Things that Rocked, Things that Sucked: The Year of Sasuke

With another victory under their belts, it appeared that Konoha was making some leeway in the battle against the Akatsuki. Naruto had finally become powerful enough to rediscover some of the confidence he had lost in the earlier disaster of an attempt to bring back his former team mate. Meanwhile, in another part of the world, Sasuke’s amazing growth continued to show results, pleasing Orochimaru greatly, as his current vessel was reaching its limits.

Thus began a series of arcs that would comprise a period known to some fans as the “Year of Sasuke,” during which the errant member of Team 7 finally received focus after so much time out of the spotlight, even if his presence could be keenly felt in terms of the effects his absence had on other characters. At last readers could see just what had happened to Sasuke after he’d left Konoha.

Unfortunately, the resulting storylines were often lacking in quality, and polarizing in their reception, to say the least. The arcs that comprised this post’s focus were so bad that not only did a lot of readers find themselves quitting or on the verge of quitting the manga, but they also served to foreshadow the depths to which the series would later plunge.

 
PART I. THE ITACHI PURSUIT MISSION

Things that Sucked: Sasuke Finally Gets Panel Time, Proceeds to Wear Out His Welcome
A major issue I have with these arcs is the focus on Sasuke. Now, I don’t mean that Sasuke sucks and that he should not have gotten a chance in the limelight. Far from it. What I do take issue with is actually the amount of time devoted to him. A deuteragonist like Sasuke does need his own subplot. He’d been MIA since the Penis Arc, and was thus in need of panel time devoted to his story. Normally, when this is done right, the supporting lead is given just enough panel time that their story is properly explored while at the same time ensuring that the plot does not lose focus of what is important—the actual lead of the story. Unfortunately, Kishimoto wound up giving Sasuke too much time in the spotlight, and this only served to not only alienate many readers, but also revealed exactly why Sasuke is not the main character.

Sasuke lacks the strength as a character to support the story on his own. With Naruto, we get a hint of darkness, but we’re also shown that he’s growing as an individual; all the while trying to find his way in the world he’s grown up in (at least it was until he went all Messiah on us). He was (emphasis on “was”) a dynamic, three-dimensional character that we were actually interested in following (it also helped that he had a supporting cast that could help shoulder the burden of maintaining the audience’s interest). Sasuke, on the other hand, revolves around one theme—vengeance. Furthermore, as a brooding loner, he’s not the most charismatic of leads. In addition to that, his depth and dynamism as a character are comparatively lacking when given enough panel time. And it’s not his fault, it’s Kishimoto’s for failing to recognize this.

Prior to the Year of Sasuke, I actually enjoyed reading chapters with Sasuke in them. While he wasn’t on my list of favorite characters, I always appreciated how his storyline compared and contrasted with Naruto’s as their paths intertwined and branched off. I also liked his style of fighting, and how it utilized finesse and his entire body. Watching him in action was actually a great contrast to the archetypically shone mannerisms of Naruto. In a way, it’s a lot like how people view Wolverine. In small doses, he’s awesome. But once he starts dominating the plot for extended periods of time, he gets old fast. Such is the problem with Sasuke taking the lead for such a long time. Too much of anything just has a way of ruining that thing for people, and Sasuke is no exception.

So when we finally seemed to be getting back to Naruto, only to shift to Sasuke again during the Kage Summit, it became difficult to read those chapters without feeling a little irked.

 
Things that Sucked: Naruto’s Stagnation
After finally getting to see some growth on Naruto’s part, Kishimoto decided to follow up on this by doing what was obvious, having him engage in yet another wild goose chase for Sasuke while doing absolutely nothing of consequence except get humiliated by Tobi. This arc could have meant something for Naruto if say, the book Kabuto had left the group had been relevant somehow to the story, but like a good many other things, this little detail went nowhere, so not only was Naruto’s presence completely pointless, but as should soon become clear enough, he began to play second fiddle in his own series.

 
Things that Sucked: Ass Pulls Galore
When writing, one should take care to avoid pulling new elements out of nowhere. Such “ass pulls” are jarring when they occur, and in contrast to organic storytelling, are a sure sign of an author writing by the seat of their pants.

The first ass pull that comes to mind is the revelation that Tobi is the Akatsuki mastermind. Normally, I don’t mind a twist about there being a man behind the man. Done right, it can come off as a rather brilliant surprise. The problem with Tobi’s reveal, however, is that it was poorly foreshadowed. Yes, we had Kurama make a statement about Madara. Yes, we never saw Tobi do much other than run away and make claims about how skilled he supposedly was. Yes, we saw him get right back up unharmed after apparently being cut through by Sasuke. The thing is, aside from that first part with Madara, the rest of the foreshadowing was half-assed. There was little to suggest that there was far more to Tobi than what we’d seen before. Suddenly revealing that he has the ability to turn intangible about ten chapters before the reveal is not good foreshadowing. Good foreshadowing involves little hints sprinkled here and there, be they obvious or subtle, but they have to be there. Bad foreshadowing is when a character hints at something just a few chapters before the twist. There was no hint up to then that the Akatsuki’s leadership was only a front, and that Tobi was somehow connected to it. No hint whatsoever that despite his goofball behavior, Tobi was somehow connected to something grander in the background.

