It’s amazing how fifteen years of Masashi Kishimoto’s work flashed before my eyes in three weeks. Then again, it feels like the last fifteen years of my life went by in three minutes.
One of the most influential anime and manga series of my teens was unquestionably Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto (ナルト). I have fond memories of watching the anime series with friends and being engrossed with the manga series. Yet, as I grew older and the series progressed it slowly lost its appeal to me. It wasn’t as though I thought the series was poorly written, like so many people do, but I felt the author lost sight of the larger narrative. This led to my parting with the series around 2010, though every now and then I would check in to see where the author had taken the story. However, when the series came to its conclusion on November 10, 2015 I felt as though a part of my youth had also come to an end as well. Ever nostalgic as I am, I decided to revisit the series and see if Kishimoto had rectified some of the issues I had with the series in the final five years of its syndication. To a degree he did, but it varied widely between the different issues.
To be honest, I never felt Kishimoto was a bad author—although many would disagree with me on this point—but his weaknesses were far more apparent than his strengths. What I mean by this is when looking back over Naruto, it was quite clear the major narrative arc was unfocused and disjointed. More specifically, the rivalry between the two protagonists, Naruto Uzumaki and Sasuke Uchiha, was fragmented. There were three main reasons for this and they stemmed from the constant shifts between the two characters, how bland Sasuke’s arc was, and the overuse of flashbacks to propel the story. Yet, as disconcerting as these issues were, the author certainly had a way of drawing readers in by laying out the purpose of each story arc in clear and concise terms very early on. However, even though the narratives in each arc were well defined, the series as a whole became muddled because of the above mentioned issues. Of course, the inclusion of a number of minor characters helped flesh out the story and this was where Naruto truly shined.
Sometimes we lose sight of what most upsets us about different works of fiction and we make blanket statements about an author or director and his or her works. While I try to avoid this when possible, in private conversations I’ve found myself doing this, even in regards to the subject of this article, Kishimoto and Naruto. However, when we step away from a series for an extended period of time we have the opportunity to flesh out our arguments and even look back over a work to see if our ideas hold. For example, in regards to Naruto, I felt because the author wanted to spend an extraordinary amount of time on Sasuke rather than the titular character, Naruto, he should have separated the two narratives into different series and titled one Naruto and the other Sasuke. But, looking back over the series after five years away from it, I understood why the author chose to do this. Granted, it still made the series disorganized, but in an orderly kind of way—if that makes any kind of sense. Yet, no matter how many aspects of Naruto upset me, I feel it’s important to address the author’s strengths before looking at his weaknesses. After all, he isn’t a bad writer or a “talentless hack” as some would describe him.
The best place to begin, then, is with what drew so many people to Masashi Kishimoto’s work. The simple answer certainly was the creative world and cast of main characters he developed. However, I felt it ran much deeper than this. Yes, the main characters, Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura Haruno, and Kakashi Hatake, and the world they inhabited were colorful in their own respective ways, but without a foundation for each story arc in the series, the characters’ respective personalities and their marvelous world wouldn’t have stood out. Thus, it was important the goals and villains were clearly defined early in each story arc. By doing so, this created a solid foundation for any given arc and made it easy for readers to become engrossed with the plot and for the author to add new ideas as the story progressed. Granted, as Naruto developed there were too many ideas placed on the foundational narrative, making it unstable. But, when looking at the core of each story arc they were clear and concise. We need look no further than the first story arc of the series, the Land of Waves arc, to understand how the author created solid narrative foundations.
It was no simpler than a guard mission for the main characters. However, within the first few chapters we learned what sort of agendas were working against each other. In fact, the core information of why the character Tazuna needed ninja bodyguards was given in the third chapter of the arc and thus explained why we should invest in his plight. At the same time, though, we were also given the identity of the major antagonist, Zabuza Momochi, and how the main characters faired against him in combat. Because these core ideas were well defined early in the arc, this gave the author a base from which he could add ideas and make what was a simple story into a rich and interesting one. For instance, throughout the arc we saw that Tazuna’s grandson, Inari, had a pessimistic attitude towards Tazuna’s goal of completing the bridge that would help the economy of the Land of Waves. However, over the course of the arc we saw why Inari had this outlook and how his ideas changed Naruto and subsequently the other characters. While one would think this would upset the core narrative of the arc, it actually added to it and gave it far more emotional depth.
