The first mega-arc of the series, the Chunin Exam (and what was technically a separate arc called the ‘Konoha Crush,’ or more properly, ‘Crush Konoha’ Arc) Arc set itself up as a tournament arc that would, over the course of an arc longer than the previous arcs put together, transition into a war arc, expanding the scale of the story while also reaching heights that have resulted in many readers describing it as the high point of the series. But is it really? Well, before coming to any conclusions, let’s look at what constitutes the arc.
Things to Note: The Tone
Following the somewhat dark and often cynical, though ultimately idealistic Land of Waves Arc, the Chunin Exams Arc tells a story that is both darker and brighter than what came before it. While much blood is shed, blood splatters not involving Gaara tend to be less gruesome, various characters introduced here are somewhat less hardboiled than a corrupt businessman and his mercenary employees (though no less threatening or cynical in their own right), and the jokes move away from the toilet humor of earlier parts (with one notable exception) toward a more character-based dramedy.
Looking back on the Land of the Waves Arc, it was like reading a completely different manga from what came before and after it, and I’m not just talking about the firearm that was present in the store back in Wave. Seriously, look at it. We have a small village ruled with an iron fist by a corporate mogul who will not hesitate to have his thugs beat the shit out of you, cut your limbs off, and publicly execute you. We have Gato getting decapitated in silhouette by a guy who just got stabbed and sliced multiple times while cutting through a crowd of enemies with nothing but a kunai between his teeth. We have Haku dying pretty gruesomely (so gruesome that future applications of the Chidori/Raikiri aren’t nearly as bloody). We have Naruto learning the hard way just what a ninja is and failing to save the lives of either Haku or Zabuza (although he does manage to remind the latter of his humanity at the end). People died, among them a young man who never wanted any of this. Young eager rookies in training learned that their jobs entailed killing people and their own humanity. Holy shit, this was some dark stuff.
Even when we get material like Gaara or anything to do with Orochimaru, we’re often told how dark things are, yet what we are shown never outright feels as dark and gritty as what we had in the past arc. Maybe it has to do with the line art being so messy and featuring grime in everything (note that even when we are told things like Kabuto’s backstory in Part II, the clean look of the art doesn’t exactly keep the tone from feeling much lighter than the Wave Arc). Maybe it’s the storytelling itself: after that point, everything takes a turn for the positive and bad things are either swept under the rug or quickly overcome without (relatively) too much fuss.
Things that Rocked: New Characters
Being the first truly large scale arc, it is only fitting then that part of this increase in scale comes through an increase in the number of cast members. And holy shit did we see quite a few new characters. Some wound up becoming important supporting characters, others not so much, with a few falling awkwardly to the wayside later on.
The standout, for me at least, is Gaara. He not only gets a tragic backstory before that was overplayed, but the way this is revealed is well done. Initially appearing as a stoic with a homicidal streak, Gaara’s façade is, along with his sand armor, ripped away gradually. We first come to realize the depths of his bloodlust after Lee breaks the sand covering his face (a moment that is fucking creepy. Seriously, look at the guy’s face during that scene, and realize the implication that he was playing the stoic with his sand the entire time), which is soon followed by a flash of traumatic memories after Guy defends his beloved student. We then get more hints as the story goes on, whether through the behavior of the characters in the present or more flashes of the past. This right here is how you give a character an interesting backstory without being overly cheesy or suddenly revealing a totally new characterization at the last moment. Adding to this is the way his powers fit his characterization. In addition to protecting him, the sand also acts as a metaphor for how Gaara keeps others at a distance. By protecting him, it also keeps him from connecting with others, and even falls short in its primary purpose due to the fact that, as Yashamaru points out, it doesn’t stop him from suffering severe emotional scarring. This right here is how to create a theme around a character so that his personality fits his powers without it being too obvious like “hothead has the ability to shoot fire.”
