I’m reviewing: Naruto, by Kishimoto Masashi (buy it at your local bookstore, or download it at www.narutofan.com)
Which is a: Manga sieries, as well as a far crappier anime sieries.
So, I have to put in a slight disclaimer here: I’ve been addicted to the series for a whopping full year now, and reading it for nearly a year and a quarter. If I were reviewing this a scant two months ago I’d have given it a droolingly resounding 10+, but what with recent developments, mostly including breathtakingly awesome JTHM and Zim fictions, I’ve had a slight falling out with it, and can now give a much more balanced review.
Basics: It’s a shonen (‘boy’ for all you gaijins in the audience) action manga, which means lots of violence paradoxically coupled with inspiring ideals fit to gag a bevy of deranged care bears. I think you have to be Japanese to get it. Naruto, our twelve-year-old-hero, is an orphan kid in a ninja village, Konohagakure. He’s an idiot, a troublemaker, and an all-around looser, who definitely subscribes to the ideal that any attention is good attention. After graduating from Ye Olde Ninja School to the independent 3-rookie-1-teacher training team with his crush, Sakura, and his crush’s crush, Sasuke, who is, big surprise, Mr. Perfect Lone Wolf Rival, he has adventures and stuff.
Not So Basics: Mr. Perfect, Naruto’s rival, has his own skeletons in his dark and angsty closet to trip him up later on, and Naruto, our perky failure, is actually nothing more than an organic cage for the Nine-Tails demon fox which ravaged the village twelve years earlier, and the adults of Konoha have long memories. It also gets insanely complicated around the traditional Action Manga Everyone Fight Each Other Because We Said So, the chuunin exams in which all the top rookies compete for journeyman status in a series of, big surprise, tournaments, we get introduced to a heapin’ handful of other teams of three students and a teacher each, a handful of various other adults, the interesting political system of the Narutoverse, and, most importantly, massive character development across the board. It is then in which Kishimoto hits his stride, and the plot continues to make very interesting twists, and heaping on characters. At last count, there are fully thirty characters in the series available for thinking and/or writing about, which for me is a quite large necessity. Add in a mysterious crime ring and several interesting baddies with their own not-quite-parallel goals and you get one complicated universe.
Art Style: For those of you not used to the subtle differences, it’s Japanese. There are big eyes, small noses, and yes, most of the baddies are hot. However, Kishi-kun’s got a somewhat angular, original style to his work, and neither the hair or eyes are as big and perky as would be found in a girl’s manga. Plus, the city of Konoha itself has awesome architecture.
Pros: Amazingly vivid universe, shitload of characters, (almost everyone’s got a back-story, and if there isn’t an official one it’s likely there’s half a dozen fanworks for it.) goals, subplots and hidden motivations, surprisingly original plot twists, actual character development if you stick around long enough and some god-like fanfiction if you care to find it.
Cons: Viz is in charge of importing Naruto into America, meaning that there’s five ‘graphic novels’ you can buy for ten bucks each, and it’s illegal to read the scanlations, which are free and update a chapter a week. They can’t catch you, of course, but it’s possible there’s some negative karma attached. Other cons are that it’s really, really, really dumb until the chuunin exams, so you have to slog through five or six books of character development to get anywhere interesting. Also, Kishimoto’s not too fond of the fairer sex so there’s two thirds less female ninja than male, Naruto’s crush (the token female) doesn’t stop being token until around chapter two hundred and forty, and all but two of the other girls are either ignored or useless. Also, in the balance, the bishonen aren’t all that hot. Also, eight tenths of the fanfiction is mind-scaldingly bad. Also, the plot moves pretty slowly. Also, this story is to a few Japanese myth what West Side Story is to Romeo and Juliet, so good deal of getting the subtle details involve being Japanese, or at least knowing a good deal of Japanese folklore.
All in all: what really made me love the series is that the author gave his fans such a huge stage, and so many actors, that the actual cannon (official plotline) became merely a facet of the over all Narutoverse, with dojinshi (fancomics), fanart, roleplay communities, and fanfic providing far more original/funny/mature/exciting takes on the story. When winnowed down to just the spine of the matter, the manga, it’s really just a pretty good manga. Not amazingly great, but I have yet to find any manga as captivating as American graphic novels and cartoons. Japanese manga is just that: Japanese, and no amount of research realy lets Americans jump the startlingly large culture gap. Manga just put too much emphasis on stylistic details and traditions that I can’t relate to, the characters are a little too honorable, explain a little too obviously, the jokes are rare or stupid, if at all present, and much of the interaction just doesn’t click. Despite being ninjas, almost none of the characters seem to have heard of the idea of actualy lying. Killing your entire family for fun, yeah. Spying, yeah. Giving people massive internal trauma, fine. But I have counted a total of two people who have pretended to be someone else for longer than the duration of a battle, and they own up as soon as detected just for the evil pleasure of the kicked-puppy expression on their nemesis's face. This bothers me on a very basic level, as my prefered character has and always will be the classic DND rougue. Despite this, I highly recommend Naruto to anyone with a little patience that likes good action, complicated plots, and startlingly vivid characters.
...Oh, and I have to say, blue text on a grey-blue-black background is realy a pain to read. Ever thought about red or white text?