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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Problem With Naruto



**note: this post assumes full knowledge of the latest developments in the manga.  That or apathy.  If neither applies to you, turn back now**

            I used to love Naruto.  I watched every episode of the anime right up through the first few arcs of Shippuden before finally jumping over to the manga, rereading the parts I’d seen in the show and continuing until I caught up with the latest chapters around 4-5 years ago (hooooooooly crap, has it been that long???).  And since then, I have never ceased to read the new chapters religiously, regularly checking my preferred translation sites every Wednesday until the new chapter pops up.  However, much to my dismay, Naruto has devolved rather sharply over the past few years, and is now slowly crushing itself under the weight of several very heavy millstones that Masashi Kishimoto has, for whatever reason, decided to throw around the franchise’s neck. 

            It didn’t have to be this way.  Naruto is (supposedly) ending for good this year.  After 8 years of following something on a weekly basis, that should mean something to me.  It should feel like a decently big moment.  But it doesn’t.  I’m tired, I’m frustrated, and I just want the series to end before it soils itself any further.  What the hell happened? 

            I always defended Naruto by pointing out the things it always had going for it.  It used to studiously avoid what has become known as the stereotypical DBZ trope, i.e., every single fight of consequence simply coming down to who could get the angriest, shout the most trite trailer quote, and pull the most broken energy beam that has ever existed (a benchmark broken season after season) out of their tightly wound ass, before proceeding to literally shove said beam down the villain’s throat.  While DBZ is now the standard example of this, many other anime have followed its lead, and it is the origin of one of the more unfortunate stereotypes anime is forced to suffer under.    

            Not that following such a formula is a guarantee of badness!  My love of DBZ continues unabated (and unabashedly) to this day.  However, it IS a style that lends itself to over-repetition, making the return on investment less with each passing season.    

            Naruto was different.  Yes, there were plenty of over-compensatory powers, but they were usually kept in tight check, with great emphasis being placed on the physical dangers of even having such powers, whether they belonged to a good guy or a bad guy, and no one- NO one- was invincible for having them.  Over-use of the eye techniques could lead to blindness, generating superspeed could leave one fatally exposed to a counterattack, and those with the strength to level mountains ran the risk of draining their chakra so thoroughly that they could easily end up in a coma, or left at the usually-absent mercy of their opponent.  Naruto, once he begins utilizing the power of the Demon Fox inside of him, has the ability to overpower any opponent and recover from any injury, but doing so too often threatens to shorten his lifespan.  Instead, battles between characters focused on cleverness, quickness, and real-time strategy, with many of the key fights being decided by split-second, small-scale tactics, as opposed to massive Flaming Kamehamehas.  Furthermore, a great number of battles ended indecisively, with no clear winner.    

            I think my favorite example of this is the final Chuunin-Exam face-off between Naruto, Sasuke, and a partially-transformed Gaara.  Sasuke goes all in, completely draining his chakra to hammer Gaara with his advanced fire attacks and the piercing deadliness of Chidori.  And it doesn’t work.  None of his techniques ultimately work.  Rather, it is Naruto, although not nearly as powerful or skilled as Sasuke (at least, at that point), who wins in the end.  And he doesn’t beat him by overwhelming him with his Demon Foxyness- he uses one random, on-the-fly trick after another to wear Gaara down, bit by bit, until he simply has no strength left with which to fight. 

            Naruto also used to have a fairly adult treatment of death, and of the nature of a life spent fighting.  Again, the much-ridiculed trope it avoids is a DBZ one, where the line between the living and the dead eventually became as flimsy as a cardboard shelter in a typhoon.  No such problem, at least at first, existed in Naruto.  Death was never shied away from, was always acknowledged as an unavoidable and key part of a ninja’s existence.  There were ways to perhaps briefly contact the dead, or even resurrect them, but the technique was so dangerous it was forbidden, and only used once prior to the war that has consumed the manga’s final arc.  There were a lot of moments spent with the older characters ruminating on the fights and the loss of loved ones that shaped them.  They were always side details to the larger story, but their presence added depth and complexity to what is, on the surface, a fairly straightforward hero tale, making the world seem grounded in reality despite its more fantastical elements. 

            Finally, and for me this is the most important point, Naruto was a story almost exclusively focused on the power of choice and of friendship; on how the decision we make, regardless of the reasons, shape our identities more than external influences, and how the people we choose to surround ourselves with can either lift us up or pull us down.  At the beginning of the tale, it is made abundantly clear that Naruto has had a really, REALLY crappy life.  Condemned from birth for being the carrier of a demon he never asked to have inside of him, he spends his orphaned years growing up alone and unloved, shunned by every single member of the village. 

