Naruto Volumes 4-6

By Masashi Kishimoto. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.

And this is why everyone should give Jump series about 5-6 volumes before they give up on them. This omnibus is definitely a big step up from the first, with the leads being slightly more likeable, lots of interesting new characters introduced, and a new arc that promises to be much more thrilling – and possibly more deadly.

First, however, we have to finish up the cliffhanger from last time, with Naruto and company defending the bridge and its creator from the evil ninja and the mob boss who hired him. Once again, we are reminded that small, petty villains are always MUCH WORSE than noble yet evil guys in the Shonen Jump world, and while Zabuza spends a lot of time showing us what a horrible person he is, he does manage to get some redemption, as does his gender-malleable assistant. I was rather startled at the death of Haku here – it’s quite gory, and from a blow by Kakashi, no less (if accidentally). Clearly ‘nobody dies in Naruto’ is not a meme that’s going to take hold. Well, not yet anyway.

Once that’s over with, we head back to the village and begin our next big arc – the exams are coming up for journeyman ninja, and despite only having worked together for a short time, Kakashi recommends that they all do it. This is a huge exam with over a hundred ninja apprentices from all walks of life, most of whom we meet in this book. I have no idea who will be important later or not – the only ones that really stuck with me are Hinata, who clearly has a crush on Naruto that’s a mile wide; Ino, who has some sort of rivalry/friendship with Sakura; and Gaara, who gives off the appearance of being one of the next big villains, so must not be one.

And then there’s Rock Lee, who really deserves a paragraph of his own. Even though I’d never read Naruto before this, I still knew of Rock Lee – how could I not? Amazingly, he’s exactly as I anticipated, being a larger than life Sylvester Stallone type bruiser in the midst of all these tricky ninjas. His master Guy looking pretty much like him only older also amuses me, and I was rather startled to note that Guy can apparently hold his own with Kakashi – even the comedy characters here are tough cookies.

As for the exam itself, it’s a ninja exam, so naturally there’s lots of secret cheating, given they all assume the point of the exam is to see how good they are at not getting caught. The final question is psychological, something that works on many of the exam takers but not on Naruto, who is far too stubborn for such tactics. (Note: not dense – Naruto seems to fully understand what he’s sacrificing. It’s the principle of the thing that bothers him.) And then we get Round 2, featuring a survival match through a deadly forest – one that has been infiltrated by one of the villains, Orochimaru.

This last third of the omnibus is far more serious than the volume before it, and once again shows that the author is not afraid to laughter its minor cast members in the way of drama. There’s lots of good stuff here – Sasuke shows that he’s not all smug jerk, though unfortunately seems to get infected (possessed?) by the enemy anyway. Even better is Sakura, who while she doesn’t accomplish much does show a plucky streak that’s very endearing, and is at least clever enough to not fall for the minor mook’s traps. The three leads are all coming along, and I’m interested in seeing how they get out of all this.

This still hasn’t reached the heights of One Piece for me – the battles still have trouble keeping my attention, for one, and introducing 25-30 new cast members in 2 volumes is over the top even if you *aren’t* meant to remember who they all are. But it’s definitely come along from the first omnibus, and this new Exam Arc is indeed as exciting as people said it would be. I’m looking forward to seeing how things go from here on.

Naruto Volumes 1-3

By Masashi Kishimoto. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.

Really, I was starting to feel a bit guilty about the whole thing. Here is the top manga in America, the title that outsells everything else by a considerable margin, and I’d never read it, or seen the anime. I remember that I did buy Volume 1 when it first came out, but I never did keep up after that, and now it’s up in the 50s. So, as with Kekkaishi, I used Viz’s omnibus re-release as an opportunity to close the gaps in my reviewer knowledge and see what the fuss was all about. Unfortunately, the first 3 volumes of Naruto were a lot harder to slog through than Kekkaishi was, and reminded me that most series *do* start off slow.

For those of you living in a cave, the basic premise is that Naruto, our hero, is a ninja trainee who’s disliked by his town as he holds the spirit of a fox demon within him… something Naruto’s been unaware of his whole life, thinking that he’s just naturally disliked. As a ninja trainee he’s a bit of a class clown, but he certainly holds genuine skill, and finally manages to pass his exam. Of course, that’s just the start, as now he’s an apprentice, going through hellish training along with his crush Sakura and the moody Sasuke. Can he overcome his past and become an amazing ninja?

To start off with, I’ll note that the three leads all begin as very difficult to like. This is not uncommon in manga, and always leads to character development later on, but the author also has to be able to keep a balance, as you don’t want them to get so unlikeable that the reader decides not to continue. (I recall trying to sell people on Teru Teru x Shonen, only to be told Shino was such a brat in Vol. 1 they didn’t care if she got better.) So Naruto is a bit of an impulsive brat, Sakura comes across as shallow and petty, and Sasuke is blunt, grumpy and rude. And through these three volumes, even as they do start to learn to work together, that mostly remains the case. It made the volumes a bit of a slog.

I also found the battles to alternate between confusing and boring. While not nearly on the level of, say, Trigun Maximum, the art here during combat doesn’t always make it immediately clear what’s going on, or translate well to action in my mind’s eye. And honestly, I may just not like ninjas. The doppelgangers and special secret techniques rolled out here made me long for people to just start beating the tar out of each other face to face. (Yeah, I know, ninjas…) That said, the 3rd volume’s battle was considerably better than the others in the volume, and may point to bigger things in the future.

There were things I enjoyed a great deal in the book, rest assured. Kakashi is fantastic, and a breath of fresh air amongst the sullen teenagers. First off, he has droopy eyes, which I’ve noted in previous Banri Hidaka reviews is a personal favorite of mine. He’s clever and tricky and basically exactly what I want a ninja to be, which is why he makes an excellent teacher. I did feel the “he’s failed everyone before” plot was overhyped, especially when he passed Naruto & company simply for ignoring his instructions and caring for each other’s well-being, but I suppose that speaks more to the poor quality of prior ninja trainees in the past than anything else.

Likewise, while I disliked Sakura herself, the ‘inner Sakura’ schtick was great, adding some nice humor into the middle of any situation. Hopefully this either continues, or she learns to speak her mind and we get to see Inner Sakura blend together with outer Sakura. The other choice bits of humor through the volumes were also well-handled. And I like the fact that our first big ninja villains are getting their own backstory, showing that (as I noted with Kekkaishi as well) nothing is really 100% black and white or good and evil.

When I expressed my ambivalence to this omnibus on Twitter and with my friends, I was generally told that I needed to keep going through the ‘Chuunin Exam’ arc, so I’ll get the 2nd omnibus and hope it starts there. I’m sure it must pick up, because come on, this is the best-selling manga in North America. But honestly, reading this omnibus I was simply reminded why I didn’t get it after Volume 1. It’s just okay, but needs improvement.