I have a thing with Naruto. Perhaps you’ve noticed, considering I’m always writing about it, or talking about it, or cosplaying its characters, or rolling around in piles of its fanart. I started watching the show when my son was ten months old, and so part of my love of Naruto probably stems from the fact that I watched it at this tender point in my life, when I was very tired, and very lonely, and raising a baby. I can get into all that later, but the other reason for my thing with Naruto is that I’m completely preoccupied with the art of storytelling, and Naruto is a GREAT fucking story. It’s a GREAT fucking story, and that’s not an accident…it’s the fruit of Masashi Kishimoto’s life’s labor, his incredible imagination, his understanding of his craft as well as his understanding of human nature. Whenever I read an interview with the guy, he seems to mostly giggle and act overwhelmed by the response to his creation—I mean, who wouldn’t be overwhelmed in the face of that kind of worshipful, massive, international audience? But trust me, Kishimoto, giggly or not, overwhelmed or not, is a storytelling genius. So without further ado, here are eight of Kishimoto’s wise moves as a storyteller.
8) #GOALS I got some advice once from an accomplished writer-mentor-friend, which was that I should be sure that every character I wrote had a clear goal, and a secret. The first thing I thought of was the scene in Naruto where Kakashi sits them all down and asks them what their goals are: Naruto says he wants to be Hokage, Sasuke says he wants revenge, and to restore his clan,
and Sakura says she wants to be a better ninja and…help Sasuke with part 2 of his goal. And that is what motivates these characters, from beginning to end. They develop and grow and have other short-term goals, but these are the three things the characters pursue, and the author not allowing them to have these things sustains the story till the end.
7) YOU JUST SKIPPED DINNER, OR SLEEP, OR YOUR OWN WEDDING TO WATCH NARUTO, BECAUSE…
Especially in a longer work (and Naruto is REALLY long) one of the most difficult things is deciding when to reveal what information, so that the audience is compelled to see what happens next, but not frustrated by a lack of information. I was continually impressed by Kishimoto’s instincts (or skill) in knowing when to release information. Questions like, “What is the nature of the thing inside Naruto?” “What is the deal with Itachi?” “Who the hell is Pain?”—the answers unfold slowly, but not too slowly. It’s like watching a very small child unwrap a present, peeling back the paper one little strip at a time and taking time to marvel at it before peeling back the next strip. Ah, God it hurts! But the kid finally gets the box open, and throws off the tissue paper, and Itachi’s-intentions-were-noble-and-he-loved-you-the-whole-time is inside! But even the gift itself provokes more questions and yearning for the answers to those new questions continues to compel you through the show/manga. And that’s how people get all cracked out on Naruto and watch 25 episodes in a sitting.
6) SASUKE, SASUKE, SASUKE. ALL ANYONE EVER WANTS TO TALK ABOUT IS…
Sasuke. Because he drives the plot. I have a song I sing about this, set to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell” and I sing it to my sister whenever she brings up this character. He drives the plot because the author designed this character with a lot of flaws and baggage and instead of forcing him to heal and reform in the first season of the show, Kishimoto allows Sasuke to remain himself—a character who is self-centered, stoic, pragmatic, and traumatized. In light of these characters traits, his actions in the story make perfect sense. However, as much sense as these actions and decisions make for Sasuke, they are still completely destructive, in terms of the world and the goals (remember the goals?) of the rest of the characters. Seriously, Sasuke? You’re leaving the village to apprentice yourself to Orochimaru? Seriously, Sasuke? You’re joining the Akatsuki? You’re going to attack the Leaf Village? You’re going to try and kill the Raikage? Oh, now you’re going to resurrect Orochimaru?
…and so forth. Every decision he makes is frustrating and interesting AND completely consistent with his character. This consistency is what makes us like Sasuke. We really want him to stop making horrible decisions, but, hey, we kinda see where he’s coming from, because he’s been coming from the same place the whole time.
5) JIRAIYA DIES, AND STAYS GOOD AND DEAD
I loved Jiraiya. Everyone loved Jiraiya, which is why allowing him to die was an awesome way to bolster the tension in a story as long as this one. If a character, loved by fans and other characters alike, can die, then, the reader or viewer has to assume any other character can. Opening this possibility ups the ante on every confrontation. After Jiraiya’s death, I have to admit I started watching the show with my hands literally gripping my seat. By the time the fight with Pain began, I would catch myself holding my breath in anticipation of what would happen next.
Kishimoto could have made a zombie out of Jiraiya in the great ninja war, but he chose not to. I think he must love Jiraiya too—rather than revive him as a cheap, narrative trick, he decided to let his death retain its importance and solemnity.
