Naruto, as you may be aware, is the relatable story of an ambitious blonde-haired ninja-child who is possessed by an evil nine-tailed fox spirit and uses manipulative power over the elements to… well, the point is, if none of this rings any bells, then I am sorry to say that you have suffered from cultural deprivation.
The pre-teen within me weeps as I announce that Naruto, the long-running Japanese manga/ anime (read: comic/cartoon) has officially ended. In fact, it finished a few months ago. While the animated series has yet to resolve the final episodes, the weekly comic concluded at its 700th chapter on November 10, 2014.
For 15 years, Masashi Kishimoto, creator of Naruto, pumped out volume after volume of black and white hand-drawn ninja action to innumerable followers around the globe. Each week, dedicated fan organizations would translate the new Japanese chapter into English and immediately upload it across a handful of (technically illegal) manga websites. Over those many years, the comic served as the inspiration and direction for an immensely popular animated series, 10 movie releases, 54 video game titles, a trading card game, and countless other products, playthings, and overzealous fans dressed as Naruto characters at local comic conventions. Admittedly, I was a huge consumer in this industry. At various points in my teenage years, I played the cards and the video games, subscribed to the English version of Shonen Jump magazine (the publisher of Naruto), recorded televised episodes onto VHS archives, and eventually bookmarked Narutobase.net for easy access to newly released, illegally translated chapters available every Wednesday afternoon. But now, all of that is over.
In defense of my own nerdiness, the Naruto franchise was not simply your trivial cartoon; its span and breadth make it a certified empire. Naruto the anime managed to squeeze 600+ episodes into the years since its debut in 1999. In comparison, one of America’s most successful animated series, SpongeBob Squarepants, has aired around 190 episodes during the same span of time (and already the ratings for the sponge have dried up considerably). Even the longest running American series, for example The Simpsons, are not truly comparable to Naruto, due to one key story-telling difference. Each episode of Spongebob or The Simpsons stands alone as a self-contained story, while Naruto, like most anime, has maintained a strictly linear plotline from its first chapter. Accordingly, the finale to Naruto provided its audience significant closure to a story they have watched develop for the past 15 years (read: three quarters of the average reader’s lifetime).
Admittedly, the quality of the Naruto ending was not necessarily the best of Kishimoto’s work. Then again, according to Princeton Anime and Manga Club President Evan Cole, neither was the entire latter half of the series, as many fans grudgingly accept. Fan groups like the one Cole presides over are necessarily intense, both in their love and critique of series like Naruto. In person, and, far worse, online, fans engage in sophisticated debate over each detail and design created by the Japanese artists. I attended one such debate hosted by Princeton’s Anime and Manga club, celebrating the end of Naruto by arguing over which character was the worst of the series, and it lasted nearly two hours. This loving mockery, it seems, is the nature of the college-age anime fan.
Near the end, Naruto may have become a victim of its own popularity. Rather than continue to produce clever, innovative concepts, Kishimoto and his team seemed unable to liberate themselves from the heated pressure of the world’s anime community. The first half of the Naruto series introduced a mesmerizing backdrop —a mix of political realism and superpowered ninja —and also established the young namesake character’s mission to attain the position of Hokage, essentially the commander-in-chief of his region. However, the plot of the second half, Naruto: Shippuden, sidelines Naruto’s political ambitions and revolves instead around his quest to bring back his disloyal and melodramatic comrade, Sasuke. To the chagrin of many mature followers, Naruto’s finale sought to resolve both of these two plots. By the end, readers were led down a winding path of plot twists that eventually culminated in a painfully predictable ending. Once all the smoke cleared, a flash-forward showed viewers the world of adult characters with their own families, reminiscent of J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter finale. We knew this ending was coming, of course, but it still somehow felt anticlimactic, not ceremonial enough to conclude the many years of fictitious tribulations and real-world anticipations.
Long running series like Naruto (or Harry Potter, or any Marvel/DC comics) eventually form a complicated relationship with fans who reach adulthood. When I started following Naruto in 2004, all the main characters were around my age, 12 or 13, which was one of the most appealing features of the story. Over the next decade, however, I not only outgrew the characters in fictitious age (they miraculously only aged three years), but, worse, I outgrew my ability to place myself in their world. In middle school, I stuffed Naruto comics in my backpack between biology textbooks and TI-83s, knowing my dedication would undoubtedly impress someone in my class who also followed the same (or even similar) anime series. By the time I reached college, I was sneaking onto my laptop at night to read up on Naruto’s most recent antics, partly out of a sense of obligation. Of course there was curiosity, too; I could not simply forget the fictional universe that I spent years becoming so well versed in. Regardless of how bad the series became near its end, millions of fans like myself had no choice but to follow through to its finish – after devoting over half of my life to his adventures, I would be damned if I didn’t eventually see Naruto succeed in becoming Hokage! But at times, I needed to remind myself of whatever initial awesomeness led me to become a die-hard fan in the first place. In a way, Naruto was a coming of age story for its characters, but some of the magic seemed lost for the readers who had come of age long ago.
When I began to travel abroad, and notice a familiar blondehaired ninja on lunchboxes and in television sets in other countries, I recognized that a series like Naruto can influence an entire global generation. In fact, it seems that each recent generation can claim an anime that inexplicably breaks out of Japan and infiltrates young minds in overseas nations. For me and other fans my age, we have finally lived to see the beginning and ending of our generation-defining anime. But we were not the first. Dragon Ball Z, which spanned in various incarnations from 1984 to 1997, became the closest thing to a household name in manga/anime. Before that, there was Sailor Moon. Even earlier, Astro Boy, and so on, all the way back to Speed Racer in the 1960s and 1970s, which my car-enthusiast father still admires today. The thing that unties these generations together, regardless of how old and cynical we all become, is the undeniable passion and dedication we gave to these franchises. This was the magic, and it came from kids like myself who pretended they were ninja, or wished they could draw like Kishimoto, who mispronounced Japanese names and stayed up late, dutifully awaiting Cartoon Network’s transition into Toonami. Naruto, the world’s recent most favorite manga, and the series that enthralled an entire global generation of children and teenagers, has just ended. But rest assured that its cultural legacy is far from finished.