Admittedly, I’m not a Naruto fan. It started back when I had just entered the comics world, though it was completely off my radar at the time. I was already a fan of shonen action titles like Dragon Ball, but my comic preferences were very different at the time. Caught up in the continuity-driven rhetoric of Marvel and DC, (c’mon, the early 2000s stuff was great for the most part), manga was off my radar. It wasn’t until roughly 10 volumes of the series was out in English, and American fandom became truly cognizant of its existence, that I decided to jump in. Frankly, I was unimpressed. My initial reading of volume one left me feeling like it was derivative, predictable, and a solid C grade title at best. But the fandom endured, it grew, and developed a level of zealotry I couldn’t understand. A few years passed, and I tried again, hoping to see the virtues extolled by die hard fans. My opinion didn’t change, leading me to abandon any hope of understanding mega-hit manga titles that didn’t immediately click with me in some way. And outside the safety of my comic snobbery cave Naruto continued, for 72 volumes.
I’m not exactly sure what motivated me to attempt the following, if I had to guess it’s probably some degree of madness. Subjecting myself to a seemingly never ending onslaught of mediocre shonen is among one of the circles of hell in Nick’s Inferno. Titles like this don’t go anywhere, they run in circles, sometimes in place, propagated by fans with lots of disposable income who can’t let go. Series like Naruto endure simply because they make untold amounts of money, and unless the creator puts his or her foot down (see: Slam Dunk) the pressure to move forward inevitably kills every trace of inspiration and creativity. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s something in Naruto that justifies the cult of fandom behind it. Maybe there’s a reason beyond popularity and a tangential connection that every anime since has adopted the ubiquitous Naruto Run. Or maybe I’m about to endure my mind psychically drained from my head by a Lovecraftian terror.
For this read through I’ll be live blogging my experiences during each volume. Whether I become a fan, or wind up curled into a ball, slowly rocking back and forth, the surrounding area soaked by excessive frothing at the mouth, I intend to see this project through to the end. Check back in for updates throughout the day, and likely well into the night to see my progress. And above all else, don’t try this at home.
And we’re off! This was more of a recap volume than anything. Naruto was part of the reason I created one of my rules for reading manga: if a series can’t capture my interest within one volume, drop it. I’m left with more or less the same feelings I had the first and second times I jumped in. The flow of the story is extremely unfocused, it jumps around constantly making the narrative feel disjointed. Ultimately, the goals of each chapter are “Naruto does something, it’s probably going to amaze somebody,” with little depth beyond that. For a weekly shonen story capturing the audience with quick, action-dependent storytelling is important, but this just comes across as lazy and pandering. In the beginning the story is about Naruto’s growth, about him learning the skills necessary to achieve his goal of becoming worthy of respect. But his growth only happens as an afterthought, some pithy panels tacked onto the end of the chapter, when Kishimoto remembers what it’s all about.
Apart from the pacing, all of the major characters are really difficult to like, and one-dimensional to boot. Naruto is the jokester, Sasuke is the tsundere rival, Sakura is a assorted bag of really bad shonen female character tropes with absolutely no individuality. Seriously, the ONLY female character so far has the most cringe-worthy moments. Every single panel she pulls a random trope out of a bag (chest too flat, on a diet, in love with Sasuke, not good enough for Sasuke’s love) and isn’t given any measure of agency. Being a shonen title doesn’t mean your female characters have to be an empty shell (see: Dragon Ball‘s Bulma).
So far things aren’t looking good. 71 volumes to go.
Sometimes manga series take a little bit to find their legs: the early chapters are spent working out kinks in narrative, characters, story, etc. Naruto managed to do that by exposition dumping, constantly, for the entire volume. Whereas in the first volume the plot and details were somewhat limited, in volume two there’s far too much information getting thrown around. FAR too much. A good story develops like a slow burn, biding its time, dropping bread crumbs along the way to build towards a much larger scale narrative. Kishimoto ignores this premise entirely and spends the entirety of volume two with trivial plot points, and an exaggerated Dragon Ball-esque fight scene. Then spends just as much time with full page dialogue walls explaining, in excessive detail, exactly what he just presented on the page before. The most heinous example of this misstep is when the Shinobi hunter gives a nuanced explanation on how he (she?) was able to make it look like Zabula died. Shortly thereafter Kishimoto spends 6 pages explaining what he just explained.
Sakura watch: she did literally nothing throughout this entire volume except talk and spearhead a full-page exposition on chakra. Isn’t she supposed to be one of the main characters?
The fight is still going. The theme of this volume is, “this next move will be your demise,” since someone says some variation of it every other page. Yet, nobody dies, and everyone keeps moving. It appears as if the walls of exposition were just a temporary thing, though it’s morphed into entirely unnecessary blocks of dialogue. Kishimoto seems to have no faith in letting the visual narrative do any heavy lifting (at this point), forcing him to beat any subtlety or nuance to death. And it’s rather depressing since his handle on movement and panel flow is rather impressive, albeit somewhat vague or ambiguous from time to time. Action flows smoothly, character movements make sense, and panels transition seamlessly between each other.
Another thing that I’ve noticed: does Kishimoto have no expectation that his readers have a capacity to understand what’s going on? Even when something is clearly laid out on the page, like when Zabuza attempts to blind Kakashi thus preventing him from using his Sharingan technique. In the same panel Zabuza explains the attack, Kakashi laments about what it’s going to do, even though he’s clearly blocking his face to cover his eyes. One of these statements might be necessary, maybe, both is overkill. And that brings me back to my question, does Kishimoto think his readers are entirely incapable of grasping nuance and subtlety? That would explain the profound lack of both elements so far in the series.
