After a string of disappointing turns in the plot, the story finally entered its final act with the lead-up to the Fourth Shinobi World War. Surprisingly enough, it was not as bad as what had come before it entirely. Now that’s not to say it was good, after all, given what faint praise the previous sentence was. But there was more to like here than in previous arcs.
Things that Sucked: The Falls of Truth
This could have been something interesting, but as with a lot of other interesting concepts in the manga, the actual execution left a lot to be desired. First of all, despite seemingly serving as a means by which Naruto could confront and overcome the darkness within himself, it failed to actually do that, as soon became evident when Naruto confronted the fox (see below), as well as later on when our main character would once again find himself on the verge of succumbing to despair. Furthermore, because such inner conflicts would be revisited again, they only served to make this particular part feel redundant and mostly pointless in hindsight.
Second of all, the parts about making peace with oneself were handled rather clumsily and shallowly. Naruto was by his very nature a fascinating character to analyze by that point in time. While happy-go-lucky on the outside, his own history and inner thoughts revealed great insecurity and lingering feelings of resentment despite the upturn his life had taken in recent years. This could have been a great opportunity to really look at the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of Naruto, to see just who he had been and who he had become from a new angle as he cemented his transition from unpolished protagonist to a hero worthy of his own tale.
Instead, readers were barely given anything, and the resolution to the whole thing, while somewhat understandable, just came off as anticlimactic enough that it seemed even the author had little interest in the whole exercise (it didn’t help that the brief digression with Motoi, while shedding some light on Kumogakure and Killer B, didn’t feel as properly fleshed out as it could have).
Things that Sucked: Showdown with the Fox
This is something that really should not have been so disappointing given its seeming importance to the story. Expectations were that aside from his rivalry with Sasuke and a showdown with whoever the main villain was supposed to be, Naruto’s greatest conflict was with the demon fox sealed inside him. The fox not only represented the source of Naruto’s own troubled history, but also acted as a metaphor for his inner darkness that needed to be overcome in order to come out of the experience a stronger person. A being of what appeared to be pure malice (until later events softened him up), the fox was Naruto’s Shadow, a malevolent beast that personified the negative hidden parts of his personality, as well as what the rest of the village had originally believed him to be. My flowery language aside, this was a confrontation that deserved to be treated with the proper gravitas and time. As you might have guessed by now, it was not.
First of all, why was it portrayed in such a banal manner? While the idea of a tug-of-war between chakras was interesting and made sense, the rest of the confrontation took the form of a standard physical confrontation. This makes little sense given that this battle was a mental and spiritual one between chakras, meaning that the limits of the body should not have applied here. In fact, if anything, Kishimoto missed out on a chance to really go nuts with the abstract imagery, as neither character should have been tied down to anything other than their own mental and spiritual limits. Bringing in natural energy (given its emphasis on serenity with the world around oneself) to serve as a thematic counterbalance to Kurama (given his own emphasis on internal chaos) made a lot of sense. Taijutsu, shadow clones, and jumping around like one would in the physical world? Not so much.
Second, why was Naruto’s opponent, the demon fox himself, so unimpressive? While I get that Naruto had become stronger over the course of the series, this was supposedly a being that at less than its full power had been able to break free from Pain’s technique (and that is not taking into account the various statements made throughout the manga about its overwhelming potential). One might have expected this battle to have been less about raw power, due to Naruto supposedly being at a massive disadvantage there, than about one’s will and other intangible factors. Instead, Naruto, after some relatively minor hiccups, manages to best it in a ‘physical’ match before beginning to succumb to the negative emotions it sends his way.
Third, it failed to really do much to challenge Naruto as a character. The battle at one point sees Naruto being confronted by the hatred of both the fox and its victims, which in itself could have served as an opportunity to portray a battle of wills (wherein a future leader and hero should find a way to overcome such a heavy weight and shoulder the burdens of his position), but instead came off as illustrating that Naruto was in the end unable to truly shoulder his own inner darkness. It was supposed to illustrate the importance of bonds, I understand, but at the same time he comes off as lacking in the inner strength that defines a hero. In fact, despite seemingly overcoming this challenge, he would again falter down the line (in fact, this challenge itself comes after he’d seemingly cleared his head regarding the Sasuke question), so once again, this moment of growth feels unjustified. The fact that it immediately followed a similar internal battle against what was supposed to be Naruto’s own inner darkness also made the whole thing feel redundant.
