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House of 1000 Manga

by Jason Thompson,

The 48-Hour Naruto Marathon (Part I)

The other day I was talking to one of my most deep-otaku friends (we watched all of the original Evangelion together, as well as tons of kaiju flicks and ‘70s and ‘80s Italian horror) and asked him what movies he'd seen lately. “Guardians of the Galaxy,” he said. “It was awesome. You should see it.”

“Ehh, no,” I said. “You're like the millionth person who's recommended it to me. I think I'd rather spend that time watching Umberto Lenzi movies on YouTube. If everyone likes it, it can't be that good.”

“Jason,” he said, his tone turning suddenly serious, “Don't be that guy! Don't be that kind of otaku who's all, ‘I don't like it because it's popular’! Seriously! It's just a fun movie. If you don't watch it, it's your loss.”

That got me thinking, because—although I've always hated the artificial division between “high” and “low” culture—I do tend to snob out and avoid things which seem too popular in favor of the weird, the old and the obscure. Of course, I only have a limited amount of reading time in the day and a limited amount of RAM in my brain, so I can't be a fan of everything(in fact, that'd be ridiculous); but it's good to be aware of what's currently popular and not descend into an obsessive sinkhole so when people ask me “What do you think of Dragon Age Inquisition?” I don't have to be all “Umm…I spent the weekend reading old Judge's Guild D&D modules.” Of course I want to read current stuff that's actually good, and sometimes I choose wrong: don't ask me why I read Twilight and the first three Left Behind books but not Harry Potter. I don't want to just be a snooty hipster who's into “ironic entertainment”; anything that's entertaining enough to read is worth writing about and reviewing and taking seriously.

And so that's why, partly because Naruto is ending, and partly because someone complained that I shouldn't write about Attack on Titan because it's too popular, I am totally spending this week (and next week) writing about the most mainstream popular thing ever, NARUTO!!! For over a decade, Naruto has been one of the most popular anime and manga in the US, one of the titles that actually makes anime/manga fans, like Dragon Ball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh! or Sailor Moon (all of which I've already written about here at House of 1000 Manga).I was the editor of the first few volumes when they appeared in the American Shonen Jump, so Naruto and I have a little history. However (spoiler), I never really got into Naruto the way I got into DBZ or Yu-Gi-Oh! or One Piece, and I hadn't read it for years until I became aware it was finally ending in Japan this week.

So I jumped in headfirst and dug my old Naruto volumes out of storage and gathered up all the other volumes I could find. My initial goal: to read all of Naruto in 24 hours! However, after thinking about this a little, I wimped out and decided to take longer, so I'd have time to sleep and make dinner and take the dog for a walk instead of having to read a volume every 20 minutes with no breaks for an entire day. My new, easy goal: TO READ ALL OF NARUTO FROM BEGINNING TO END IN 48 HOURS! What would happen? Would my opinion of Naruto change? Here are my random thoughts (and some spoilers) as I reread the most popular manga of the 2000s…

8:45 AM: VOLUME 1

* The first thing I remember about this manga is the intense arguments over what terminology to use: ninja, shinobi, all the thousands of other ninja-esque Japanese words. As the initial editor of the Viz edition, I had hired an English-language rewriter who had experience working on Marvel superhero comics (she was also a manga fan), but I was out of touch with the online fandom, which even back then in 2002 was already super-obsessed with Naruto and had come up with their own terminology and jutsu names. (Naruto was one of the first really popular scanlated titles.) The rewriter, as Viz rewriters did at the time, felt that she had the license to make up her own names, and we weren't sticking very close to the Japanese ones…so fans got really pissed off and before too long, Alexis Kirsch, then the manager of the scan site Toriyamaworld, sent me a very polite and friendly letter pointing out everyone's complaints and suggesting ways the translation could be better. Alexis is now an editor at Viz and neither I nor the rewriter (who tried hard and did her best, really) nor the translator works there anymore.

* I feel a little reluctant even bringing all this up because I hate to validate people who still hold a grudge against Viz for translation choices made 12+ years ago, so if you're one of those people……………look! A bird!

* “I call this one the ninja centerfold!” This jutsu name translation was especially hated. Myself, I'm more concerned (disappointed? Obsessed?) with the fact that Viz added a tiny bit of extra smoke to cover a tiny bit more nudity. I'm also left wondering, when is Naruto going to really express the feminine side of his nature? Wouldn't this awesome ninja power potentially cause one to question one's gender identity? Is this really what the “female version of Naruto” would look like? Except wait, he's only like 12 years old at this point in the story, so if it was truly a reflection of his “self” and not just an illusion, wouldn't his female form look younger? I could go on this tangent forever.

* It's not really the Village Hidden in the Leaves when its location is marked by a giant ninja Mount Rushmore, now is it.

