He’s incredibly cute and unassuming when you first meet him. Spiky blond hair and an orange jumpsuit leads one to believe that this will be another cutesy, low-impact anime. Bright sketches of other pastel-hued adolescents crushing on and fighting with their peers makes one prepare for Sailor Moon, the Ninja Version (though the brilliant cheesiness of that show is highly undervalued). Catchy guitar riffs and keytar keys allude to starting a new show for just a few weeks. But those were not the plans that Masashi Kishimoto had for the television version of his ridiculously popular manga, Naruto; and for the last three months of my evenings over dinner.
I was told through a dizzying arc of attacks and character interactions that Naruto was an orphan, secretly consumed by a red nine-tailed fox demon. The demon’s power had been suppressed in Naruto’s infant belly button, under the work of the Fourth Hokage or Leader of the Village of the Hidden Leaves. There’s an extremely adorable shot of him crying with small Japanese characters etched into his belly button. Due to his newfound status as a host for something that wiped out most of the village’s inhabitants, Naruto was rejected to say the least. His reputation went before him, and he ambled through the Academy (ninja school) with hardly any friends. Upon graduation, he is thrown together with Sakura and Sasuke to battle together as a trio under the tutelage of Kakashi Hatake. The trick is Sasuke and Naruto are both brooding, orphaned archrivals and Sakura crushes hard on Sasuke, while Naruto pines for Sakura. Call me a middle school girl, but things just got really interesting.
By throwing in a teacher who owned a gang of ninja dogs, one of them wearing sunglasses and another standing on top of the head of a bulldog; well-explained fights and philosophies; minor characters that harbor dimensional qualities; and rich animation, Kishimoto spoke directly to a new fan.
Granted, because the anime series started after the original manga, there is quite a bit of filler or long, uneventful parts of the narrative without progressing action as the series continues. With the help of my husband and hulu.com, I managed to skip a lot of that. What counts in this show is how the characters respond to each other, throwing themselves into battle to save what they cherish most. There are two series, Naruto which follows the younger school years and Naruto Shippuden, displaying the older and more mature versions of folks.
One of my favorite storylines involves two ninja. There is Choji Akimichi, a chubby and lovable guy who fights with the size of his body. The other is Shikamaru Nara, a lazy yet brilliant friend who uses shadows to capture people. The two are on good terms, but you don’t know exactly why until a flashback episode.
Little Choji is being made fun of for his body type, and all of the neighborhood kids refuse to let him play dodge ball. He runs off crying to his Dad’s house, and Shikamaru follows him. While sobbing and fearful that he won’t ever make friends because of his weight, Shikamaru pops up and asks Choji if he can sit and cloud-watch with him. Choji is ecstatic, and shares some of his snacks with him. A wonderful friendship ensues, and Choji’s Dad grins like any parent would.
There are many stellar plots like this one, and the viewer is asked to create rapport with each one. Cheesiness is cast out by humor, exciting character development, and beautiful animation. Naruto is the “Dueling Dragons” roller coaster of anime: bright, punchy, competitive, and satisfying. I’ll ignore the occasional randomness to get to glorious thrills.
P.S. Anyone will get MAJOR points with the child/spouse/teacher/student in his or her life for buying a plush version of one of the ninja dogs, or Akamaru, a dog with a faux-hawk who fights alongside one of the ninja. My baby got me the faux-hawk and a pug named Pakkun, and they are too adorable to not display or sleep beside…or talk to…uhhh, goodnight.