            In short, Naruto had every reason to grow up angry, embittered, and vengeful, as Sasuke did.  But he chose not to.  Determined to succeed no matter what, and inspired by the offer of friendship of a single figure of authority, Naruto makes a key choice early in his life, and continues to make it throughout the series, even when it would have been far easier to sink into darkness and become another Sasuke, or Orochimaru, or Gaara.  He combines his furious drive to become strong with a conscious, repeated choice to show up all those who dismissed him NOT by hurting and killing them, but rather by protecting and helping them, by proving himself so thoroughly that they would have no choice but to change their minds.  And that aspect of the story, time and again, has been the difference, and was always what allowed him to make more and more allies to keep evil at bay.  More than anything else, the continued focus on the power of individual choice, and how that can create either love or hate in others, has been the defining feature of Naruto’s journey, and what has made the series more than worthwhile despite its own oddities and occasional shortcomings. 

            Note the repeated use of the past sense above.  Over the past couple of years, for reasons unfathomable, the manga has thrown all of these strengths out the window. 

            There has been no one, single, defining chapter or scene where all this changed.  It has happened so gradually that, at first, it was easily missed, or at least ignored in favor of everything the series still had going for it (the gathering of the 5 Kages in particular, along with their later battle against Madara himself, will remain high points of the series for me no matter how far it falls).  Nonetheless, the signs have been growing stronger over the past two years, to the point that I can no longer pretend to turn a blind eye.  I shall now try to elucidate on these problems now in (what else) list form. 

1. The friendship and group dynamics motif has largely (over the past 6-12 months, completely) disappeared. 

            This one has actually been going on for a fairly long time.  Since the Hidan/Kakuzu battle, the arcs featuring the varying group dynamics of the very large (and decently well-developed) generation of fighters Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke are a part of have steadily declined.  Yes, many of the characters have gotten moments in the final war, but not nearly all of them, and the ones we did get were too little, too late.  Many of the best moments of the older arcs featured Naruto acting off those around him, and the lack of that over the past few years has hurt. 

2. Sakura has done nothing since the Sasori arc

            Also a longer-running issue; although Sakura was trained every bit as intensely by one of the Saanin as Naruto and Sasuke, and although Kishimoto gives her a lot of moments where she proclaims how advanced she is and how she can stand alongside Naruto and Sasuke, the promise of Sakura actually doing something substantial to defeat the villains has not materialized, and given where the story is currently trending, the possibility of it actually happening is probably near nil at this point.  Which is especially disappointing, because Sakura was the entire franchise’s primary chance to have a really awesome, kickass female character around to show everyone what-for.  What a big missed opportunity. 

3. Sasuke never stopped being boring as sin, and now his motivations don’t even make sense

            Sasuke was never a great character.  He had good potential- I actually did like the bravado dynamic he had with Naruto at the beginning of the series, and the set-up for the conflict with his brother was well-done, only slowly giving us the story through scattered flashbacks.  He certainly made for an interesting contrast with Naruto as someone who faced the same choices and chose the path Naruto resolutely refused to take.  But once he joined Orochimaru and simply disappeared from the story for huge swaths of time, reappearing only to reassure us that he now only cared about power and more power, killed off any interest I had in him.  And I know I am not alone in that regard. 

            Furthermore, and this is the worst part, his motivations no longer make a lick of goddamn sense.  Originally, his drive for power, and his reason for going dark, was to get revenge on his brother.  And he does, even though he technically lost the fight.  But let’s forget the fact that, even though he is a prodigy with unbelievable power, he has pretty much ALWAYS been crushed by his opponents, or merely won/survived on a technicality, since that could be interpreted as a metaphor of some kind (side note, I will never stop loving how the 5 Kages basically line up at the conference to all hand his ass to him, one after the other).  Instead, let’s talk about how catastrophically stupid it is that, even though it is revealed to him that Itachi did what he did to save both the village and Sasuke SEVERAL times, by various characters all across the good/evil spectrum, he repeatedly insists (rather arbitrarily) that he must now destroy Naruto and the Leaf to avenge Itachi, even though doing so would ruin everything Itachi worked for and would directly betray his brother’s intentions in keeping him alive in the first place.  Let’s talk about how he is even told this, directly to his face, by Itachi himself, and STILL plans to destroy the Leaf first chance he gets, but then suddenly changes his mind after hearing the EXACT SAME STORY just one more time, this time from the 4 resurrected Hokages themselves, and then promptly switches back to the good side and declares his intentions to become Hokage.  And is accepted back without any questions asked.   

            Or let’s not.  Because even having to summarize it once was stupid enough. 

