Secrets within secrets.

31Mar13

I first came upon Naruto through Toriyama’s World, the now defunct scanlation website that broke a lot of great manga series to me. They were notable for taking a long time to update their chapters, doing a great job with it, and making a point of taking down any series that got licensed for release in the US. I wouldn’t say Naruto was the greatest series they did, but in some ways it’s the one that stuck with me the longest. I say that, even though I haven’t read or watched new episodes or chapters of it in years. Still, the concept struck a chord with me, and I can’t dismiss that.

Part of it, to be honest, is the idea of the kid that sticks out and no one likes. I’m not going to go into reasons there, but it resonates a lot thanks to my personal history as a kid. But it also works because that’s unusual, or seemed unusual at the time, in shonen manga. Usually someone is the outcast in this genre because they’re “too awesome,” or they don’t really care about fitting in. Naruto…well, he was kind of an ass, and not very good at being a ninja. Plus, he had no parents to act as a social screen for him. He’s basically in the worst possible position for a ninja village, out in the open, and raw in every way. Sure, he has great power locked inside (so there’s that trope ticked off), but he doesn’t know it.

That same power makes him the perfect symbol of a ninja village, as he’s their dirtiest secret, hidden in plain sight. Who would you suspect of holding the secret of a demonic fox spirit with great power: one of the powerful families in the area, tight lipped on every ability and secret they may possess? Or the loudmouth showoff trying to make a name for himself through pranks and screw ups? The former, naturally. And he doesn’t even know it himself.

Still, there’s more to it than that which made it stick with me. That first Naruto chapter is a killer.

I can’t deny that it’s rough around the edges. Characters show up just to say one line, look weird/intimidating, and never appear again. There’s too much exposition, even if it’s a necessary evil to get readers interested. It’s weirdly convenient that Naruto’s main teacher would effectively have the same backstory, and from the same event. And the climax veers straight into shonen tropes about “hidden power” and the main character becoming amazing right when he needed to be, and not a moment before.

The part that draws me, though, is the simple but effective reversal of Mizuki and Iruka. Iruka is positioned as a jerk to Naruto, but he at least tries to get into Naruto’s head and give him personal attention, even when he’s being hard on his student. By contrast, Mizuki tries to give Naruto a way out when Iruka bears down on him during an exam…and then manipulates Naruto when he’s down to get what he wants, even using the concern Iruka has shown as one of his tools. And he’s all too willing to tear down Naruto’s world afterwards, because he’s served his purpose. It’s not really the best move he could have made, but then, Mizuki isn’t portrayed as a master planner.

It also reinforces the secretive nature of the village. Naruto doesn’t know he’s a living seal, nor does he know why everyone treats him with such contempt. Iruka experienced much of the same pain himself, but doesn’t know how to get it across until both their lives are in danger. And Mizuki knows enough to manipulate a young kid into stealing a priceless and dangerous piece of knowledge, but doesn’t bother to learn enough to really follow through and get away with his plan.

In the first major story arc of the series, the coda brings up the idea that there is a difference between the ninja code, and the reality of being a ninja; the cold hearted dispatching of foes and accepting your death when necessary is much easier to recite than to actually live out. Similarly, the secrets behind Naruto’s life make sense in theory, while in practice they just create problems down the line. Outright telling Naruto about his role earlier probably would have screwed him up in a different way, but at least then he could have tried to handle it with full knowledge, rather than being turned into a social pariah through no fault of his own. And many of his issues that continue through the series come from those formative experiences; all the times he risks himself or others due to pride, or not knowing enough, can be traced back to the times when he acted out and made trouble to get attention to avoid being deliberately ignored. That doesn’t mean Naruto would have been a golden boy otherwise….but maybe he would have been a better student, and a happier person, if he didn’t feel a need to prove himself every step of the way.

Considering how much the series protagonists are later haunted by choices made by their elders, it’s apt that from the very beginning, Naruto has been forced to deal with the consequences foisted upon him by others. At the same time, you can see the parts of the series that would drag it down in the first chapter too. The unusual introspection and perspective are outright smothered in the last few pages, thanks to the need to make Naruto into the source of the deus ex machina solution (even when the Hokage is literally watching from afar and knows exactly what’s going on), and only comes back a little bit on the very last page. Like I said, it’s got rough spots. But back when I first read it? Even that small swerve was enough to really pull me in. That’s not the only thing that kept me, but I think that’s another post.

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