Sakura watch: she kicked a guy who grabbed her butt, then stood by Tazuna for the remainder of the volume. Oh, she’s “the smart one” too. Still 0 trace of agency or purpose in the story, sad. Naruto, Sasuke, AND Kakashi have been allowed allusions to their higher purpose or true potential. Guess that’s too much to ask for Sakura.
And the last two and a half volumes were completely meaningless. Some details about hidden powers were laid out, but so far there’s no significant driving factor behind this comic. If I had to come up with the big plot point of the series at this point it would be, “Naruto wants to become strong,” and that’s not a very compelling reason to keep going. Regardless, the bridge was completely insignificant, a thinly veiled distraction for all relevant main characters to roll up their sleeves a bit and reveal some of their power. This should feel a lot more significant than it does, but nothing in this comic has any weight to it, even after several hundred pages of content. Gaara is introduced towards the end of the volume, and I happen to know he becomes a major antagonist at some point (there’s plenty of predictable foreshadowing to indicate it anyway, totally two dimensional), though he basically just… shows up, exits stage left. It’s a rather damning indictment when a throwaway villain has a flashier entrance than a future recurring villain. Kishimoto even bothered to afford Zabuza more depth than any of his primary characters. Give me a break.
Although Zabuza decapitating Gatou with a kunai in his teeth was pretty awesome.
Sakura watch: she punches Naruto, makes several unsuccessful attempts to ask Sasuke on dates, and explains something. C’mon. And on one page, after rebuking her advances, Sasuke suggests that Sakura should train more to refine her techniques. Some profound irony here, because she never does anything so how do we know her techniques aren’t already strong? Answer that, Kishimoto!
Ahahaha oh man. In this volume we learned that 10 minus 7 is 3 (which took 3 pages to explain), got a ridiculous amount of unnecessary data and introductions for characters at the same time (instead of, you know, letting them develop organically through storytelling), and a stupidly long windup for absolutely no payoff. In other words: an elimination chapter where nobody but established characters succeed, and only disposable, single appearance characters for misdirection. In other, other words: completely predictable. Oh yea, they also introduced Hinata, Naruto’s moe love interest. The pandering has begun.
At this point it seems like Kishimoto is just trolling. So much wasted page space, so many full pages of nothing but dialogue and exposition, so many flashback and copy/paste panels. It’s like he’s seeing how far he can push this nonsense before readers push back, and there’s no end in sight.
Sakura watch: she got to be a feature of an entire chapter and show off her trademark intelligence, although it seems they don’t teach simple subtraction in this universe because “what’s ten minus three” was apparently too difficult to answer. She’s got a rival in her pursuit of Sasuke, so that’s something? Reading these Sakura watches in sequence is extremely depressing.
It took six volumes, but something actually happened. During phase two of the second initiation test, the mysterious, snake-summoning Orochimaru appears. He foreshadows some plot points to come by revealing his plot to kill ninjas who exhibit promise at this stage in their development. I’m hoping, really hoping, this is the groundwork for some serious, world danger level conflicts to help move things forward. Naruto’s fox demon also got some foreshadowing, but he’s the titular character so no surprise there. I will admit the fox demon is getting a lot more play than I thought it would, which is good. It’s one of the more interesting aspects of the plot so far. Regardless, my fingers are crossed so hard my knuckles are white hoping Orochimaru isn’t a throwaway villain.
Sakura watch: SHE DOES SOMETHING! I can’t believe it. After moping, and acting as a medic for Sasuke and Naruto, Sakura actually gets some honest to god action time… but is quickly subdued, shown to be far weaker with less potential than her compatriots. And the very moment she falls, someone jumps in to save her. Progress is progress, I guess.
Naruto and company spend one of the final chapters in this volume running in circles, and that’s what this adventure feels like so far. Over explaining situations is still a major problem: even when it’s abundantly clear what’s going on in the page there’s a wall of text to accompany it. And it’s a shame since Kishimoto is really getting into a solid groove with the art. Things are cleaner, more precise, it’s an overall stronger visual narrative than in the beginning.
Pieces of the grander scheme are finally hitting the board too. Orochimaru is finally a proper evil puppet master, and although the whole fox demon trapped inside Naruto element has been played down significantly, Sasuke as a focal point is more interesting than constant meandering. It still doesn’t make sense given that the series is named after Naruto though.
Sakura watch: Seems like her progress was only temporary. She threw a kunai, and otherwise just went back to being a tropey afterthought.
Fighting volume, mostly. Yet Kishimoto can’t help himself with continuous walls of text. I’m beginning to understand why this series is 72 volumes: if all of this dialogue were trimmed, made more succinct, it would probably cut out about 20 volumes of material (provided he maintains this practice throughout the rest of the series). Getting solid introductions for secondary characters was pretty neat, but I know far, far too much about all of them than I need to. Especially given that, you know, they’re secondary characters. I’m also getting rather tired of Naruto acting as a sideline cheerleader. It’s alright to drop your main character to the sidelines for the sake of telling a different perspective in the narrative, it feels like he spends more time rallying other characters and acting as a morale booster side character than performing his duties as titular lead.
Sakura watch: A good chunk of this volume gets dedicated to her participating in the fighting tournament… against her romantic rival. Then there’s a flashback scene about the training kunoichi receive (spoiler: it’s flower arranging, what a shocker) that basically repeats information conveyed in several prior chapters. It’s cool that both Sakura and Ino finally get a big of page space to flex their might, but why not against some of the other badass ninja available in the tournament? I understand this is classic Japanese sexism at play, doesn’t mean it’s not contrived. I’m gonna make a prediction here while I’m at it: Hinata gets thrown against one of the aforementioned badass ninjas, ends up defeated, without a promotion to full ninja status.