For many years in the world of anime and manga there has been great focus on three long-running series, often dubbed “The Big Three”. Now we’ve covered two of these titles some time ago: One Piece (No. 6) and Bleach (No. 15) – but we’ve yet to cover the third of these titles, which is odd because it covers something universally associated with Japan. This time, we are looking at possibly Japan’s, and certainly anime’s most famous ninja.
Naruto began as a manga in the best-selling manga magazine of them all, Weekly Shonen Jump, by Masashi Kishimoto. It started in 1999 and only just recently concluded, finishing in December 2014 – meaning it is the first of The Big Three to end (Bleach is in its final storyline; One Piece is still going on but the creator knows how it will end). The anime however is still going on. It is divided into two parts. The first, commonly known as Naruto Unleashed ran for 220 episodes between 2002-07. The second part, Naruto Shippuden, followed straight afterwards, and earlier this week (on Thursday 19th February) the 400th episode was broadcast. There have also been 10 movies and an 11th in production.
The series is set in a world dominated by various clans of ninjas in many countries, often dubbed the “Ninja World”. Set in Konohagakure (The Village Hidden in the Leaves) in the Land of Fire, the story begins when a giant nine-tailed fox monster attacks the village. The ruler of the Village, the Fourth Hokage, stops the problem by sealing the fox in his new-born son, at the cost of his own life. The boy’s name is Naruto Uzumaki, and as he grows up people shun him for the monster that dwells inside him. Naruto is determined that one day he will become the Hokage, despite his loneliness and his general incompetence.
Naruto, like all the ninja in training, is put into a three-person squad. He works with Sasuke Uchiha, who Naruto hates and considers a rival; and Sakura Haruno, a girl that Naruto has a crush on. The three are mentored by the elite ninja Kakashi Hatake. As the story moves on, the squad, known as Team 7, undertake various tasks and exams. However, during these many incidents various terrible disasters occur. People are killed, kidnapped and betrayed. One of these betrayals becomes the main focus and motivation for Naruto in the second part of the story which takes place two years later. Over the course of the story Naruto meets many people, fights many battles, and faces many challenges not just to bring happiness to his friends, but to protect his homeland and indeed the world from destruction.
Naruto is famous for its success and its fan-base. It has such a huge following, to the extent that Naruto is the third best-selling manga series in history, behind One Piece and Dragon Ball – which is another Weekly Shonen Jump title which I will be covering in a few weeks’ time. Since it began this series has become a phenomenon in terms of popularity. People love the plot, the grandness of the battles, and the characters: not just Naruto, but Sasuke, Sakura, Kakashi and pretty much everyone else in the series. There is such a huge range to pick from: too many to list here.
Having said this, Naruto has its critics. Some people have complained that the plots are predictable and that it just deals with the standard storylines you find in most manga series of its demographic. Also, there are at times huge amounts of “filler” – stories that don’t appear in the original manga. For example, because the anime adapted the manga so quickly, the amount of filler between the first and second parts of the story lasted, as near as makes no difference, 18 months.
It is for reasons like that this that I confess that Naruto is not my favourite anime, although it is an anime that I respect. You cannot help but respect it, but I personally prefer One Piece (or to put it another way, pirates beat ninjas), partly because it is a bit more original and is funnier. Also, it is a bit troublesome getting past all the jargon used in Naruto, and if you like your ninja stories to be realistic, this is anything but realistic. The “Ninja World” it is set in features some aspects of modern-day technology as well as some fantasy aspects. Naruto’s main technique for example involves making duplicates of himself. Sasuke meanwhile can control fire.
However, Naruto is still an all-important series in the history of anime. While it is not my favourite, it is a favourite of many anime fans. Even if certain incarnations of the series have finished Naruto will be remembered by all anime fans of its impact both in Japan and around the world.
DVD releases of both Naruto Unleashed and Naruto Shippuden are released by Manga Entertainment. Recent episodes can be streamed on the website Crunchyroll.