His journey was practically complete.
And the first act of Sixth Hokage Naruto would have been to round up what forces were capable, and chase down the remnants of the Akatsuki, with Gaara and Konan at his side, and their forces. To put an end to the threat so great, the most powerful of the shinobi villages had fallen in its wake. It should have been the moment where Naruto declares that the Akatsuki end. Now.
Sasuke would still probably have joined up in the meantime. The drama is aplenty in reaching the Akatsuki base (or one of the other nations they might flee to), only to find Sasuke waiting among its ranks.
You could have a tragedy, a bittersweet ending, or a happy ending where they all go home. But once Naruto’s growth had reached its apex…you can’t just turn him back into a retard to keep the series going. It’s cheap, it cheapens the character, and it cheapens the story. And the whole nonsense powers just cheapen the world that had been so carefully created.
To me, anything beyond this natural conclusion is so much stalling for time. It is an attempt to keep the series alive with a robot arm, to feed it the souls of children to keep it alive beyond death.