Compared to Nagato’s case, I think the reasons for why Gaara’s backstory comes off as more sympathetic despite not being as outright horrible come down to two factors. The first is that this particular backstory was not only horrible, but it was the first illustrated sob story to be shown in full detail, a contrast to Haku’s secondhand tale. As a result, it was both shocking and new to readers. The second factor has to do with scale. While Gaara’s was bad, Kishimoto, in an attempt to not only make Nagato sympathetic, but also up the ante, went a bit overboard trying to make readers sympathize with him. Seeing his parents killed by ninja who then make stupid comments about how sorry they are? Not so much sad as like something out of a comedy skit. Killing his little dog too? Getting a tad ridiculous given that it didn’t really tie in with his character (in fact, the dog lasted for all of one chapter!). Only the death of Yahiko got somewhere, and even then, it was kind of dumb given that Yahiko comes off looking like a dumbass. I mean, Hanzo wasn’t exactly the type to just spare Nagato and Konan when he had a chance to simply eradicate Akatsuki right there with Konan his hostage and his men (and Danzo’s) at the ready. With Gaara, it’s a mostly senseless and tragic scene, as the one person who appeared to care about him couldn’t even get over his own hatred (later retcon notwithstanding).
The other new characters aren’t too bad themselves. While I didn’t think Orochimaru was anything special as a villain, he was a credible threat who was easy to despise for the right reasons. Kabuto was a riddle wrapped in an enigma (his backstory took that away by giving him his own sob story, a shame given that trope’s overuse by that point and the fact that Kabuto’s appeal lay in the mystery that was his character and his goals and motivations). The other teams started off as clichés but grew to have some depth of their own: Shikamaru became a likeable and prominent part of the supporting cast by virtue of being less about power than a strangely effective mix of a lazy attitude and clever tricks, Hinata was actually a likeable underdog (until Kishimoto failed to add any depth beyond “Naruto-kun”), Neji was a tortured genius whose talents were seemingly mocked by fate, Lee was just plain inspiring despite his goofy appearance, and Ino added some further depth to Sakura’s character. That’s not even considering how other members of the age group got their own chances to shine later on. Except Tenten. But nobody cares about Tenten.
There are also characters who managed to leave an impression despite appearing for only a short time. Ibiki turned out to be a hardboiled interrogator with a soft side. Meanwhile, Anko was amusingly theatrical and kind of kinky in her attitude and appearance.
If there is any area where characterization falls flat, it is in regards to certain less developed characters that remained ignored. This includes that one ANBU member who wanted to avenge her boyfriend only for the author to never ever follow up on that. In fact, I’m surprised that Baki just gets away with things without the story bringing that up ever again.
Things That Rocked: The Fights
So let’s get into what is the staple of any shonen action series: the fights. It is safe to say that for the most part, Kishimoto does not disappoint. We don’t just get to see a whole different bunch of fighting styles in one place, we also get strategies, over-the-top techniques endemic to shonen battle manga, and a whole lot of emotion (as pointed out by the venerable folks at Red Letter Media, it’s hard to get absorbed into a fight when you don’t care about the combatants. Thankfully, Kishimoto writes things in a way that makes you care about these characters while still impressing you with a whole bunch of flashiness). Not much else to say here other than that I liked what we got, even if the girls got the short shrift.
For the record though, the best examples of fight scenes done right in this type of story are those that most skilfully mix emotion with spectacle, with the two stand-out examples in a fairly strong field being Gaara versus Lee and Neji versus Naruto.
Things That Rocked: The Plot Thickens
Before this arc, the plot was relatively straightforward. While we had some underlying mysteries related to Naruto and Sasuke’s respective pasts to go with the main storyline going on during the Wave Arc, things were kept simple. With the Chunin Exams Arc however, as new characters were introduced, so too were a variety of plotlines. We had the main conflict between Konoha and the forces working against it. We had a very personal conflict between Sasuke and Orochimaru. We had the internal and external conflicts revealed during the preliminary matches that made up the third exam. We had Naruto training with Jiraiya, who was in turn revealed to be connected to the Fourth Hokage. We had Kabuto and whatever the hell was going on with him. In short, what had originally been a simple and straightforward tale turned into a living, breathing world populated by characters with their own stories. The world of Naruto thus felt more alive, more intense, and thus more interesting for readers.
This all relates to the matter of world building, an area that could be considered a strength of this part of the story.
