This post contains huge spoilers for Naruto. Read at your own peril.
This week signifies a monumental moment in the Anime world. After 15 years and 720 episodes of ups and downs, the animation budget of a see-saw and more filler episodes than you could encounter in the most terrible of nightmares, the Naruto Anime adaptation has finally come to an end.
Some are deeply saddened by the news that another seemingly endless Shounen action flick is now gone, while others are jumping for joy as they scatter the ashes of a series they feel ran for far too long. Then there’s people like me, who don’t particularly mind one way or the other because they experienced the end of the series in 2014 when the Manga ended.
Naruto was once a juggernaut of a series. In the early 2000’s, alongside One Piece and Bleach, the series was one of the most popular and well received Anime series of its time. Naruto was a phenomenon, particularly for us western viewers in the sense that it was one of a small handful of shows that spawned an entire new generation of Anime fans. Myself and a large chunk of Anime fans in my age group were properly welcomed into this medium by Naruto, and I can at least speak for myself when I say that I’m honestly not sure if I would even be an Anime fan today were it not for the time when I accidentally tuned in to an episode of the series when I was on vacation in America.
But of course, as you’d expect of such an influential and monumental series in the Anime world, as the years went by, Naruto began to lose its popularity and started getting a lot of flack as the series progressed, with its reputation getting increasingly worse with each passing year.
There are countless arguments for this, be it the increasingly mediocre production values, the inconceivable amount of “inconsistencies” and “plotholes” and the humongous quantity of universally despised filler arcs that were both poorly paced and just plain boring.
In today’s Anime landscape, Naruto is a shadow of its former self and has lost much of, if not all of, its former glory.
But you see, despite its status as an incredibly mediocre series that doesn’t deserve its popular status, I feel Naruto gets a lot of unnecessary hate. The series has its fair share of problems, I won’t deny that, but it’s really not so bad. In fact, I’m here to make the bold claim that Naruto is good.
That’s right. Naruto is a good Anime. And it completely deserves its status as a worldwide phenomenon.
Naruto is a perfect example of a Shounen underdog story done right. It focuses on a goofy, ostracized, kid ninja, who wants to become the leader of his village to prove to everyone that he’s worth something and to have them accept him for who he is. And while that in itself seems like a fairly standard underdog Shounen plot, what makes it interesting is that it sets a goal from the very beginning.
You see, at the beginning of Naruto, the end goal was immediately made clear. Unlike the likes of Bleach or Dragon Ball Z where there is no real goal aside from overcoming whatever major conflict is the focus of the current story arc, Naruto has a continuous and consistent overarching focus that remains true for the entirety of the series. Naruto is set on becoming the best and proving to the world that he’s more than just a talentless knucklehead. And sure, the series may stray from this path at times as the story shifts the primary focus to much less personal plots and a certain characters revenge story, but the point of Naruto as a series, the overall goal of the show, never really changes. It has a clear ending planned out from the beginning, something that’s surprisingly rare in the Anime medium where we often wind up with incomplete series or rushed, “we totally planned this all along” endings.
I’m not saying the storyline of Naruto is perfect. There’s a lot of rocky parts throughout the show. Some arcs are far too long for their own good. Others are boring and serve very little relevance to the plot. And despite liking Sasuke Uchiha as a character, the kid gets far too much screen time to the point I honestly felt they should have renamed the show “Sasuke” at some points.
The middle of Naruto, particularly Shippuden, was a very bumpy ride. The plot became more convoluted and the battles began to feel more and more dragged out. It no longer felt like the same series at times, and it was incredibly disheartening to many. Even I felt this way for a while, particularly during some extended segments of the Great Shinobi War arc where parts just felt unnecessarily dragged out for no real reason other than to prolong the story for as long as possible.
However, before, after and in between all of those bumps, is a story worth telling. The beginning of the series is incredibly solid, with the Land of Waves and Chunin Exam arcs being some of the finest things to ever come out of Shonen Jump. Many will attribute this early success to Hunter x Hunter, a series that Mangaka Masashi Kishimoto was directly influenced by, but he took those inspiring elements and spun them into something unique of his own.
The Land of Waves arc set up the incredibly complex and well crafted world of Naruto by introducing all of the series’ core concepts in a way that was more than a basic infodump. On top of that, it had some of the most engaging action sequences to ever come from Shounen. The strategic battle between Zabuza and Team 7 was incredible, and Naruto and Sasuke vs. Haku was one of the most engaging fights around at the time. These were monumental moments that made Anime history. They defined the modern day Shounen experience and ushered in a new era for Anime as a medium.
And who could forget the emotionally crushing finale to that first arc, where Zabuza and Haku, the villains of the arc, both die together, side by side in a surprisingly emotional scene that still shakes me to the core today. Over a decade later. Say what you will, but Zabuza’s death is one of the most emotionally charged scenes to ever come from the Anime medium and is a perfect example of how to present the death of a character in the most resonating way possible. Zabuza was a bad guy. He was a cruel, evil monster of a man. Yet, we all cried when he passed away and broke down as his partner sacrificed his life in vain to save him. We forgot he was a villain and we sympathized with him. I can barely count the number of shows that achieved that same feeling on both of my hands.