* “When that day comes, everyone in town will have to give me some respect!!” Speaking of the delicate science of making sympathetic and relatable protagonists, I never totally empathized with Naruto's motivation here. I, too, like most humans, desire respect from others, but it sounds egotistical to demand it in those terms. (I do like how it's rewritten a little bit later: “All the people who used to treat me like dirt will have to say ‘He's the number one ninja!’”) Maybe becoming self-sufficient, so that you don't need to care about others’ opinions—or even getting revenge on your oppressors—seems like more interesting motives than having them be all “Wow, Naruto, we respect you, you're the best.” I'm way more Gloria Gaynor than Aretha Franklin.

* Here's something I've never quite understood: who raised Naruto? Has he always lived alone? Sure, he's an orphan and he's been ostracized all his life, but wouldn't he have stepparents, or fellow kids at the orphanage, or case workers at the very least? I guess that would add an unwanted extra complication to the story. Based on how Kishimoto depicts it, we'll have to assume Naruto has lived in his own private apartment all his life and social services ninja just deliver stuff to the door and say “Here's your ramen and milk and food stamps” and go away and leave him alone. Depressing.

* An interesting FX translation choice: Naruto powering up while the words “CRAP CRAP CRAP CRAPPITY CRAP” hover around him.

* This series has great art and great action. The way Kishimoto shows action, and the tricks he uses to convey super strength and super speed, are so visceral and brilliant…like the moment in chapter 4 when Naruto tries to throw a shuriken at Kakashi but before it even leaves his hand Kakashi is behind him holding him back. So cool. Kishimoto is especially good at drawing whirling and spinning objects (could this be why there are so many swirls, so many spirals, so many UZUMAKIs, in Naruto?) I also love the wonderfully detailed backgrounds, the ramshackle-looking buildings, the weird low-tech/high-tech mixture that can't be placed in any particular historical time.

Kishimoto is clearly influenced by Katsuhiro Otomo. His style basically takes Otomo's art but makes it more high-contrast and simplifies the character designs, making them easier to draw, more iconic, more shonen-y. Another notable thing about Naruto, compared to shonen manga from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, is how little screentone or shadow there is. Everything is Black or White, there's few shadows and few grays. One Piece is also like this, so it's clearly an overall trend of the time.

* For the second time in the first chapter, a main character weeps openly. I wonder if Shonen Jump has a formula where editors gauge exactly how much crying to put in a manga. The tearometer.

* In chapter 3, we finally start to see the rest of the cast! Sasuke is obviously the handsome bishonen rival, and then there's the infamous Naruto-Sasuke kiss. If you ever needed evidence that Shonen Jump puts in some fanservice for its female readers (even back in 1999!), this is it. It's a nice moment of self-awareness in a series that's usually pretty straightforward: like they said in Buffy, “I think the subtext in this scene is rapidly turning into text.”

* Despite the aforementioned female readership, Haruno Sakura has the thankless role of being a “normal” person among the giants, Sasuke and Naruto. “Naruto and Sasuke both harbor such massive, untapped reserves of chakra that Sakura's is nothing in comparison,” thinks Kakashi, their teacher. There's things about her character that I like—such as the “Inner Sakura” that expresses her secret feelings and desires—but it's a shame she's essentially reduced to being a support character, the stereotypical female cleric/healer. At least she doesn't do their cooking. Admittedly, in a shonen manga, or any kind of one-big-hero story, the subsidiary characters almost always fall into roles of sidekicks/helpers or opponents—there's just no other roles to play—but did Kishimoto have to make her so weak compared to the dudes? It'd be interesting to read a shonen manga where the main male character's rival is female…but OTOH, then it'd be difficult for their competition not to have a sexualized, battle-of-the-genders component (i.e. Shokugeki no Sōma). It's hard being a female character in shonen manga, a genre that is, after all, basically “male fantasy” right down to the name.

* They kinda play their hand quick here with the love triangle between Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura. It's a shame Kishimoto never fleshes this out more; obviously he and the editors decided that there wasn't room for romantic subplots in this manga.

* Kakashi is probably my favorite character in Naruto. I love the older “mentor” characters in shonen and Shōjo Manga; as an older reader, I do feel they give me a sort of reference point to hang onto, although it's still awkward going to the Teen Graphic Novel sections of libraries. I love his cynical attitude and that sleepy look he has, and plus, he's got a mask covering his lower face AND one eye! His fight with Sasuke, Naruto and Sakura is the first really cool part of the manga.

* In the current Viz printing of chapter 4, Naruto vows “My dream is to be a better shinobi than Lord Hokage! And then all the villagers will have to acknowledge my existence at last!” But in the very first Viz printing of chapter 4, Naruto vows “All the villagers will have to kiss my ass!”

