7. Years ago I considered Naruto the best anime of all time. Who knows, at the time, maybe it was true. Unfortunately for Naruto, the author of the series couldn't deliver on the promise his early arcs foretold. The story of a three-man team that starts off not getting along at all, becoming close friends through shared hardships and cooperative solutions, was brilliant.
We grow to like Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura precisely because they overcome their differences and learn to rely on each other and help each other in their ninja ordeals. They take inspiration from each other's example and always strive to improve, so that they don't fall behind the other members of their time, not in guts, not in spirit, and not in strength. This story is amazing, and continues throughout the Chuunin exam, ending when Naruto defeated Gaara. It isn't just Naruto's team that is splendid to behold during this early segment of Naruto, we also learn of many other teams and characters that are just as interesting and good as the main team and characters.
We clearly see the caring, skill and determination in the team consisting of Kiba, Shino, and Hinata. A group that came in second in the forest of death contest.
There's an amazing story behind Gai's team, consisting of Lee, Neiji, and Tenten. The fact that both Lee and Neiji are much stronger than anyone on team 7 (Naruto's team) is exciting to realize. It means main characters aren't being selected for their strength, but only for how interesting they are as people. The characters in Naruto aren't so strong that they can expect to breeze through life, defeating everyone. In fact, they're constantly losing fights. Sasuke lost to Haku, Kakashi, Gaara, Lee and Orochimaru. Naruto lost to Orochimaru, Kakashi, and Lee as well, and would have lost to Neiji if Neiji had been taking the fight seriously.
The final team of Ino, Shikamaru, and Chouji is also brilliant, as we learn to rely on the least conspicuous member of the child ninjas as their natural leader. Shikimaru only has 'one move,' the ability to manipulate shadows, but with his intelligence, he can use it with such versatility that it becomes all powerful. He can wield other members of his team with that same intelligence, and has the courage and calculation needed to be a leader well ahead of any other kid in Naruto. Ino, we discover, is a kind and loving girl who took Sakura under her wing when she was being bullied. There are so many interesting characters, relationships, and backstories in this original rush of the Chuunin exam, that the series could easily have been #1. Sasuke's hinted at grudge with his older brother, Itachi. The mysterious goals of a creepy arch-villain, Orochimaru. Hinata's love for Naruto she's too shy to confess. There are so many loose plot threads that it looks like the series is going to be a delight through and through.
Unfortunately, from there on the author makes bad decisions, destroying everything he had built up that made his series great. For starters, he takes Naruto away from his team and has him adventure on his own. But the entire point of Naruto was ninjas working together in a team, and the strong relationships they have with one another inside that team. Then Sasuke up and leaves the team entirely, fighting against his fellow Konoha ninja in the hopes of joining Orochimaru. This is fine from an individual standpoint, I can understand why the character, Sasuke, would do such a thing. But I can't understand why an author, Kishimoto, would allow the complete breakdown of the vehicle that had made his story so good and strong in the first place. With the breakdown of all the teams in Naruto, and a further narrowing of focus onto just one character, Naruto, the first 'half' of Naruto ends, accompanied by endless dead weight filler.
The second half of Naruto is even worse, where every battle is a life or death duel, which means there's no possibility for a good guy to lose, completely robbing the series of any battle-induced drama. Worse, there are no teams anymore, just people operating on their own, which largely just means Naruto operating on his own. He abandons Sakura to die in one fight, when she is facing a much stronger Sasori, disobeying orders in a fit of pique. Later he nearly kills Sakura himself in a berserker rage. Between these two sins you lose all respect for Naruto as a person, and hate that he's the main character of the series. It turns out that the super cool Orochimaru is killed easily in a few minutes, and a completely uninteresting, unrelated cast of villains becomes the 'new' foe, but there is no emotional bond between the viewer and these villains, because they appeared so randomly and have no connection to the rest of the plot. Likewise, Itachi is killed off way too easily, and his character is distorted from a cool villain with an inscrutable way of psychopathic thinking into just another idiot who was manipulated and fooled by others into doing what he thought was right. Everything good about the original series is polluted and destroyed, just like the bonds of team 7.
Naruto continues to drag on in an unending wail, long since all value was stolen away. Currently the manga is in a 'giant ninja war' with resurrected villains of old, all of whom are easily beaten by the good guys, which makes the fighting scenes pointless because there's no tension. Relationships, instead of moving forward between the child ninjas that were introduced at the Chuunin exam, instead seem to be moving backwards and drifting apart. Naruto and Sasuke still haven't made up. It's just a total mess of a plot. If the series had ended with Naruto defeating Gaara, it could have been amazing from start to finish. If it had continued in some other way, with Orochimaru and Itachi being truly splendid villains that were difficult to take down, the final bosses of the story, and team 7 had stayed together and worked together to beat them, that could have been a great story from start to finish. Instead we got the Naruto the author decided on, which is just a shameful waste of good ideas and good characters.
Even so, for the sake of the Naruto that lasted until the end of the Chuunin exam, and partially for the Naruto that lasted until Sasuke defeated Naruto and left to join Orochimaru, I will call this the 7th best series ever made. This is because the series up until that date was still 134 episodes long. That's an extremely long run for a good series. Even if you cut out all the filler and 'stare-down' wasted airtime, you're looking at 70 solid episodes, still one of the longest great stories ever. Therefore, for all my negativity, I'm thankful for the author being good enough and creative enough to entertain me for the time he did. Nor is Naruto Shippudden unwatchably bad. Compared to other bad series, it can compete evenly with them as an entertaining spiel. Each new episode of 'mildly entertaining' content only makes Naruto that much better, not worse. The more the merrier, after all, neh?
Naruto would make a good college course where people dissect what exactly makes a good story and a bad one, and shows where Naruto went wrong and how it could have been changed. When something so good becomes so bad, something strange must have happened. Investigating that mystery could be the subject of numerous books.