But a lack of proper foreshadowing isn’t enough to kill this sort of twist. Even Bleach (of all things) had an effective example that was originally unplanned by the author, as Kubo managed to pull it off for the most part by linking previous events in a way that actually made some sense (albeit a loose sort of sense). Unfortunately, Kishimoto was unable to do the same, especially when you consider Tobi’s behavior in his very first appearance! Despite the presence of Zetsu, who was in on everything, Tobi still put on his persona for some inexplicable reason. Had this klutziness been a part of Obito’s personality as an adult once he was revealed, then maybe the twist could have worked. Given all these issues, the twist just comes out of nowhere, and the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. A good twist is one that seems to come out of nowhere, but in hindsight makes perfect sense.

This mess of an arc also includes what is now known by the infamous moniker of the Great Snake Escape. Enough has been said about this that I’d just be going over tread ground, but let’s all admit this—it was definitely one of the manga’s low points. Heck, if Kishimoto had wanted, he could have just had Tobi be the one to save Sasuke. Make it so that Tobi used his teleportation/intangibility to save Sasuke, thereby better foreshadowing his reveal, all the while avoiding the stupidity of this particular moment. This was just a ridiculous bit of writing.

 
Things that Sucked: The Sharingan Gets Even More Ridiculously Overpowered
A common complaint as the story went on was just how poorly the Sharingan was handled. Initially written as a dojutsu that enabled users to see through and even replicate jutsu, it became something that allowed for great feats of genjutsu, with further upgrades including the Mangekyo Sharingan (which at least came with a heavy price to pay) and later on, the Rinnegan (boy am I going to have a field day once we get to those parts of the story). This arc brought about one particularly annoying addition to the Sharingan’s rapidly expanding oeuvre, namely the ability to somehow make the Byakugan even less relevant by allowing Sasuke to notice Deidara’s chakra at the cellular level. It was as if Kishimoto had suddenly stopped trying to have everything make sense, and instead had to make something up on the fly to justify Sasuke surviving a seemingly unwinnable situation (which would happen once more with the Great Snake Escape). What makes it even worse is that this ability never comes up again.

 
Things that Sucked: Deidara’s Character is Sacrificed to the Altar of the Plot
Another victim of questionable writing was Deidara. It is revealed out of nowhere that he has a grudge against Itachi and by extension all Sharingan wielders despite the fact that, you know, this hadn’t been foreshadowed in the slightest. Seriously, where did this even come from? Not once in his character interactions with Itachi or Kakashi had this been suggested in the slightest.

As a result of this grudge against the most overplayed dojutsu in the manga, he decides to take on Sasuke and, when it becomes clear that he is overmatched, go suicide bomber on him. Then we got the Great Snake Escape.

None of this made any sense. It was almost as if Kishimoto realized that the guy had nothing to do with his upcoming Uchiha plot and decided, “I’ll just kill him off. But how? Oh, I know, I’ll reveal out of the blue that he has a hate-on for anything Sharingan. That should do it.”

 
PART II: THE TALE OF JIRAIYA THE GALLANT

Things that Sucked: Konan
So let’s talk about yet another female character that Kishimoto dropped the ball with, Konan, the Akatsuki’s sole female member.

This arc was where she got to make her first impression upon readers. Prior introductions by major villains usually had them doing something impressive that clarified just how dangerous they were to the good guys while establishing their characters. In Konan’s case, we didn’t really get much out of her other than serving as Pain’s oldest friend and right hand woman, and when she did get a chance to show what she was capable of beyond recon work, Jiraiya made short work of her. Not exactly the strongest of first impressions, with later events failing to really pick up the slack. As a result, she managed to come off as quite possibly the least impressive member of the Akatsuki.

Trust me then when I say that this isn’t the end of my issues with how Konan was handled.

 
Things that Sucked: Defining Our Hero and the Matter of Lineage

Issue 1. The Pitfalls and Potential of the Hero’s Journey
With Sasuke at the center of things, Naruto suddenly seemed like an afterthought. No longer did he appear to be the main character, as everything relevant to the main plot began to revolve around Sasuke and the Uchiha. Instead, it felt like Naruto had become a supporting player in Sasuke’s story, rather than the other way around.

To rectify this, Kishimoto reached into his magical bag of old tropes and revealed a prophecy that detailed Naruto as its Chosen One. In doing so, he failed to do anything with a trope so overdone that rather than being curious to see how things turned out, readers were rolling their eyes at the crap they were reading.

