Naruto. It is the name we utter as we shake our fists towards the heavens. It is the name we utter with joy when we want to kick back and enjoy ourselves. It is the older brother we compare ourselves and those around us to. It is the child prodigy whose qualities we search for in other potential candidates.
So what’s in a name?
In Naruto, it’s “phenomenon.” Yeah, phenomenon. Naruto has won a Quill Award, made a home on the USA Today top 100 booklist, spawned a population of future readers (and aspiring ninjas) who’ve skipped Pokemon and have gone straight to the good stuff by way of the anime, and Naruto, the second generation of the series, returned to the U.S. this past March.
Yes, it’s manga. Yes, there’s been an anime adaptation, a number of feature length animated films, a trading card game, a number of video game (the newest addition available for Wii, by the way – and yes, in fact, it is ass-kicking fun) endless merchandise, and all the while the mastermind behind Naruto, Mr. Masashi Kishimoto, keeps churning out the volumes. (We’ve caught up to Japan with volume 27 of the series.)
So let’s go back to the beginning. It’s a comic. It’s from Japan. It was first published in Japan back in 2000 and hit the U.S. market in 2003. From there, it’s been one consistently mushrooming cloud, billowing upwards and outwards. (Of course, that the Cartoon Network picked up and began televising the anime series only helped sales.) Last year, for four months, publisher Viz Media simultaneously published three volumes per month from Sept. – Dec., flooding, saturating, bloating the market. And sales for volume one of the series is still going strong.
Naruto has sold over 1.9million copies in the U.S. alone (the series has been licensed to Hungary, Mexico, France, Sweden, Denmark, and I’m sure I’m missing a few) and the initial print run for volume 14 (which was released last June) was something obscene and on par with actual summer books – not comics. And the people who are reading it? Teens. 1.9 mill copies sold to an audience of teens. That’s the only reason why it’s a phenomenon. If it crossed over to people who appreciate action, can identify with an outsider mentality, remember their days of rebellion – if it crossed over to the mainstream by way of the potential adult market (everybody remembers high school, right?) then it wouldn’t be considered a phenomenon. It would be considered fucking awesome.
For everyone who is sick of Naruto or who won’t even give it a shot because of all the hype, I’m gonna do my best to tell you why this series rocks.
Naruto is about Uzumaki Naruto, a ninja in training cursed by the spirit of a nine-tailed fox, in a mythical town with modern day trappings. Actually, this is only the premise of the story. What the story is really about is coming of age in a fantastic world where anything imaginable can happen, and being faced with choices of life or death.
Masashi Kishimoto gets it right – right off the bat. It’s anchored by Naruto – he’s the mascot, the less than perfect, less than average, underdog with big dreams, a big mouth, and a huge heart. But it’s about all the aspiring ninjas in his class, their specific talents, and how they work to their strengths while making note of their weaknesses.
It’s essentially high-school fantasy – all of the factors of adolescence (naiveté, confusion, insecurity, loyalty, obedience, rebellion) guided by the steady hands of a few reliable and consistent adults who live by the rules that they teach. (Possibly the most telling sign that this series is fantasy – not that a 12 year-old ninja-in-training can control and communicate with bugs, and use them to dislocate another ninja’s chakras and kick his ass, but that the adults actually practice what they preach.)
Kishimoto fleshes out every character, primary and secondary. He puts as much thought into the supporting cast as he does the star ensemble. This series is fertile with secondary characters that could carry their own storylines. Additionally, his world is its own character – think Taiyo Matsumoto’s Black and White. Hidden Leaf Village is a gritty, urban, town where buildings and houses stack high on top of each other and build themselves into the hills. A huge facade of previous village ninja leaders (hokage) are carved into the side of the village’s mountain – Mt. Rushmore style. Naruto lives by himself in a tiny studio apartment, eats cold cereal for breakfast, wears goggles around his head, then trains as a ninja with throwing stars and other knives, while concentrating his chakras into his feet so that he can walk up trees.
