Before anyone asks: I have mostly positive things to say about Shonen Jump's Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto.
While Naruto does have some pretty major problems that holds it back, I still regard it rather highly compared to most manga. Most of it's major problems comes from not going as far as it could or should in terms of character development, the setting and themes. But that doesn't make it suck.
I's still pretty good.
So you might be asking, if I like it then why am I giving it a Logic's Insight?
One, as a change to tune. I wanted to change things up a little bit by going over something that I like rather than something that I hate. I'm still going to give it an honest review and point out things that I don't like or don't work. But for once, I want to bring insight into something that I regard positively and expose how it works and doesn't work on a fundamental level.
Two, Naruto has major problems. Forums like Onemanga are ablaze with fans arguing over things like a character being overpowered, who Naruto will end up banging, whose the best character, whose the best kage, what's the best jutsu, who'd win between this character and that character and so on. Few people have actually caught on to the heart of problems that cause these arguments.
Three, Naruto seems like it's the closest to wrapping up its series. It's basically in it's final major arc right now, so it's fair to take a look back through the series on whether or not it advanced in a manner fitting a well-written story or if it has one too many conveniences or issues that muddle down it's genuine awesomeness.
So what I'm doing here is pick out the worst aspects of Naruto and telling you how those things hold back Naruto from being a true anime/manga masterpiece. You're free to disagree and offer counterpoints to any argument that I make...even if you're completely wrong, it's not about whose right and whose wrong, it's about who can back up what they're saying the most.
Number 1: The Good Things
So let's start with the positive things.
This will include stuff that's very effective for the manga and things that I personally enjoyed.
1) Naruto himself
Out of all three Big Manga heroes or any manga shonen hero in general, I find Naruto to be the most appealing, dynamic, interesting and heroic.
Not to say that I don't like characters like: Yusuke Uemeshi, Goku, Gohan, Kenshin Himura, Ichigo Kurosaki, Monkey D Luffy, Natsu, Ranma, Tenchi, Bit Cloud, Shinji Ikari, Simon, Roger Smith, Heero Yuy, Amuro Ray, Yugi Mutoi, Lelouch vi Britannia, Kouji Kabuto, Kou Uraki, Naota, and Pazu(Technically not, but he's the one miyazaki character whose the closest to this architype).
Kishimoto does show some expert writing ability by taking the "shonen formula" and presenting it in a unique and engaging way. Let me explain for a bit:
Normally, a shounen character is someone whose more geared towards a male audience. So they'll be into male things like: being pursued by sexy women, taking charge of things, being the best, earning recognition, beating up or murdering people who are less powerful than you, undergoing journey, learning from a wise and encouraging mentor, and having cool super powers or a unique badass talent.
It's actually an architype that's evolved from the "everyman" architype that most protagonists started out as, only shifted around so that it's a little cooler and has more things that boys like.
Anyway, usually these characters are people who are outside of societal norms, either by location, upbringing, or because of a unique trait that makes them different from normal. Monkey D Luffy is basically a juvenile delinquient who ate a fruit that gave him a rubber body; Goku is an alien who bumped his head as a baby and was raised in the mountains away from people; Yusuke is the son of an alcoholic teenage mother and the town bully; Heero is a cold hearted assassin who was trained from childhood to lead a gundam-enforced revolution; Lelouch was a royal heir who was banished after his mother was gunned down in cold blood and his sister crippled and blinded; and Bit Cloud is a scavenger who picks up parts left behind by various zoids battles.
Normally these characters are brought out of their normal routine by an event that happens to them and sets them onto their journey.
Luffy's journey to become pirate king started when a pirate lord whose prowess equals the strongest swordsman in the world...loses his arm to a shark...moving on;
Lelouch begins his journey when a green haired babe gives him brainwashing powers and he tells a bunch of soldiers to kill themselves;
Yusuke is hit by a car and dies;
Simon finds a drill bit and then finds the gunman that it goes into;
Shinji is emotionally blackmailed by his bastard father; A space pirate crashes into the backyard of Tenchi's home;
And Gohan is kidnapped by his father's long-lost uncle and then gets kidnapped by a yoshi right after his dad dies.
From this point on, the story will be largely centered around their actions, their choices, and their growing development towards their goal. Eventually, the goal isn't even as important, the journey and the character are usually vastly more interesting because everything is centered around them.
