With the introductory arc out of the way and the characters introduced, we had Team 7 finally leave the village for a mission that was supposed to have them bodyguard a bridge builder from a small backwater land, only to encounter an unexpectedly dangerous set of foes and an experience that would change them in important ways for the rest of their lives.
Things That Rocked: The Villains
First up, the villains. Gato provides the underlying threat throughout the arc, but in the end, his role is to act as an easy to hate backer for the real physical antagonists of the arc: Haku and Zabuza. The latter provides the first genuine threat the protagonists face in the series, while the former acts as a reminder of the true harshness of shinobi life.
Haku’s tainted innocence and the loyalty he displays toward his master makes clear that conflicts within this manga will not be entirely in black-and-white, and his influence on Naruto can be seen from the end of the arc forward. Haku differs from the other antagonists introduced thus far in that he is clearly conflicted. While Mizuki was a traitorous asshole, Gato a cowardly robber baron, and Zabuza a murderous mercenary with delusions of grandeur, Haku is simply an unwanted child torn between his desire to serve the only man willing to acknowledge his existence and his own personal distaste for harming others. The story goes as far as to suggest that he is in many ways a pure person through his beauty (yes, as you should know by now, Haku is not a chick), the manner in which animals such as birds are drawn to him, and the white snow motif that he is so closely associated with. In the end, he proves to be a failure of a ninja in the traditional sense, being unable to properly kill his human heart, but at the same time comes to represent the best parts of what the story comes to define what a ninja should be.
Zabuza, on the other hand, is a real wakeup call, providing readers a sample of just what is to come in terms of the manga’s antagonists. What makes him more than a physical challenge for the heroes to face is what he represents: the fact that shinobi are in the end thought of as mere tools of their villages and countries despite being all too human. His breakdown at Naruto’s words after Haku’s death is genuinely heartrending, and is all the more powerful because not only is this the first time that Naruto succeeds in reaching an opponent and convincing him to mend his ways, but also because it fits the story’s emphasis on how even the most hardened of shinobi is at heart a human being with his own feelings and dreams. It’s not perfect by any stretch given that readers are not given too much detail on Haku and Zabuza’s bond before the fact other than the bare bones. However, what makes it work is the way Kishimoto executes the scene. The pacing and the way Zabuza’s hidden face is juxtaposed with Naruto’s emotional breakdown serves not only to set up the reveal of the missing nin’s tears, but also serves as an analogy of the aforementioned attitude that must be combated by the protagonists (in hindsight, I wish this conflict was better emphasized throughout the story instead of disappearing for long intervals in favor of more Sasuke-related shenanigans).
Something I feel is worth pointing out is the efficient storytelling that goes on in regards to the two. First of all, a lot is revealed and implied about their relationship solely through their interactions, as well as through some of Haku’s dialogue with other characters. This sort of characterization is rather notable given that its like isn’t seen all that much in the rest of the manga.
Second, there is a lack of substantial flashbacks. Rather, bits and pieces of the two characters’ backstories are revealed through a mix of silent panels and dialogue, and in some ways, it lends the story a more economical pacing than the extended flashbacks we get later. While the stories have to be pieced together, that they are left to the imagination in some ways offers more substance than the often rushed flashback sequences that appear with other characters suffering from tragic pasts. It’s a bit of a mixed bag: on the one hand, there are times when less is more, yet at other times one cannot help but desire a bit more in order to better sympathize with a character.
The art during this sequence must also be brought up. While it’s a bit sketchy and not as refined as it will become in later arcs, it possesses a certain quality even then that lends the story it conveys great emotional impact. I won’t lie, despite being rather cynical and plenty familiar with the usual clichés in storytelling by the time I came across Naruto, the first time I read that part of the manga, I was left on the verge of crying. When you can do that to me, you’re doing something right. What follows afterward is one of the single coolest final acts, if not the coolest, in the entire manga, as well as a surprisingly touching send-off as Zabuza gives his final words to Haku. These were great characters that were pulled off pretty darn well, and it’s clear why fans remained fond of them even years after their deaths.
It’s a real shame then that Kishimoto had to bring them back so needlessly later on, but that’s a whole different animal.
Things That Rocked: Character Development
The training sessions, a shonen trope first used in this arc, will reappear over the course of the story. However, it is here that some of the best character exploration, interaction, and development occurs. While used to justify the development of the characters’ skills as full-fledged shinobi (I figure that such skills were not taught in the academy only to make sure that drop-outs and civilians were left on a lower tier than graduates, and that is quite a disturbing possibility), this also serves as an opportunity for Kishimoto to highlight the relationship between Naruto and Sasuke, given that this very bond will carry much dramatic weight during later parts of the story.
