The introductory arc is pretty standard for a shonen battle manga, introducing the title character and his ensemble in consecutive chapters while featuring a generic starter villain to show how awesome the title character can be when he knows what he is doing. As I said, it’s standard stuff, although the execution is often pretty decent.
The art and humor are both of a sketchy quality, in a respectively literal and metaphorical manner. The art is clearly that of a guy still developing his own style and one can clearly see how Kishimoto based the look of the series on that of Katsuhiro Otomo.
The humor is of a hit-and-miss quality, and as will prove to be a pattern, more miss than hit. It’s juvenile toilet humor that won’t really get anyone giggling, and thankfully it will reach its apex in the first half of the Chunin Exams and then disappear for the most part.
Our protagonist, the titular Naruto, is, unlike many a shonen lead with a so-called sad back-story, genuinely sympathetic. There is actual pathos as the story goes along and we learn more and more about just how tragic his early life really was. While many signs of this are given in the first chapter, the second one has a great moment where Sarutobi describes Naruto’s existence to Iruka, a moment that will take on a greater weight later once Haku appears.
Sarutobi: “Iruka …can you imagine…?”
Iruka: “Imagine what?”
Sarutobi: “How it must feel…so much hatred and hostility…to be treated with an animosity so intense as to be annihilating…to have around you many who would deny you even…the right to exist..”
The members of the supporting cast are executed to varying degrees of success both within this arc and later on. Iruka, as the soon to be obsolete mentor/guardian, quickly falls to the wayside for the most part, but in the time he has, he develops a nice bond with Naruto that really deserved more focus. Sarutobi is the wise old voice of authority with perverse tendencies, although the true depths of his character are not explored for a while yet. Mizuki is your standard dickhead who gets what he has coming in the first chapter (in hindsight, the fact that a relatively untrained Naruto could so easily take him down does not say much about the quality of Konoha’s chunin). Konohamaru is kind of bland and doesn’t really add much to the plot, but at the same time, he represents a future Konoha that is far kinder to people like Naruto, so there’s that. Ebisu initially appears to be a one-off villain, providing a source of conflict similar to Mizuki while espousing values that go against the story’s emphasis on hard work (oh how hilarious it is to say this all these years later), but, as is hinted by his name’s origins, later comes to represent the transformation of the village’s attitude toward its pariah. Chapter three introduces the three other members of Naruto’s team: Sakura, Sasuke, and Kakashi, although the last of these three won’t really do much until the following chapter.
Among the members of Team 7, Sakura is the weak link, having little in the way of back-story or interest on the part of the writer. Even her status as the seemingly unattainable love interest doesn’t really do much for her, although being admonished by Sasuke offers hints of her future development. Sasuke is the classic shonen rival, a dark and taciturn pretty boy who acts as a foil to the bright and loudmouthed Naruto. However, his own tragic back-story shows the dramatic potential of the character (shame it took over the plot) while his chastising of Sakura makes clear that he is more than some jerk in an antagonistic relationship with the hero. Finally, we have the most tragic figure of the three: Kakashi. An aloof and dirty-minded man, he is nevertheless a brilliant shinobi whose past has left him a broken shell, something that he hides behind layers and layers of diffidence, perversion, and deceit (the man even looks like a stereotypical ninja by covering the lower half of his face all of the time). Of the three, Kakashi shows seemingly the most care in crafting a well-rounded character.
The bell test provides readers with their first glimpse of what is to come in future battles. While holding back for the most part, Kakashi, and by extension Kishimoto, tantalizes readers by displaying the skills of a real professional ninja. There are also hints at the multilayered nature of the manga’s story and characters, as the bell test in itself is a test of not only skill, but also character. Similar tests will appear during the Chunin Exams, and are an element badly missed in the later course of the story which devolves for the most part into a standard shonen slugfest. At the same time, certain parts of the test foreshadow future events or relate to the manga’s themes.
During the bell test, another powerful moment manifests when Kakashi talks about the heroes whose names are written on the cenotaph at the training field. This moment makes clear that being a ninja is not about shonen idealism and heroics (in hindsight, this is frigging hilarious considering what we get throughout the rest of the series), but about tough decisions and harsh sacrifices. It is also relevant to Kakashi’s character given that the names of his friends, especially one whose impact will prove relevant to the greater story as a whole, are carved on it, highlighting not only the tragedy of his existence, but what his past could portend for the futures of his students and how he acts accordingly.
Kakashi: “Look at the marker…all the names carved in the stone. Heroes of our village. Ninja.”
Naruto: “That’s it! I just made up my mind! There’s where I want my name to go! I’m not gonna throw my life away! I want to be like them—a hero!”
Kakashi: “>Ahem!< …But the ones listed there aren’t just any heroes…”
Naruto: “Really? What kind of heroes are they?”
Naruto: “Come on! Come on!”
Kakashi: “The dead kind. They died in the line of duty.
“This is a memorial. It includes the names of my best friends.
Kakashi also makes comments about the flaws in the three trainees’ teamwork, or rather their lack of any, hinting at the trends that will define their future interactions for the rest of Part I and then some. Naruto tends to try doing everything by himself, a character flaw that will remain noticeable for a good part of the manga, although there are times where I wished it was explored further and better in those arcs where it came to the forefront. Sasuke is similar to Naruto, not being the sort to act as a team player, and this attitude will remain constant in his interactions with others even as he comes to see the necessity of teamwork. Finally, Sakura is chastised for trying to work with Sasuke and only Sasuke at Naruto’s expense, with this dynamic defining her character on both a romantic as well as a personal and professional level. Funny enough, this flaw is one that will be most quickly and clearly brought up and developed over the course of the story.
The team’s new sensei also offers the team a sadistic choice by placing a blade at Sasuke’s neck, threatening to kill the boy unless Sakura does the same to Naruto. While played for comedy and used to hint at the harshness of shinobi life, it also foreshadows the collapse of the Ame trio that is later revealed during Part II.
Overall, there’s little to really complain about within the context of the arc itself given that it is pretty standard stuff with the various tropes, devices, and elements being introduced to readers in a manner that is for the most part competent, with some hints of the high quality that later arcs will achieve. It’s not the greatest written or drawn arc, but it serves its purpose, and offers enough to draw attention for at least a few chapters more, which is all an introductory arc really needs.