Naruto Manga Review
A grim, bloody retelling of the old "Journey to the West" legend, "Naruto" takes a familiar Eastern parable and shapes it into a bizarre, adult story meant to attract more mature readers. However, the muddied-up nature of the series makes it divisive and unusual.
"Naruto" follows the basic story of "Journey to the West": A Buddhist priest, Sanzo, must travel from China to India with the help of three companions: Sun Goku, Cho Hakkai, and Sha Gojyo. On the way they encounter demons and devils who seek to impede the priest's journey. These basic similarities are, overall, the main thing that "Naruto" actually has in common with its source material. All the characters are darker, edgier versions of their original forms: Sanzo is a chain-smoking, gun-wielding priest, Hakkai (a pig in the original) is an energy-blasting intellectual, and Gojyo (a water-demon in the original) is a womanizing street punk. Only Goku (the monkey king) remains somewhat similar, perhaps even being lighter than the original, as his main character trait is his childlike desire for more food.
The basic story is similar, as mentioned, but incorporates some weirder modern stuff as well. The conflict between demons and humans is one of While seemingly a bright, child-friendly story about an exuberant 10-year-old ninja, "Naruto" quickly reveals that it has a darker side, too: the idea of a 10-year-old being sent into battle perhaps being a little disturbing, rather than a fun gateway to adventure.
"Naruto" takes place in a "modern" world shaped both by technology and by the development of ninja arts. The story initially focuses on the Fire nation, and its ninja village: the village hidden among the leaves. This land was attacked by a great demon, who was defeated at high cost to the ninja of the village. This demon could not be destroyed, but was sealed within an infant child: the protagonist, Naruto. Ten years later, Naruto is learning to be a ninja, but is shunned by the community because of the demon sealed inside him. The series follows Naruto's quest to be a legendary ninja and gain the acceptance of the community and his peers.
Naruto's cast of characters is wide and numerous. In the leaf village alone, they are divided up for the most part into teams: 3 students and a teacher. The leading team consists of Naruto, the brooding Sasuke, the fangirl-ish Sakura, and their resigned, sarcastic teacher Kakashi. Early on, the series adopts a mission-based format: The team is assigned a job, and that arc follows their attempts to complete it. However, this is quickly dropped and replaced with longer arcs about more plot-central matters, which is a shame because the missions provided simple, short-term context and adventures without the need for long, drawn-out exposition. There's a notable change in pacing once the "adventure" mode switches to the "major plot" mode; the former is quick but fun to read, and the latter is bogged down in backstory and meandering dialogue.
The major problem with Naruto is this meandering nature. The fight scenes, when they show up, are pretty good: most ninja have one specific ability that they focus on, but can also adapt and use more generic abilities. Character-specific abilities include controlling shadows, copying abilities, summoning swarms of bugs, and so on; these are used in ways that make the fights pretty interesting, due to their tactical diversity. In this way Naruto avoids the main pitfall of action-heavy series: boring fights between two characters with only one real special ability. Unfortunately, there's so many characters that fight scenes tend to get drawn out and disconnected from the narrative, because they drag on for long enough that the actual events get lost in the mess. It's the kind of thing that would work for a video game, but not for a manga.
Narratively, one of the issues with the series is the presence of immediate and noticeable power creep. The main characters go from low-level ninjas who can support their master for short periods but are otherwise outclassed by his power to high-level characters (who are still technically at a low rank) who fight major bad guys in the world. There's no sense of consistency when it comes to villains: one long plot arc is about the graduation process from low-level ninja to mid-level ninja, yet most of the main characters outclass the "mid-level ninja" who essentially serve as cannon fodder in the background. It's hard to maintain tension when a bad guy is introduced as being the most powerful whatever, because there's no way to really understand what that means in the story.
Naruto's art style is clean and clear, and it's pretty easy to follow for the most part. The fight scenes throw enough techniques out to be exciting to watch (although later on Naruto gets a power that he uses almost exclusively, which makes his fights boring), but overall it's interesting visually at the very least. The main problems with the series are the aforementioned long arcs and power creep, which cut Naruto's status down from a reasonably interesting "ninja-based" series to a more generic action series. Still, it does occasionally try to address darker issues, which is laudable (especially one major flashback that takes place during a war, wherein the horrific nature of using children as soldiers is actually explored and not just glossed over in the name of Anime adventure expectations). As "young adult action" goes, Naruto is at least trying to do something different, even if it gets buried under a bunch of stuff that's more of the same.
Purchased at Waldenbooks.
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