* With its bright orange costumes and overall look and feel, Naruto basically throws away the traditional black-clad ninja stereotype so often used in the US and Japan. By the ‘80s and ‘90s, ninja were so overused in Japan they were mostly comedy characters, like Sasuke in Ranma 1/2 or the main character in Sasuga no Sarutobi. Naruto refreshed and reinvented this: it's here that I first realized a shuriken didn't have to be star-shaped, and here that I was first introduced to atypical ninja like snakey Orochimaru and Jiraiya, who even hundreds of years ago in Japanese mythology used toad magic and wore colorful clothes (thanks to Richmond and Andy Chaisiri for pointing this out). In Naruto, ninja are more like superheroes…or perhaps like modern-day special ops forces, with whom Kishimoto explicitly draws a connection in the authors’ notes to volume 6. Antiterrorist ninja squads? Really? Naruto makes me wish more of the classic ninja manga were available in translation, stuff like Sanpei Shirato's 1960s Kamui, the first wave of ‘serious’ (and in Shirato's case, politically anti-establishment) ninja stories.

9:17 AM: VOLUME 2

* The teamwork theme comes up for the first time! In katakana, no less!

* Although I've dissed bits of the early English rewrite here, there's many places where it's very supple, like when Kakashi disses Sasuke. “You know what they say! The nail that sticks up is the one that gets hammered down, right? Heh heh heh.”

* Genin, chûnin, jônin, all the way up to the ultimate lord of ninja, the hokage…the characters’ path is clear…much leveling-up awaits…

* Here, Kakashi reveals the rough map of the Five Lands and explains the Five Kages. This is also when we realize that the world of Naruto is one where ninja basically openly rule everything, unlike in traditional Japanese historical fantasy where the ninja, though awesome, stick to the shadows. My idea of ninja was derived mostly from Lone Wolf and Cub and from ‘80s Americanized Japanese pop culture where samurai and ninja are like the North and South Pole of Japanese historical icons, so I was a little surprised that in Naruto, samurai and other non-ninja totally suck. Kishimoto isn't some RPG designer who cares about class balance. In this world, if you don't know ninjutsu (or genjutsu or taijutsu), you're a muggle.

* If you're ever in a shonen manga and YOU want to impress people or prove how cool you are, just injure yourself. Seriously! Stab yourself in the hand. Make sure it bleeds a lot. Then you can say “Reporting for duty, master!” or whatever and people are sure to listen to you. Try this in your classroom or office and let me know how it goes. (P.S. It helps if you have super-healing powers.)

* The scenes with Tazuna and Naruto—the whole “Land of Waves” storyline—are probably my least favorite part of the early manga. They're just so excruciatingly obvious and overwritten (a recurring Naruto problem) as Tazuna starts out as a cranky old man who calls Naruto an “inconsequential brat” and in just a few chapters is so impressed by Naruto he decides to name a bridge after him. The absence of this sort of pat-you-on-the-back thing is one of the reasons I enjoy Dragon Ball so much. I don't want my self-esteem built up; I want to see people's asses getting kicked.

* Speaking of which, here's the battle between Zabuza and Kakashi! These kinds of ninja battles are so difficult to express in a video game (and to a lesser extent, even in a tabletop or card game). In a video game it's all about speed and swift reactions, and it's a different medium from a manga where time compresses and an “instant” can take 10 pages of moves and counter-moves. Furthermore, there's a basic difference between watching these battles and participating in them, even in a game; as a reader, you can have information withheld from you, you can be caught offguard by the heroes pulling off some incredible last-minute save, but in a game you can't be “surprised” by your own strategies. (You can be surprised by your opponent's strategies, but that's usually not such a good feeling.)

* “I just didn't want to mar your perfect body, Zabuza, sir.” Sexy. I love Haku and Zabuza. I love the stereotypical (I mean classic) androgynous bishonen who can pass for a woman without even trying. It's a good power if you got it.

* What?! I don't have copies of Naruto volumes 3-6…? I could have sworn I had the omnibus editions…I can't believe I have to run to the library. Luckily, it seems like every branch library in San Francisco has a complete set of Naruto.

LIBRARIAN: “I'm sorry, sir, you've checked out the maximum number of items possible on your card. You can't possibly check out any more…Wait a minute. Are you checking out every single volume of Naruto?”

ME: “Yes.”

LIBRARIAN: “Hmm…it looks like there's some kind of error in the system. Your checkout limit has been increased by another 20 books! Enjoy!”

10:25 AM: VOLUME 3
* Dammit! I'm behind schedule! Went to the library, then had to walk the dog, Agggghh. Got to speed up…

* All these books have been through so many printings. My copy of volume 3 is the 13th printing. The world is littered with Naruto.

* The two lame samurai try to draw their swords to attack Haku, but in an instant, Haku has drawn their swords and is holding them at their throats. Awesome.

* Anticipating an upcoming fight with their enemies, the heroes go into a strict training regimen. Here's the scene where Naruto and Sasuke gorge themselves on food because they need protein to build muscle, even though they're so sick they might throw up. “Even if we make ourselves sick to do it, we have to eat if we want to get strong!” For those who've never exercised, this is actually true, you're much hungrier when you're working out.

* Kakashi doing pushups with just one finger, with people sitting on his back. Some ways of showing superpowers never get old.

* There is SO much talking in the fights in this manga. Kakashi and Zabuza ramble on SO long.