Leaf Village doesn’t exist. Neither old Japan, nor new Japan, nor Japan at all. It’s got the feeling of modern day anywhere, and is derived from the rubbish filled landscapes of major cities built against mountain backdrops. But it’s nowhere in history or in the world. It only exists in Kishimoto’s fertile imagination. I keep using this word, “fertile” and it’s not just because of my limited vocabulary – it’s because it’s the best word to describe Kishimoto’s mind. He’s taken the familiar and woven something completely foreign that we can all relate to.
Naruto targets teens – essentially, it speaks directly to the adolescent experience. There are clear and dangerous missions every day (much like going to a normal high-school). There is fierce loyalty and devotion to each other – as well as fierce rivalries. There is danger around every corner and no one to trust – things are never what they appear to be. Deception and trickery is required and encouraged. Protection of information is vital. (See? It’s just like high-school. In fact, if you read these last three sentences out of context, I could be writing about Gossip Girl.)
Additionally, the sense of risk involved in the everyday tasks somehow becomes wildly disproportionate to the skills being taught. Naruto and his team find themselves in situations where – as kids – they’re way over their heads. They’re thrown into an adult world of criminals and death matches, grown shinobi (ninja) who’ve already cultivated their power. They are out matched, out skilled, inexperienced. But sheer determination, and other uncontrollable emotions, release their inner potential and they always manage to survive. Faced with high-stakes risks, without a right or wrong answer, without a clear outcome, Naruto and his gang are forced to make decisions.
Remember when that gorgeous brunette Claire, who’s mom was a model, asked you to steal something from her from the mall? If you did it, you could hang out with her, but if you didn’t, she wouldn’t even so much as look at you. So what do you do? What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO?
Steal = cops (but could also = Claire)
Don’t steal = safe (but also = no Claire)
A lot of the decisions that kids have to make are tough ones. They feel like decisions of life and death. Gossip Girl is closer to Naruto than you realize. There are serious repercussions to every decision and severe wounds. Kishimoto gets it. (Maybe GG gets it too, but I haven’t read any of it and I’ve only seen two episodes.)
The other thing that Kishimoto embraces and utilizes is that both the plot and character progress together. The characters growth hinges on the adventures and challenges that they face. Naruto’s characteristics shape him without defining him. He’s a kid that’s going to grow.
A few weeks ago I was attempting to help my son with his homework – yes, I’m going off on a tangent, but bear with me, it makes sense – where he had to discuss character growth in a story series (i.e Magic Tree House or Boxcar Children.) Captain Underpants didn’t make the cut – his teacher’s decision, not mine – so he went with the Hardy Boys. And guess what? Through all 14 Hardy Boys volumes that he’s read, neither of them age. Each volume is a repackaging of the same experience over and over again. Granted, these books are of a different generation. Likewise, there’s plenty of that in manga, too. But the assignment – character growth – is a wonderful one. Unfortunately, we’ve only encountered it in Harry Potter.
I’m not well versed in YA novels but I do know that after this homework assignment, I swapped out his 14 volumes of Hardy Boys for my 10 volumes of Naruto and told him, “This is where your character development is.”
Okay, admittedly, not the best move. (Although, truth be told, he’s opted for Captain Underpants instead.) But character development has caught on in comics – superhero and indie alike. Why do you think all the boys love Frank MIller? What do you think made Super Bad (a chick-flick in Sean John drag) super good?
At this point, there are only a few things getting in the way of non-Naruto readers turning that corner and becoming Naruto readers. Unfortunately, they’re big things and things that I’m too tired to get into after typing something so long winded and disorganized. Naruto doesn’t need more readers. It’s getting the recognition it deserves. But aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to know? Don’t you want to see what it’s all about?
Now watch the one person who reads this buy a copy of Naruto vol. 1 and send me hate spam