Naruto, like Bleach and One Piece, is a vast and sprawling epic, with more than enough wacky, cool, mysterious, powerful, and colorful personalities a fan could spend a lifetime obsessing over. It is therefore only fitting that my final post in this brief little look-back be devoted to my own personal favorites from the immense cast of characters we got to spend varied amounts of time with over the course of the franchise’s 700-chapter adventure (plus the anime episodes, obviously).
An honorable mention goes to Kabuto, mostly because of the one flashback chapter that takes us, almost entirely without dialogue, through his growth after joining Orochimaru. It was, alongside Danzo’s, one of the most effective uses of the flashback technique in a series notorious for useless flashback sequences.
I always had a soft spot for Jiraiya, even if his whole “I am hopelessly perverted whenever a woman is around” shtick got old very fast. I think this was mostly because that side of his character came across as a bit of a deliberate red herring, something he played up or over-exaggerated to mask a deep reservoir of power, wisdom, and steely determination, one that allowed him to come and go as he pleased without ever being tracked or followed. No shinobi dares challenge him, and no Kage ever orders him to stay put. Even Itachi, one of the most powerful people alive, flees rather than be forced into a battle with him, claiming that he would definitely die should he ever have to face him. That’s pretty damn impressive, when you think about it.
9. The Raikage
Naruto, like most manga/anime series, has a noticeable paucity of non-white characters, and like with other hugely influential franchises (looking at you, DBZ), features at least one that is borderline offensive. Thank God, then, that at least one of the major black characters we got towards the end was a tremendous badass. The Raikage was not only one of the core shinobi leaders, possessing a size, stature, and strength equivalent to that of roughly 1.2 Alaskan grizzly bears, he also had one of my favorite powers of the entire series- by using his chakra to surround his body with an electric current, he could supplement his stupefying physical strength with the ability to move at almost-supersonic speed. He was so fast that Amaterasu, which was effectively instantaneous in its speed, could not touch him. And when he is injured enough to have to lose an arm, he’s like, “Meh. Slice.”
I attribute my love for Ao to the fact that, at the time he was introduced, my pure hatred for Danzo was reaching its apex. When the Kage Summit finally commenced, we had had one chapter after another of Danzo walking over or downright out-manipulating everyone around him, and to top it all off, he was about to be handed control of the entire shinobi alliance. But then Ao steps up, and not only does he prove that Danzo was controlling Mifuni from the start, he does so by revealing that he actually possesses a Byakugan, meaning that, even though was primarily a senser, he had enough skill and power as a fighter to take out one of Neji’s kin. And even though he was not really part of the action afterwards, he still shone by coming across for the younger generation as another Kakashi-type figure, someone grizzled by experience of past wars, but not embittered enough to keep him from seeing the benefits of the changes being wrought by Naruto and his generation.
Guy was always fun. He was just plain fun to be around. His bizarre relationship to Rock Lee could easily have gotten very creepy, very fast, but it was always genuine enough to make it endearing. He was the outlandish Jerry Lewis to Kakashi’s straight-man Dean Martin. Plus, it was always fascinating to see how he was able to use Taijutsu to match up against some of the most powerful Ninjutsu users around, including Kisame and eventually even Madara himself.
Out of all the original characters in the story that lived on after the time skip (so, discounting guys like Zabuza), Gaara might have had the best individual story arc pre-Shippuden. The flashbacks establishing his horrible backstory were brutally effective, turning him from a powerful and terrifying monster in an object of abject pity, but also setting up his turn from the darkness that eventually made him one of the mainstay good guys all the way to the end of the series.
We will pretend for the sake of this list that the eventual revelations regarding both Black and White Zetsu’s nature and origins never happened. Because they were stupid. That, and they broke one of the cardinal laws of creating a good villain- the less we know about them, the better, especially for ones a bizarrely unsettling as Zetsu. A Venus-Flytrap Man with cannibalistic tendencies, plus the ability to literally split his body in half and transport instantly via the land itself, Zetsu’s entrances were always perfectly timed to creep me the hell out. And that was all I needed to know. Seriously. We never needed a backstory. He should have just walked away at the end. CURSE YOU KISHIMOTO!!!1
Ah, Itachi. Out of all the unsatisfying deaths in Naruto (which practically deserves a list all its own), Itachi’s was definitely one of the worst, partially because it relied on a poorly-conceived and even more poorly-explained Deus ex Machina, but largely because it meant Sasuke got to live. No matter. He was still a fantastic character from start to finish, from the early days of him being seen as a straight-up bad guy, through the plot twists that revealed him to actually be one of the smartest, wisest, and even noblest characters in the entire series. Plus, he even tricked his way out of the Impure World Resurrection mind control technique. Which was just plain awesome.
One of many characters to get the shaft in the final chapter, Yamato won his way into my heart the first time he used his fantastic Threatening Face to make Naruto behave. In a lot of ways, I actually think his importance to Team Seven got critically undersold; much has been made about how Kakashi, Jiraiya, and the Frog Clan were responsible for training him into the shinobi he became, not much attention has been paid to the fact that Yamato, due to the fact that he was a clone (of sorts) of the First Hokage, played just as big a role at a crucial part of the story in helping Naruto develop his growing powers. That, and the Mokuton techniques were easily some of my favorite powers in the entire show, alongside Raikage's Lightening Armor. Who wouldn’t want to be able to make an entire house grow out of the ground at will?
I am willing to bet any amount of money none of you are surprised to see Shikamaru on this list. And why would he not be? He was one of the smartest and coolest characters to watch even though he could never be considered a very powerful fighter. His Shadow techniques required specific circumstances to use, and had very strict limits on their usage, so he had to make do with his incredible intellect, which culminated in his crowning moment, when he found a way to permanently seal Hidan despite his physical immortality. I think it’s also important to note that he had perhaps the most profound growth out of any of the original child characters. Naruto develop great power, certainly, but his person, attitude, and disposition never underwent any radical alterations. Shikamaru, however, did a full 180, paced out slowly between the first chapters and the Hidan/Kakuzu arc. He started as completely childish, smart but aggressively immature and lazy. By the end, he is a true adult, carrying a deep emotional and mental maturity that, despite his lack of overwhelming fighting power (or perhaps because of it) makes him a towering figure among shinobi.
No competition here. From the moment he crossed blades with Zabuza at the very beginning of the series, I loved Kakashi, and none of the bullcrap he was subjected to in the Final Battle can alter that. He was gold standard for badass from start to finish, but unlike many of my other favorite characters from the show, there was a lot more to him than just some cool powers. He clearly carried the pain and weight of the senseless violence that had previously defined the shinobi world on his shoulders, but never allowed it to darken his person. He was the perfect teacher and father-figure for Naruto; calm, reasoning, dependable in a pinch, and immensely wise. For me, there was no character other than Kakashi who combined all the coolness, mystery, philosophy, and wonder that the world of Naruto had to offer.
And with that, I conclude by brief, and by no means comprehensive, look-back at one of the defining manga/anime franchises of our time. Flawed as it might have been, I feel confident in saying that the best of what the series had to offer will more than stand the test of time. In fact, I think I’ll go right now and rewatch some of my favorite episodes of the show. Reread some of the best battle sequences in the series. And let it all sink in again.