10:45 AM: VOLUME 4
* Kishimoto draws multiple perspectives of the same instant of Naruto hitting Haku in the face!! AWESOME!! He was probably influenced by 3D fighting games.

* “Aniki” is really one of the hardest words to contextually translate from Japanese, since it's so unlike anything people say in English. Even the most obsessive little kid doesn't go around calling people “big brother” or even “big bro.”

11:00 AM: VOLUME 5
* All right, now things are finally getting interesting. Grass ninja! Sand ninja! Sound ninja! It's chûnin ninja exam time, and all the best young ninja have gathered for the next phase in their testing! The manga has passed its early “in danger of getting canceled” phase, and now Kishimoto gets to exhale, flex his muscles, and introduce a TON of new characters. 

* Shinobi skill cards. I hate stuff like this that's obviously designed to be made into real-world merchandise.

* If you're cynical it's cheesy, but there's something appealing about characters who display absolute confidence even at the most unlikely times. “My name is Uzumaki Naruto, and none of you are gonna beat me!!”

* The “paper test” portion of the ninja exam is brilliant: a fantasy-ized, ninja-ified version of things that Shonen Jump readers actually do in school. This is one of the most clever sequences so far. Everyone's using their ninjutsu to cheat in different ways: figuring out what their classmates are writing from the sound of their pencils on the paper, using clairvoyance to see through their classmates’ eyes, using astral projection to possess them, using sand to create a doppelganger eye, talking to beetles to have the flies discover the answers…

11:15: VOLUME 6
* For the next phase of the exam, the heroes go into the Forest of Death, where they have their first really difficult fight with Orochimaru, the snake-themed ninja who is secretly manipulating everything from behind the scenes. Orochimaru bites Sasuke, and his venom fills Sasuke with evil power, giving Sasuke a powerup transformation ability! The curse marks creeping over Sasuke's skin like tadpoles are very cool-looking. Kishimoto is good at adding those subtly inhuman, superhuman elements to his characters.

* I feel like I'm just offering ringside fight commentary here.

11:40: VOLUME 7
* Gaara is a cool villain, and he gets the best evil, psychotic lines. “‘Family’…let me tell you what that word means to me…mere hulls of flesh connected by hatred and murderous intent.” “Bitter, crimson tears flow from lifeless eyes and mingle with the endless sands…bestowing ever greater power upon the demon god.” “I exist to kill all humans other than myself.” His sand powers are also an excuse for a lot of pointillism, which really makes the sand jump out from all the other images in the manga.

12:16: VOLUME 8
* My library copy of Naruto volume 8 has goatees drawn on the characters’ faces. Also random sharingan drawn on people's eyes, weird stuff drawn on lips, etc. Unlike other library graphic novels I've checked out, there's no added penises though. Or hemipenes, thank goodness.

* Awww yeah! Finally a tournament battle! But Sakura wimps out when things get rough and wants everyone to withdraw from the exam. Darn you, Sakura! Why does Kishimoto write you so wimpy??

* I initially read Sasuke's move “Shishirendan! Barrage of lions!” as “Barrage of loins!”

* This is one of those series where the main characters’ worst enemy (in this case, Orochimaru) just magically shows up wherever he wants, walking around the heroes’ headquarters taunting them, and everyone is kinda “You jerk! How rude!” but they don't have an emergency meeting to assess their poor security system.

* The art is improving: the occasionally goofy or awkward faces of volume 1 have become consistently on-model and cool-looking. The detail level of this manga keeps increasing too; at some point Kishimoto started using finer-lined pens.

* It's also getting gorier. Beetles burrowing into your opponents’ arms and blowing them up from the inside… could this be one of the nastiest ninja techniques so far? Speaking of bugs, I'd like to trace the evolution of the “bug user” concept in manga and anime. I know the idea of symbiotes who get superpowers by stuffing their bodies with creepy insects existed in Bastard!! in the late ‘80s, and in the Tenra Banshôroleplaying game it's a character class…but did it originate in something older, like Hideyuki Kikuchi's ‘80s sci-fi/horror novels or Futaro Yamada's classic 1960s ninja novels? If you know the answer, tell me in the forums.

12:40: VOLUME 9
* Sakura faces off against Ino, her rival in both romance and ninjutsu. In the process we see a flashback of their time in training, which unlike that of their male colleagues, apparently included flower arrangement (“A kunoichi needs to master not only the ninjutsu that every male ninja learns, but the feminine arts and womanly wiles as well!”). I do like that Sakura and Ino get to really kick the crap out of each other, though, and there's an awesome twist in how Sakura defeats Ino's astral projection ninja power.

* Naruto faces Inuzuka, the animalistic ninja who fights with the help of his pet dog, Akamaru! In the “cute dogs getting the crap beaten out of them” manga scale this ranks slightly below JoJo's Bizarre Adventure.

* Here's a Naruto manga drinking game: take a drink whenever Kishimoto draws a map of the human body with some weird new chakra-related bodily function overlaid on it.

