Following the repelling of Orochimaru’s forces and the Hidden Sand, Konoha is left to rebuild itself. Its wise patriarch is no more, its manpower has taken a hit, the political situation is tenuous, and a new threat appears.
If Kishimoto was writing an arc that would lead into a raising of the stakes, this mini-arc featuring the return of Uchiha Itachi and the introduction of Akatsuki was a hell of a way to do so.
Things That Rocked: Akatsuki Kicks Ass and Takes Names
Somewhere in an underground base, Orochimaru laments his failure to take Itachi’s body as his own (there is no way to not make that come out as anything other than weird), stating outright that the Uchiha is stronger than he is (a pretty major revelation given Orochimaru’s ego).
In a move that brings to mind the introduction of Vegeta and Nappa in Dragonball Z, Akatsuki is introduced by having two of its members observing the desolated village of Konoha shortly after the end of the last arc. Another parallel is to that of the Wave duo, implying that just as those two characters introduced readers to the real threat of ninjas and the deepest conflicts in the story, these two new characters are here to herald a new chapter in the story’s themes and scale. They look threatening in their single-sleeved (!!!!) black cloaks decorated with fabulous red clouds (if you saw someone dressed like that in real life, you wouldn’t be able to take them seriously). Actually, before I move on further, what’s up with the single sleeve in this design? It just seems really impractical. Granted, a heavy cloak is probably impractical for a lot of Akatsuki’s dirtier work, but I can imagine that this probably was why Kishi—I mean Pain went and had the cloaks redesigned just in time for Part II.
Moving on, so Itachi and Kisame sneak into Konoha, leave after realizing that Naruto is with Jiraiya, and then are confronted by (in succession) Asuma, Kurenai, Kakashi, and Guy. They proceed to wipe the floor with the village elites (except for Guy, who makes himself an arch-enemy of sorts). The fights are skirmishes more than anything, yet they highlight just how dangerous these new foes are. Kisame is clearly Itachi’s inferior, and yet it is heavily implied that he is more than a match for even the strongest of Konoha’s elites (barring the Hokage him or later on, herself).
Meanwhile, Itachi, having been hyped up by Orochimaru beforehand, is confirmed as the one who massacred the Uchiha clan. That he was capable of such a feat is testament to his skills, which receive confirmation when he humiliates Kurenai in her field of expertise, and then proceeds to (fairly) easily overcome Kakashi with a combination of clever moves and overwhelming techniques. Even then however, a weakness is implied, leaving the door open for his eventual downfall (see, this is how you make a character look impressive without making their later defeat unbelievable. Shame that Kishimoto swallowed the hype he had written for Itachi and turned him into a Marty Stu). Before all is said and done, it is also revealed that even with Orochimaru having left the organization, Akatsuki is a potentially major threat, being made up of several S-class criminals whose targets include the Kyubi.
Soon afterward, the Akatsuki members attempt to capture Naruto and beat up on Sasuke, It’s basically a few pages of Itachi showing some brotherly affection by breaking little bro’s arm and smacking him around a bit before mindfucking him into unconsciousness. Basically what happens at a typical family get-together. Jiraiya turns the tables and tries to capture and interrogate them, if not outright kill them himself (a task that he seems up to given that Itachi takes a moment to highlight the Sannin’s skills even in comparison to the villainous duo’s own), forcing Itachi to use Amaterasu to create an escape route, an action that further hints at the double-edged nature of his strongest techniques.
So in the span of just a few chapters, Akatsuki manages to prove itself a threat at both the village level and the personal level. That’s what you want to see in these kinds of stories.
Things That Rocked: Characterization
Another solid taken from this short arc was the way it managed to characterize various individuals while telling a compelling story.
The most obvious example of this is the Uchiha duo of Sasuke and Itachi, who get a flashback back to the night of the Uchiha Massacre and the events shortly before that. Sasuke is revealed to have once been a young child that sought acknowledgment as one worthy of being a member of one of the world’s greatest shinobi clans. Meanwhile, Itachi appears tired and morose in those halcyon days, with both Sasuke and Fugaku commenting on his aloof and solitary nature, creating a mystery about his true character, which was seemingly revealed by what he came to do to his entire clan (although this would be revisited time and again before the actual truth of the matter came to light). The quiet yet odd affection Itachi shows Sasuke in the flashback contrasts greatly with his behavior that fateful night and in the present. We are shown rather than told the details, something that was greatly needed after over a hundred chapters of mystery surrounding Sasuke’s past and the man he sought to kill.
Another bit of characterization comes from a brief cutaway to Sakura. While brief, it extends earlier bits of character development that occurred during the Chunin Exam, showing that in spite of her earlier behavior towards her extroverted teammate, she has come to see Naruto as both a true friend as well as a brave and able ninja. This moment also leads into one for Sasuke, in which he expresses his incredulity of Naruto’s growth, his fear of his teammate’s potential, and the negative impact it has on his inferiority-superiority complex, a character trait that becomes clearer once we get a better idea of his relationship with Itachi and his discovery that it is Naruto, the former loser, his brother wants for some reason, not him. These little moments of characterization manage a lot without having to say everything out loud. Look at the expressions on these two characters’ faces during their scenes, and you will realize that Kishimoto didn’t always need to write everything out: as an artist, he needed only to draw it. These character dynamics served to show that not everything was happy go lucky among Team 7, foreshadowing later events while still engaging in organic character development.
Things That Sucked
Because the mini-arc was so brief, it’s hard to find any real flaws in it, although one thing does bug me. When Sasuke confronts Itachi and finds himself in way over his head, he tells Naruto not to interfere. However, the fact is that everyone just stands around looking at Itachi manhandle his younger brother. Seriously, shouldn’t Kisame be planning to take action against Jiraiya and Naruto instead of turning away? Shouldn’t Jiraiya be planning to intervene given that he’s up against two extremely dangerous criminals who seek to capture Naruto for some unknown reason?
This mini-arc serves to open up new plotlines while expanding upon preexisting ones, particularly the until this point disturbingly enigmatic Uchiha subplot. It does a great job of setting up a new threat and engaging in little moments that combine with more explicit ones to characterize various individuals. Because it’s so short, I don’t have much room to complain about anything, although I won’t be able to do the same for the Search for Tsunade Arc.