Things That Rocked: World Building
I love it when authors take the time to build the fictional worlds that they have created. A little verisimilitude goes a long way. Dusty, beat up settings and fuzzy dice distinguished Star Wars from older sci-fi properties that had depicted shiny futures and zeerust designs. There’s a reason why Richard Donner made “verisimilitude” his keyword when directing the first Superman film. Making a fictional world feel real is a vital factor in making sure that the audience doesn’t just read or watch what they see, but that they get sucked in and live the story alongside the characters.
Aside from the obvious fact that the world of Naruto was finally expanded beyond Konoha’s surface (small, one time locations like Wave don’t count) into the world of shinobi politics (both at the clan and village levels), Otogakure and Sunagakure, even the Land of Wind’s socioeconomic situation and the political power game played by both politicians and ninja. Details like these are what allow a fictional world to breathe.
Things That Sucked: Team Dosu
I get that Dosu’s group was never anything more than a bunch of mooks used to highlight the threat of Otogakure. I also get that when it all came down to it, they were overmatched against the real elites among the Chunin candidates. But it still kind of sucks that they were thrown away the way that they were. Dosu seemed to have neat abilities and was fairly clever if cocky (though his was a tempered arrogance compared to that of his teammates). Unfortunately, he got pwned offscreen by Gaara. Meanwhile, the other two just disappeared after losing their matches only to be revealed as having been made useful as sacrifices for Edo Tensei. Kishimoto’s incompetence with writing female characters is on full display here given that Kin, in contrast to her teammates, does nothing to stand out but get the crap beaten out of her and doesn’t even appear to have had any parts of her body modified.
Things That Sucked: Sakura Gets a Chance at Development (But This Never Really Happens)
So Sakura finally got a moment in the spotlight when she defended her teammates (and Lee) from Team Dosu. It was a great moment, and the part where she cuts off her hair was a nice bit of symbolism that was supposed to illustrate how she was no longer the little girl playing ninja but a real kunoichi who would do whatever it took to support her team. Then the manga ignored her for the most part. I mean, I guess she got to quarrel with Ino over Sasuke and cried over Sasuke a bit. She also was ineffectual and was inspired by Naruto but did nothing except get turned into a damsel in distress once Gaara went feral…
Question: what the fuck was the point of this buildup if all we got was words and no payoff? If anything, the previous rhetorical question was an apt description of how the poor girl is treated throughout the rest of the manga.
Things That Rocked: We’re Getting Hyped Tonight
I love it when stories hype me up for an upcoming battle sequence.
We get a bunch of foreshadowing for future events. We get a bunch of characters who we want to see let loose. We get a bunch of awesomely drawn and paced panels that really set shit up in the readers’ minds. Seriously, reread the last chapter before the war begins proper. It’s perfect in its execution. Reread those panels where Sarutobi and the “Kazekage” slowly turn toward one another as they realize that the real fight begins right FUCKING NOW. Of all the moments in Naruto, this was the first one that truly felt cinematic for me.
Things That Rocked: Clever Use of the Format
More than one scholarly (or pseudo-scholarly) article has made the argument that sports competitions have in some respects replaced war as a means of resolving international tensions between more developed nations (who are thus less likely to simply go to war than they are to consider the opinions of both the local populace and the international audience). I find this point relevant given the recent completion of this year’s World Cup in Brazil, the latest in a long line of sporting competitions that make the Olympics look positively quaint in comparison.
It is said that the World Cup is such a big deal that entire nations have been both inspired and disheartened by the results of the tournament. One poor fellow even managed to get shot simply for being responsible for his team’s loss.
So how does that relate to the title of this post? One thing that always stood out to me was the way the exam was handled. I’m not just talking about the storytelling, although that was for the most part well done. Rather, I’d like to point out the very nature of the exams themselves.
After the first half of the exams have been completed, the remaining candidates are made to stand in a row and learn just what the true purpose of the exams happens to be. This comes from the mouth of Sarutobi, who had up to then been the portrayed as a wise and benevolent village leader. Here however, while out to encourage the kids, he is also honest and every bit the realist politician: the exams are nothing more than a means of evaluating the military strength of each participating village. The kids aren’t just there to earn promotions. They’re there to win it all with the chance of either honoring or humiliating their villages, which could in turn have major economic, political, and military impacts on the futures of their homes.