* It's always sad when sympathetic characters lose their fights, particularly when you didn't see it coming and there's no obvious, immediate way that someone else is going to avenge them. Also, on a side note, I was sure for The Longest Time that Hinata was an androgynous male character. (“I think sometimes you hear what you want to hear,” as Jermaine said in Flight of the Conchords.)

1:02 PM: VOLUME 10
* I fell for it; for a second I really thought Rock Lee was going to beat Gaara. I actually  believed a secondary character was going to defeat the main bad guy. Nice one, Kishimoto!!

* The strong point of Kabuto's character design is the very fact that he looks so boring and ordinary but turns out to be a major villain, unlike most of the villains who from the first glance are obviously total freaks.

* v.10, p156: Because of a panel on this page, in which Master Ebisu pushes his glasses up on his nose using his middle finger, a furious parent called Viz complain that Ebisu was “flipping off” the reader.

1:21: VOLUME 11
* Okay, I haven't been doing a very good job summarizing what's happening in the story, so…basically, Naruto and the other genin junior ninja (including Gaara) are still scheduled to fight eachother in a big tournament to see who deserves to become chûnin (mid-grade ninja), but they've had a short reprieve of a few weeks to train and improve. Naruto goes training at the hot springs, allowing for cool “walking on water” techniques and a rare bit of fanservice. And here he mets Jiraiya, the “toad sage,” a legendary Japanese figure reinvented by Kishimoto as a character in his manga! Of course, like any martial arts master in a manga, Jiraiya is a big pervert (“I am no ordinary pervert! I'm a mega perv!”). In this manga, it's mostly all talk, though.

* I was a little disappointed to find out “Make-Out Paradise,” the fanservicey book series Jiraiya writes and Kakashi reads, was a novel. I always assumed it was a manga somehow. Like some Masakazu Katsura thing.

* So all this time, Naruto hasn't been aware that he has the Demon Fox's chakra inside him? It's just one of those situations where he sort of blacks out and rages out and doesn't know what's happening?

* Jiraiya teaches Naruto kichiyose no jutsu: the art of summoning!! Naruto struggles for weeks but isn't able to summon anything more than a tiny tadpole, until finally he learns the knack and summons gigantic, talking frogs and toads to do his bidding…sort of. I love how summoning is handled in this manga, in that the creatures aren't always just obedient tools/weapons for the summoner but have their own personality and can be grumpy and rude. (“There's no way a wee little midget like you could have summoned the likes of me!”) Also, Kishimoto is great at drawing animals.

* Kakashi doing one-handed rock climbing: AWESOME. Great perspective shot, he really looks high up there.

* Again, Ino and Sakura are talking about flowers while all the male characters are training. Sakura: “Why do boys always push themselves too far?”

* A big revelation: Naruto's father was the Fourth Hokage! To me, this was kind of disappointing: Naruto is already gifted by having a super awesome fox demon spirit inside him, so he becomes even more overpowered with the revelation that he's “of royal blood,” so to speak. It's not like in Spider-Man it's revealed Peter Parker's long-lost parents were actually spider-powered Golden Age superheroes. (Or did he? I haven't been keeping up with Marvel continuity.) Also disappointing is the thought that an adult would have a hairstyle like Naruto's.

1:42: VOLUME 12
* In any fight manga, on the surface you're guesstimating which character is stronger, but really you're guesstimating which character is more vital to the series and whose success, or survival, the author must ensure. It's a sleight-of-hand trick; a conjuring trick; the author's goal is to really make you doubt the heroes will win, and also, to really make you care.

* Oh, so Neji has a swastika on his forehead. No wonder he's so angry. Actually, of course, in Japanese it's known as a manji, and this leads into the whole recurring controversy of swastika-like Buddhist symbols used in Japanese pop culture and manga, such as the ninja in YuYu Hakusho or the guy in Blade of the Immortal. Interestingly, Neji gets to keep his not-a-swastika, whereas just a few years after this, the Japanese editors of Weekly Shonen Jump decided to change/censor the Whitebeard pirates’ flag in One Piece, changing it from a manji to a cross to make it more palatable for overseas audiences. Perhaps it's because the Whitebeard pirates are more major characters, and their flag shows up more than Neji's usually covered head marking? Or has globalism just moved so fast in a few years that in that short time, the swastika/manji became not-okay?

* Neji's backstory is also depressing and tragic, possibly another reason why he's so angry, and Neji stops the fight so he can explain it. Essentially, Neji's ninja clan are born to be servants to another clan, and the suffocating injustice of it all—which claimed the life of Neji's father—is what drives Neji's rage. Hearing Neji's story, Naruto vows that he'll change things and eliminate injustice once he's the head ninja. But (SPOILER) this is a shonen manga, so we eventually find out that the world isn't really that cruel, Neji didn't fully understand his father's situation, and his grudge against society is misplaced. The good guys can't be allowed to be depicted as living in (and, as ninja, supporting) an unjust society, even in pseudo-historical fantasy ninja times. The system is ultimately benevolent.