Kishimoto was certainly ingenious when it came to developing the core ideas in Naruto and was a talent few authors in the shonen genre could match. But, when examining how Kishimoto progressed any arc, we also saw him developing the blueprints for later events in the series as well. A minor example of this came at the end of the thirty-eighth volume when the Nine-tailed fox mentioned the name Madara Uchiha. At first this name seemed as though it had no bearing on the narrative, but actually the author was subtly foreshadowing a plot thread. The amazing part about this was nearly eleven volumes later he capitalized on this small idea. Madara wasn’t the only instance of a small conversation piece alluding to later events in the series either. Although cases like this rarely occurred, it was still interesting to see how much thought the author had placed into the progression of his story.
However, a much broader example of foreshadowing coming to fruition and the proper buildup to it was between the thirty-eighth and fortieth volumes of the series. Here, readers were privy to the vengeance Sasuke desperately wanted to achieve. Granted, this was waylaid by another story arc—an issue I’ll be covering further in this article—but since it was one of the major plot points of Naruto, many of the basic building blocks leading up to this point, such as Sasuke’s training, his worldview, and why he wanted to achieve this vengeance, were already available to readers far before the thirty-eighth volume. While I may not have found this arc as captivating as previous story arcs in the series, having the core ideas firmly established before entering this arc made it easy for readers to become absorbed with the minutia of the content. Therefore, the finer details of Sasuke forcing information about his brother, Itachi Uchiha, from characters such as Deidara, or acquiring a team of renegade ninjas to help him on his path accentuated the core of the arc.
Unfortunately, we came across two of the major issues with Naruto in the example above. I admit, one was a personal issue with the series—Sasuke’s arc never being all that interesting—but the fact Kishimoto would interrupt the progression of Sasuke achieving his vengeance was certainly a major issue in general for the series. To be more specific, about halfway into the arc the author cut away from this narrative to begin a different one surrounding the characters Jiraiya and Pain. In all honesty, while I enjoyed the new narrative, abruptly changing the narrative was a disservice to readers. This wasn’t the only time a shift in the narrative occurred, either. Only a few volumes prior to Sasuke’s vengeance, readers had the chance to see a story revolving around the characters Shikamaru Nara, Choji Akimichi, and Ino Nakayama develop in tandem with Naruto developing a new technique and only seven volumes later breaking from this story to focus on Sasuke’s once again.
It wasn’t how Kishimoto decided to have two protagonists in the series that upset me—if this were the case, series like Uchu Kyodai would drive me mad—but the constant and unexpected shifts between the different narratives did. The fiftieth volume, as well as the events from the fifty-fifth to the sixty-sixth volumes, exemplified this as there were three different narratives poorly interwoven together. Looking at the narrative in the former, the fiftieth volume, we saw the five Kage’s, the heads of the ninja villages, making an alliance, Naruto learning about his friend’s decision to deal with Sasuke, and the character Killer Bee’s confrontation with Kizame Hoshigaki scattered throughout the volume. Each plot point was interesting in its own right, but each had little in terms logical progression let alone any sort of conclusion, making the volume frustrating to read. If we were comparing this to a theatrical production, for instance, every scene would come to a conclusion before progressing on to the next. Yet in Naruto, we could be in the middle of stimulating action or dialog and then have an arbitrary scene change, thus causing the overall story to lose its focus.
The events between the fifty-fifth and sixty-sixth volumes displayed the lack of focus quite well. So we have an understanding of these volumes, the fifty-fifth volume began the fighting in the Fourth Ninja World War. But, in order to keep the series exciting, Kishimoto consistently shifted the action between three or four different fronts, Naruto’s training, and Sasuke’s quest for knowledge. Yes, the action and dialog made the eleven volumes thrilling, but again, we were forced to jump between different scenes causing us to lose focus of the larger picture. For instance, in the fifty-fifth and fifty-sixth volumes we found ourselves bouncing between the second, third, and fifth regiments of the allied ninja army in quick succession. Again, each sequence was electrifying but we never saw them come to any sort of conclusion before progressing on to the next. At the very least, better transitions would have helped alleviate many of the problems with the leaps between the narratives.