As should be clear by now, this parallels the way sporting competitions are used as a means of conflict between nations that don’t want to resort to guns and bombs. Remember all the pissing contests that went on between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. during the Olympics way back when the Cold War was a thing? Granted, a sporting competition doesn’t have as much actual impact as the fictional exams I am analyzing, but the point is that these competitions act as an outlet for aggression. I don’t know if this borderline social commentary was intentional, but if it was, kudos to Kishimoto, because this likely kept me reading your manga long after it turned to shit.
The second thing I liked about this explanation was that it provided justification for the existence of a trope common to battle manga within the world of Naruto. It’s one thing for there to be a sports competition, but when you have a fighting competition in many battle manga, it’s often ridiculous in both its concept and only gets by because readers now know to expect one as par for the course in the genre. However, Kishimoto managed to go the extra mile and wrote this element into the story in a way that perfectly complemented the world he had created. This was but one moment of brilliance that prolonged my hopes for this franchise even as I grew more and more disappointed with it later on.
I bring these elements up because once upon a time, Naruto managed to do something with what could have otherwise been a standard tournament arc that it failed to do with what should have been a great climactic war arc: it managed to say something while doing so in a manner that was intelligent for the genre it belonged to. And I guess that’s why I’m so disappointed when reading many of the later chapters. Because I know that the author was once capable of doing better.
Things That Rocked: War, What is It Good For?
If the previous stages of this arc had been excellent sources of world expansion, then this war arc that popped up right afterward could be considered a magnification of what we already had. While the kids had shone during the Exam stage, once the gloves came off, the adults showed readers what a veteran ninja was capable of. We had the parents of the supporting cast kicking ass with more advanced versions of the techniques their offspring had shown off. We had the teachers to remind us that Kakashi wasn’t the only adult capable of kicking ass and taking names. And last but not least, we got hints of what those operating on the level of kage can do with the moves pulled off by Orochimaru, Jiraiya, and Sarutobi. And the best part was that while the scale was increased by no small amount, it was more a preview than anything.
The problem with making things bigger too soon is that everything that follows afterward has to put that to shame, otherwise it just comes off as disappointing and anticlimactic in comparison. In the case of Jiraiya, we see one summoning of a massive toad. As for Orochimaru and Sarutobi, while the techniques performed are of a higher level than anything else seen so far, the battlefield was to Orochimaru’s liking, the Sannin was content to play around for a good part of the fight, and the Hokage was past his physical prime. As a result of all these factors, we were tantalized, but not spoiled, allowing a future battle between the Sannin (which was itself limited to an extent) to impress readers. This was back when Kishimoto knew how to keep the scale of things in proper perspective instead of the ridiculous power inflation seen during the later stages of Part II.
Things That Rocked: Sarutobi Hiruzen
After appearing in the background as a wise old leader type of figure up to this point, the Third Hokage finally gets a day in the limelight, and honestly, I thought it was rather well done (plus, this was executed in a manner superior to that of Asuma later on while not being as obvious an act of foreshadowing his end as it was with Jiraiya).
The sequence where Sarutobi acknowledges that he is no longer able to handle Orochimaru in battle and then goes on to explain his view of the village as Hokage was well done in terms of characterization. It shows that true to his archetype, he is wise enough to know the limits of his abilities, while also understanding full well that he will simply have to play with the hand he has been dealt without a word of complaint. In that short span, a previously unwritten character managed to fill his expected role. If that was it, I wouldn’t bother to discuss him further, but it’s his speech to the class of academy students that started to make him memorable among examples of his character type. Instead of merely seeing the village’s people as the subjects of his protection, he outright sees them as his family, and for the first time, we see just what an ideal Hokage is like, setting up Naruto’s own character development (more on that later). Readers later see an expansion of this during Hiruzen’s last stand.
