Thursday, November 6, 2014

Thank you, Naruto

Much like the characters in the story itself, I initially shunned Naruto, mocking the series without giving it a real chance, just as the citizens of Konoha once shunned Naruto himself. I was only vaguely aware of its existence at the time (and probably at around the peak of its popularity in America), but from what I did know, I wrote it off as a silly, misguided series that had the oh so brilliant idea to make a supporting comic relief character its lead.

That's what I thought at the time, at least, but then one day while channel surfing, I happened upon a Naruto marathon that was airing on Cartoon Network, what they called the Naruto Hundo. And so I gave it a bit of a chance, and was initially hooked by its surprisingly catchy opening theme at the time, Haruka Kanata. Where I picked up, the anime was going through the Chunin Exams arc, specifically as they were getting ready for Naruto's big match against Neji. And, watching that fight, just as the other spectators in the show itself, I was extremely impressed by what I saw and was finally able to see Naruto for what it was, a series filled with intense action and heartfelt fun and emotion, and I've been hooked ever since.

It didn't take long for me to catch up with all of the anime at the time, which was just about to start the Sasuke and Sai arc in Shippuden. But unlike other anime that I've gotten into, I just couldn't get enough of this series. And so I actually picked up the manga as well, starting from where the anime left off and catching up to the latest chapter, which, at the time, was actually the chapter that was about to begin the much anticipated fight between Sasuke and Itachi. I've since gone back and read the entire manga from the beginning, and have kept up with it on a weekly basis for the past, what, eight years? Until today, where the series finally released its last, culminating chapter.

It's a strange feeling, knowing that the series is over. Though at the same time, the anime is still going on, and there's the upcoming movie that's supposed to bridge the gap between chapter 699 and the epilogue, not to mention all the rumored spin offs and mini series. But even so, with the main story itself completed, I suppose all there is left to do is to go back and reminisce a little on everything that's transpired over the years.

Certainly the series has had its ups and downs over the years. In fact, I've especially done a lot of complaining about the series in the later years, as the series did endure quite a noticeable decline in quality in its last arc, which felt more like an extended farewell tour that overstayed its welcome, only to rush things along at the end, leaving a whole lot left untold or unexplained as the series wrapped up.

For instance, where the hell was the Uchiha clan during the Kyuubi attack? It was their absence that lead to the distrust the citizens felt towards them, their resulting planned coup, and the inevitable Uchiha massacre that kick started Sasuke's entire story. But in the end, we never did learn of their whereabouts on that night, which seems like quite the glaring omission to leave out.

But that's just one of many unexplained mysteries, and I could go on with more, such as what inspired the Second Hokage Tobirama to invent what has gone down in history as being the most vile, evil jutsu in the series with edo tensei. But I do suppose that with other sources such as databooks and the aforementioned spin offs, the potential does remain for such mysteries to finally come to light. What's really bothersome, though, is the sheer amount of plot holes that remain littered throughout, many of which were created in some of the later chapters themselves.

I would say that, without question, where this series nosedived in quality can be traced back to every single thing related to the Sage of the Six Paths storyline. The main story, while not perfect, was pretty solid for the most part, until that whole Six Paths aspect interjected itself and really muddled things up. It resulted in prior themes being retconned with ideas such as the Child of Prophecy and inescapable fate through reincarnation, which retroactively changes the entire point of prior crucial moments, such as the very fight between Naruto and Neji that got me into the series in the first place. But not only that, a last minute twist that resulted in the "true" final villain being some chick named Kaguya came completely out of nowhere, forcing this brand new character onto us who had not once even been hinted at or built up throughout the series prior to this point, and who ultimately didn't even end up being much of a character at all but rather just another obstacle in the end anyways.

And with her introduction also came a twist involving Black Zetsu that not only introduced plot holes galore concerning what Zetsu actually were (they're apparently NOT Hashirama clones. Even though Tobirama and others explicitly sense Hashirama's cells and presence on Zetsu's being all throughout the story...), but it even retconned Black Zetsu's origin, despite his origin being explained and shown to us within the very same fight earlier on during Obito's flashback (which, by the way, still only really raised more questions that, in the end, remained unanswered).