While Sasuke starts the series off as Naruto’s rival and superior, his response to Sakura’s earlier callousness shows that there also exists a great amount of empathy within this relationship. The training session provides an opportunity to expand on this, as the two characters grow not only as people, but as shinobi. Rather than being the top-ranked student and the dunce, their relatively slow growth (in comparison to Sakura, of all people) turns their one-sided rivalry into something a little more reciprocal. So when Sasuke opts to take a bullet (or rather, a senbon needle) for Naruto, there is a sense as to how we got there. Despite their initial (and continuing) antagonism, Sasuke and Naruto have grown to cherish one another as comrades-in-arms.
Naruto himself does some growing up here. Not only does his relationship with Sasuke develop, but so does his attitude. While we had hints of just how far Naruto was willing to go for a loved one in the very first chapter, his friendship with Sasuke comes to constitute the second bond emphasized in-story (and it will continue to be). Furthermore, there’s Naruto’s relating to Haku and Zabuza. The former helps him realize just what strength people can find in protecting what is precious to them, while the duo’s fate inspires Naruto to create his own nindo. In addition to that, when it comes to his bond with Inari, we see the trappings of a charismatic inspirational figure outside of a purely shinobi-based context, something that makes a reappearance much later after Naruto defeats Pain.
Even Sakura gets some more development to continue her initial transformation from shallow tween brat to a considerate friend and kunoichi. Early in the arc, we see that she is capable of helping others out of instinct, pushing Naruto out of the line of fire after Zabuza first introduces himself in dramatic fashion. Later on, she commits another act of kindness, giving a begging child sweets while touring the streets of the Land of Water. However, the most important moment for her comes at the climax of the arc. She comes across Sasuke’s seemingly dead body, and finds herself unable to hold back her tears. During this scene, she reveals just how dehumanizing the shinobi system truly is, as it forbids members from showing any emotions on a mission.* ** It’s a great moment that really highlights, along with Zabuza and Haku, just what challenges our protagonists will have to face: not just people, but a system that is itself twisted.
* Which is actually kind of weird given that everyone and their mothers shows emotion on missions whenever we see them at work. Seriously, these are some of the least stoic ninja ever.
** It also could have been used, in hindsight, to indicate the flaws of Tobirama’s pragmatism. Where Hashirama went wrong with his rampant idealism in a world where realpolitik was a very real thing, Tobirama’s good intentions in creating a working system to deal with a flawed humanity also failed to acknowledge that objectivity without human emotions is also an unachievable ideal.
Things That Rocked: World Building
Kishimoto uses the early parts of the arc to engage in some minor world building. Naruto acts as the audience surrogate, justified here due to his being a dunce, although it really stretches the suspension of disbelief to have a boy that age completely unaware of the five villages and their respective leaders. The arc also provided an excuse to observe the world outside of Konoha: whether in terms of the villagers in the Land of the Waves or the rogue ninja from Kirigakure and their village’s bloody history.
After an introductory arc that let us get an idea of the hero’s hometown, it was nice to get away from it in order to really look at the world being built by Kishimoto. A bit of exposition is given about the various shinobi villages and their leadership, and the situation of small countries such as the Land of The Waves and the non-shinobi denizens of the world. We later also get explanations about the way chakra works and thus are given the fundamental building blocks of the series’ combat system. I admit to actually rather liking that moment where Naruto shows naked amazement at the sight of the possibly Southeast Asia inspired setting of the Land of the Waves. It’s not only a sign of his lack of worldliness, but it also reflects the way that readers are introduced to a new setting for the story. What I like most however, in terms of the world building, was the introduction to other village systems.
We got to learn what Kirigakure was like, and in turn just how liberal Konoha was in comparison, regardless of the fact that both villages were training young kids to become professional killers and spies. Hell, Kirigakure’s final exam resembles those of much grittier ninja stories, wherein people trained to kill are made to show that they are capable of not only following orders, but also carrying out necessary tasks regardless of the morality and their own emotional involvement in the situation.
Kishimoto would follow up on these hints at other cultures but if there was anything I wish he had kept doing, it was to keep up with the world building. It was nice seeing that people outside of the hidden villages had lives and conflicts of their own, and that there were powerful individuals outside of the daimyo and kage (at least in terms of influence). However, I do wonder how someone like Gato became so wealthy given that I would prefer to keep on good terms with the shinobi I hire lest they turn on me and chop my head off. Imagine if he’d hired a mercenary from an organization like the Akatsuki and tried to pull his crap on them.* **
This arc also has a discrepancy with the databooks, as the age given in said books differs from that which is suggested by Zabuza’s backstory. This is why you don’t rely too much on databooks, because in the end, whatever is in them can be disproven by the stroke of an author’s pen.
