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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Reflections: The End of Naruto

            It was only a few months ago that I took to this page to vent about the many problems- both long-term and recent- that begun to have a seriously adverse effect on my ability to continue enjoying Naruto, which, up until the war started to get really bogged down, had continued to be one of my all-time favorite manga and animes.  It was already known at the time that Naruto was entering the final stretch, but I was not aware of just how soon the ending would come, and in early November, the series did indeed come to a close with its 700th chapter.  I won’t go back over the issues I discussed then, but given my still very deep feelings for the franchise, it would be remiss of me to not at least try to collect my thoughts about the final chapter. 

            If I had to be as concise as possible, I would probably say that the final chapter was good, but not nearly enough to close the story properly.  Naruto was always at its best when it was able to balance out the storylines and group dynamics of a large variety of the very colorful characters the story brought us, and in a way, that almost guaranteed from the start that the final chapter could never be truly big enough to feel fitting.  This was a grand tale set within a world of unique and fascinating powers and rules, where the history and nature of the ninja world was often as deep and mysterious and fascinating as the individual characters themselves.  One chapter set in the future could never have been enough to give us all the answers we wanted, covering all the characters that so many fans have grown to love. 

            That said, there are some loose ends that really are inexcusable.  The biggest and most problematic one is the completely unmentioned fate of Orochimaru, Karin, Jugo, and Suigetsu.  Both Jugo and Suigetsu had certain aspects of their backstories built up and referenced very consistently after they were introduced, and neither of them are addressed after they free themselves from the samurai.  Not that that’s such a bad thing, since neither had story focus long enough to really stick as parts of the overall narrative.  Karin was an awful character almost from day one, so there is no real loss in not having her brought back.  And none of them were ever powerful enough to pose any real threat to the world, even as a team.  But Orochimaru?  The man who had found so many ways of avoiding death that even some of the strongest characters could not permanently kill him?  It’s been easy to forget in recent years just how large Orochimaru loomed over the series for the first several hundred chapters (and episodes).  Until Tobi/Madara/Obito was shifted to main prominence in the second half of the series, it was Orochimaru whose actions and motivations drove whole reams of the plot, the most important of which was his convincing Sasuke to abandon Naruto, Sakura and the Leaf to go rogue.  And even after he was moved to the background, he still remained one of the creepiest and most identifiable figures of the franchise.  Ignore Hawk, by all means, since no one ever cared, but we friggin’ NEED to know what happened to Orochimaru, if only so that the nightmares of his arm-snakes coming to eat us can end. 

            The refusal to address or even hint at what happened to him is a massive whole in the chapter, but at least it’s the only major character ignored.  There are other, smaller figures like Yamato (always a favorite of mine) that go unseen, but in such cases I can understand leaving them out for the sake of conciseness.  So many minor or side figures were brought in at various points that it was inevitable a great majority would be left by the wayside.  So much, then, for what we don’t get, but what about what we do get? 

            As is typical in a great many stories like this, the vast majority of the final chapter comprises of establishing who married who, what their kids’ names are, and which parents the kids resemble most.  Most of the pairings are as expected, and it was especially healing to see that Naruto finally did return Hinata’s love, even if it did apparently occur off-panel.  I would expound on that, but the Weekly Manga Recap guys have already done a far funnier and more extensive job of that than I ever can, so I will leave that as it is.  I suppose the only surprising one would be Choji and Karui, since there were never really any hints those two knew each other at all while the war was going on, but they were smaller characters of relatively lesser importance, so there relationship was never something that needed expounding on. 

            That said, their marriage, along with that of Shikamaru and Temari, is a great indicator of the new interconnectedness of the world Naruto and his companions fought for- early on in the series we know only of the Leaf village, with the other major ninja nations shrouded in mystery.  It is a world so scarred from past wars that the only real interaction between the ninja worlds is the Chunin exam, which is itself fraught with tensions that turn deadly with sickening ease.  Most ninja would be born, live, and die solely within their respective villages, knowing shinobi and leaders from other villages only through clashing with them on the battlefield.  The sense one gets is that marriages between warriors from rival villages was something either unheard-of, or shunned as traitorous if it did happen. 

            Now though, it seems clear that more shinobi than ever before are traveling and marrying outside their traditional lands.  In the final shot of the chapter, we see the old village surrounded by tall skyscrapers that take up what used to be a thick forest occupied solely by soldiers defending the village from outsiders, buildings that seem to stretch on endlessly.  This probably means that the old practice of effectively sealing each village off from the outside world, with entrance permitted only through select gates, has been done away with, and that each land is now open to the others, allowing for a boom of prosperity never before seen.  A world of true peace has been established.  It was probably this aspect of the final chapter that affected me the most, the final assurance of the series that the yearning for peace we saw in Naruto himself is something that can be realized.  