Luffy becoming King of the Pirates is alright, but it'll have to follow the hard act of all of the momentous things that Luffy has already done; Yusuke basically forfeited his final battle because he'd already found a better purpose in life apart from fighting; Gohan's development is amongst the most interesting because we see him grow up from a small kid into a badass bookworm with a cute daughter; How Lelouch takes over the world is vastly more interesting because of his character relationships and his conflicted viewpoint on his plans; Kenshin making peace with his past is much more satisfying because of the things that he learns along the way.
The Journey contains the meaty stuff that makes you understand, care for and root for these heroes. And since you like the heroes, you want to follow their story and where it will end up.
Naruto pulls this off pretty well.
Naruto is both an everyman, a classic shonen hero and a little bit of a byronic hero. He's born into unfair circumstances and has a lot of hurdles to overcome; but he's honest, hard-working and a generally nice guy that you want to like and eventually come to like. He has a clear goal and an emotional and rational reason for wanting to come to that goal. Naruto wants to become hokage which is the epitome of his innate desire to respected, cared for and loved.
In short, he was sick of getting oppressed by the ungrateful villagers!
He's also got a lot of handicaps. He had to largely learn his strengths and abilities by himself because no one ever wanted to teach him. He's actually pretty intelligent and good at making up strategies on the fly. He just messes up the fundamentals because no one ever told him how to properly understand and apply them. His parents are dead and lived as an orphan; until he became a genin, his only friends were Iruka, the Ramen Noodle guy and his cute daughter; everyone hated him for reasons beyond his control and this passed on to most of the kids in his class; and he has a demonic Nine-Tails sealed inside of him.
As we later see with Gaara, these facts should be traits for a messed up antagonistic character. Instead, Naruto pushes through these things and slowly wins over the idiots in the village until he's now a national hero. He embodies the best traits in people that we all want to strive for.
"Never giving up and never going back on my word, that's my nindo! My ninja way!"
What's not admirable about that?
2) The Background and Setting
I like the setting of Naruto, it's pretty wide, diverse and filled with a lot of pockets where you can hide things. The perfect place for shinobi villages to live and murder each other over.
I also like that each village lives in an environment that shapes their philosophy and reflects their element. Kiri are mysterious and so live in the Mist; Kumo live in mountains above the clouds and are pretty arrogant and emotional like lightning; Konoha is within a forest and has strong roots in their beliefs and bonds; Suna is cold and dry like the sand of the desert that they're in and Iwa shinobi are strong and heard-headed like the stone that they're surrounded by.
3) Themes and Issues
Naruto explores a lot of concepts in interesting ways. Some are better than others, but it adds more depth to an otherwise standard manga/anime.
You've got themes like: Forgiveness and Revenge; Nature vs Nurture; Fate vs Choice; Prejudice and Animosity; Talent vs Effort; The long-lasting psychological effects of war; Resentment and Sorrow; Intelligence vs Intuition; Child Soldiers; and so on...
4) Jiraiya and Old Man Hokage
I like both of these characters. Hiruzen Sarutobi reminds of both an old war veteran whose finally attained some peace after many years of hard warfare and is everyone's wise and knowledgeable grandfather. He's also a badass whose capable of holding his own against two past zombie hokage who can summon wood and water while being an old man whose basically washed up and eventually win.
I actually wished that he'd stuck around a little into Shippuden, but his death was pretty appropriate.
Jiraiya is a character from another story whose at the end of his tale and he knows it. He even acknowledges it in his final monologue before he was murdered by being stabbed with multiple pipes and blown up by a missile.
He was also a great teacher and father figure for Naruto despite his flaws like his legendary perversion and partying issues. He was also a lot like Naruto too, very blunt and to the point. But he actually worked with Naruto and helped him with all of the crap that no one else bothered to teach him, not even Kakashi. The saddest part about Jiraiya's death was Naruto's reaction to it, it showed how much Naruto cared about him and displayed a lot of his humanity.
Also, Jiraiya was funny as hell.
5) The Konoha Shinobi
Issues about Konoha's treatment of Naruto aside, I do like these guys.
They've got a lot of shades of complexity to them. You've got shinobi who just treat being a shinobi as a job; some who treat it as a way of life and death; some who are kind of going through the motions and others who were brainwashed into being tools or choose to become tools of someone else's purpose.
