If you’re anything like me, you have a deep-seated love for the anime Naruto. You grew up throwing paper shurikens, memorizing hand seals, and your playground relationships either grew or fell apart (probably fell apart) because you wore the official replica headband to school. You stayed up for its reruns on Adult Swim, and cried yourself to sleep when Rock Lee lost to Gaara. If you’re anything like me, you grew up with what should have been the best anime of all time.
The Glory Days
In its glory days, Naruto was the story of an orphan looking to prove his worth. Everything about it was perfect. Its setting was intricate but carefully explained. Its cast was diverse and charming, weaving together a host of motivations to thicken the plot, for which I was always on the edge of my seat (the Land of Waves arc still has me in a chokehold). And of course, with an underdog protagonist, the shonen trope of “never give up” was present throughout, but in a real, heartfelt way.
It looked amazing too. Naruto was draped in a wholly original aesthetic, a blend of traditional Shinto motifs and modern design, colored in a distinctly faded palette. The animation—when the budget allowed for it—was just as stunning. Loose lines would morph and flow from one edge of the frame to the other, quaking to the tension of the scene or masterfully collapsing onto a single point of impact—all to the tune of an iconic soundtrack. It was beautiful. My eight-year-old self was mesmerized.
I eventually stepped away from the show when Pokémon cards became the new rage, but Naruto‘s excellence continued and its popularity never truly waned. So, when I returned to its story in 2012, I was captivated anew. A long foreshadowed conspiracy had finally taken hold, but the fundamental plot line was as gripping as ever; Naruto was still fighting tooth and nail for the approval of his village.
All the moving pieces were now falling into place, and it was happening with the same vigor and emotion of the show’s earliest, most brilliant episodes. Once the stage was set, the Pain arc—possibly the greatest arc in all of anime—closed with an episode titled, “The Hero of the Hidden Leaf”: Naruto is hailed as the savior of his village, celebrated by the same people who had once so eagerly shunned him. The story was, for all intents and purposes, complete.
Still, Naruto continued for another five years, tying up loose ends that did nothing for the story. By the end of its 15-year run, Naruto was a bloated mess, unrecognizable from its heyday.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific episode or arc where it all began to hit the fan, but my educated guess would be that it was somewhere around the beginning of the Fourth Shinobi World War. While the imagery provided by million-man battles was occasionally breathtaking, and the seemingly interwoven politics of the ninja world was occasionally interesting, the sudden uptick in scale took away more from Naruto than it added to it.
Due to the attempt to build bigger than its foundations allowed for, the anime lost all sense of structure and scope, eventually devolving into a messy 50-episode-long fight. Character motivations became muddy and unconvincing. The once intricate fight scenes, animated with a sense of purpose, were replaced by explosions of minimal effort and frames. Characters were sheltered by plot armor, and the sense of danger that existed in the anime’s prime was nowhere to be found. Moreover, the preaching of perseverance, which had once sparked fires in our eight-year-old hearts, had long overstayed its welcome through one too many generic hurrahs.
What Should’ve Been
Naruto never grew into the masterpiece it was destined to be because it failed to recognize its roots. There are animes out there with expansive universes that are actually coherent. The reason they work is because the seeds of a hundred character cast and 10 different storylines were planted in their earliest episodes. Unfortunately, Naruto’s weren’t. Still, it forced itself to stretch from a story about the struggles of a hard-headed orphan to a power fantasy about a glowing, orange superhero.
Somewhere in its attempt to possess the grandeur of large-scale battles and fictional world politics, Naruto’s charm was lost. Somewhere in its attempt to create atmospheres and spectacles it wasn’t prepared to, Naruto failed to become a timeless masterpiece. Somewhere in its attempt to become something it was never meant to be, Naruto failed to become what it should have been.