4) NONE OF THE ANTAGONISTS ARE EVIL, BUT THEY ARE INFURIATING
Though it’s almost comical how, like clockwork, Naruto villains will unveil their virtues and their tragic backstory right before they get gutted, it’s impressive that Kishimoto can make you feel for a character in a matter of frames, even after that character has done nothing but make our heroes’ lives miserable for a whole story arc, or several story arcs, or ALL the story arcs, as is the case with Obito. The example that jumps most immediately to mind is Sasori. At first, he appears to be nothing short of an aberrant monster. As he fights Sakura, more and more of his humanity is revealed. Still, he’s so ruthless, and tough, and frustrating to Sakura, that you want her to crush the shit out of him anyway. And didn’t you just have tears in your eyes as Sasori indulged in the embrace of his puppet-parents? Yes you did. Every encounter with a villain provokes this emotional cocktail of sympathy and frustration. Kishimoto’s villains will break your heart, but they are in no way neutered by the revelation of their humanity—and that’s the kind of villain that’s compelling.
3) SURPRISE! YOU LIVE IN A FISCAL-MILITARY STATE, AND IT’S NOT CUTE
So, it’s like this: we start in the middle of the story, with the explanation of the catastrophic event (the attack of the Nine Tailed Fox) on the ninja village. There’s a lot of action, things are moving quickly, you meet Naruto, who is obnoxious but pitiable, and good-natured. And all the plotting techniques I’ve already talked about make you want to keep going to find out what happens next in this volatile place to this sort of irritating but lovable and moxie-filled kid…but you have to buy into the fantasy world first. These characters are ninjas and they live in a ninja village. They go to ninja school and learn how to fight, and then, at the age of approximately twelve, they get to be full-fledged ninjas. Sounds like fun! And Naruto wants this life with all his heart, so we take for granted that this must be a desirable life, a life of adventure and good deeds.
As the series goes on, we learn that the ninja villages fight a kind of proxy war that is continually flaring up and receding between the various nations they represent. In times of peace, the ninjas are mercenaries, carrying out whatever “missions” they are paid to do, and ninjas are often asked to do dangerous, unscrupulous things on these missions. The Chunin exam, which they take to advance in rank, is a test in which it is apparently not uncommon for young ninjas, often children, to kill each other in combat, and this (as it is in The Hunger Games) is a tradition maintained to keep the peace—the villages can hash it out, and clearly display their dominance, assuring their access to resources. The better your ninja are, the more mercenary jobs you get. And still we don’t quite question the morality of all this because it’s built into the mechanics of this fantasy world.
It’s hard to identify quite where the turning point is—maybe it’s when Jiraiya teaches ninjutsu to three war orphans, then must abandon them to fend for themselves. Maybe it’s when Jiraiya says to Naruto that he would like to see the world change, suggesting for the first time that it is really not okay to be fighting mercenary wars with your children. Maybe it’s when you meet the 80th character that’s been traumatized by all the violence, and, as a result, has gone absolutely batshit crazy and come up with an elaborate and equally violent plan to quell all the fighting. At some point, though, it’s certain that the system of ninja villages goes from being a cutesy feature of the setting to being something deeply sinister. When Pain stakes Naruto to the ground and asks him what he will do to stop the cycle of violence inherent in this system, Naruto has no good answer for him, no plucky comeback. Like a good hero, though, he realizes that he should have an answer, and he resolves to find it. So while his goal of becoming hokage doesn’t change, Naruto takes on an additional goal, one that is, in many ways, fundamentally at odds with the goal of being hokage. After all, how does a person achieve the title of the strongest warrior, if he opposes violence? Masashi Kishimoto takes his setting and twists it into the biggest conflict in the whole plot, one that gives the story a surprising depth, in spite of the often campy medium.
2) WORLD BUILDING
It’s as good as Tolkien’s. I am pretty sure saying this is going to get me jumped in an alley by rival nerds, but the world of Naruto has its own politics, its own culture, its own unique magical system, its own mythology, and all of these things are integrated, into each other, and into the fabric of the story. That’s all I think I need to say.
1) THE FEELS
I want to believe that Naruto’s heart, as much as the cliffhangers and plot hooks, is what keeps audiences coming back for more, even after hundreds and hundreds of issues, and (in the anime) a shit ton of horrible filler. Naruto has no agenda, but it has, at its core, a humanitarian vision. Masashi Kishimoto, having found himself writing for an audience of millions of children and young adults, tells a story in which characters with often complicated motivations and conflicting philosophies try to find their way to personal and political peace. The way to this peace, in Kishimoto’s vision, is always love, forgiveness, and atonement. Ask kids what they learned from watching Naruto, and they will give strangely lucid, articulate answers, that often involve these words. Kishimoto earns his audience by being a wonderful storyteller, but his greatest accomplishment is telling a story that, without being shallow, is wildly optimistic about human potential, and the impact of kindness and love.