* Shikamaru the lazy ninja: “Oh, how I envy the clouds…they're so free…the whole reason I became a ninja in the first place was so I could live my life the way I wanted. I  used to really want to be just an average ninja making an average living…marry a regular girl who's not super pretty or super ugly, have two kids…” (Who thinks this??)

1:58: VOLUME 13
* This fight (Sasuke vs Gaara) is great. OTOH, there's some little indications that Kishimoto is overworked: crowd characters drawn in a different style, pointillism drawn in a different style, etc. HOW IS YOUR STAMINA, KISHIMOTO??? KEEP GOING!! You only have 58 more volumes!!!

* All hell breaks loose at the ninja tournament with a shocking reveal: Kazekage, the leader of the Sand Ninja who seeks to conquer Naruto's village of Leaf Ninja, is actually Orochimaru, the snake ninja! Well, that's convenient. It's a bit of a shame, really, as it would have been refreshing to have a bad guy with the rather pragmatic goal of material power, instead of Orochimaru, who comes off as more of a “crazed agent of chaos” at this point. (“I enjoy watching moving objects. It's boring when things stand still, don't you agree…?”) Can't a major evil dude just want to have wealth and power and security once in awhile without being a demented nihilist who talks about “the darkness” and destroying all humanity?

2:12: VOLUME 14
* If there's anything cooler than smoking a cigarette, it's smoking a cigarette and then tossing the stub into a pool of your opponents’ blood so it sizzles out. I think they can safely show this in TV and movies without worrying about kids imitating it.

* I've seen several manga and anime where a character pulls a sword out of their (or someone else's) body, but Orochimaru deserves a prize for being the first to pull a snake out of their body and then pull a sword out of the snake. Deep.

* Another expression of Kishimoto's artistic skill is that he's able to show characters’ age realistically. The flashback to the Third Hokage's youth is really well done.

* Gaara's combat transformation, with blobs of veiny flesh emerging uncontrollably from his body, makes me think of Tetsuo from Akira. Unfortunately, past a certain point it becomes less cool, when it's clear he's transforming into some kind of giant tanuki monster (I think??), and not just degenerating into a giant tentacled blob. I don't get how it thematically works with the sand, either; why does the sand monster take this form? Is there a Japanese mythological connection I'm not getting? Doesn't it realize it looks cooler the other way?

3:36: VOLUME 15
* Now comes the flashback to Gaara's childhood, where we see how he became such a psycho. The “emotionally stunted superbeing” story has been done before, but Kishimoto pulls it off well; my favorite part is the scene where Gaara tries to cut himself with a knife, to know what “pain” is, but is unable to do so because the sand parasite automatically blocks the blow and protects him.

* I wonder how many of the flashbacks in Naruto were included just because Kishimoto and his assistants were running out of time and needed an easy week. Each trip to the photocopier must have saved them hours at the drawing table.

* Giant summoned frog to Naruto: “I haven't even exchanged saké cups with you yet…why should I go out of my way to fight that creature?” Did I mention I love the summoning?

4:04: VOLUME 16
* Kishimoto (in his author's notes): “I have always thought Japanese naming schemes were cool, so I decided I wouldn't use any weird Western terms or names.” American fans would definitely agree with him. I'm convinced one of the reasons Naruto is more popular than, say, One Piece is that Naruto is about an extremely Japanese subject, ninja. It satisfies American expectations of what a Japanese comic/anime should be about, and the Japanese names are pleasingly exotic to Western readers.

* In flashback, we see that Jiraiya, Orochimaru and Tsunade were the Sakura, Sasuke and Naruto of their generation. I get it. COOL. This manga does an excellent job of showing the progression of generations…a theme is forming…

* “I don't like sweet things,” says Sasuke. In manga-speak, this is obviously a way of showing you're a real serious bad-ass.

* Uchiha, Sasuke's long-awaited evil brother, appears! Uchiha uses the Tsukuyomi power, the ultimate (?) illusion: being able to teleport Kakashi to an illusory realm to torture him for 72 hours in less than a real-world instant. Nice.

* Jiraiya takes Naruto to the pleasure quarters of the city. Naruto is incredibly chaste about this as always, but there's an obvious implication of Jiraiya indulging in prostitution or at least some fooling around while he tells Naruto to go to the hotel room without him and “practice manipulating your chakra.”

4:30: VOLUME 17
* At last, Uchiha and Sasuke's backstory! In brief: Uchiha was a bad big brother who didn't have time for Sasuke. Then, one day, Uchiha murdered their entire family and left.  The end.

* v17 p38: a great shot of Sasuke being intensely angry at his brother. Is that his skin starting to peel off because of the intensity of his chidori flame?

4:46: VOLUME 18
* Around this point we meet Tsunade, a master ninja and physician from Jiraiya's generation. In her old age she's become a drunken gambler (in the “functioning drunk” style, i.e. early Amy Winehouse, not late Amy Winehouse), who's accompanied by a pet pig and her assistant Shizune, who appears to be the Marcie to her Peppermint Patty. Although she's about 50 years old like Jiraiya, she uses genjutsu to maintain the illusion of looking much younger, thereby making her much more shippable while still technically being one of the oldest female characters in shonen manga. (Age-shifting. I like it more the older I get.) She develops a motherly/sisterly affection for Naruto and immediately jumps to the position of being my favorite female character

* …except, what? She has a fear of blood? How uncool.

