By Masashi Kishimoto, Mikio Ikemoto, & Ukyo Kodachi
Depending on how you feel about Naruto, Boruto was either one of your most anticipated new manga of the year or your most dreaded. Announced last December, following the commercial and critical success of the Boruto film, the manga version seems to be going the Dragon Ball Super route by retelling the movie’s story before proceeding to new content. Which is definitely disappointing, at least for anyone who’s seen the movie like myself. Don’t get me wrong, the Boruto movie is excellent. It’s not only far and away the best Naruto film, but one of the best Shonen Jump franchise films ever made. That’s the problem: the manga adaptation, lacking the color, animation, performances, and music that enhance and define the experience of the film, can only feel like an inferior repeat of the same story.
Story content aside, the art is another problematic area. A lot of fans have called the art ugly, and the character designs off-putting, though it might be a matter of personal taste. The art itself isn’t structurally bad: Ikemoto clearly knows his anatomy, how to create a fluid and exciting action scene, with solid foundational principles of composition. The backgrounds are also excellent, which is to be expected considering Ikemoto was a former assistant of Kishimoto’s. So it all comes down to the character designs themselves. Certainly, they don’t look like Kishimoto’s, and that’s probably what’s putting people off. Ikemoto’s design sensibilities seem more akin to that of indie manga than mainstream shonen, and I can see younger, less experienced readers mistaking this style of art as bad compared to that of Kishimoto’s. Considering that this manga was clearly commissioned with commercial intentions by Shueshia higher-ups, one would have thought that they’d choose an artist with a style similar to Kishimoto’s for this project, much like with Toyotaro’s Dragon Ball Super manga. It’s a curious move, but I take it as a sign that Shueshia and Kishimoto have faith in Ikemoto’s abilities, and those able to look past the different character designs should be confident that, artistically, the series is in good hands.
Story-wise, Boruto sets itself apart from it’s father series though the characterization of it’s title protagonist. Naruto was an outcast, but he was an optimist and enthusiastic about becoming a ninja and achieving his dream of being Hokage. In contrast, Boruto is much better off than his father was, but is far less happy and much a lot moodier. Unlike his father, Boruto isn’t driven by a dream or a need to prove himself to others. He already has plenty of attention and privileges as the son of the Hokage, and a healthy stable of friends. The source of his unhappiness, and the cause of contention that spurs his character arc, is his tumultuous relationship with his father.
If there’s one thing that Masashi Kishimoto writes excellently, it’s the relationships between parents and children. Be it between Minato and Naruto, or Might Duy and Might Guy, Kishimoto is always able to write compelling stories about family, and that’s especially true about father-child relationships. Last year’s The Seventh Hokage and the Scarlet Spring mini-series focused on Sasuke and Sarada’s relationship, and while there were shakier elements to that story the drama between those two characters lead to powerful character development and felt very authentic. Boruto continues off the foundation set by Scarlet Spring by placing the focus of the story on Boruto’s frustrations with his workaholic father and Naruto’s inability to juggle his responsibilities as Hokage with his as a father.
As the chapter points out, while this manga is ultimately Boruto’s story, right now it’s just as much Naruto’s. After 700 chapters of seeing Naruto grow from childhood to adulthood in pursuit of his dream, we see that even now, Naruto is not done growing. He flings himself so deep into his work that his family is an afterthought. The only time he ever seems to see his son is when he visits him at the Hokage’s office. He even neglects to attend his own daughter’s birthday, sending a shadow clone in his place, with disastrous results. Yet, we know that this isn’t how it’s always been. From photos we see scattered around the Uzumaki home, we know that at one time, they were a close and happy family. The birthday scene is what ultimately drives the point home, that something is fundamentally wrong with their current lifestyle. Naruto means well, and is clearly trying his best to juggle his responsibilities, but it’s taking both a physically and emotional toll on him despite the tough face reserved for the public eye. Naruto finally achieves his dream, but it’s put pressure on him that he doesn’t know how to manage. He channels that by putting more time into his work, at the expense of his family and his own physical and emotional well-being.