But anyways, I feel like I went on a bit of a tangent there, but it just goes to show how frustrating the series had become in the end, with questionable writing, missed opportunities, redundancies, and inconsistencies abound, all leading to what can only be described as a rushed ending, with the big rematch between Naruto and Sasuke that had been hyped since the beginning of part 2 and all throughout only lasting a little more than five chapters. That, despite the previous three final villains taking 11 chapters (Kaguya), 22 chapters (Madara), and freaking 92 chapters (Obito) to deal with respectively. Mind you, the content of the Naruto and Sasuke fight itself was serviceable enough, however, its rushed pacing did impact its implied importance.

But I digress, and as I said, I can go on and on complaining about the direction the series took in the end and some of the more questionable decisions, but despite all this, I did stick with it all the way to the end, and it really is because, just like Naruto and Sakura's undying (and probably unhealthy) desire to chase after Sasuke and bring him back from the darkness, no matter how much reason this series may have had at times to keep me away, in the end I just couldn't, 'cause I just love this series so much.

I even joined Anbu, I love it so much.

For instance, much as I might complain about how Obito's backstory didn't explain anything, or how his character is a complete redundancy of Nagato's, I still found myself captivated by his motives, and the chapter when Tobi was finally unmasked and revealed to be Obito remains a series highlight, a true achievement of telling such a compellingly beautiful, dark, and tragic story through only pictures and no dialogue, and a moment so monumental that it actually broke the internet when the chapter released.

I still think he should've been the final villain.

Kishimoto just has a way of writing these complex villains and really showing us how they came to find themselves on these darker paths. You could argue that he was perhaps repetitive in this regard, as Naruto's way of dealing with these villains has ultimately been to learn of their past and find a way to convince them to change their ways (in part 1 through physically beating some sense into them and showing them his strength, in part 2, having proven his strength, by using that strength to show them his undying resolve and try to convince them through his words).

Yet even so, the twisted evolution of these characters was a fascinating thing to witness, and their ultimate redemption was almost always satisfying to see unfold. And going back to Obito, while, like the series as a whole, I may not have liked the direction his character ultimately took in the end, the journey there was certainly a compelling one, and one that mirrored our hero's journey at that.

Now I can talk all day about some of my favorite characters, such as Kakashi or Pain, but really, at its core, this story belongs to Naruto.

And Sasuke.

But mostly Naruto. The character who I had initially written off sure did win me over through the years. His story started as the ultimate underdog story, and wouldn't you know, even within his own manga there were characters who at one time spoke of him as someone you'd never see starring in their own comic book series or anything. But seeing this kid prove himself and earn the acknowledgement of the people was an emotional journey to take part on, filled with moments that still give me chills to this day.

It's one of those things where every new big step this kid took just made you think back to where he started, and all he had to endure in order to get there. And yeah, as is the recurring theme of this look back, things did start to unravel a bit near the end when he was seemingly being handed newer and newer power-ups on a silver platter. But prior to that point, it was just really remarkable seeing as his peers who used to shun him had gradually come to depend on and even look up to him. Myself included. He's just got that way about him, I guess.

I joked that the story is also about Sasuke at its core as well, and that rang especially true in these last several chapters, which were mostly from his point of view, as the series wrap up mostly pertained to his own redemption. But a lot of the driving force of the plot involves Naruto's rivalry with Sasuke and his desire to keep up with him, be it through strength, or in order to bring him back from the path of darkness.

In fact, prior to the Pain arc, you could say that most of part 2 was perhaps held down by placing so much importance on Naruto's pursuit of Sasuke. It's actually kind of funny, however, how even Kishimoto himself in a recent interview has acknowledged the issues with telling their story, as he even joked that his struggles to make their rivalry the center of the story ultimately lead many to believe that the two main character were just a couple of crazy psychopaths with the lengths they went to.

And the backstory involving the Uchiha is very much at the root of most of the plot, so much so that, at some points, Sasuke really did at times feel like he was the actual central character. In many ways, just as this story was about Naruto's journey to find acceptance from his peers and find a path to peace within the world, it was also about Sasuke's journey to reject those around him in his quest to find peace within himself. Kishi sure does love those parallels.