It also didn’t help that prior to his battle against Pain, Naruto had been given only one real fight during Part II (as he was mostly chasing Deidara alongside Kakashi; while he was not actually conscious during the skirmish with Orochimaru; and against Kakuzu, he had backup and didn’t really do much except for pull off one hit to neutralize the threat). Needless to say, Naruto just didn’t feel all the prominent within the story regardless of what Kishimoto tried to claim.

In a way, the whole thing kind of says a lot about the pitfalls and potential of the Hero’s Journey. Take the earliest of known epic heroes, Gilgamesh. He starts off never being anything less than the Man from the very moment of his birth, being not only two-thirds god, but also being every bit as awe inspiring in his abilities as such a lineage would imply. Despite this however, he manages to have a character arc that reveals the costs and shortcomings of what makes him special. As a result of being the Man and king of his people, Gilgamesh winds up more than a little arrogant and prone to causing harm to his own subjects (because let’s face it, forcibly sleeping with the new wives of your kingdom isn’t the nicest of acts). Furthermore, it is only later on, when he has lost his friend Enkidu that Gilgamesh realizes that as great as he is, even he is going to die one day. And when he sets out on his quest to achieve immortality, what happens?

He fails. Big time.

While Gilgamesh does learn some important lessons from his experiences that resonate with modern audiences today, it is also telling that the epic serves to illustrate that in the end, even the greatest among human beings and heroes can only come to terms with what is for humanity as a whole an unwinnable battle. It is through his exaggerated, larger than life nature that Gilgamesh, like a caricature, serves to embody the vices and virtues of humanity. Rather than feeling like something unfamiliar and beyond our understanding, audiences could and still can appreciate and comprehend Gilgamesh, whose story thus sets an example for those who come across it.

There’s a reason why the most memorable of epic heroes have a tendency to experience tragic ends. As great as they are, it is through their greatness that they become familiar to even the most common of us, and when they fail, they become all the more recognizable. Epic heroes are us magnified, full of potential, but also victims to the limits that define us.

Now compare this to more modern tales that follow so-called losers and everymen who turn out to be special. Unlike many of the epic heroes of the past, these modern heroes tend toward not displaying any particular talents or signs of great lineage until the point it becomes relevant to the story. Such characters are attempts to ground a traditional hero in a more modest and thus “realistic” background. As a result, I would argue that they are in some ways, interestingly enough, less relatable to the average person, who likely possesses neither a great lineage nor a great destiny, than the traditional hero.

In the end, it all comes down to the premise of the thing. The traditional hero comes with great expectations, and we are thus more willing to accept that such a character will have a lineage of distinction and a fate befitting such a person. The more modern attempts at such try to do the same while playing at making their heroes merely humble beings that strive for greatness despite their unimpressive background, only to cower at such a prospect and the proceed to apply the old traditions to the new in manners often most unfitting.

That is why Naruto being some Chosen One turned out to be such a failure from its very conception. One such example of this comes when during Naruto’s battle with Neji during the chunin exams. Neji believed that people are born into their fates, which they are thus helpless to alter. By defeating Neji using a technique that he was originally unskilled at using, Naruto was able to subvert this concept. The loser kid with no talent managed to prove himself more than a loser, and that he did have some talent (in order to completely master a jutsu whose fundamentals were originally beyond him), or at the very least some very impressive drive. All was well and good until the prophecy came along. Once that particular development came about, along with the reveal of just who Naruto’s parents were (although many fans saw that one coming), it appears that Neji may have had a point after all.

Neji believed that, as a genius who was a member of the Hyuga clan, Konoha’s strongest clan by virtue of the Uchiha and Senju becoming nonentities, he had every advantage over the kid without fate on his side. However, Naruto turned out to be descended not only from the Sage himself through his mother, but also was fathered by none other than one of the greatest geniuses to have ever come out of Konoha. Later on, readers would also learn that Naruto was also part of a much larger chain of destiny stemming from the conflict between the Sage’s two sons. In short, his lineage had shaped his destiny from the very beginning. Even his cherished values of hard work and bonds were merely a continuation of a preexisting theme within previous incarnations. In other words, Neji never stood a chance.

To make a long story short, in a story where a child of seeming irrelevance grew into a great hero through hard work and his bonds with others, it soon became clear that the initial premise was but an illusion, and that the author was more interested in a traditional heroic narrative, a choice that would not have been an issue had that simply been clear from the start. Either Kishimoto did not think this out when he outlined the story, or he was simply making things up as he went along because he did not know where he was going. Given a certain detail near the beginning of the manga, it might be the latter. In an early chapter cover Naruto is shown in front of a banner that reads (according to the Viz volumes in my possession): “Don’t lose to DNA!” Perhaps that banner should have read “You lose to my DNA!”