Take a look at the differences between Danzo and Sarutobi. They're the same age, had the same teachings and went through the same experiences. But while Sarutobi is kind, noble and wise; Danzo is scheming, manipulative and cold. Ibiki would give his life for his comrades, but he's also a sadist who loves torture and screwing with people's heads. Anko is a party-girl with a dark past and a painful reminder of said past. Not to mention Hayate Gekko, the one character who was killed off one episode too soon.
Then there's the Konoha 11, young and upcoming shinobi with various unique abilities and traits that set each other apart. Tenten is a weapon master; Rock Lee is a kung-fu badass who can even take on a jinchuriki while being unable to harness chakra; Neiji was a genius whose tragically held back by an oppressive family tradition; Ino is a flirty gardener who can dive into your mind and even take over the bodies of reincarnated badasses; and Shino is the quiet guy who silently takes you out with a swarm of bugs.
He's one of my two favorite Rookie 9/Konoha 11 squadmates and could best qualify as the "primary background protagonist." This basically someone who would either be the hero of their own story or would be the main character if the story didn't already have a good one. He started out as a reluctant genius who was just getting by without applying any real effort.
We saw some shades of heroism from him, like when he stays back to stall a bunch of sound ninja to allow Sakura and Naruto time to meet up with Sasuke. But he just wanted to live an average life, get married, have kids and retire. Despite his reluctance, he also cares about his comrades and about the Will of Fire.
As he grows up, he drops his reluctance and applies in intelligence to both short-term and long-term plans. He even concocts a plan to take out an immortal enemy and it works! I wonder if Hidan's still buried in that pit?
Cutie, pretty, one of the few who didn't treat Naruto like crap and a girl who grew up into a strong woman before our eyes. It's amazing how much of an impact Hinata leaves despite having less screentime even when compared to the rest of the Konoha 9.
But every scene that we see in here somehow means something. On a subconscious level, Naruto relates to this downtrodden girl and fought for her honor during the Chunin Tournament. She watched and understood who he really was and didn't rely on her prejudiced parents like most other kids did. She also grew from being shy, insecure and uncertain to becoming bold, brave and certain enough to smack one of the most powerful men in the world to bring him back to his senses.
Then she held hands with him which is actually more of a romantic gesture in Japan than in the West. She held his hand and stood at his side after slapping some sense into him after her cousin's death. That moment sold me.
8) Past Hokages
The thing that I really like about Naruto 619 is that we finally get hear more about the Second Hokage. He's probably my favorite one and he's the one who we know the least about compared to the other three.
All of the past hokages were legends in their own unique ways. The First could create a forest of entanglement and death; the Second could create a giant pool of water out of nowhere and summon zombie ninjas and the Fourth could teleport to any dagger that he threw in the battlefield and murder hundreds of enemies in the span of a few seconds.
They also had different personalities that stood out: Hashirama was a friendly and passionate leader; Tobirama was noble, but also had a cold and calculative edge; and Minato was a kind and reserved man, but pretty ruthless in battle. When you look at these three and Sarutobi, you can see their lasting impact on the current generation of shinobi and particularly some key ones.
Tsunade is encouraged by her grandfather;
Danzo and Sarutobi were inspired by both sides of Tobirama;
Naruto and Asuma were influenced by Sarutobi;
And the village remembered and honored Minato by bullying and despising his son...I mean! By not honoring his wish to have Naruto remembered as a hero...I mean! By remembering that he bailed them out of the Third Ninja War!...Iya...for a moment it seemed like the villagers didn't give a damn about Minato's sacrifice or his final request/order...
(little Naruto is thrown out of a store by a disdainful clerk)
Guess that they didn't...
9) Akatsuki, Orochimaru and other villains
The other really great thing about Naruto are the villains. There's a lot of them and they are pretty ruthless people willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want.
Orochimaru was a pedophillic mad-scientist obsessed with being immortal and mastering every jutsu in the world. Not to mention that he just won't die! No matter how many times the heroes kill or seal him, he just comes back somehow...this makes him scary. He also has a weird snake fetish technique thing going on and caused the death of old man hokage.
Akatsuki are...pretty cool and threatening at the same time. They're a group of diverse S-ranked criminals who've been united for a single purpose: Screwing over the shinobi world.
They all have their own motives, methods and personalities which makes each one stand out from each other. They're also the catalysts for a lot of dramatic plot points in the story.
Sasori and Deidara pretty much cause Gaara to die; Hidan kills Asuma; Itachi murdered his own clan and dared Sasuke to come after him; Pain kills Jiraiya and so on. Also, their goal requires lethal harm to the main character, which gives him some real stake in stopping them. If he fails then he'll die and then everyone else will die.