* “Naruto is apparently the first comic series that is edited digitally,” Kishimoto says in an author's note. This is clearly untrue, but from my memory at Viz it was the first Weekly Shonen Jump series which we received in digital file format instead of photographic film, so perhaps it was the first Jump series to be officially digitized.

5:00: VOLUME 19
* Akira Toriyama did a thing where, whenever possible, he would draw fight scenes in barren wastelands so there's less backgrounds to draw. Kabuto and Orochimaru do the same thing here and run to the middle of nowhere as soon as Tsunade challenges them to combat.

* There's been plenty of decapitation and the like, but Tsunade getting stabbed right in the bosom is possibly the most disturbing violent scene in the manga.

* GIANT TOAD, SNAKE AND SLUG!! YEAHHH!!! When you get tired of watching human beings fight, watching summoned giant animals fight is the ultimate refresher. If I have one criticism, although they look cool, the summoned monsters in Naruto are so insanely large you wonder how they even interact with human beings at all. Once you're past a certain size, the whole landscape is basically flat and there's not much interesting natural terrain to interact with (there's a reason the big scenes of giant-monster movies take place in cities and not with Godzilla walking around the forest), and YOU're really going to waste your time chasing around tiny humans who are the size of ants to you? It's a common problem depicting power escalation in manga.

5:26: VOLUME 20
* Tsunade becomes the fifth Hokage, despite the sexist ruminations of Shikamaru and his sexist dad. (“Girls are just trouble! They always think they're in control!” “Shikamaru…without women, men can't be born. Without women, men go to ruin.”)

* Poor Rock Lee…left handicapped by a major injury and having to choose between a lifetime of diminished function or risky invasive surgery which may be fatal and may not even work. Beats reading about it in a shonen manga, where you're almost guaranteed to be miraculously cured, than having it happen to you in real life, I suppose.

* The Art of the Multiple Shadow Doppelgangers is one of the hardest-to-draw martial arts moves in any manga ever. Hundreds of individual figures on each page?!?! I bet Kishimoto (or his assistants) regretted making it Naruto's signature move.

* v20 p85 - “CHIRP CHIRP CHIRP CHIRP” is not the most impressive SFX for Sasuke's Chidori move, even if it does mean “One Thousand Birds.”

* Hmm, I can't figure out how Sasuke is feeling when he challenges Naruto to a duel. Kakashi, why don't you explain it to us? “Naruto and Sasuke are both friends and rivals. Their competition keeps them going. I'm guessing Naruto couldn't tolerate Sasuke's cheap provocations. He's wanted to be as strong as Sasuke since their academy days. Naruto wants to be recognized, not by you or me, but by Sasuke! At the same time, Sasuke senses the changes in Naruto and is feeling inferior. He feels at risk of being left behind. Naruto has indeed become strong.” Great. Now there's no way I could possibly miss this plot point. Thanks Kakashi.

* Around this time (2003) Masashi Kishimoto got married. I wonder, how did he meet her? Did they go on dates? (How does a weekly mangaka find the time?) Was it an omiai? Does Kishimoto explain this somewhere and I just missed it?

6:01: VOLUME 21
* Sakura finally confesses her love to Sasuke!! But Sasuke has become even more obsessed with gaining power, so he's determined to leave her and Naruto behind and go train with the evil Orochimaru.

* Discovering that Sasuke has run away to join the bad guys, the heroes decide to chase him down and bring him back. Before leaving on this urgent time-is-of-the-essence mission, however, they spend two pages discussing their marching order in excruciating detail.

* Kishimoto loves using fish-eye lens effects.

* A shonen manga is only as good as its characters, so BLAM! Four new evil characters, Jirobo, Tayuya, Sakon and Kidomaru! Take that, heroes! It's time for the next few volumes to be an escalating series of NINJA-ON-NINJA FIGHT SCENES!!!

6:16: VOLUME 22
* Kidomaru is a villain with six arms who creates spider webs. His webs, like Gaara's sand a few volumes ago, are so detailed they reach the level of “so much detail it's distracting and looks out of place.”

* Ewww! Kidomaru emits chakra-infused fluid from his sweat glands!! Great medical illustration cross-section.

* “Minor characters in a simple game are fated to be knocked out quickly!” Uhh…what is “a simple game”? Where did this translation go wrong?

* There's an awesome spread of Orochimaru's snake aura terrifying a dude.

6:32: VOLUME 23
* I have a theory about fighting manga: the more speed lines and weird dynamic motion bursts, the more exciting it is, UNTIL you cross a certain point when there's more speed lines than physical objects and characters, and at that point it simply becomes ridiculous and hard to tell what's happening. Call it the “Uncanny Speed Lines Valley.”

