Naruto: 5 months of frustration, 2.

Okay…wow… that last post was one of the saltiest I’ve ever written.

Now to get to a more pleasant subject: The good things about the show.

The animation. yeah, that’s pretty good….

Kidding. This will be a Spoiler Heavy Post.

Fair warning, I’ll still be criticizing the show in this part, but I do like these characters.

I would say my top 5 characters on this show are Gaara, Shikamaru, Sai, Temari, and Kankuro. I like Hinata, but she is used so little and given so little to contribute that it’s hard to rank her at the top.

Though to be fair, all the female characters are underused.

After detailing why I hate so much of how the show handled it’s three main themes, I want to talk about the good themes it brought up and didn’t totally ruin:

  1. Love versus hate, with loneliness
  2. Learning to understand grief and love
  3. Processing grief
  4. Trust.

I talked about it a bit when I wrote about Gaara in my anime bondage series, but he is absolutely the best written character on this show. It was like he was a compass that kept getting magnetically drawn toward good writing decisions.

After he initially is introduced as a flipping scary monster, he is changed by Naruto’s determination to protect the people he cares about, Gaara is brought back to what his uncle once told him about love, and he decides to try to understand love after this.

He begins an off-screen journey of learning to value the people around him. We are not shown how or why he succeeds, but presumably part of the reason are his two siblings. Who did not treat him like a monster and accepted his remorse and resolved to help him find a new path. We are not shown much of them doing this, but we’re shown enough to tell us they really did care about Gaara and wanted him to be happy.

One of the better parts of the writing is how little needs to be said or shown to convey the Sand siblings dynamic. When we first meet them, Temari and Kanuro are jerks, but on the level of schoolyard bullies, with Temari slightly less so, but she doesn’t try to stop the more violent Kankuro. However, they are both terrified of Gaara and don’t dare to defy him. Later he threatens to kill them and they act very disturbed. Clearly it’s their assignment to protect him.

Still, they go farther than they necessarily need to, and risk their lives for him and Temari is shown to be clearly concerned when he injures himself and then loses control to the sand raccoon spirit inside him.

We are able to infer a lot that later gets confirmed, much, much later than it should have been, but with this show you had to take what you could get even if it was late. We are able to see that they loved Gaara but due to their inability to help him, they were too scared to try; and that Gaara himself did not understand that they loved him because he didn’t believe anyone could love him, since he was a monster. He interpreted their fear as fear of him, and not also fear of what he would do to himself, which was plain to the audience.

We find out later that as kids they were close at one time till their gem of a dad separated them by force and didn’t let them be friends, though he still let them guard their brother.

Kankuro warns Gaara that winning over Sand Village will be hard, but Gaara resolves to do it anyway, and Kankuro decides to help him out. In a few years Gaara becomes the Kazekage of his village, and his siblings both hold important positions. Kankuro is basically the only reason Gaara hasn’t been assassinated, and Temari handles relations between Sand and Leaf to keep the peace they forged, which clearly only still exists because of their efforts.

To consolidate it, Gaara develops into a strong leader during the war and wins the respect of the other kage, as well as the ninjas as a whole, by humbling himself to them and admitting they all need each other, even saying if they want vengeance they can take it out on him after the war. Temari and Kankuro continue to support him.

We see them change in smaller ways, though they retain their surface hardness, they become more merciful. Temari, who starts off as harsh and critical of anyone she perceives as weak later is able to acknowledge people have strengths that aren’t always obvious, we also learn that her harshness can be a from of trolling to challenge people to be better, and she is willing to acknowledge when they surpass themselves.

Kankuro we see go from being a bully to being a softie about his siblings, he makes a moving plea for Gaara’s life, and protects them vigilantly. Though he can be more practical about cutting his losses, and letting people face hard tests, he protects his troops well in the war.

At the very end of the show we get to see the three siblings cap off their growth by finally having something like a normal, jovial demeanor with each other, and softening toward their other friends also.

What makes this so very different from the love is better than hate message of the main plot is that we see results. Gaara grows in wisdom as he pursues love. He makes decisions that are merciful, he puts others needs ahead of his. While his siblings are less magnanimous, they respect his efforts and ultimately support him even when they think he’s carrying it to far. But they all grow, they all change. And what’s better is we also get to see that not everyone shows love in the same way. Kankuro shows it in actions, Temari in challenging people, and Gaara in being merciful and self effacing when he could with all rights be severe.

Gaara also purposely makes efforts to be a better friend, he puts thought into it we never see even Naruto himself put in. It’s clumsily shown in the very last arc when everyone is trying to get a wedding gift, while the others get caught up in the impressiveness of it, Gaara is thinking of how he can show his friendship the best way.