However, I don’t want to be misunderstood, as there were a handful of instances where the transitions were much better. Most were found in the first twenty-seven volumes of Naruto, but even the later volumes had one or two well-done transitions. I felt the reason the first third of the series had smoother transitions wasn’t because the author was a better writer early in his career, but rather the narrative was contained between Naruto and Sasuke, as opposed to the world as a whole. So, while there was an issue with poor transitions in the series, it came much later in Naruto rather than throughout the entire series.
I will say, though, the narrative shifts to Sasuke’s story were possibly the most aggravating aspect of the series. This wasn’t because the story arcs involving Sasuke were poorly written, as I stated above the minute details could be absorbing, but rather because the character was hardly appealing to begin with. In order to understand the unpleasant nature of Sasuke’s character we have to juxtapose him to Naruto, as well as understand the two characters’ personal history. The personal history of each character was simple to understand, they were both orphans. Granted, it was a bit more complicated than this—Sasuke’s brother killed his entire extended family and Naruto was orphaned at birth for various reasons—but suffice it to say, both were ostracized by their community from a young age. However, the discrepancy between the two characters came from their underlying attitudes and interpersonal connections.
For example, the first chapter of the series demonstrated Naruto had a positive attitude towards life despite being rejected by the community and was more than happy when he developed a relationship with another character. Yet, when we first encountered Sasuke we found he not only had a negative outlook on life, he also shunned those around him, or rather saw them as disposable tools to achieve his goals. Yes, Sasuke developed ever so slightly between the fifth and thirteenth volumes, but this was stifled by the appearance of his brother, Itachi. While I don’t want to equate the first appearance of Itachi to Sasuke becoming a deplorable character, it was a reminder that Sasuke’s goal in life was vengeance against his brother. If that was all Sasuke had to offer as a character, it was no wonder he hardly developed when the narrative shifted to him in later volumes. Looking at Naruto again, whenever Kishimoto chose to focus on him, Naruto always developed in some manner, be it in the techniques he could use, the relationships he made, or his understanding of why people harbored feelings of bitterness and regret. Yet, when focusing on Sasuke, though his agendas changed, we saw him consistently reiterate the same point: vengeance. Therefore, while Sasuke made an interesting juxtaposition to Naruto early in the series, as the overarching narrative progressed it became tiring seeing the lack of development in Sasuke’s character.
While I felt one major reason Sasuke never developed was mentioned above, the use of flashbacks to retell the same story about his brother’s betrayal also contributed to this as well. The use of flashbacks in general was a major issue in and of itself, but the murder of the Uchiha clan was brought up the most. Honestly, when it was first summarized in the seventeenth volume and then later expanded on in the twenty-fifth, it was captivating. The two flashbacks provided a great window into Sasuke’s worldview and were fascinating plot points to explore as the series progressed. However, over the course of Naruto this one plot point was referenced at least four times, including the two mentioned above, and it became tiring. Yes, it was told from different perspectives, thus altering minor details, but the core idea never changed except for altering Sasuke’s overarching goals.
Had the reliance on flashbacks been limited to Itachi’s murder spree, I believe this would have been a minor annoyance rather than a major issue. Yet, the series was plagued with a number of flashback scenes. In fact, if you were to compile all the flashbacks into single volume books, it wouldn’t surprise me if they filled five to seven volumes. I admit, the flashbacks that lasted five pages at most were touching, but as Kishimoto expanded on any given flashback there was always the possibility they’d became dull. For instance, the three chapters devoted to the backstory of the character Kabuto Yakushi in the sixty-first volume explained why he had traveled down his path in life. Although there was a certain appeal to Kabuto’s story and created sympathy for him, it appeared in an odd place within the narrative of the Fourth Ninja World War. Added on top of this, the flashback had a pedestrian ending and added little to Kabuto’s confrontation in the sixty-first volume. By comparison, the seven pages used to explain the character Rock Lee’s dogma in the tenth volume were far more emotional and accentuated the events that were occurring at that time.