Things that Rocked: Kushina
Some years ago, on a rainy evening, I saw that the spoilers for the then-upcoming chapter had been released. I clicked the link, and lo and behold, there was a spoiler image.
Just frigging Kushina.
And I was fucking ecstatic. Among all the remaining mysteries of the story at that time, the issue of Kushina tended to weigh heavily on me. It wasn’t a matter of how this might relate to the overall plot or the Sage. What mattered to me was that any revelations regarding her would be revelations regarding Naruto and the Kyubi attack that kicked off the story.
And it was so central to the main character’s potential development and fleshing out that I cared a lot about whatever we might get.
So where was I?
Oh yeah, I was fucking ecstatic.
I actually hopped up from my seat and thought, “holy shit, Kushina!”
Even with my continually wavering interest in the manga’s going-ons, this actually managed to get me excited. I actually couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
And for the most part, I wasn’t that disappointed. Yeah granted it was a bit odd that she was never brought up until over 300 chapters into the story, or that her clan and its symbol were never even hinted as being so important until she became an actual character. And yeah, I’m a bit annoyed that despite Naruto taking after her personality and brawling style of combat, she was relegated to being a damsel in distress for Minato to rescue twice in flashbacks.
But that crap aside, I actually liked her.
Despite appearing for only a few chapters in the grand context of the story, she actually came off as one of the better female characters. In fact, I find the “parallels” that shippers used to compare Sakura and Hinata to her a bit insulting, given that one’s the example of how not to write a female lead, and the other is the very epitome of a shallow love interest.
She had spirit. She had a spine. She had a personality. She overcame so much adversity only to lose everything on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life. And most importantly, for me at least, she was likeable. I actually looked forward to seeing chapters where she played a part. And that’s saying something considering the usual state of female characters in the story.
Of all the supporting characters introduced in Part II that weren’t villains, Kushina might actually be one of my favorites. And I mean that in the best way.
Things that Bugged Me: The Flashback and Kishimoto
Now this doesn’t have to do with the story itself entirely, but rather with some comments made by the author (although keep in mind that the above quote is translated, and one also has to consider just how accurate any translation is, along with the fact that quoted texts might themselves fail to capture the nuance of a person’s actual comments).
Anyway, at one point in 2012, Kishimoto gave an interview in which he said the following:
I was initially going to make the flashback about Naruto’s parents very short. But learning about his parents became crucial so that Naruto could become aware of his identity. Though his parents were no longer in this world, they were able to use their chakra to tell Naruto how they felt about him. His parents sealed the Nine-Tailed Fox inside of him to bring peace to the world. They believed in him so strongly that they thought he would be able to handle the responsibility.
Read that first sentence there. Apparently, the author himself wanted to make the flashback “very short.” The flashback depicting the events brought up at the very beginning of the story. The events that provide the background to the most important part of the main character’s history. The author wanted to make this very important history lesson very short.
Now, if I could ask Kishimoto one question about this, I would ask him the following: what the fuck is wrong with you?
This very important flashback was something you wanted to make very short, but it’s okay for you to keep bringing up flashbacks to the Uchiha massacre? I mean, holy shit, is that a sign of the author losing focus of what was truly important in his own story or what? The fucking deuteragonist’s history and family gets more prominence and effort from the author himself.
This right here might actually explain a lot about just how the story fell so far.
Things that Bugged Me: Where Were the Uchiha?
Really, where were the Uchiha during the flashback? It was even given some attention through Itachi’s comment about his parents being gone, and yet there was never any actual follow-up in the story itself.
Things That Sucked: Plotting at the Expense of Characterization
“Idiot plot: A plot that requires all the characters to be idiots. If they weren’t, they’d immediately figure out everything and the movie would be over.”
A bad habit that Kishimoto developed over the years was his tendency to sacrifice his characters for the sake of advancing the plot. What this means is that that if Kishimoto needed something to happen, he would have a character act in a manner that might not necessarily fit their established personality in order to move things along as he desired.