Unlike Naruto, I actually honestly really didn't like Sasuke through most of this story. I kinda found him to be a bit boring, particularly when compared to far more compelling villain characters such as Gaara, Orochimaru, and the various members of the Akatsuki. But he did have his moments here and there, with him at his most interesting probably being when he turned batshit insane during the Kage Summit arc. But in the end, as has been the case with most of the villains' redemptions, I actually found his turn around to be quite satisfying, and you could really feel the weight of his journey falling off of his shoulders.

I mentioned earlier how it was the fight between Naruto and Neji that really drew me into this story, and the fantastic and imaginative fights throughout certainly played a hand at keeping me hooked. I loved how the chakra system was broken down to a science in the beginning, with an explanation to how these various jutsu actually worked. And, again, while things did get dumbed down a bit near the end to where it became a contest of who had the most powerful jutsu, it wasn't always that way, and many times fights were won through wit and intellect as opposed to brute strength.

Tactics playing a major hand early on was such a refresher, and kept fights truly interesting. Not that some of the more power level based fights weren't any good, mind you, but let's just say that I didn't get into this series to see a bunch of clash of the titan monster mashes. This was a series about ninjas, and as such, tactics were this series' initial selling point.

But it wasn't always just about the techniques on display, but the story that was told during the fights that made one really invest in them. The more emotionally driven fights have a tendency to stand out for me personally, such as Naruto's various fights against the likes of Gaara, Sasuke, and Pain. But with such a wide cast of characters with such a wide variety of techniques, you were almost always guaranteed something interesting.

And speaking of the cast, this world is actually quite vast. Kishimoto introduced a lot in this world, many different lands with many different cultures, and many different characters throughout. There's a real underlying history to this world. And yeah, he might have struggled a bit with really exploring all of these various aspects he had introduced throughout the world, but the fact remains that there is a whole living, breathing world created here that's certainly worth taking the leap into and revisiting, with plenty left as of yet untrodden for potential future stories to come.

If you want to break it down between part 1 and part 2, I would say that part 1 is probably the better of the two. It's certainly the more overall solid, with part 2 being a lot more hit or miss, though I do prefer quite a number of the developments and fights and such that we got to see in part 2, so overall, it's a bit of a tossup I suppose. But as a whole, while it's not without its bumps along the way and it did sorta steer off the road near the end, I'd say that the series remains quite entertaining regardless, even if it did struggle with some of its bigger themes that it tried to address. As with the expanded world, Kishimoto was perhaps a bit too ambitious at times and tried to tackle more than he could realistically handle. But it wasn't all a miss, and he could definitely hit it out of the park at times.

But anyways, I've barely even scraped the surface with what I could discuss about this series (hell, I've barely even mentioned Sakura, or any of the female cast for that matter), but I kinda feel like I'm just rambling at this point, which I suppose should be a sign for me to maybe wrap up this little retrospective. Which brings us to the last chapter, which acted as an epilogue to the series in which we basically just briefly saw who shacked up with who, in addition to seeing Naruto finally achieving his goal of becoming Hokage. And, yeah, it was a bit lacking, maintaining the same rushed feeling as the rest of the ending until this point. I kinda woulda liked to have been able to spend more time and perhaps turned this epilogue into a little mini arc all its own to wrap things up, but alas. It was pretty cool to see them do the chapter in full color, and closing the manga with a mirror shot of the very first page of the first chapter was also a nice touch.

The chapter itself didn't quite give me an emotional punch on its own, so much as just the feeling in general that this is the end. And it's a feeling that's kinda been brewing more and more in the past couple weeks, ever since the end was announced, and getting hyped with news about The Last movie and such (which I am stupidly excited for, despite the fact that it's still probably at least another year away for us here in the States). And I know that this isn't entirely it for Naruto, as I'll still be keeping up with the anime, and as mentioned, they've apparently got more in store for us in the works. But I suppose that taking this look back on everything, from where we started to where we finally wound up, and the many years it took us to get there, finally looking up and seeing Naruto's face added to Mt. Hokage is a pretty incredible sight to finally behold.

It's rare that I get as invested in a series as I have with Naruto. This series has been a big part of my life for a number of years now, in which I've patiently awaited the next chapter on a weekly basis. But now the wait is over, and all there is left to do is go back and maybe re-read and revisit this story and this world once more. So, for being there through all those years, through all the bad and all the good, thank you, Naruto. It's been a hell of a journey.

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