If Naruto is trying too hard, perhaps Boruto isn’t trying hard enough. Or rather, he’s unwilling to put real effort into things. Daddy issues aside, Boruto is a pretty pampered child; he’s the son of the Hokage and has access to things most kids don’t. As such, he can take the easy way out of situations, as evidenced when he, to his friends’ disgust, uses a modified game engine to make playing a video game easier. Though only a small moment, it reveals that Boruto has a lot of growing up to do. Cheating at a video game shows he’s interested in taking the easy way out when able to get away with it. Compared to his father, who wasn’t naturally talented, and had to overcome a lot of effort into becoming a great shinobi, Boruto is fairly skilled and gifted. He has more respect and attention given to him than his father did at his age. Yet, the fact that his father doesn’t acknowledge his skill and accomplishments irritates him. He wants his father to notice him. Despite this, he doesn’t put more effort into his missions to catch his eye. Rather, he simply brags about himself and how good he is, an easier option. When Naruto doesn’t pay him any mind, he lashes out, and acts defensives and hostile. Boruto is a brooding teenage boy with entitlement issues, and before he can earn his father’s respect, it’s clear he needs to mature a bit, and learn to respect others himself.
In that way, Boruto is similar to his father. Both sought power and acted out so other people will notice them. Whereas Naruto didn’t have anybody to support him, Boruto has plenty of love and attention, so his desires come from a much more selfish place. That’s not to say that the character himself is completely lacking in redeemable qualities. He loves his family, and is ultimately a team player. In fact, Naruto skipping out on his sister’s birthday party is the last straw that makes his father irredeemable in Boruto’s eyes, and leads him to seek out Sasuke to be his mentor. Given the circumstances of this turn of events, his frustrated feelings are understandable. We can see that he has a lot of maturing to do, and part of that lack of maturity is on Naruto’s shoulders for neglecting his responsibilities as a father. It’s a complicated situation, and doesn’t portray either character in a strictly positive or negative light. It’s a strained relationship that they both have to work to improve, and by seeking Sasuke’s tutelage, Boruto inadvertently takes the first step towards mending it.
A central theme running through this chapter is the idea that “the soul of a shinobi remains the same.” The world of Boruto is more industrialized and modern than that of Naruto, with computers, television, video games, and skyscapers. Technology has evolved to the point anyone can artificially reproduce another person’s jutsu, using a special device, making the need to learn techniques obsolete. Considering the tremendous effort Naruto once made to learn the Rasengan it’s a very wistful changing of the times. Where Naruto laments that the virtues he was taught as a young shinobi are being trampled upon by the new generation, Sasuke is unworried. Yes, this is not the world they once lived in; their children are not the people they were. Despite how much the world has changed the essence of what makes a shinobi has not. Hard work and perseverance are still things to strive for and be valued, and those principles won’t be forgotten no matter how much easier technology might aid the process. Similarly, Boruto is not Naruto, but the essence of what what fans love about the latter is still here. While the title character starts with a leg up from his predecessor, his journey will ultimately put forth similar obstacles for him to overcome, struggles he can’t rely on a cheat code to help him through.
Immediately Boruto establishes itself as a coming of age story, a meditation on father-son relationships, and a tale of changing times. These are all rich and intriguing themes with a lot of potential worth exploring, and this first chapter weaves through them excellently, formulating a compelling read. That said, the intrigue presented by the material is reduced somewhat when those who’ve seen the Boruto movie already know where these threads will lead. This first chapter adapts roughly the first 10 minutes of the film, and at that pace it will likely take a year before we get to any new material. This makes the opening pages of the chapter, a flash forward to an older Boruto fighting some mysterious enemy in the ruins of Konoha, a double-edged sword: on one hand, it assures us that the story will be going beyond what the movie showed; on the other, by starting from the beginning it’ll probably take years before we ever get to this point. Being a spinoff of one of the most popular and best selling manga ever, Boruto has an established readership, and can afford to stretch itself out. Whether fans are willing to put up with it and play the waiting game for it’s promised new material remains to be seen.