For this post, I will be talking about the OG Naruto, not Shippuden, because that is a whole different beast.
It’s no secret that Naruto is a polarising show. On one hand, there are those who grew up wearing the headband of the hidden leaf, memorising hand signs and running with their hands hanging behind them (the cringe is still real today). On the other, we have people who detest its existence, claiming that Naruto’s popularity is unwarranted as the show is mediocre at best. It has too many flashbacks. Its protagonists are annoying. Its fans are annoying. So on and so forth.
And then there was me, a quiet kid who secretly would rush back home after school and watch 5 hours of Naruto a day. I’d never say anything about it to anyone, but secretly I was enthralled, even obsessed – I genuinely cared about what happened to the characters of this fictional universe. Watching Naruto felt like a moment in time for me. Even after all these years, re-watching my favourite parts of the show that defined much of my childhood brings me a sense of joy like no other.
Much of this can be attributed to the themes of the show, which were extremely engaging. During the Zabuza arc, we learn what it means to sacrifice everything for someone you love. This is a surprisingly mature theme for an audience of mostly children. Zabuza saved an orphaned Haku by giving him the means to survive. This person who was framed as a monster not only had a comrade, but was also a parental figure to him. To see the demon of the mist cry because the child he had adopted sacrificed his life in order to save him absolutely crushed me.
The early arcs of Naruto also nicely set up the themes that recur throughout the series. Naruto learns to never give up and makes it his nindo. He learns to treasure his friends and derive strength from his desire to protect them.
The Chunin exams is by far my favourite arc of the whole series, diving deep into the themes that had only been briefly touched upon at at that point. The exams heavily dealt with hard work against raw talent, an absolutely fantastic theme for a coming-of-age tale that as far as I can tell, is hardly explored in children’s media. We are met by many geniuses at this point, with Neji most prominently renouncing the notion that hard work could ever top natural aptitude. His case is fought hard during the preliminary rounds, where Hinata and Rock Lee suffer a horrific losses.
However, this ideology is called into question during the finals. Shikamaru, the genius with an unmatched IQ, is shown to be held back by his own laziness – a genius with an Achilles heel. Naruto challenges Neji’s ideas of destiny and proves that his hard work can translate into potential by winning the match. Neji was overconfident, arrogant and dismissive – a genius with a hubris. Sasuke, who already has so much talent, is consumed by hatred and chooses the easy way to gain more power through Orochimaru, something which is constantly framed as being wrong.
This powerful message of working hard to achieve your goals stuck far beyond this arc for so many, that it caused a massive outcry when this message was unfortunately undermined as Shippuden progressed, years after the original series had ended (but this is something we’re not going to get into right now).
Naruto was also the first show I had ever seen to tackle loneliness the way it did; head on with the pain on full display. And, surprise – being a quiet child does not make you popular in school. I wasn’t really bullied, and I wasn’t even a complete outcast, but seeing Naruto struggle to be accepted still resonated with me. I can only imagine how it felt for a kid who was truly sidelined, to see our protagonist break down because of loneliness and acknowledge that it sucks to be rejected by those around you.
The themes of hard work against talent and dealing with loneliness culminate in the fight between Gaara and Naruto, where he ultimately proves to Gaara that having natural aptitude does not make him invincible, and that we fight for the people we love (this is taken literally in the show, but definitely applies to real life). He recognises that Gaara had been suffering the same way he did and connects with him, and in turn the audience, on an emotional level. Seeing Naruto determined to protect the people who saved him from his loneliness changed something in Gaara, as he too began to believe that he could be accepted, prompting his road to redemption. Not gonna lie, seeing Gaara’s backstory followed by Naruto’s ever famous ‘talk no jutsu’ made me cry as a child.
By the way, there’s a reason ‘talk no jutsu’ works narratively- Naruto is able to relate to the individuals he fights, giving them a new perspective on their often rigid, negative ideologies. While others take on negativity with their experiences, Naruto faces the world with hope; that ultimately he can and will become Hokage, and this resonates with those he fights.
Of course, Naruto wasn’t always depressing. Say what you will about the show, but I think most people can agree that Naruto has some great, exciting fights that were ultimately so compelling because of the fantastic characters that were going head to head. Of course, there is also the cool factor – all of these characters are distinct and have interesting abilities to go along with their unique personalities. And with the number of characters Naruto has, it’s certainly an achievement that so many of them are so endearing. Even characters that were initially hated like Neji become fan favourites as their backstories and reasons for their ideologies are explored with empathy.
This is why the Sasuke retrieval arc is so much fun to watch; by this time we care about the characters and feel as though there are real stakes involved. All of the fights are completely different and showcase the awesome abilities our characters have, and at the same time hold emotional weight. Choji and Kiba have surprisingly thrilling fights, Shikamaru outsmarts his rivals, Neji overcomes the weakness of the Byakugan, Rock Lee fights drunken fist style, all supported by their new found sand friends.
The tension climaxes as Naruto and Sasuke engage in a battle of skill and philosophy. And shocker – Naruto loses. Our protagonist is defeated but vows to increase his skill and save his friend, which kept me excited for shippuden as the fillers stepped in.
Of course, we can’t talk about Naruto without discussing Gaara vs Rock Lee, which, in my opinion, showcases the best that Naruto has to offer. Before the match began, two things had been established: Rock Lee is fast, and Gaara is an invincible monster. As the match starts, we see that even Lee cannot hurt him with his normal speed. So Might Guy gives him the signal to take off his weights, and when they drop, oh my god is it epic. Lee fights to prove that he too can be a ninja, even without ninjutsu and genjutsu, and that he was going to do it through sheer hard work. It was because he had known the pain of loneliness and discrimination that his resolve was so strong, and that we was willing to sacrifice everything to prove his point.
I remember absolutely losing my mind as he opened the 5 gates, injuring the ninja who had so far never even been scratched. Even though Lee loses the match, he wins the whole show as everyone is forced to acknowledge his hard work and perseverance (except Neji, who gets his ass handed back to him by Naruto later). Rock Lee’s loss was unfortunately necessary in order to drive home the point that ultimately, sacrificing your body to obtain power is not worth it, which ties in with Sasuke’s character arc. Nevertheless, Rock Lee was solidified as a legend among fans, and remains one of the most popular characters to this day. We believe it, Lee. You are a splendid Ninja.
I’m also going to give a special mention to the music of Naruto, because it’s absolutely amazing. The soundtrack of Naruto is so unique and iconic, using both Japanese traditional instruments and rock to make even the most stale scenes stand out. It has stood the test of time and has many outstanding tracks that I still love even today. The battle music raises tension like no other. Orochimaru’s theme gives me goosebumps. Jiraya’s theme is hilarious. Naruto’s main theme is hype at it’s best. Do I even need to mention sadness and sorrow?
Of course, I realise this post is brimming with bias, and to be frank, I don’t give a damn. Yes, Naruto was not perfect. The criticisms thrown at it are often true. I will be the first to tell you about how horribly the female characters are written, how the pacing of Naruto can make you want to tear all your hair out, and how Sasuke’s edginess irritates me to no end. But Naruto also resonated with me on a personal level and made me care so much about its world that I sat glued to the screen for as long as it was on. And now even at 22, I still love it despite all its faults, and will continue to do so forever. Except for the fillers. Screw you, fillers.
Also, I just realised that I wrote this entire post without once mentioning Kakashi, which is a crime. If Kakashi was somehow transported into an anime where he was the only likable character, I would still watch the show just for him. So there.
all images are from the Naruto anime and are used for commentary purpose.