They also prompt real change within the main characters. The whole Gaara arc causes everyone to face the reality of how much it sucks to be a jinchuuriki and to know what Naruto went through growing up; Hidan's actions bring a lethal tension to the life of a shinobi; Jiraiya's death motivates Naruto to better himself so that no one else dies to protect him; Kisame's loyalty is a shared trait that the heroes recognize and respect; and Pain's assault leaves Naruto thinking over the truth on war and peace.
Then there's Tobi and...actually, I'll leave that for later...
Most people don't like little kids in fiction, I'm on their side when the kid is annoying as hell or simply there for pointless cuteness to begin with.
But Konohamaru is no annoying brat, at least to me.
When I first saw him, I saw him as a spoiled brat who wanted to become great and respected through any means that he could. He did have a real motivation and that was that he did have respect based on someone else's actions which placed a shadow over his own. So here we had a three dimensional character with a legitimate background issue and a personality quirk that clicked with me.
I found myself not groaning when this kid and his friends showed up to bug Naruto as his miniature fan club. But unlike Sasuke's fanclub who followed Sasuke strictly based on his looks and his reputation as an Uchiha; The Konohamaru Corps legitimately liked and respected the real Naruto with all of his flaws and vices and saw him as a big brother figure who encouraged and inspired them.
Not to mention Konohamaru's grudge when Tsunade became the 5th Hokage and he thought that everyone was replacing and outright forgetting about his grandfather. It may have annoyed some people, but I thought that Kono's reaction was pretty realistic for a young kid who just lost an important parental figure. I guess that I liked Konohamaru because he felt like a real kid instead of a contrived tool for cuteness or to appeal to younger kids.
I also liked that after the timeskip, we see some fruit of Konohamaru's labor. Apart from expanding Naruto's perverted jutsu, he also mastered the rasengan and used it to beat a Pain Path that'd just killed/defeated at least five more experienced shinobi. This kid has potential and I'm looking forward to his next scene in the manga.
11) Fighting and Murder
Despite having a central theme of seeking peace, Kishimoto doesn't hold the audience's hand and displays many examples of how harsh and swift life can be in the shinobi world.
The fight scenes are, for the most part, exciting, tense and creative in tone with the characters participating. Shikamaru for instance takes his battles in strides and doesn't do anything really spotlight worthy until his strategy and tactics truly kick in; Naruto thinks on the fly and rarely stands still during a fight; Sasuke relies on overpowering his opponent and doesn't hesitate when he thinks that he has an upper hand; Kakashi is a wild card who remains unpredictable and Killer Bee is a crazy sword dancer who uses his insanity to blitz his enemies before they are aware of how screwed they are.
Not to mention that there's real consequence to these battles. Unlike Tite Kubo who was afraid of killing off main characters until this recent "final arc" and Oda who hadn't killed anyone until nearly 500 chapters into One Piece, Kubo isn't afraid of killing off his characters. Death is a constant concern, even for the main characters.
From the first arc onwards this series displays a lot of ways to die including:
Getting killed by an overgrown demon (Iruka's Parents)
Being sealed within a shinigami (The 3rd and 4th Hokage)
Getting impaled on a giant fingernail (Kushina and the 4th)
Getting beaten to death by hundreds of shadow clones (Mizuki?)
