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IN BRIEF: Uzumaki Naruto has been ostracized his whole life, and while he can be a bit of a twerp, that doesn't explain the universal dislike from before an age when he could talk. No, rather, he finds out on his attempted graduation from the Konoha ninja academy that he's a vessel containing the Kyuubi, a being that ravaged the village right before his birth. Undaunted, he decides to press forward in a ninja career; however, it's likely that he's just as unprepared for the reality of ninja life as his teammates, brainy fangirl Sakura and standoffish quasi-celebrity Sasuke, are. Can their jounin sensei Kakashi keep them alive and provide them with the training they need to advance as ninja?
MY THOUGHTS: Oh boy, it was rough coming up with a summary that minimized plot spoilers. While most anime fans are familiar with "Naruto" already, this review is also for those who aren't, after all.
At its heart, "Naruto" seems to be about the coming of age of the titular character: how he moves past his childhood isolation and learns to be confident about his nindo, or ninja belief system. He encounters setbacks, losses, and events that challenge his hope for a world without unnecessary conflict (he's not a pacifist, mind you - being raised on ninja indoctrination would make that almost impossible. Instead, Naruto dislikes political motivations for conflict and/or people being manipulated by the behavior of others into fighting; he would prefer friendly spars, and often he fights to change someone's mind about something), not least of all the decision of a friend to desert from the village and work for an enemy who has promised him assistance with a personal mission of vengeance.
Here's where "Naruto" starts going off the previously clear plot rails. Naruto fixates on recovering said friend, and loses track of his other promises and motivations in doing so. The anime gets plagued with almost 100 episodes of filler in a row, before jumping into the manga's time skip in "Naruto Shippuden". The narrative morphs from a coming of age story into a battle manga, and then metastasizes into an international ninja conflict, and then further devolves into a fight to save the entire planet. At a certain point, you sit back and wonder how the ninja villages even make sense anymore as a setting - there's certainly no ninja-like behavior in any of them, as stealth is nonexistent and flashy destructive techniques are the norm.
Naturally, there are other common shounen issues in "Naruto" as it doesn't deviate much from tried-and-true methods. For example, the female characters are consistently undervalued, sidelined, and unable to defeat any male in a one-on-one fight (I could count exceptions on one hand and have fingers left over). If I include Shippuden in this review, then the ending did almost all the Konoha characters dirty, and the sequel "Boruto" compounds the problem. Nevertheless, the plot derailment seems to me to be the biggest drawback to "Naruto". With that in mind, I can cautiously recommend the episodes up to the friend leaving (around the 130s), and the remainder can be skipped; if you need to know what happens next, go straight to Shippuden... and don't be surprised when you end up with a much different story than you started with.
My reviewing system for films and shows that are NOT anime: 1-5: I hated it. I also don't think it has redeeming qualities, so you shouldn't watch it either. 6: I didn't like it. It's not my thing, I didn't like the execution, I don't want to see it again. However, I don't think it is a BAD film or show - it has qualities that will recommend it to those who like that kind of thing. 7: It was fine. I didn't love it, and I don't need to see it again. I won't be sad if I never see it again. 8: I liked it. I didn't love it, and while I'd like to see it again, I wouldn't want to see it often. 9: I loved it. I would be sad if I never saw it again. I might want to see it every few years. 10: I loved it beyond description. I wouldn't mind re-watching it every year.
Clarifying my Anime rating system: My number key below is an attempt to parse the small differences between 5 and 6, 7 and 8, & 9 and 10. When I rate, I consider my own enjoyment, the characterization and the plot, the appearance of the animation, and occasionally the soundtrack - in roughly that order. An anime will lose at least 1 point for presence of deal-breaker tropes (for example, comedic pedophilia), and more if the trope(s) ruined my enjoyment. On the other hand, it will gain at least 1 point for artistry in animation or sound.
Never Recommend: 1-4, inclusive. Further clarification: I don't expect to rate anything 1-4, as I would probably never finish watching something in this range of rating. It's likely to have bad plotting, subpar animation, bland characterizations, silly and/or irritating tropes, etc.; I would consider it to be pure excrement, and I would rather be getting unanesthetized surgery for the entire running time.
Cautious Recommending: 5: I watched at least part of it, and may have stopped due to not liking the plot twists, character derailment, specific tropes, etc. In this case, it started out with a higher score and slipped over time... because I normally don't watch anything that I would score below 6, except for movies (small time commitment). 6: I may or may not have watched the whole show, but I recognize deal-breaker issues in it, and I'm unlikely to rewatch (I would rewatch only if a friend begged me to). It just wasn't enjoyable enough for me to forgive its flaws. There would be huge caveats to any recommendation.
Likely to Recommend: 7: Not my thing, but usually I at least respect it. Generally, I didn't like it enough to think I would rewatch it, but also didn't see huge problems in the plot, characterizations, etc. and thought it was worth finishing. I might suggest it to someone if I know they like the specific sub-genre or other work by the studio. 8: I had a good time watching it, but it didn't move me the way a 9 or a 10 does; it's possible that over time I would upgrade it to a 9 if I liked it more on reflection. I would be willing to rewatch it. I'd consider it mostly harmless to view, and would recommend it with the occasional caveat.
Highly Recommend: 9: I enjoyed very much. It may have had one or two issues, but not enough to diminish enjoyment. It's possible that over time I would downgrade it to an 8 (changing tastes) or upgrade to a 10 (realize it's never left my mind). I'm likely to rewatch, and likely to buy the DVDs. I'd recommend it to most audiences. 10: Virtually flawless. I'd definitely rewatch, and definitely want to buy DVDs. I would shill this to anyone.
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