4. The war has dragged on too long, with face-time between characters being far too uneven

            Ah, now we get to the more recent problems of the past few years, which have now cumulatively snowballed and piled themselves upon the above issues, which, prior to the war, were really just occasional frustrations or nuisances. 

            The idea of all the nations banding together to fight the forces of Akatsuki is actually a pretty cool idea.  Having that conflict take the form of a straight-up slugfest between two armies, not so much, largely because it means huge reams of time and panel space devoted to just establishing what is going on in each sector of the battlefield.  This means that the war has, in far too many spots, dragged on to seemingly endless lengths, often with months going by with very little advancement in the plot. 

5. The DBZ curse has come fully into effect, and the fights have become incomprehensible and boring

            All that I extolled above about the series taking the strategy-and-science aspects of its fights seriously no longer applies.  There were a few tricks used by various characters in some of the fights in the war, but the ultimate fate of the ninja world, it is now clear, will come down to Sasuke and Naruto combining to create the greatest Flaming Kamehameha Wave of them all, which will then be shoved down the throat of…..wait, remind who the new villain is again?  Alright, hold on, we’ll get to that later.  Also, the artwork of the fights itself has gotten steadily worse, to the point that I seriously can never tell what on earth is happening, which, for a Shonen action series, is basically a death knell. 

6. The series started to impress by going into serious, major-and-beloved-characters-will-die mode, and is now trying to pull back

            When you set up a massive, world-changing war, you can’t avoid inevitably killing off some major characters.  Whatever one may say about her books, Rowling embraced this in Harry Potter, pissing off plenty of people with some of her selections for the Reaper, but also demonstrating a not-insignificant level of guts in doing so.  Naruto should have gone the same way, and in fact started to.  Shikimaru’s dad and all the other sensors are killed shortly after the 10-Tails appears, and a few chapters later, Neiji sacrifices himself to save Naruto himself, providing one of the few really powerful character moments in the past few years.  And last year, Gai activated all 8 of the chakra gates in an effort to defeat Madara (something that, we had been repeatedly assured, would guarantee death), willingly offering himself up so that the younger generations can live. 

            At which point Naruto steps in, having been visited by the Sage of the Six Paths (more on that in a moment), touches him with his finger, and heals him instantly.  And he also gives Kakashi both his eyes back.  Oh boy. 

            Not only are more major character deaths unlikely at this point, and not only has Gai been spared what would have been one of the few genuinely powerful and kind of awesome deaths the series has ever had, but it also looks like Sasuke (or someone, whoever) might give us a repeat of when Pain brought back all the people he killed when he attacked the village, which itself brought the series a lot of flak.  I am not terribly upset at the notion, but at the same time, the series would have salvaged so much by really sticking to its guns and making us, the fans, swallow some hard sacrifices.  It would have given this final arc the weight it needs to really sink in, and now, I don’t think it will actually happen, which, like with the issue with Sakura, is really just a big, damn shame. 

7. The villain of the entire franchise has been summarily tossed out the window in favor of a hitherto entirely unheard-of demon as the “final boss”

            Spending years building up a single villain only to summarily throw them overboard in favor of a previously-unknown villain at the very end, unless for a very specific and well-developed purpose, is never a good idea.  Ever.  Especially when the actions of said villain are one of the focal points of the series.  Even with all of the other problems I have mentioned, having Madara around as the main villain would still have allowed us to have some investment in what happens, simply because it’s what we’ve been thinking about and debating for so long.  And now, that has all been replaced in favor of some crazy demon lady we had never heard a damn thing about until LAST YEAR.  Bad, bad, bad move; now I literally can no longer care what happens in the story, because I no longer have any long-running thoughts of importance attached to the villain. 

8. On that note, we have learned far too much about Zetsu

            Alright, I will admit, this is a purely personal grievance.  Zetsu was always one of my favorite characters in the show, just because he was so crazily weird.  A Venus-flytrap man, with serious split personality issues, who apparently eats people AND can instantaneously transport anywhere in the world via the Earth itself.  Oh, and he can split in two.  So strange, so freaky, and yet, so fascinating, primarily because we knew next to nothing about him, aside from what his primary powers were.  Now, we know everything.  And you know what?  His backstory sucks.  Both of them suck. 

9. It is pulling the tired bullshit of the villain being responsible for literally every bad thing that has happened in the world since its inception

            I hate this one so much.  I hate it when complex, intricate, and fascinating worlds are reduced down to the most tired of story tropes- everything bad that has happened was the will of a single demon/person/organization/what-the-hell-ever.  It is beyond lazy, and in this case, it ruins everything that made the world of Naruto so friggin’ cool.  Well, okay, not EVERYTHING….

