After the exciting (if somewhat drawn-out) final arc of Part I, Kishimoto took some time off to make preparations for Part II. During the interval between the major acts of the manga, he released a six-chapter side-story detailing events that had happened before the birth of our titular knuckle-headed ninja. Readers were introduced to Uchiha Obito, who served, alongside a young Kakashi, as the main character of this brief digression. What was depicted was a fateful mission undertaken by their team, which included the healer Nohara Rin and their team leader, the future Fourth Hokage.
Overall, I thought that while it was a rather rudimentary and by-the-numbers story arc in its execution, I did appreciate the world building and thematic resonance, although later developments in the greater story would eventually poison my opinion of it and the series as a whole.
Things That Rocked: Creating a Larger World
One thing I appreciated about the gaiden was the fact that it was by its very nature an act of world building. We got some insight into the history of the shinobi world, learned a bit about a couple of Konoha’s legendary heroes, saw how large-scale warfare was conducted by ninja, and even got a look at a country that would later be explored during the second arc of Part II (even if Kishimoto failed to really make its environment all that unique-looking compared to all the other forests and clearings he draws aside from a bit with giant mushrooms).
It was also great to see how one unsavory aspect of Konoha’s history played into Kakashi’s characterization and one of the most important themes of the series. The Kakashi of the gaiden is in many ways the opposite of how he is in the story proper. Seeing Kakashi move forward from the shame of his old man’s case (although I wish Kishimoto had followed up a bit on the decision to continue serving a village despite Sakumo’s treatment for doing what he believed was right), and taking on Obito’s legacy both physically (his Sharingan) and emotionally (moving forward with his life and adopting some of his team mate’s mannerisms) offered great insight into someone who had until this point been a walking mystery. The events of the gaiden really served to illustrate the at times uneasy mixture of jaded world-weariness and hopeful open-mindedness that defines a good chunk of Kakashi’s character.
Things That Rocked: Thematic Resonance
As suggested earlier, I rather liked how the common motifs of the village system and the overall ninja world being heavily flawed came into play once more during the gaiden. Instead of a simple black-and-white conflict (although as a war story, we are not meant to really empathize with enemy ninja), it was shown that in many respects, the main enemy of our protagonists is actually the system itself. It was also great to see how this in some ways fed into the inception of the ideals that Naruto would later take up himself.
Things That Were Neat: Insight into a Mysterious Background Character
It was also a treat to finally see the Fourth Hokage in action. After only seeing images of him and hearing about him from other characters, readers got to see him not only as a character, but also as a ninja.
As a character, we saw that the Fourth was indeed a reasonable and wise authority figure, allowing Kakashi to take the lead during the early parts of the mission while also taking a velvet-gloved approach to managing the relationships within the team. At the same time, we saw just how deadly he could be in the heat of battle (without actually having to see him teleport spam his way to victory against a numerically superior enemy force), and just how cold he could be when stealthily taking out an opponent. In a way, you could see the strange contradictions that describe the ideal ninja when looking at him. Away from the battlefield, he seemed to be a rather warm, discerning, if occasionally ineffectual guy. On the battlefield however, he was clearly ruthless and able to carry out whatever actions were necessary with little fuss and emotion.
Things That Sucked: Predictable Plotting
I would be lying if I said that the plotting for this gaiden was anything other than predictable. However, it was for the most part done adequately enough that I am willing to let it pass. After all, in an age when originality is difficult to find, if not an outright pipe dream, what is cliché is not necessarily a bad thing assuming that it is done well. In this case, Obito and the expanded world both served to elevate what was a pretty standard tragic backstory into something that fit well into the pre-established canon of Naruto.
Things That Sucked: A Dearth of Emotional Connection
While the gaiden was meant to be a compact story, I do wish certain elements could have been given more detail, particularly the bonds between the various team mates. While it was nice to see Obito bonding with Kakashi, it was rather odd later on that Kishimoto revealed Obito to be an orphan himself despite this sort of material clearly being something that could have been used to further strengthen the comparison between the two characters and their developing friendship.
In addition, given the value Obito placed on his bond with Rin, I kind of felt annoyed that there wasn’t a greater feeling that much was at stake for Obito when he decided to try to save Rin despite their orders. While it initially seemed like it was because Obito was a decent person with a crush on her, more could have been done here (especially in light of later revelations) to make readers understand just how much Rin meant to him.
Despite being nothing spectacular, the Kakashi Gaiden was a solid enough entry in the series. While not perfect, it did its job well enough at the time while also expanding on the world and themes of Naruto.
Still, it’s hard to properly discuss the gaiden without considering it within the context of the series as a whole. While it appeared to be a standalone story at first glance, the events depicted turned out to have even bigger ramifications down the line than was initially expected. Those ramifications in turn somewhat hurt the message and contents of the gaiden, as will be explored in greater detail later on.