            Sadly, while I wholeheartedly enjoyed these various smaller aspects of the final chapter, my feelings are much more mixed concerning the fate of our three main characters, Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke.  I said in my last post, and will reiterate here, that the greatest failure of Naruto as a story was its inability to develop Sakura and her role on an equal footing with that of Sasuke and Naruto, and my impression of that was only worsened when all we see of Sakura afterwards is her being a housewife.  Not a leading doctor within the village, not someone who, like Tsunade before her, revolutionized battlefield and surgical medicine, just a housewife, dusting the bookcase.  The girl who could literally punch through a mountain, and who was trained just as intensely by one of the Sannin, is dumped into the most stereotypical female role imaginable.  What did she end up doing after the war?  For all we know, jack-all.  This, on top of the fact that she was given absolutely nothing to do story-wise after defeating Sasori at the start of Shippuden, and could not even get equal footing in the fight against the Demonic Lady in White in the big final fight, was the 10-ton ACME weight that shattered the camel’s spine for me. 

            Sad to say, that was not the final insult given to the once-promising doctor- the last and worst offense was the reveal that she did, in fact, marry Sasuke, and had children with him.  This is wrong on a great many levels, but primarily because it means that, ultimately, Sakura failed to grow or develop in any way as a character over the course of a 700-chapter epic.  When the series began, Sakura was a bratty teen obsessed with gaining the attention of a boy.  Sasuke was her be-all-and-end-all.  And, according to her handful of lines in the last chapter, nothing about that really changed by the end.  No real alteration of her goals, or of her self-image as a shinobi, woman, or individual.  No real exploration of her character other than, “Oh dear, how do I reconcile loving Sasuke with the fact that he’s now the most genetically evil person in the world?” 

            Let’s leave aside the fact that he tried to kill her several times, although that in and of itself should be enough to damn this union to eternal Hell.  Even if none of that had happened, and even if Sasuke had not been a terribly written character with no believable development after his fight with Itachi, there is the unavoidable fact that he never showed the slightest romantic interest in her.  There is not a single moment at any point of the series where you could credibly argue Sasuke appears to be developing anything approaching emotional love for Sakura.  For that matter, I don’t recall him showing romantic or even sexual interest in, well…anything.  As soon as he leaves the Leaf, he ceases to function as a human and looks, talks, and acts like a robot.  Nevermind Sakura, ANY pairing of this asshat with someone would have made zero sense.  It is shipping for shipping’s sake, doing the obvious thing just because it will please whatever twisted, demented sector of the population that managed to retain interest in Sasuke as a story presence. 

            Sasuke himself is, of course, the other major issue with the end.  His marrying Sakura is bad enough, but then there’s the fact that, as far as we can see, he never had to face any sort of reckoning whatsoever for his crimes.  This is a terrible betrayal of what had always been one of the series’ strong points- that crimes must and will be accounted for, and that the ninja world was one of death and hard sacrifice, and any use of power came with costs.  He never loses his sight or physical health from overusing the Sharingan.  He was, for some insane reason, actually offered a replacement arm for the one he lost fighting Naruto.  He was apparently never jailed or imprisoned in any manner.  And he never changed.  He never grew, and his parting words to the contrary, we have zero evidence he actually does feel any scrap of sorrow or regret for being a complete, amoral tool. 

            This is all exacerbated by the fact that Sasuke became a terrible character from the moment he finished fighting Naruto.  His motives became so blurred and confused by the end that he literally needed to resurrent Orochimaru and have him resurrect the Hokages so that THEY could tell him what to believe.  I have ranted about this at length before and do not have the strength to do so here.  Suffice it to say that it is the end for Sasuke that comes the closest to breaking the chapter for me. 

            And yet, it doesn’t ruin the chapter, and neither did it ruin the series as a whole for me, and the reason for that is simple; Naruto himself.  Naruto’s ending is the perfect one, the one the series built itself up to the entire time, and seeing it in actuality was enough satisfaction to smooth over nearly all of the flaws of the last few hundred chapters.  Naruto started out the least powerful, most annoying, and least compelling character in his own story, which would in many cases have been the death of it.  And in a way, that has made the growth he has undergone all the more compelling to see.  Even at his silliest, stupidest, most immature moments, there was always an authenticity to him as a character that shone through.  The focal point of the series, at least at first, was about the power of choice to shape destiny, and it was always Naruto’s choices that set him apart from the rest of the cold, brutal, and cynical shinobi world.  It is his choices that allowed him to reach world leaders and the Tailed Beasts in a way no one else could, and that made his progress from an in-over-his-head little kid to a truly powerful fighter not only emotionally satisfying, but believable as well.    

            This long journey of growth , surrounded as it is by outlandish character and villains, superpowered battles, and an endlessly detailed fantasy world, has been a treat to watch, and it really did hit home hard with the last few panels just how much we’ve experience with this story.  Its loop back to the start of the story closes in the proper fashion of a great legend.  For all its flaws, at least our title character got a fitting send-off. 

-Noah Franc  

**Note: I plan to revisit Naruto in a few months to expound on some of my favorite moments of the series as a whole.  I cannot right now, due to the crush of end-of-the-year listings and Oscar viewings I am trying to cram into a small window of time.  Once the busy time dies down, check back for more Naruto.**

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