10. Last, and most importantly, the entire concept of choice/free will has been removed from the plot wholesale

            This is the last and greatest sin committed by the series, because it renders the entire purpose of the dual journeys taken by Naruto and Sasuke, and by extension the entire damn franchise, entirely moot, aka pointless.  It is partially connected to the fact that the new evil force has apparently been controlling all evil deeds since time immemorial, but it adds insult to injury by going even farther.  Right as they are about to die from injuries Madara has inflicted on them (and right before Horseshit Lady appears), Naruto and Sasuke are both visited by the Sage of the Six Paths himself.  He informs them that the entire reason they ended up in conflict is because they are the reincarnated souls of his own two sons, who eventually begat each of their respective clans.  Every time one of them died, they were reincarnated in a form that guaranteed they would meet and become enemies again.  Finally, they were reincarnated into Naruto and Sasuke, meaning that the two of them were destined from birth to fight each other, but were also destined to be the ones to end the war and save the world. 

            This is so awful, so stupid, and so crippling to the franchise that it’s actually quite difficult for me to wrap my mind around it.  Let’s leave aside all the ways it makes no sense and kills any remaining dramatic tension by telling us EXACTLY how the rest of the story is going to go down.  Let’s ignore, for the moment, what I said above about the removal of the villain of the entire franchise eliminating any reason to be invested in what happens.  Instead, let’s talk about the real problem with this reveal. 

            Remember when I said, way up there in the first part of this post, that the real strength of Naruto as a story lay in its emphasis on the power of individual choice, and how the entire appeal of Naruto as a character lay in how consistently he made the right choice?  Yeah, this reveal shoots that right square between the eyes.  Because, if we accept this as serious, it means acknowledging that Naruto made all the decision he did not because it was the right thing to do, and not because he felt it was right, but simply because he had to, because it’s just what he was meant to do from birth.  Same goes for Sasuke.  All agency, all power of choice that made them both even remotely interesting, apparently never existed.  Everything that the entire franchise was supposed to be about, gone in an instant. 


            The cumulative effect of all this is that I am no longer excited when I open up the new chapter every week.  I always read it first now so I can get to One Piece as fast as possible, whereas until not too long ago I would always save it for last.  I am no longer excited to see how the series will end.  I am no longer sad, or nostalgic, or reflective, now that something that has been such a major part of my life for nearly a decade is almost gone.  Which, given my massive propensity for sentimentality, is saying quite a lot.  Instead, I’m exhausted.  Keeping up with the series is just plain exhausting, and at times, incredibly aggravating.  Not that that will convince me to stop.  I’m come too far now to not want to see what does happen.  But I no longer find any joy in it.  Realizing that doesn’t really make me angry, or sad.  Just disappointed.  Which is worse, in a way. 

            It didn’t have to be this way.  But it is, and sadly, there is no changing that.  At least I still have the first few hundred chapters and the original anime series to enjoy again and again.  The luster of those halcyon days will never fade.  Perhaps, once this is all over, and I’ve given myself time to heal, I’ll go back and rewatch the Zabuza arc for the first time since high school.  Get that old excitement back.  Perhaps. 


-Noah Franc 

2 comments:

  1. No comments on your post? Shame! This is a good one! I'm rewatching the series right now, starting with the original naruto. I love the series but also have some reservations about it. I always had a hard time articulating it, but you put it to words nicely! I loved the Pain arc, and personally I loved Naruto's interactions with his parents. I enjoyed Naruto's interactions with the tailed beasts too and thought that more should have been done with that. But Sasuke and Sakura's development always irked me because I wanted to like them more but couldn't. I think too that it's like you said that the battles became more about how flashy they could be and less about the cleverness. It's a shame, but I have to remind myself of why I love Naruto: it's fun seeing Naruto achieve his goals and build friendships despite so much difficulties, the redemption of characters out of bad situations (Gaara, Nagato, Kakashi, etc.), Naruto's forgiveness, Itachi's story. I also love the ingenuity of the fights, especially Shikamaru's fights. It's a shame the series coudldn't put together a better plot at the end. I love Madara and Hashirama, but the ending fights...and Sasuke's moodiness... *Sigh* Well, this is where you create your own ending. :) And fanfiction and such (not that I've looked at fanfiction for Naruto yet).

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    1. Thank you so much for the support! For all the angst the series has caused me, I had fun compiling this list.

      I think the biggest issue is that the series could never follow up on the promising start of having Sasuke, Naruto, and Sakura really balance each other as characters. They did pretty well at first, but that all started to deteriorate after the time skip (although I think the series remained pretty damn good for a long while after that).

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