Issue 2. The Growing Prominence of Lineage as an Indicator of Relevance
Speaking of DNA, as the story went on; it became more and more clear that the most important sign of a character’s relevance was their lineage. The Uchiha are the most prominent example of this, as is Naruto by extension by virtue of his being an Uzumaki, with the two Senju brothers also playing important roles later on. This explains how Sasuke and Naruto were able to surpass their masters (Orochimaru and Jiraiya) at such a young age, and in turn suggests that Sakura, with her relative lack of genetic gold, may never truly be able to step out of Tsunade’s shadow as her teammates did their own masters (depressing, isn’t it?).

Going back to Neji’s spiel from earlier in the story, one can see then that he may have had a point when making the suggestion that where a person came from would define where they were going to go. Naruto and Sasuke were meant to be special from the moments they were born, and by the end of the series, the only way to keep up with the final threats was to possess abilities stemming from the Sage’s bloodline.

The issue would not be too much of a problem is one of the points of the story was to offer ambiguity as to whether people could create their own destinies or were resigned to living out their intended fates. However, in a story that fails to suggest such a thing, it serves to weaken the overall narrative. As a result, Naruto became less a story about hard work and determination allowing a person to achieve their dreams than it did a story about how certain people are destined to be better than everyone else.

Issue 3. The Introduction of the Rinnegan and the Sage of Six Paths
Among the more questionable developments in Part II was the revelation of the third great dojutsu and the founder of the shinobi world. In theory, this works, as a parallel to En no Gyoja, a famous sage who founded the Shugendo religious sect, which combined elements of animism, Buddhism, Taoism, and even Shinto, elements that provided a basis for various concepts in the manga.

Anyway, the fact that there would be a legendary figure who acted as the origin of ninjutsu normally wouldn’t be a problem, and aside from the whole matter of a certain prophecy, it wasn’t. What was happened to be the execution.

Let’s start with something that must first be brought up: the way the Sage was introduced. Over 300 chapters in, Jiraiya suddenly has a flashback where the Rinnegan is introduced as the greatest dojutsu. After so many chapters of seeing Pain’s silhouette and not having anyone remark on this among the Akatsuki, Jiraiya waxes poetic about these eyes and the man who made them famous.

I suppose that Kishimoto wanted to counter the hype that the Sharingan and its variants were getting (at least until it turned out that the Rinnegan was merely the final stage of the Sharingan’s possible progressions), and decided to introduce a new dojutsu, but then proceeded to handle it rather clumsily. What makes this particularly egregious is that it comes after Pain is revealed to be Tobi’s underling. In other words, Kishimoto managed to take some of the air out of the Rinnegan right before he even started to hype it up.

It would have been nice if readers had been given hints as to the significance of the eyes and the Sage beforehand. Maybe sprinkle in some background images featuring imagery of either of these things to suggest their importance, all the while building up the mystery that was the Akatsuki leader.

Issue 4. From the Ordinary to the Extraordinary
This all leads into the final problem I have with this development, it changed the focus of the plot. Before the Sage and all that business relating to him became the plot, Naruto was as down to earth a story set in a fantasy world of highly visible ninja could be.

While things were always somewhat over the top in Naruto, the story was kept grounded by the fact that characters had human motivations and, with the exception of Orochimaru, realistic aims. The Sand attacks Konoha in Part I not with the aim of ultimate power, but simply because to not do so would run the risk of continuing the village on its then current path to financial ruin. The various shinobi leaders were concerned with keeping the peace, even at the highest costs, as is evident in the Hyuga affair. Gato wanted to financially and politically dominate the Land of Waves. Zabuza wanted enough resources to launch a second coup attempt. Sasuke wanted revenge on his brother. Naruto wanted to be acknowledged. These were goals that could easily be identified with our reality.

With the introduction of the Rinnegan and Juubi, the story started focusing on villains whose goals included mass hypnosis and godlike power. Meanwhile, Naruto wanted to bring about world peace and with that, every single good guy suddenly turned into a hippie and every villain a strawman.* The realistic and often opposing aims of various groups apparently vanished into thin air just so that Kishimoto could make Naruto’s ideal go smoothly as possible. Goals that reflected reality fell to the wayside as the story. A fantasy with roots in reality became nothing more than a standard cartoonish farce that often came off as silly utopian propaganda.

Stories which have fantastical elements, be they pure fantasy or science fiction, can often use the devices present in their make believe worlds to reflect ideas that impact their audience in real life. Naruto’s story became schizophrenic – one moment it was a fantasy rooted in reality, the next it was a pure fantasy with purely fantastical conflicts.

Looking back on what I’ve written here, I think it’s safe to say that the prophecy and everything to do with the Sage made quite a mess of things.

 
Things that Sucked: Pulling Backstories Out of His Behind, Kishimoto Is
This brings up another issue, and I can’t believe I forgot about it until now, and that is the introduction of Nagato into the story. It comes straight out of nowhere. We knew that Jiraiya had previously trained a genin team that included Minato, and prior to the Rain Trio being revealed, I remember people wondering if the other two members of Jiraiya’s team grew up to be the nominal heads of Akatsuki. Instead, it turns out that he trained some foreign kids for a couple of years.

Wait, what?