The fight with Orochimaru was awesome because it managed to what all great fictional battles should strive to do: mix emotion, storytelling, and spectacle. It was awesome seeing just what high-level ninja were capable of. Basic elemental attacks, summoning frogs, and over-the-top taijutsu is one thing, necromancy, summoning what appears to be the Monkey King, and summoning a frigging shinigami is just plain taking things to a whole new level. It also offered an opportunity for both world building and characterization, as Sarutobi was confronted by his mentors, and the details of his bond with Orochimaru were made clearer (although I have a minor quibble in that the flashbacks failed to really indicate much closeness between the two opponents). Still, the part where Orochimaru stabs his own hand shined a light on the more human dimensions of what had otherwise been a monster of a villain.
The fight also kept up the characterization as a wise grandfather not only to his grandchild, but to the village as a whole. As mentioned before, Sarutobi embodies many of the qualities of an ideal Hokage, and while he wasn’t perfect, as was detailed over the course of the story, his character remained in many ways a standard to live up to. His thoughts backed up his words from earlier, and like a family patriarch who finally lets go of life firm in the belief that his successors can handle the load, Sarutobi died believing that the ideals he fought for would live on.*
And even as he died, Sarutobi managed to go out with a smile and with no ire felt at his former student. It was a dignified death that had purpose. Well, at least until Kishimoto nullified it by giving Orochimaru an out with the shinigami while using Edo Tensei to resurrect his old master.
* I’m not going to bring up any later deconstructions of the Will of Fire given that these were kind of half-assed, and also because it’s not bad writing to idealize the best of one way of life only to deconstruct said way of life later. In fact, in a story with multiple viewpoints, that’s actually good writing when done right. Emphasis on “when done right.”
Things That Rocked: Naruto
Of all the arcs up to this point, the war arc was the one that best showed exactly why Naruto was the hero. What happened here was a clinic in both character development and action scenes. Oftentimes, a shonen action manga will try to mix in both action and character development into a fight, but in many cases, what happens is that an otherwise potentially exciting fight is frequently interrupted by dialogue, a crime to which Kishimoto can plead guilty for so many occasions. On this one occasion at least, it actually worked. Since so many characters were introduced and Sasuke was the focus of Orochimaru’s long-term plans, Naruto was given relatively less screen time during the exam stages (although he did start training with Jiraiya). However, this arc shifted focus back to him in order to justify putting his name in the title.
First off: character development. While there had been some advances in his character as a result of what happened during the Wave Arc, much of Naruto’s behavior during the previous exam sections of the arc had involved acting as a source of comedy and cringe-worthy moments punctuated by bouts of badass. Here however, he got a strong foil in Gaara while also following up on the meaning of Haku’s words. What makes this even better is the way that it parallels Sarutobi’s own characterization during this arc. Earlier parts of the manga saw Naruto want to become Hokage for the sake of becoming acknowledged, but having learned from Haku, Iruka, and Kakashi’s examples, he finally began to understand that the greatest ninja in the village has to be more than a powerhouse.
Take a look at the way he approaches a confrontation with Gaara. At first he’s terrified because of how utterly nuts the guy is. Then, once he gets to understand a bit more about why Gaara is the way he is, his terror takes on an existential tone as he not only comprehends how relevant the Kazekage’s son and trump card’s situation is to his own. Gaara appears powerful because he shuns human interaction in favor of a solipsistic philosophy that views the destruction of others as necessary in proving his own existence. By turning others into prey, he gave himself a purpose by in turn transforming into their predator. And to take on such a nature, to move forward despite having no one to support him, seemed to Naruto to be a sign of power greater than anything he himself was capable of. It is only by recalling the examples of those around him and realizing just what his bonds mean to him that Naruto is able to summon enough strength to counter and then best Gaara, thus refuting the latter’s assumptions about what makes a person strong (although having the support of the most powerful tailed beast helps).
The battle itself is, in two words: fucking awesome. Not since this fight have I felt the same excitement when reading a battle in this manga. Don’t get me wrong, the fights that come afterward don’t necessarily suck. In fact, some of them are pretty cool in their own right. It just so happens that, for me, this was the high point of battles in the manga. It ups the ante to a scale than dwarfs even that of the other major rumble during this arc due to the involvement of two jinchuriki, one of whom initiates a transformation, and one massive toad with a big ass knife. It’s almost tragic how readers take the content of the previous sentence for granted in the current stage of the manga, which has taken the scale so far up that nothing feels amazing anymore. Unlike much of the later fight with Pain, when things get big, it actually feels big. The sheer size of the attacks once they progress to that stage is conveyed by the way the landscape is torn up and how small the human characters actually feel next to all that. But to focus only on the later stages of the fight is to do it a disservice given what happens in the earlier stages.