* Awww! Akamaru does the Lassie dog speech thing of talking in woofs to convince his master to keep fighting! (“Woof woof!” “You wanna do that?” “Arf!” “No way, Akamaru!”) And then Akamaru pees as part of a move, although both the Japanese and English versions are a little coy about what's actually happening. (“Wha?! Did he just…?”)

* Okay, Sakon is Naruto’s new winner of the “most disgusting enemy prize.” He's a sort of dizygotic twin who can: (1) split his head into two hideous oni heads; (2) further separate his body into two separate scaly, hideous oni; (3) summon “Rashomon,” the gates of hell; and finally (4) infiltrate his opponent's body on the cellular level like “The Thing” and grow out of his opponents. I CAN'T EVEN

* Hmm, perhaps I spoke too soon…perhaps kimimaro is the new grossest enemy! Watch as he pulls his own humerus bone out of his shoulder! He has the power to manipulate his bones and transform them however he wants. The disgusting way Kishimoto draws his skin splitting and the bones popping out almost makes up for the sheer absurdity of the concept. Then he pulls out his spine and uses it as a sword!!!

* What's grosser/cooler than blindfolded demons with their mouthes stitched shut? When they snap the stitches and vomit forth giant killer intestine leeches! OMG KISHIMITO YOU ARE SO ON TONIGHT

* To me, this manga reads so quickly, and I'm just rushing from page to page, but to Kishimoto, each volume represents 2-3 months of his life. I'm absorbing a work that took him 15 YEARS to make and trying to read it all in two days. It's like someone who spends hours and hours cooking a delicious meal and then someone comes along and gobbles it up in five minutes. But, that's art.

6:47: VOLUME 24
* Another scene of hellish torture via illusionary genjutsu: Tayuya ensorcels Shikamaru and suddenly he's imprisoned in a nightmare desert landscape with his flesh dripping off his bones. DONNNN, as Eiichiro Oda would put it.

* OK, now of course Rock Lee is back from his successful operation. BUT!! He's immediately putting his life at risk again by running out of the hospital the morning after spinal surgery. His defining character trait is the old shonen trope of power-through-self-punishment.

* Rock Lee accidentally drinks Tsunade's “private potion” (aka “potion punch”) which turns out to be…well…it's obviously booze though they never use the word. Is Shonen Jump really unwilling to depict a juvenile character getting drunk (even inadvertently) and using Drunken Master style kung fu? Is manga censorship back to the Star Blazers days when sake was explained away in the dialogue as “seltzer water”? Sad…

* Now there's three simultaneous ninja fights, all of them totally awesome, with totally weird, disturbing opponents. This is Naruto at its best to me: the visual imagination, all these new monsters and new superpowers, all this fighting. I don't really believe that any of the good guys are going to die, but it's still cool seeing them fight.

7:01: VOLUME 25
* Finally it comes down to this: NARUTO VS. SASUKE! This volume is almost entirely flashbacks to Sasuke's past, reminding us (and providing more explanation) of why Sasuke is so bitter and obsessed with killing his brother.

* There's an amazing sequence of shots where Sasuke and Naruto are fighting on the surface of the water and the POV is from below the water, looking up.

7:12: VOLUME 26
* Naruto and Sasuke beat each other up and talk about family: Naruto never had a family, and Sasuke lost his family, and they're both annoyed about it. In a sense, this part of Naruto falls into a familiar manga theme, the theme of creating a nontraditional family, of having a “family” that's actually made of non-blood-related people or friends. Naruto wants to create this kind of new family, but Sasuke can't let go of his obsession with the past and what he's lost.

* WHAT THE--!?! Naruto drops down on all fours and becomes bestial, with a spirit fox outline appearing around him!! And in response, Sasuke's skin goes dark, his hair turns white, and he gets a cross-shaped mark on his face!! And plus he's got dragon wings!! DOUBLE POWER UPS!!! AGGGGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!

* “Turns out you were pretty special. But in the end, I'm still more special than you!”

8:52: VOLUME 27
* Okay, now the big battle is over, Sasuke has gone off to join the Dark Side of the force, and Naruto is depressed. I hope Naruto and Sakura don't develop a romantic subplot now that Sasuke is gone. It would be so boring; it's much more interesting if they remain platonic friends. Luckily, Naruto doesn't seem to be as into her as he once was.

* Sakura becomes Tsunade's apprentice! Will she finally become super strong like everybody else?…Oh no! Instead of fighting powers, she's learning healing jutsu so she can bring the dead back to life! @#$%, now no character in Naruto will ever die again, I just know it.

* I can't keep going tonight. It's too late…I know I've only just gotten to the end of Part 1 and the night is still young but…so exhausted…too much coffee and tea that I flipped around to “it's just making me sleepier” mode…too much caffeine in the mornings…stamina failing…ganbatte! Hang in there! I surrender…collapsing into early unconsciousness…will finish Naruto the next day…

NEXT WEEK: I read the other 44 volumes of Naruto!! Naturally!

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