The gap in the quality of the flashbacks was certainly one issue, but their quantity was problematic as well. Their use early and in the middle of Naruto was appreciated, however the final twenty volumes saw a massive influx of them. As with the shifts between Naruto and Sasuke’s narratives, the consistent use of flashbacks detracted greatly from the narrative Kishimoto was delivering. As readers, when we’re forced from the main narrative to minor ones in order to fill small gaps in the story, as was the case with this series, it becomes tiring. Yes, the flashbacks expanded on a handful of minor characters, but by the end of the series little was needed to inform us about loveable characters such as Might Guy or villains like Obito Uchiha. Yet, at the same time I can’t help but feel some of the flashbacks helped characterize a vast majority of the minor characters.
I rarely feel as though minor characters outshine the major characters in their respective works, but in Naruto many did. That’s not to say the minor characters stole the spotlight, but rather they helped prop up the major characters in different ways. For example, the character Gaara, who was a wonderful amalgamation of Sasuke and Naruto’s respective backgrounds when he first appeared, was a brilliant representation of the path Naruto could have traveled. While Gaara ultimately had a more prominent role in the series as a whole than the other minor characters, he demonstrated how minor characters brought out the most interesting aspects of Naruto and Sasuke. Yet, characters like Shikamaru, Choji, and Ino truly embodied the idea of minor characters both outshining while supporting the major characters. Unlike a handful of recurring characters, Kishimoto gave these three characters a great amount of agency throughout the series. As such we saw them grow at a level we hardly see in minor characters in other shonen series.
For example, when examining the story arc between the thirty-fifth and thirty-eighth volumes of Naruto, Naruto wasn’t the main focus. Rather, Shikamaru, Choji, and Ino took center stage with Naruto appearing sporadically. While this ultimately fell into the trappings of a narrative shift, for this arc it worked quite well. This was partially achieved by having the three characters face the reality of death, but also by having them come to understand their role within their community, particularly Shikamaru’s. Thus, the highlight of the arc wasn’t the action, but rather the dialog between the three characters and their mentor, Asuma Sarutobi. In fact, one of the best lines of dialog of Naruto came from this arc. It was when Asuma was comparing the villagers to shōgi, or Japanese chess pieces, to Shikamaru. The specific line of dialog had Asuma liken Shikamaru to the knight and himself to a pawn, but Asuma’s suggestion that the children were the king piece was intriguing. From this conversation we saw a change in attitude and personal growth in Shikamaru and by proxy Choji and Ino. One wouldn’t expect this from minor characters and as such it’s a testament to Kishimoto’s writing.
Since Masashi Kishimoto worked on Naruto for fifteen years, it most definitely can be called his magnum opus. True, there were issues in the number of shifts between narratives, one of which was poorly conceived, and the overuse of flashbacks detracted from the overarching narrative he was trying to create. Yet, many of the flashbacks seen in the opening ten volumes of the series were used to great effect. This was only because they were much shorter than the flashbacks used later in the series. A stronger focus on the titular character, Naruto, and shortening many of the later flashbacks would have mitigated many of the issues in Naruto and would have helped to bring the author’s strengths to the forefront. Yet, this doesn’t mean we never gleaned his strength as a writer. Masashi Kishimoto was certainly skilled in regards to setting a solid foundation for each story arc within the series, which allowed him to add novel ideas as the series progressed. Part of this came through the number of plot points he alluded to before their respective story arcs commenced, and this greatly helped the reading experience. The wide range of fully formed minor characters also benefited the series as they not only propped up the main cast of characters, but also outshined them in their development at times. As an aside, my personal favorite minor character was Hinata Hyuga, though she never reached the level of development as some of the other minor characters.
I have no doubt some still believe Masashi Kishimoto was a poor author and Naruto only proves this to them. However, when examining the series, we saw he knew how to entertain his core audience, children and young teens, which made Naruto a fantastic series for that demographic. As such, the series truly lived up to the ideals of a shonen manga: they should be entertaining for the young. Nonetheless, I can see how there is a certain appeal for older audiences as well. It doesn’t come from the action, but from the dialog the author crafted. Finding those moments can be difficult in such a long series, but they are certainly rewarding for those who are patient enough to wade through the content. While I don’t want to speak for every adult, older audiences will certainly find the first twenty or so volumes amusing, but beyond the twenty-fifth volume, it most likely will become tiring for them. However, children and teens will find the series highly entertaining.