I guess one way to make it feel less awkward would have been to foreshadow the Rain Trio before they appeared so that readers could put two and two together regarding “Blue” and the “AL.” Maybe make it so that Jiraiya carries around a keepsake of his time with them, or have little hints that his genin team wasn’t the only trio he trained. Or maybe have Tsunade bring up the kids when the matter of Amegakure was brought up shortly before Jiraiya left. I don’t know, something other revealing out of nowhere that Jiraiya had trained a trio of orphans from a foreign land.

 
Things that Bugged Me: Where Exactly Did the Fight Take Place?
Something that bugged me a lot in hindsight was the matter of the exact locations of where the battle between Jiraiya and Pain took place. It starts inside Pain’s tower, then moves outside a bit as the summons come into play, then moves into a building (the tower?), before moving toward a body of water closely connected to the ocean (enough that Jiraiya’s body was lost, despite the country being landlocked at that). Weren’t there witnesses? Didn’t anyone want to get a good look at what was going on and if Pain was involved (it never ceases to amuse me that the ninja in this series are for the most part as subtle as a standard car alarm)?

 
Things that Rocked: The World Building that Didn’t Blow
You might figure that after all the negativity I’ve expressed in regards to Kishimoto’s attempts at world building that I might have outright hated every element of it. Well, for the sake of lightening the mood a bit, you are, thankfully in this case, wrong.

I actually appreciated the expansion upon elements of the ninja world hinted at by Pain’s earlier speech to the Akatsuki. It was one thing to hear about how smaller nations were impacted by the machinations of larger countries, but to actually see an example in the form of Amegakure’s host state, as well as the famous figures who existed outside the five great nations, was a tasty enough treat to somewhat offset the terrible flavor of the more clumsy attempts at expanding the world.

I also admit to rather liking Amegakure’s design. It made me think of Blade Runner as imagined in a somewhat feudal Japanese setting. It was basically the final stage of a video game before things went cosmic (which, as it turns out, wasn’t too far off the mark). The village was exotic yet familiar, and, with the help of the local weather, actually rather gloomy and atmospheric. It’s kind of a shame then that we didn’t really see much of the city after this arc.

 
PART III. THE FATED BATTLE BETWEEN BROTHERS

Things that Might Have Rocked or Maybe I’m Just Kidding Myself: The Battle
In hindsight, the way that the Uchiha fight was written begins to make some sense. Despite being hyped up and filled to the brim with emotions both subtle and ebullient, it came off as anticlimactic, and unsatisfying.

Itachi didn’t fight to his full potential for various reasons, while fight itself was overlong and filled with odd twists and turns, leading to a result that failed to match the hype both fans and the story had given it.

And that’s the brilliance of the fight: it denies both Sasuke and the reader the catharsis that it otherwise would provide. There’s only the emptiness that Kakashi spoke of all those chapters ago, and a realization that in the end, allowing revenge to consume you only leads to a self-destructive habit that’s hard to kick because said habit defines your entire existence.

In addition, this lack of catharsis served to hint at the fact that this was not to be the climax of Sasuke’s subplot. If it had matched the hype, Kishimoto would have been hard pressed to maintain the readers’ interest in Sasuke’s story.
Of course, I could be giving Kishimoto too much credit.

 
Things that Sucked: Certain Lesser Details
Of course, regardless of one’s own opinion of the fated clash between brothers, one can see a few minor issues that detracted from it.

The first was its timing. Make no mistake; the battle between the brothers was possibly the most anticipated fight in the entire story up to that point. However, what weakened its actual impact was the timing of it, namely the fact that for whatever reason, Kishimoto saw fit to feature it right after readers had just gotten bits of a clash between Jiraiya and Pain, two of the heavier hitters in the series. Given the recent dissolution of tension following the end of that battle, it was rather questionable for another fight, even one as anticipated as that between the brothers Uchiha, to start immediately afterward instead of being delayed a bit for the sake of not having to impress a recently exhausted audience.

The second issue has to do with the inclusion of Kirin. The technique was hinted at way back during the Penis Arc when Sasuke seemed prepared to use it against his former team mates. However, it is shown here that as powerful as the jutsu is, it requires quite a bit of preparation before it becomes practical in an actual battle. Somehow, Sasuke expected to call down lightning without any visible attempts at that. Another issue is the fact that after this arc, Kirin becomes completely irrelevant. Despite its power, it never shows up again in spite of Sasuke fighting more and more dangerous opponents. It was almost as if it was a cool looking jutsu that was intended for a single use simply so that the merchandise based around the manga, like say, the video games, could include it among Sasuke’s arsenal as a selling point. Hey, money’s money.

 
Things that Sucked: The Twist Makes Questionable Sense
Despite claims that the twist was planned all along, much of it doesn’t quite work upon closer inspection.