Meanwhile, the ending is emotionally satisfying with one of the most fantastic pay-offs in Anime history. Many long running series tend to have a disappointing ending that fails to live up to the promises that were established early on. But Naruto ended in the way that just about everyone wanted it to. Naruto earns his title as Hokage and we finally get to see the results of his struggles. In that final moment, we see all of the hard work, effort and dedication throughout the entire series pay off in a moment of pure, absolute pathos and it was glorious. It felt earned. It felt deserved. It was great.
As for what happened in between, it was a bumpy ride, sure, but there were many moments of genuine brilliance scattered along that uneven road. From the depressing and long-awaited, revenge-driven conflict between Sasuke and Itachi, to the revelation of Kakashi’s believed to be dead friend, Obito Uchiha being the one of the grand masterminds behind everything, all the way to the explosive final confrontation between Naruto and Sasuke, there are just as many moments of incredible storytelling and genuine emotion as there are moments of cringe and fail.
That last one in particular, the final battle, being one of the most incredible fights to ever come from the Shounen demographic. The fight tells the final chapter of a long winded rivalry between two incredibly complex and well developed characters that stretches across the entire series. And during this fight we catch glimpses of everything they’ve learned throughout each of their separate journeys. Every special technique learned, every hand sign, each and every subtle movement all hark back to each and every event that both Naruto and Sasuke have been through. It’s a celebratory battle sequence that looks back on everything that the series managed to achieve through both of these characters, both good and bad, and it’s brimming with raw energy and emotion the likes of which are nigh unparalleled. Just look at this stuff and tell me you can’t feel the desire driving these two characters towards their goals.
Speaking of these two characters, they’re both incredibly well written characters, like them or not. Naruto is one of the most well developed underdog protagonists in all of Anime starting out as a snot nosed kid who can’t even perform the most basic of ninjutsu to the greatest ninja in his village. The best part? He earns it and we see him progress in a believable way over the course of the series. Sure, there’s a timeskip and it turns out he’s actually the son of an incredibly talented prodigy, but while those are some awfully convenient issues, they don’t detract from the genuine amount of effort and dedication that Naruto puts into his training throughout the series. He earns that Hokage hat and it’s bloody satisfying when he does.
Sasuke on the other hand is completely undeserving of the hate that is frequently directed towards his character. Yes, he’s whiny. Sure, he’s an immature brat who makes stupid decisions. However, he’s also an incredibly complex and well developed character with an emotionally engaging character arc that is genuinely compelling. Sasuke’s story is one of revenge and is cripplingly depressing. As his story progressed his perception of the world and the events of his childhood that fueled his quest for vengeance were completely shattered and no longer having a true reason to live, he had to find a new purpose in life, a purpose that resulted in a string of terrible decisions that were both fascinating and realistic, especially considering his circumstances. Sasuke was unhinged. He was on the verge of breaking down entirely at every given point, a character arc I and many others can strongly relate to. The whining was annoying and his consistently silly decisions were sometimes frustrating, but Sasuke was an interesting character who stood out and was genuinely entertaining to follow.
Then there’s the side characters, and while I can agree that many of them were completely useless and served little relevance to the overall plot, the show did have its fair share of enjoyable and entertaining ones as well. Hinata, Gaara and Rock Lee, among others, are all iconic characters with their own self contained arcs that integrated themselves brilliantly within the main story.
Then we get to the production values. It’s no secret that as the series went on the animation got progressively worse. Character designs became off model more than usual, many fight scenes had less fluidity to them and the overall directing and presentation just became sloppy in a lot of places, particularly once Shippuden started.
But the series still has its fair share of well directed sequences. The Kakashi and Obito fight scene is one of the best directed Anime moments from 2016, with both incredible animation and a beautifully unique blend of splicing footage between the past and present day versions of the two fighting one another.
Naruto is far from a perfect looking series, but it could look absolutely stunning when Pierrot wanted it to, and all of the shows major fight scenes, the final one in particular, were always fantastic. Can we really complain?
I don’t think I need to say anything about that rocking soundtrack. Give it a listen. It’s fantastic.
Perhaps it’s out of nostalgia or maybe I’m just a weirdo who, as always, feels the need to be contrarian and disagree with the consensus, but I don’t think Naruto is a bad series. It’s not perfect and it stumbles a hell of a lot during its 720 episode journey, but that doesn’t make it “terrible” or anything of the sort.
Naruto’s biggest strength is in its ability to tell an exceptionally cathartic narrative where emotions clash and dreams are achieved in a world of all powerful magic Shounen ninjas and it’s awesome.
It’s been over a decade since I first started watching Naruto and even today, after engaging with so many other Anime series, I still look back on it with a smile. Because despite its failings and occasional stumbles, I had a good time. I enjoyed myself. And I will for many years to come.
You inspired and created a whole generation of Anime fans, Naruto. And for that, you deserve your status as one of the most popular and best-selling Anime franchises of all time.
Farewell Naruto. I’ll never forget you.