In addition to the aforementioned emotional and philosophical dimensions, the fight also contains an added source of tension, Sakura as she is caught in Gaara’s technique. There is an impetus, a concrete and highly visible reason, for Naruto to take this fight seriously. Unlike many later fights where characters fight because bad guys have bad goals, there is an easily accessible and present reason why we should feel invested in what is going on. Naruto is dealing with a deadline, on top of having to defend his other teammate and village.
The fight with Gaara is a classic David versus Goliath situation, although David’s packing some pretty impressive heat of his own when you think about it. In fact, I prefer to think of this fight as actually being a battle between two relative equals walking different paths. That aside, the fight scene is just flat out executed perfectly. Starting from the moment that Naruto realizes that he can’t walk away from this battle, things take a turn for the “holy shit, this manga is pretty sweet.” Seeing Naruto so inventive, and by that I mean genuinely inventive, not regurgitating shit from earlier in the manga “inventive” like he was with Kaguya. The art style and Kishimoto’s willingness to be a bit “sloppy” by detailing movements within a single panel rather than the cleaner style he tends toward these days mesh well with the on the fly manner in which Naruto handles things. Even his application of 10,000 Years of Death starts off looking like the penultimate moment before a hilarious punchline after a series of neat and dramatic maneuvers, at least right before he is semi-comically knocked away and applies onomatopoeia with a one liner worthy of an 80s action movie.
Thus, by the end of the arc, Naruto started down the path of a great Hokage: he had not only played a vital role in winning the day for Konoha, but he had also begun to understand the mindset that goes into being a village leader.
Things That Are Just Plain Awkward
Of course, there are some aspects of this arc that are harder to swallow. I brought up the whole problem of Kishimoto making Sarutobi’s sacrifice pointless later on. It sucks even harder given that the resurrected Hokage proceeds to make a remark about this very issue.
There’s also the matter of the origins of the tailed beasts. While Kishimoto would acknowledge this later on, the tale of the tea pot was not only too recent in Sunagakure’s history for people to believe that the Shukaku was the spirit of a mad monk, but it also shows that the author had not planned for there to be nine, and later ten, tailed beasts. The idea of a nine tailed fox and a tanuki are native to Japanese folklore, with these two creatures being the mascots of magical animal mythology in the country. It stands out even more given that so many characters showed surprise at Gaara having a bijuu sealed within him when such a thing should have been par for the course for those in the know. I guess I’m also annoyed that Kishimoto didn’t really keep up the whole magical animals based on folklore theme past the Nibi, the Sanbi, and the Hachibi (Nekomata, Kappa, and Ushi-oni, respectively).
In addition, there’s the matter of Yugao. You know, Hayate’s girlfriend who swore vengeance. Yeah, nothing ever came out of that, did it? By the end of the series, this was but one of various loose ends that were left untied.
Things That Sucked in Hindsight: Fighting One’s Fate
This is something that only became a problem later on, and to be honest, I’ve decided to devote most of my thoughts on it to the upcoming reviews of the most relevant arcs. However, the short of it is that after Naruto overcomes Neji during the battle, he also seemingly succeeds in disproving Neji’s fatalistic views. Unfortunately, later revelations would cast this development into serious question, and naturally, quite a few members of the fanbase were displeased to say the least.
The Chunin Exams and Konoha Crush Arcs are not perfect. The art, while an improvement in progress, is still not the greatest (although it possesses a certain grittiness that complimented the world Kishimoto created). The humor is more miss than hit, and the use of toilet humor during Naruto’s fight against Kiba feels more than a little awkwardly placed. In fact, such sudden swerves in tone characterize various parts of the manga both before and after this arc, and are a bit of a weakness of Kishimoto’s writing. Still, they are not enough to entirely detract from the overall high quality of the writing at this point in the manga, and it is clear as day why some consider this part of the manga to be the zenith of Naruto’s quality as a whole, even if I personally feel that the arc previous to it is a serious candidate for that position.