A notable set of examples lies in the usage of Naruto’s peers over the course of Part II. One example that particularly stands out to me at least, is that between Lee and Gaara. In Part I, both wind up fighting each other at the Chunin Exams, with Gaara putting Lee’s future as a ninja at risk, while Lee’s relationship with Guy clearly affects the future Kazekage. Later, when the two meet again, there’s clearly an awkwardness that reflects the continuity in their interactions. Later however, when they’re within a few feet of each other in the first arc of Part II, we get nothing. Naruto is the one who does all the bonding with Gaara (granted, he was the most important person there when it came to understanding him), but still, you would think that Lee and the Kazekage would each take a moment to acknowledge the other.
Regardless, what happens is that these side characters with their intriguing personalities are reduced to moving props. Remember when Lee was a so-called loser determined to prove his doubters wrong? Or when Hinata’s characterization involved something other than her crush on Naruto? Or perhaps you might recall Sakura’s sudden turn toward stupidity during the previous arc. In order to make the meeting with the original members of Team 7 happen, Kishimoto needed a catalyst for putting all these characters in one place. He did this by having Sakura come up with a moronic plan to take out Sasuke, and had her behave in a manner that was contrary to how she had been developed prior to that point.
Anyway, if there is one that really gets on my nerves every time I so much as see an image of the characters involved, it’s Minato’s decision-making on the night of Tobi’s attack. To be more precise, I’m stumped at the insane troll logic involved in Minato’s decision to use the Death God Sealing jutsu.
Had said jutsu been the only way to seal Kurama into Naruto, I wouldn’t have had any problems with it. The problem is that it had been made clear that there are other ways of sealing biju into humans that aren’t nearly as lethal to the caster.
And yet Minato decides to use the jutsu anyway, because he wants Kushina to have an opportunity to see her son in the future. Furthermore, he decides to leave his infant son without parents and susceptible to social ostracism, further justifying this decision by saying that her guidance is not only something a mother can provide, but also will prove useful in helping Naruto tame his inner biju.
While this seemingly works out from an in-story standpoint, it fails hard if you take a moment to think about it on even the most basic level.
First of all, he’s still leaving his son without parental guidance and susceptible to that social ostracism I mentioned earlier. I mean, it’s not like a person has a much better chance of controlling their biju if they’re emotionally sta—oh.
Second of all, it reveals Minato for what he is, an immature pussy of a man. I’m sorry, but sacrificing yourself just so your wife can do what you as a man with your dangly bits cannot? Fuck you. Fuck you in your androgynous face, you selfish fuck. I’m sorry, but if there’s anything that really pisses me off here, it’s how crappy a father Minato was. It’s not even funny how much this pissed me off when I first read this. Oh I’m a man; I can’t possibly give my son the special attention he needs. Better he be an orphan who meets his long dead parents once he gets into big trouble with the monster sealed into him rather than some relatively well adjusted kid who has at least one person who cares for him.
Third, it shows that Minato was a total fuck-up as the village’s political leader. I mean, there’s a guy out there who’s potentially an international threat, and yet you kill yourself and all living witnesses to that terrorist’s actions, without leaving a message or anything. No, you go and kill yourself, leaving your kid to grow up lonely and emotionally unstable, all the while granting that guy who may or may not be Uchiha Madara the perfect opportunity to go on doing his thing.
Good thinking there, dumbass.
So yeah, long story short, fuck sacrificing your characters and their intelligence for the sake of making your idiot plot work. Because otherwise you write shit like what I just outlined above.
Things That Sucked: Konan
Konan was, until her introduction, one of the more mysterious members of the Akatsuki. When we did meet her for the first time, she was a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Unfortunately, that was about the extent of her character, as it turned out.
She was basically the Sakura of the Rain Trio, acting less as her own person and being more of a supporter of her team, being in love with one of her fellow team members, and being an utter disappointment.
Even when given the chance to shine, Konan was not much of a character, as everything about her was based around supporting her two boys. We never got much of about her own personal life (aside from the origami hobby), her other goals, or even her personality.