First of all, while the nature of the Uchiha’s genetics is given an explanation of sorts later (and boy howdy, what an explanation that turned out to be), Itachi’s treatment of Sasuke makes little sense. Instead of making sure that his brother might be able to move forward with his life, Itachi traumatizes Sasuke repeatedly and sets him on a path that would most likely result in a troubled wreck of a person. Somehow the prodigy who is repeatedly praised for his good sense couldn’t recognize this.

Then, there’s the lack of any real hints at this. While some might claim that Itachi’s actions hinted at something more, as the above paragraph shows, his behavior makes such claims highly questionable. Furthermore, it would have been wiser then for Kishimoto to sprinkle other hints here and there that there was something more going on. Considering Danzo’s role in the plot, surely that could have come into play somehow.

Also, one wonders just where the Uchiha were during the attack on Konoha 16 years ago. And don’t tell me to read the guides or books or whatever media that aren’t the original manga. If the detail is prominent and relevant enough in the original story, it deserves to be explained in the original story.

 
Things that Sucked: The Uchiha Mess
This is when the cracks really started to show in the plot, and overlaps quite a bit with my earlier comments about the growing prominence of lineage as an indicator of prominence. The Uchiha were always going to play a role in the story, but up to a certain point, the Uchiha were relegated to their own subplot revolving around Sasuke. And that was fine. Itachi was a member of Akatsuki, which was itself enough to tie Sasuke’s story to the main plot. However, Kishimoto went overboard and made it such that everything in the plot revolved around the Uchiha, the suddenly introduced Senju, and their famous ancestor.

As mentioned above, Sasuke became the center of the plot. He was the core of Naruto’s motivation. He was the target of Tobi’s scheming. The story had shifted so that everything seemed to revolve around him.

To make matters worse, the Sharingan became highly overexposed, with ocular power after ocular power being added on, and, as mentioned earlier, this culminated in the reveal that under the right circumstances, you could level up a Sharingan into the Rinnegan.

 
Things that Sucked: Everything Orochimaru
Poor, poor Orochimaru. The main antagonist of Part I was reduced to a joke during this arc. While his initial defeat to Sasuke was anticlimactic, at least there was room for him to return in some form. Then, when he did appear in grand fashion during the Uchiha fight, he pulled out a cool new jutsu, prepared the Kusanagi…

…and got sealed by Itachi within that very chapter. You can’t make this shit up. This is the sort of thing you might see in badly written fanfic:

“Then the bad guy who was a major villain up to this point got up to fight but then he, like, totally got pwned by the other, more handsome and talented guy before he could do anything.”

You see that shit? What the fuck was Kishimoto smoking? Is the intended audience made up of such a bunch of shallow pussies that they can’t appreciate an evil, none bishonen villain? I’ve never been a fan of Orochimaru, but I could see why readers thought him a fine villain. At the very least, he was a better one than many of the lame attempts at creating a cool antagonist that would come afterward.

 
Things that Sucked: Taka
Taka is one of the odder additions into the manga. A sort of morally bankrupt version of Team 7, the group had potential for some interesting interplay with Sasuke. At the same time, it was clear that Kishimoto had little interest in Taka. We got introduced to them, they showed off a couple of their skills, and then Sasuke went to fight Itachi.

The fight against B brought about some much needed fleshing out of the characters, and actually expanded on their relationship with Sasuke, even if it wasn’t exactly clear just why Suigetsu felt close enough to the others that he was willing to risk his life to defend them from a rampaging jinchuriki. I guess a sadist with a reputation for carving people up from a messed up village might be the sort to interpret arguments and beatings as forms of affection.

When Sasuke eventually abandoned the other members, it all fell flat on an emotional level. Readers never really got to see much in the way of scenes depicting a growing sense of camaraderie among the members of Taka, so his betrayal of them lacked the emotional impact that it did.

 
Things that Sucked: Supporting Characters Still Didn’t Get to Do Much
Remember what I said about the inclusion of Team Guy back during the Kazekage Rescue Mission Arc being pointless fanservice? Well that continued here with the treatment of Team 8, who all appeared for the sole purpose of ensuring that their fans would buy these particular volumes. While they were given some hints of growth (Hinata could see further, Kiba could smell better than a dog, and Shino could prepare even larger scale attacks with his bugs), in the end, it didn’t really amount to much. Where the growth of the main characters in Team 7 proved relevant to the plot, the so-called growth of these characters didn’t really do anything other than waste panels. It was a shame too, given that one of the major strengths of the series prior to Part II was the interesting supporting cast.

 
Things that Were Cathartic: Killer B Smacks Taka Around, Proceeds to Humiliate Them
Now this technically is part of the next arc, but since it occurred before Pain’s invasion really got underway, I like to think of it as being the tail end of the Year of Sasuke.

