Masashi Kishimoto created a universe that we want to experience
There's something effortless about Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto's worldbuilding. In fiction, you usually spend a bit of time in the beginning waiting for the pieces to come together, waiting for the hook, waiting for the "Oh, THAT'S what this thing is gonna be." And that's not some cutting critique, it's just how most narrative art works in general. But Naruto makes this process invisibly, almost deceitfully smooth. Twenty years after its debut in Weekly Shonen Jump, I'm still amazed by just how easy it is to get into Naruto.
Naruto was first published on September 21, 1999. Its author and artist, Kishimoto, had been trying to get several different stories started throughout the late 90s, but hadn't had much luck. This instilled within him a "fierce desire," an attribute that he'd openly lend to the character of Naruto himself. It would also be the attribute that would set Naruto apart from his action manga peers. Goku wants to be the strongest, but he's always been a kind of prodigal child. Luffy wants to be King of the Pirates, but he balances his insane amount of grit with a sense of aloof naivete. Naruto, though? Naruto reaaaaallly wants to be accepted and he reaaaalllllly wants to be Hokage.
There's something immediately identifiable about that, and it actually aids in the aforementioned worldbuilding. Because if you see yourself in the lead character, you don't have to make a major leap to accept the story that revolves around them. It becomes your journey, too. When the anime first premiered in America in 2005, I was in high school. And my classmates and friends that got into it were able to intensely relate to Naruto, as it was the perfect time for them to. In middle and high school, all you want is to have a place and "have it together" and be acknowledged for the strengths that you know you have. Strengths that many can't seem to see.
Kishimoto lets this tie into Naruto's backstory to create a main character that is both sympathetic and aspirational. With his parents long gone, Naruto is sort of forced to develop his personality from scratch. It's why he's so rough around the edges in the beginning, and probably plays into why he's had trouble adjusting to the duel role of father and Hokage in Boruto. Poor, orphaned Naruto has had to develop his own lessons to follow. Thus, the very general "I'm gonna be Hokage!" becomes a personal mission statement. It's purely him.
It doesn't hurt that the universe that Kishimoto built for Naruto seems so gently constructed, the Leaf Village coming off like a place that you were always destined to find. It's like The Shire in Middle Earth, as there's something uniquely comfortable about it when you first dive into the story. It's obviously a fantastical place full of fantastical people, but it's still familiar. You can see yourself walking its streets and hanging out with its residents and eating its delicious ramen. Obviously, the myths and themes and adventures of Naruto would only open up as the series progressed, but to a fan, reading Naruto can feel somewhat like coming home.
Kishimoto's strengths don't just lie in the locations and the lead character, though. The rest of his main cast, from Sasuke to Sakura to Rock Lee to Kakashi to Gaara to Hinata to even Orochimaru, rarely feel obtuse, as they all play off of eachother so well. They feel defined from the beginning, even if they haven't revealed their full hands when it comes to their personality traits and histories. And this is especially helpful when you see them in action.
Kishimoto obviously puts a lot of thought into "match ups," with the clashes and trials usually being based around what would be most interesting to see at what time. It's why the Chunin Exams are often placed alongside such classic tournaments like the Dark Tournament from Yu Yu Hakusho when ranking the best anime tournaments. It would be super easy to just say "Naruto fights Sasuke at the end of the tournament because they're both the lead characters and it's hype or whatever." But instead, as we see, Kishimoto lets battles like Hinata vs Neji and Rock Lee vs Gaara get the spotlight. When creating a rad anime battle, it's just as important to consider its timing in a character's arc as it is to consider which characters are actually dueling.
And finally, what is Naruto's place in 2019, aside from being a great show to rewatch? Well, you can see shades of the lead character in the current batch of young anime protagonists, ranging from Deku in My Hero Academia to Asta in Black Clover. And you can see how the "rivalry" between Kishimoto and One Piece creator Eiichiro Oda still influences the latter series to this day. But in the end, Naruto remains infinitely readable and watchable after twenty years because Kishimoto crafted a world that you want to experience, with a lead character that often reflects you. And it's hard to find better praise to give a story than that.
When did you first start reading/watching Naruto? What is your favorite character or story arc? Let us know in the comments!