Kunai to the face (Kakashi's log clone)
Chidori through the chest (Haku)
Being stuck with lots and lots of swords (Zabuza)
Being mauled by dogs (Zabuza again)
Being ambushed by overgrown leeches (Random ninjas)
Crushed within a mound of sand (Random ninjas)
Having your face pried off and used as a mask (Random ninjas)
Getting your arm blown off by chakra bugs (Sound guy with the broken arms)
Being scrapped across a rooftop by sand (Dosu)
Getting sliced up by wind (Hayate)
Giant twin-headed snakes that are summoned right on top of you (Random Konoha ninjas)
Evil chidori through the chest (Naruto)
Getting shot in your blind spot by a spider archer ninja (Neiji)
Overdosing on food pills (Choji)
Mass Genocide (The Uchiha Clan)
Mass Murder (Konoha during the Pain attack)
Child Soldiers having half of their bodies crushed under giant rocks (Obito)
Chidori through the chest of your girlfriend (Rin)
Satanic Blood rituals (Asuma)
Being blown up by explosive tags and having your body parts buried in a garden (Hidan)
Having your cells broken down by a shuriken of pure wind chakra (Kakuzu)
Atomic Kamikaze Attack (Deidara)
Unnamed Fatal Diseases (Itachi)
Assisted Suicide (Shishui)
Getting blown up by a missile (Jiraiya)
Having your soul pulled out of your body (Shizune)
Having your tongue pulled out in a fatal game of truth or dare (Random Konoha ninja)
Getting impaled by multiple chakra pipes (Jiraiya)
Kunai to the throat (Rock Ninja that Minato killed)
Giant Meteors (Shinobi 4th Division)
Life Transfer Medical Jutsu (Chiyo)
Poison (Sakura, Kankuro and many more)
An endless fire that can't be put out (Many)
Powerful Illusions (Many)
Seppeku (Edo Tensei Hanzo)
Impaled by large spiked shafts of wood (Neiji)
Gravity blasts that can wipe out villages (Konoha)
Madara's Fire Storms
Decapitation by Wrestling Move (Kisame)
Biting off your own tongue (Kisame)
Eaten alive by your own sharks (Kisame)
Failed Assassination that leads to mass slaughter (Random clan ninjas)
Child Soldier getting stabbed through the heart (Hashirama and Tobirama's brother)
Father punching his son because Hashi called his dad out on his bullshit
Lots and Lots of Physical abuse
12) The Comedy
Even though this is a manga primarily aimed at boys despite it's loads and loads of violence, I like that it takes a risk with a lot of adult humor as well.
An example of this would be Naruto's "Sexy Jutsu" where he transforms into a naked woman for the sole purpose of confusing and shocking closet perverts. He then teaches it to a young boy who expands the jutsu into two variants: a lesbian version and a gay version. It's an audacious form of comedy that I've come to admire from Naruto.
Whenever Akatsuki met up, they're depicted as having these very petty traits that cause them to violently conflict with each other. The only reason that Hidan was grouped with Kakuzu is because Kakuzu kept killing off his past partners and Hidan was immortal; Deidara beats up Tobi for being annoying; Sasori commented that Orochimaru left because Itachi turned him down; Kisame was jealous of Itachi's bishonen good looks in an omake; Sasori and Deidara argued over what true art was even in the middle of a mission; Hidan's potty mouth nearly increased the series' rating; and Tobi was a wacky idiot despite being the mastermind behind the organization's intentions.
Kakashi and Jiraiya were unashamed perverts with the former reading a series of pornographic books that the latter wrote; Jiraiya talks about how he almost died when he peeped on Tsunade;
Naruto paints grafitti on the statues of the Hokages and it takes forever for experienced shinobi to catch him; There's a gag involving expired milk;
A gag with Kakashi's mask;
Naruto getting beaten up by an elderly toad;
The Ho Yay implications between Naruto and Sasuke which is unfortunately used as evidence by yaoi fangirls;
Might Guy's dynamic entry on Jiraiya;
Killer Bee's out of place rapping;
Naruto's verbal lack of formalities for Tsunade and Jiraiya;
Naruto beating Kiba by farting; Inari's puppy learning how to swim and leaving a drowning Inari;
Hashirama being worried about Konoha when he finds out that Tsunade became the 5th Hokage;
The 2nd Tsuchikage and Mizukage arguing over who killed who after they're brought back;
Raikage always breaking something when he appears;
Raikage bitch slapping Sasuke within his Susanoo;
Raikage karate chopping his own arm like it's nothing;
Tobi's wack-a-mole Jutsu;
The Shipping Wars;
Tenten's laughable lack of screentime;
And so on and so forth. I guess I really like the comedy because it was character centered comedy rather than trying to squeeze humor into a serious story. The humor added depth to these characters and made them closer to real people. It was also a welcome break whenever the heavy stuff became really heavy. You temporarily forget that Akatsuki will soon be after Naruto when you see Deidara holding Tobi in a leg-hold; Sasuke's apparent hostility and ego is punctuated by him being dragged into the ground by Kakashi's headhunter jutsu; The possibility of anyone dying becomes a little laughable since Kishimoto seemed to neglect poor Tenten.
It also added to the overall package and played a key role in why I like this series. So let's see...great main hero, a solid supporting cast; a threatening group of villains; a diverse world and setting; a static tone that still leaves room for multiple slices of life; lots of action and lots of murder.
Why would it need to be better?
Well...just join me in Part 2...