And to me that was what made it believable. While Naruto goes on and on about change, Gaara and his siblings actually implement it. We don’t see Leaf change at all, but Sand goes from being the scary, unfriendly desert village to being the kind merciful village that protects all the others. We see in the chunin exam arc that the ninjas in Sand have learned from Gaara’s example and his mercy toward them, and have begun to treat outsiders and each other with more kindness.

My sisters and I hailed Gaara, Temari, and Kankuro as the best trio, and the only people who know how to get crap done.

Shikamaru:

Shikamaru is the best written Leaf Ninja, and his good writing occasionally extends to his two teammate Ino and Choji like an umbrella of grace. By which I mean they are at their best whenever they are in an arc centered around him.

And amazingly, Shikamaru escaped the big curse of this show: Stagnation.

He actually grows over time from being a lazy, unmotivated character, to being a hard working, reliable one.

His ability to strategize, instead of making him stuck up, gives him the opportunities to be merciful where other ninjas lack the brain power to think of a better solution.

Shikamaru repeatedly is able to choose to protect his teammates, instead of what is considered the hard, but logical decision of leaving them to die if necessary. The one time Shikamaru chooses to kill, it is over a monstrous person who only he could figure out how to stop.

Let’s talk about that.

In the arc Shikamaru loses his teacher Asuma in, the subject of grief is dealt with. The show brought it up a lot, but from Sasuke to Naruto to every other villain in the dang series, people handled grief badly. Usually choosing revenge.

In this arc, Shikamaru is bottling up his pain, as is the usual way for ninjas, and his dad takes him aside and drives him to explode, then tells him to “let it all out and then decide.”

Shikamaru then breaks down and his dad leaves him to cry it out, finally Shikamaru is clear enough to come up with a strategy to take down the psychopath who killed Asuma and intends to kill more people.

The plan succeeds, and in a beautiful moment of good writing, Shikamaru tells the villain and the audience that he is not doing this for vengeance but because he, like his teacher, has the will to protect his village, and the people important to him.

He then finds peace in having brought justice.

The whole thing is later upstaged by Naruto getting involved when he shouldn’t have, but at least that part was well done.

Shikamaru becomes a good leader and is able to minimize damage to his team. Later he becomes the adviser to three of the Hokages. It was my opinion that he was the only reason Leaf survived long enough for Naruto to even become Hokage, because the previous Kages were idiots.

When Ino and Choji are with Shikamaru, they get shown to be more loyal, competent friends than they are the rest of the time. The friendship between Shikamaru and Choji is the most natural and believable one of the show. Shikamaru is able to work with whoever is with him, they don’t have to be the strongest. That is why he can always use Ino, who is generally even more useless than Sakura, thanks to no one being able to think of a way to use such OP powers as she might have, except Shikamaru.

And that brings me to the theme of Trust. It’s not brought up a lot, but Shikamaru is shown to trust his teammates, and that is why he is able to come up with such good plans.

At a later arc, he strangely doesn’t choose to trust his friends or the village alliance, instead wanting to handle something himself in order to protect Sai. He foolishly doesn’t give his allies enough credit for being able to understand. A fact that Temari gets furious at him over.

When Temari, being the best girl that she is, helps Ino and Choji find out where Shikamaru is, they bust in and rescue him and his teammates, and Sai, and slap some sense back into him–literally.

Shikamaru later tells Temari he’s counting on her to keep him accountable if he ever starts to lose his grip again…and then marries her… bringing his arc full circle. He went from being lazy and not liking to be challenged to realizing the importance of trusting people close to you to challenge you for your own good and help you improve into the best version of yourself you can be.

This supposedly is what Naruto’s story is supposed to be about, learning to trust and love making you better, but Naruto fails completely to show this message because he does everything alone, while Gaara and Shikamaru both actually do it, and they gather friends and family around them, and improve.

Shikamaru starts changing Leaf in small ways by leaning more toward loyalty and mercy and cooperation in the exams. Temari acknowledges this to be the best path, so her correction of him later makes sense. While highlighting the good thing about her character, that she makes other people try harder.

A solid dynamic that Ino and Choji get included in and become better because of.

Last but not least, I have Sai. And Hinata.

Sai is point number 3, learning to understand grief and love.

(I just noticed that the problems of this show are with the overall plot and MCs, and the good parts are with side characters and their personal journeys. Make of that what you will.)

When Sai was introduced, the characters kept saying he kind of looked like Sasuke and maybe acted a bit like him…which was funny, because Sai acted totally emotionless except for a weird fake smile.

In an astounding example of the lack of self-awareness where Sasuke was concerned, Naruto and Sakura didn’t like Sai, for displaying the same freaking qualities as Sasuke-kun.

He was just so detached, and didn’t seem to care if he hurt their feelings at all, I mean who could ever like someone like that…Sakura.

Sai also asked them why they cared so much about Sasuke when he had ditched Leaf and betrayed them by going to their enemy, Orchimaru, and aiding him. Sai didn’t even say Sasuke was a dirty rat–he said he was a traitorous cockroach, which was true. But Sakura and Naruto both acted like he’s spat on Sasuke’s grave or something.