* That actually would have been pretty cool if it turned out that Akatsuki had raised money by doing work for people such as Gato, if only because it would have tied seemingly separate parts of the story together while acknowledging the connection between the ninja world, the daimyos, and the mainstream of society.
** It is also worth noting that the presence of Gato has shades of Kishimoto’s earlier manga one-shot, Karakuri, which also included shady industrialists as a source of conflict.
Things That Rocked: The Fights
After little hints during the bell test, this arc gave us our first taste of high level battles between shinobi. Certain techniques aside, things are surprisingly subdued compared to much of what comes later. Hand seals are plenty and a chore to carry out quickly, a definite contrast with the simplified jutsu performances that appear in future battles. There is a greater emphasis on using taijutsu to start and finish things while also moving around quite a bit to carry out certain strategies. Kakashi really gets to shine here, and winds up using the Sharingan in a way that feels clever and sorely missed even now. He also proves himself more than a one-trick pony, switching to a totally different, highly tactical fighting style once Zabuza proves himself a pretty smart fighter in his own right. Zabuza himself has some neat moves, and his fighting style, which relies more on stealth and psychological warfare, is a fine contrast to the flashier moves of future characters. Haku’s special technique is pretty damn cool, and I really wish Kishimoto had stuck to such creativity instead of simply going for jutsu with a wide scale of destruction (why do assassins need such attention-getting moves anyhow?). And when the scale does become larger, as is demonstrated by Naruto unleashing the power hidden within the seal, it genuinely feels epic while foreshadowing just how powerful he could become. Sure, the choreography isn’t always the greatest, but overall, the fights in this arc were pretty damn decent.
Things That Sucked: Little Details
If there are any real weaknesses to the arc within the context of the story at this point, it’s the characterization of the residents of the Land of the Waves. One moment the one local other than Tazuna’s immediate family whose name we know is admonished by his wife after Inari decides to go out and be the man his father wanted him to be, the next we get the entire village rallying around the kid. It would have been better if we had been given greater detail about the other villagers, if only because the turnaround in the local attitude would have been all the more emotionally rewarding. You should at least do that if your plot is basically The Seven Samurai with ninjas.
Also, the art is not always the strongest and there are times when fights are not all that easy to follow. Kishimoto was still learning as he went, and it shows, although it’s not enough to really bother me. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, for the most part, the art does what it needs to.
Things to Note
I noticed that the scene with the rabbit which distracts from the real threat is mirrored during the later Penis Arc. Speaking of which, whatever happened to the rabbit? Wasn’t it implied that Haku kept it as a pet? Did it live in the wild afterward? Did it starve to death? Did a hungry villager eat it?
I miss old chapter covers that were more than characters posing in front of a bland background. I can’t help but wonder why Kishimoto switched to such boring character posters.
Another parallel that pops up later is that of a former Swordsman working with a younger, more talented ninja with bloodline abilities. The pattern is quickly broken upon coming across the not-so antagonistic duo of Mei and Chojuro, who not only invert the ages of the members of the duo, but are also not only still loyal to their village, but one is the Mizukage, with the other being the last of the Seven Swordsmen in the present day.
Does anyone else wonder just what happened to the world economy after the events of the arc? Gato gets offed by Zabuza, and given that he was the world’s richest man and in control of a huge corporation, I wonder just what impact the events of the series had on the world as a whole. Forget taking down Zabuza, this was definitely something to wonder about.
While not a perfect arc, it does exactly what the first real arc of an action-adventure manga should do: it takes readers left curious by the introduction and hooks them with impressive characterization and exploration of themes hinted at in the introductory arc. As will prove a pattern, the series is at its best when playing to these particular strengths, and one of my biggest issues with Part II was how the story, which had previously been character-driven, became plot-driven to the detriment of the characters. Kishimoto has a talent for taking familiar archetypes and breathing life into them. He’s no Osamu Tezuka, but given the chance to write someone who could otherwise be a generic walking cliché, Kishimoto often managed to hit it out of the park. Characters like Haku and Zabuza aren’t exactly completely original, but their execution in this arc was what made them work. I also have to once again praise the way the art contributes to this, because when Kishimoto actually tried, his art melded perfectly with his story.
As can be seen by the relatively sparse amount of criticism I have for the arc, it should be clear that I think the arc a serious candidate for the single best arc in the story. To be fair, due to its somewhat self-contained nature and economical storytelling it manages to stand on its own far better than most other arcs, which are more linked to one another due to their parts in telling a much longer story. Furthermore, other arcs such as those following right after this one are more flawed in part because they are so much more ambitious in their scope. While the Wave Arc does not quite reach as many high points as some later arcs, it is arguably the most consistently good one.
For most readers, including myself, this was only the beginning of when the story really became worth reading, as will be clear in the following arc.