After waiting through seemingly endless chapters of the lugubrious Sasuke stealing the spotlight, it was more than a little cathartic to see Killer B, a jovial and upbeat fellow, humiliate Taka repeatedly. Nab the Kubikiribōchō? Check. Off-panel Juugo? Check. Smack around Sasuke? Check. Overcome the otherwise broken genjutsu of a Sharingan user? Check. Tear Sasuke a new asshole? Double check! And when seemingly beaten, set up a decoy body that makes a mockery of Taka and Akatsuki both? It was a moment so beautiful that even Zetsu couldn’t help himself.

The only negative was that in order to help Sasuke retain some dignity, Kishimoto had B call the at that point irritatingly overexposed character the strongest opponent he’d ever fought, and reveal that Sasuke hadn’t been fighting at 100 percent due to his wounds.

Fans…Fuck ‘em.

 
Conclusion
The Year of Sasuke was further evidence for many longtime readers that the relative mediocrity of much of Part II (to say nothing of the much reviled Penis Arc) was not a mere fluke, but in fact an overall trend indicating that all was not well with the manga.

Some attribute this decline to the change in editors partway through the manga, but upon closer inspection, one can see, based on Kishimoto’s comments about editorial mandates (regarding the rushing of the previous arc) and the fact that Kosuke Yahagi was present as Kishimoto’s editor during periods in which the series was clearly no longer reaching the heights it once did, it is likely that blame can be laid at the feet of the author, the very editor who had earlier overseen Naruto’s golden age, and maybe even Shueisha or whoever was piling pressure on the story’s progression.

A major issue that became more noticeable after this arc was the Uchiha clan’s commandeering of the plot. Up to this point, the clan’s drama, while a major part of the story, was not its defining element, being but one piece of the larger puzzle. However, Naruto’s seeming irrelevance and the clumsy manner in which this issue was ‘rectified’ combined with more revelations about the Uchiha’s importance to transform the story from one about the complexities of the ninja world as a whole into one centered mostly around an ancient family drama.

If earlier arcs were a portent of things to come, this one was the sounding of the manga’s death knell. Readers just didn’t know it at the time, believing that as bad as things were, surely they couldn’t get much worse.

They were wrong.

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5 thoughts on “Things that Rocked, Things that Sucked: The Year of Sasuke

  1. I agree with about nearly everything, just this one thing – which is the ordinary to extraordinary section.

    Just my opinion here. Although it is true that such goals (godlike power, world peace) cannot exactly be achieved in real life as they can in Naruto, I think that their situation can be compared to a much smaller scale problem that has probably been faced multiple times in history.

    You could compare these individuals that lust for godlike power, to real life dictators or abusers of power who do everything they can and more to get what they want, be it money, fame, or whatever. These desires are not far from what a real life person could want.

    As for Naruto and the Shinobi Alliance suddenly “turning into hippies striving for world peace”, while world peace is seemingly (and probably) impossible, it can be said that it is not world peace that they are risking their lives for, but freedom. The point of the whole Shinobi Alliance, if I’m not mistaken, was to take down a very strong common enemy.

    So while everyone does have their own aspirations, in a time of war, those aspirations can wait, there is a much bigger problem to be faced. The Shinobi Alliance may be seen as a rebellion against a dictator that has a very different ideology than them. They don’t want to be forced to serve someone that they don’t agree with, so what do they do? They band together to face their common enemy. This is a situation that can be seen multiple times in history, like the Americans overthrowing the English in the American Revolution.
    So in conclusion, their goals changed drastically because of the situation they are facing. Goals don’t stay the same; life changes; things happen. Also, some individuals are just really messed up in the head.

    tl;dr: it’s not as FANTASY as you think.

    Anyways, continue your good work. I love reading them. It’s sad that serious went from intriguing and interesting (Part 1) to pretty much shit (Shippuden).

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    • While I see your point, I still stand by my original arguments. Now granted, there already was a fantastical element to Orochimaru’s desire to live forever, although one could also argue that this has been a goal of human beings from the moment they began to fear death (as Gilgamesh and Qin Shi Huang can attest). As for the crazier goals of the villains, they were more than a little out there given that up to that point in the story, Orochimaru aside, there was a greater focus on mundane goals and the negative influence of the existing system on peoples’ actions (Gaara being made into a weapon, which was in turn a result of the balance of power needing to be maintained in the face of a declining economic situation, which was later implied to be in part due to the growing stability of international relations). Suddenly, the goals of the villains, which could have been something to relate to (take over the world either through conquest or economics like the Akatsuki plan, which in turn could have fed into Pain’s goal and how it resembles the taboo on using nuclear weapons) became ridiculous in their form (hypnotizing everyone into a dream state and/or turning them into Zetsus).

      As for the Shinobi Alliance thing, while yes there was a need to band together against the oppression promised by a common enemy (although one wonders why said enemy was dumb enough to do that), I would have liked to have seen more tensions between the allied forces, especially given that I’m pretty sure each nation’s definition of an ideal peace probably differed a bit from the rests’. In real life, you can see just how common enemies don’t suddenly make friends of former foes (look at how quickly World War II transitioned into the Cold War). Instead, we have Gaara giving a pretty speech to the assembled forces and Onoki suddenly changing his tune despite a lifetime of having to do what a leader must. Meanwhile, everything is fine and dandy after the war even though I’m sure that even idealistic projects like the EU don’t come together all that well in real life. As for the American Revolution, even that was followed by quite a bit of instability before the US achieved its current equilibrium

      Still, once again, thanks for taking the time to actually read these. It’s actually rather cathartic to express one’s disappointment about something through a review.