Her battle against Tobi was, to put it kindly, filler. I shit you not, that was filler.
Don’t believe me? Read it again.
We had here a character with little plot relevance outside of Nagato, although she might have foreshadowed having Amegakure support Naruto in the future.
No wait, nothing ever came out of that.
Wait, she promised to protect Nagato’s eyes at all-
Her plot relevance was zero. Since the village of Amegakure ceased to be of any relevance after her death, Konan may have been the single most pointless character in the story.
If you took her out of the story, nothing would change. Tobi would have the Rinnegan and Amegakure would still be shunted off to the side. Hell, if she got killed off during Nagato’s flashback, it probably wouldn’t have really changed the amount of angst he had in the present day all that much.
In a way then, it’s rather fitting that she is meant to be Sakura’s dark counterpart. If neither existed, the story wouldn’t change much. It might actually be better.
Things that Bugged Me: Manda II
During this arc, the readers learn that Kabuto managed to create his own Manda, with his own improvements to what the original had to offer, only for the summon to never appear in the story after this one appearance. Why even introduce the character into the story then?
Things That Rocked: Get Hype
If there is one thing I will admit Kishimoto does well, it’s hyping things up. The lead-up to the invasion of Konoha by Oto and Suna managed to draw out the tension the reader felt as they came to realize that the stakes went beyond a mere promotion to what could potentially become an all-out war. Once Orochimaru made his intentions clear, the focus shifted from Team 7’s attempts at passing the exam to watching as the denizens of each village responded to the threat of the Suna-Oto alliance. Naturally, when Sasuke and Gaara’s fight was finally interrupted, it was genuinely exciting, as all these various plot threads brought up during the arc finally were placed front and center and the tension brought to a fever pitch. The first time I read that chapter, I was able to envision it animated (I never did watch that part of the Naruto anime), and could actually see how a director might edit the various scenes together.
Kishimoto would replicate this effect in his build up toward the Fourth Ninja World War. After gathering all five village leaders together in one room, he proceeded to have Tobi wage war on them, necessitating preparations for battle on the part of all the parties involved. As with the earlier Chunin Exams Arc, revelations of every shape and size occurred, with the standouts being the true purpose of Zetsu and Kabuto’s return to relevance.
Given Tobi’s actions at the summit it had become clear that in order for him to fight his little war, he would need an army. The Akatsuki had been severely weakened, and by the time the war had started, there were only two living members. Furthermore, the organization had not been shown to have had all that many employees other than the core group (it says something that one of its tougher fighters acted as their accountant), and it appeared to lack the resources, troops, and connections that Pain had earlier made clear were necessary for the group to properly take over the world (we can thank Pain and Sasuke for catching the major villages’ attention).
Previously, Zetsu had been an undefined character, acting mostly as a bagman and spy among the Akatsuki, with it later becoming clear that he was the closest thing Tobi had to a right hand man. But with the shinobi world on the verge of war, Tobi revealed his resourcefulness, having created an army of white Zetsu clones, which, while not the greatest of fighters, were still numerous enough to swarm over the Allied Forces.
Meanwhile, Kabuto did something that appears to be relatively uncommon for villains who are not involved in the story for extended periods. He actually engaged in a little self-improvement, and in the process, went from being Kakashi’s match in battle to one of the major players in the game, with several stolen bloodline techniques, Sage Mode, improved versions of Orochimaru’s jutsu, and a small army of undead legends. To say that he’d suddenly become a dark horse candidate for the position of Big Bad was an understatement. It also helped that he was not born a descendent of the Sage, giving the villains some variety.
Meanwhile, the good guys gathered their forces in Kumogakure, and I’d be lying if I said that shots of commanders overseeing an entire army in military formation from a high vantage point don’t tend to impress me.
So yeah, color me impressed by the build up to the war.
This prelude to war led to an arc that, while not all bad, could best be described as a dead cat bounce. Although certainly an improvement on what had come beforehand, there were too many signs of it not really boding well for the future. The writing was often clumsy and the characters handled poorly. Despite that, there were things about it I did like, namely Kushina and the buildup to the actual war itself. All in all, it was a minor respite from the utter dreck that the manga was by this point in time.