Later Sai is touched by Naruto’s loyalty, and it helps him understand something about his own past.

Sai had a friend, it turns out, who he considered to be his brother. His brother dies of a sickness before graduating the underground training. We later learn that to graduate you had to kill the person closest to you in order to complete the emotion suppression requirement that the leader imposed…you know…like you do.

Sai didn’t have to kill his brother because he died before that point, but he couldn’t understand how he was supposed to look and feel over it.

Again the show used symbolism well here, Sai carries a book of his brother and himself, and the bond they have, in the end Naruto helps him know how to finish the book.

He chooses to try to help them capture Sasuke, instead of killing him, as was his original assignment. Of course they fail.

Sai sets out on a personal quest to understand feelings. He starts reading Self-Help books about how to act around friends, and taking notes on how the people around him interact. It’s uphill work since the ninjas are very dysfunctional, and most of them are not self aware about it, but Sai beats the odds and begins to learn anyway.

He later steps in to defend Naruto when Naruto is letting a woman from Cloud village beat him up instead of Sasuke, whom she hates for harming her teacher, Lord Bee.

Reality check time: At this point Sasuke has joined the Akatsuki, a group hell bent on capturing all the people with tailed beasts, including Naruto himself, and killing them to get their power. And our lovely Sasuke is helping them do this for his own personal reasons….yeah, Naruto, you take that beating for him.

Well, Sai, who is consistently the only sane person on this show, decides to step in. Then he and Shikamaru, the other sane person when the plot demands it, decide to tell Sakura enough is enough.

Sakura listens, and tries to convince Naruto to give up on Sasuke. But the point where it would have worked is long past. (A running theme on this show was good advice too late, past when the person might have listened.)

Sai gets blown off later when he wants to stop Sakura from doing something stupid, and also wants to know what happened with Sasuke after they confronted him under the bridge.

In the war Sai does make some more friends, and start to release more of his emotions, without losing control to them. He begins to really feel that he wants to protect his friends.

At the end of the show, Sai’s arc get capped off at the same time Shikamaru’s does. I thought the show would forget about him, honestly, but instead, we got to hear how he feels insecure about his place on team 7, now that Sasuke has switched sides, sort of, they no longer need a replacement for him…not that he’s on the team, but Sai was the emotional replacement too.

Sai quite justly feels that team 7 does not care about him as much…which he’s right about. And doubts whether he has friends who truly care. Ino is able to help him by telling him that they, team 10 and Temari, who came to save him, are his friends.

Sai snaps out of the daze he was put under by the villain of the arc. It was a touching moment to see Sai get to realize he had other people who cared about him besides those idiots on team 7.

Sai is basically the person Sasuke should have been if the show was going to work. Someone who realizes they have emotional problems, don’t really understand love or how to process grief, and set out to learn to do it in the right way, after Naruto inspires them.

The lack of self awareness of Naruto and Sakura was so glaring I would have sworn it was intentional, but there never is a Euraka! moment of them waking up.

Thank goodness Sai is smarter. He’s the only one on team 7 who never blames themselves for what Sasuke does, or seems to feel any real pity for him. He only wants to help his real friends. In the end he realizes who those people are,and there are more of them then he thought.

It’s a good ending for him. And a much better message of what learning to love is, and how you can understand grief and pain better by sharing it with other people.

 

As for Hinata, she doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the message of the show, but she does stand as the only other girl who can recognize real value of character, and she actually can support Naruto emotionally, and back it up.

One of Hinata’s best moments is when she steps in to save Naruto from Pain. The symbolism that pain can only be defeated when we share the burden is heavy in that scene, she takes some of the weight off Naruto, and gives him love instead of blame. She does something no one else has the brain cells or courage to do, even when she was stupidly told to leave him alone to have the crap beat out of him because “he could handle it” (dang! I hate so many of the people on this show…)

But Hinata didn’t do it. Though she never gets a lot of acknowledgement form anyone that what she did was the right thing to do, Naruto later does say she saved him. The fans love her for it.

Hinata may not have the words to express it, but she does get it, more than most of the characters do. She provides the rare element of kindness, only a few characters on the show possess. She also supports everyone, not just Naruto, and tries to be kind as a principle, not just for one person, like Sakura does.

This is it folks, these are the good characters. (Who get any attention worth mentioning.)

(There is one other good arc, the Guren and Yuukimaru one, which I recommend watching, without seeing the rest of the show, because it was beautiful, just beautiful, but has no bearing on anything else in the plot, and no one learns from it. In fact it has the supreme irony of Naruto preaching a message of letting go of the wrong people that he never follows himself. But the arc itself is amazing. I can’t believe the same person wrote it.)

Thanks for reading my very long review of this show, and my fingers are tired, so I am going to end it here, until next time, stay honest–Natasha.

 

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