We’re doing something a little different from the usual today, and let me explain why. Viz Media was nice enough to make available a digital review copy of Naruto volume 64, which is set to be sold in English on January 7th, 2014. However they also made available volume 1. This is good because it gives us more to look at and review, but also a hassle because well, there are 62 volumes in between the two and we haven’t reviewed a single one of them. So this review is going to focus on comparing and contrasting the two volumes as well as giving a little background on some important events in between the two so that there is at least a little context for understanding what’s going on in volume 64.
Naruto by manga-ka Masashi Kishimoto debuted in Japan’s Weekly Shounen Jump in 1999. Since then a new 17 to 25 page comic has been released almost every week for readers to enjoy. I’d like to take a moment and marvel at that. For 14 going on 15 years Masashi Kishimoto has both written and drawn one of the most popular stories in the world and has, for the most part, kept to a deadline of one week for each issue. That kind of dedication is rare in the U.S. comic book industry these days, with writers and artists frequently only working on a series for a few issues before moving on to something else.
The overall story of the series focuses on the title character, one Uzumaki Naruto and his journey to become the leader of his village. The leader is known as the Hokage, the village is known as Konoha, and practically everybody in the story is a ninja. You read that right. With the exception of a few minor characters here and there, everyone in this story is a ninja and in the beginning of the story it’s still quite easy to see. There is a strong emphasis on stealth, trickery, and clever tactics within the early fight scenes of the series. Sadly this became less prominent as the series continued and the typical shounen trend of escalation took root. However, Naruto himself can typically be counted on to eventually win his current battle through the use of tricking his opponent in some fashion.
In the beginning of the series, it was full of unknowns. Places, people, and organizations would get quick mentions with short histories and then not be mentioned again. The mechanics behind ninjas’ abilities were given basic descriptions that left lots of room for interpretation. For the longest time — all the way up until 2007 in fact — here was still no definitive, overarching villain for the series. It could have been Orochimaru, a former ninja of the village whose goal was to become immortal and destroy the village. It could have been the leader of Akatsuki, an organization of powerful ninja that wished to capture Naruto in order to further their own plans.
Most people, though, believed — and continued to believe until 2010 — that the true villain of the series was also the reason that Akatsuki wanted Naruto along with 8 other individuals. Within the world of Naruto there also existed 9 beings comprised of sentient masses of malevolent energy. They were known collectively as the Bijuu and the only known way to stop them for any length of time was to seal them within humans who became known as Jinchuuriki (literal meaning; the power of human sacrifice). In other words, they were 9 horrifically powerful demons and the only way to stop them was to seal them within people who then had to spend their lives exerting their will over the demon in order to keep from being possessed. And of course, our hero Naruto was the prison for the strongest of these demons. A recurring theme throughout the series up until the past few years was the horrific destruction Naruto would create whenever he lost control to the demon sealed within.
When it was all said and done, you were looking at a setting that had just the right amount of explanation. It was enough to give the readers a sense of things and how the world worked but still leave mysteries for the fans to ponder. The setting was constantly sliding along the scale of idealism portrayed by Naruto, his generation, and his village versus the very real cynicism that they lived in a world controlled by powerful ninjas perpetuating a war economy and, at the fringes, where lived nine Cthulhus (for all intents and purposes) ready to destroy everything that they could. Naruto set the imagination ablaze and there were possibilities for wonderful stories everywhere. This was the good part.
Unfortunately, that period ended quite some time ago and these days Naruto is far closer to typical shounen fare with its emphasis on everyone working together against the villains and ending the cycle of hatred. Volume 64 continues to record what is known as the 4th Shinobi World War, in which the heroes struggle alongside the forces of every other ninja village in the world in order to put down the true final villain of the series. This villain is revealed to be Uchiha Madara along with his descendant Uchiha Obito, and they plan to merge the 9 Bijuu into the final tenth Bijuu and use it to create a false reality under their control for the rest of the world to live in. They can do this because they come from a special bloodline of ninja who along with Naruto’s former teammate Uchiha Sasuke, can control the bijuu. I’m not going to detail that any further, as the full explanation is ridiculously long and still to this day makes me grit my teeth in frustration due to how much of the story of Naruto was hijacked by the Uchiha.
The good news though is that since 1999, Masashi Kishimoto has grown tremendously as an artist. When one looks at Volumes 1 and 64 together, they can see a gigantic leap in quality. Every line is smoother, every character more unique from each other, and every ninja technique a new chance to for Kishimoto to show off his artistic talent. Volume 1, on the other hand, is much rougher with characters often having only a few things that separate their look from everyone else around them and ninja techniques were usually very simple affairs often wreathed with copious amounts of ninja smoke.
My recommendation for this series is that despite the direction it has taken over the past few years, you should still read it. The earlier portions of the story are excellent and imaginative, with a colorful cast of characters, and contains thought-provoking themes. It’s not until the buildup to the 4th Shinobi World War that things get silly. By that point though, you’ll likely be like me, continuing reading the story just because you’ve read so much of it that you just absolutely have to see how it ends.