      Like

  2. The two arguments you always see for this is that Naruto was destined to be Hokage because of being a reincarnation and that he had the Nine-Tailed Fox inside of him, but honestly, I think both of these are bullshit.

    Naruto was born with the odds stacked against him. He was born with a monster sealed inside of him, two dead parents, an entire village of people against him, poor chakra control, and he was dumb as hell. Instead of succumbing to these, he turns the odds around. The fox made it impossible to even make a simple clone or focus your chakra. He couldn’t learn any Jutsu, and he had to work twice as hard as Sasuke to even climb a tree. While everyone else in the village was trained by their parents or learned how to fight, Naruto was still on square one while everyone else was a trained fighter.

    By the time Sasuke could kill Itachi, Naruto could still barely only control his chakra. He takes two years off just to get to the same level that everyone else was already at. The Fox almost tears his body up every time he gets angry. Although it helps him out sometimes it’s still a huge weakness of his. Only after five years of training nonstop does he finally turn his life around and turn his weakness into a strength. You could interpret this as an inevitability, but I personally think that it’s a testament to Naruto’s hard work. Take Carl Sagan for example:
    Carl Sagan is one of the most well-known scientists in the world, but he claims that what gives him a good understanding of science is that he wasn’t that smart. He had to work twice as hard for it to get through to his head and so it gave him a deeper understanding, just like how Naruto turns his weakness into a strength.

    ────────

    One of the main themes of Naruto is fate. I don’t think it’s quite right to say that Kishimoto doesn’t believe in fate, but I think what he was trying to say with Naruto is that it doesn’t matter. Jiraiya was predicted to teach a student that would change the world, but it turns out that it was both Naruto and Pain, on opposite sides. Sasuke and Naruto are said to be eternal enemies. Black Zetsu claims that the world that they know has been specifically manipulated to resurrect Kaguya, but Naruto tells him that Shinobi history is based on the people who made it, not Kaguya’s personal story line. To me, it seems like there’s evidence to support and deny fate, and with that, I think that Kishimoto was just trying to say that it doesn’t matter either way and to just live your life the way you see fit.

    Considering these two things, I really don’t think that Naruto ever stopped being about hard work vs. talent. Naruto went through hell to turn his weakness into strength, and I don’t personally feel that fate was on his side.

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    • Thanks for the substantive comment.

      In regards to the odds being stacked against Naruto, I would like to argue some of the points made here. First off, in the three years of training Naruto got over the time skip, the story alleged that Naruto had become one of the stronger members of his generation regardless of rank (this in turn has to consider the fact that the fellow members of Naruto’s generation also had grown themselves during that time frame). In fact, despite his so-called impoverished background, even a class dunce like Naruto seemed capable compared to some of his fellow rookies, and was even good enough to handle Gato’s bodyguards.

      While one might raise the question of whether this was an inevitability or the product of hard work, I would argue in turn that the problem with this slightly ambiguous (in that I would argue that fate trumps free will within the story) situation is that it only hurts the cause. Had it come down firmly on the side of the latter, and avoided any sprinklings of fate, it would have been a much firmer message. The very nature of prophecy and reincarnation only seems to reinforce the idea that all this was inevitable from the start rather than through the efforts of others. After all, I doubt a hard worker without any prophecies attached could have hoped to achieve similar results in the story. It’s actually the reason why I suggested in my review of Pain’s invasion that Nagato be the only Child of Prophecy, in order to show a character challenging fate and avoiding the questions surrounding the validity of Naruto’s rise (as anything to do with prophecy robs characters of their own ability to determine their paths).

      Going back to Nagato’s comments about fate at the very end, the implication there was that there was an author who planned this all out, with the characters being his pawns, perhaps even a nod to the fact that this is a work of fiction. In fact, fate is the clear winner in the story, and Naruto is its champion, with even the biju reinforcing this view when they make reference to yet another prophecy (suggesting that even Jiraiya’s choice was predetermined given how even another prophecy was attached to Naruto on top of the reincarnation thing). Now, does it matter? If applying this to real life, then one can come to a conclusion that depends on one’s own personal beliefs on the matter. However, in the context of Naruto, it does indeed matter. And it comes firmly on the side of fate. Again, there was little real ambiguity, and more ambiguity or a plain rejection of fate would have served the story better.

      As for Zetsu’s comments, I can’t help but wonder if that was Kishimoto somewhat owning up to how the Senju-Uchiha-Ootsuki plotline wound up swallowing the entire plot and left everyone else irrelevant.

      Like

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