Celebrating the best Naruto Shippuden arc on Pain's birthday
Any show as long-running as Naruto is bound to have some arcs and seasons that are better than others. The original show had the Chunin Exam and the Sasuke Retrieval arcs, but also had literally 100 episodes of filler. Shippuden had the likes of the Gaara Rescue arc, but also the Fourth Great Ninja War.
Throughout the entire 720 episode run of Naruto, I would argue that the show was at its best during the Pain arc of Shippuden. The other three examples I listed are great stories, as well, but I think the Pain arc goes above and beyond by both paying off the setup from as far back as Episode 1 of the original show and by setting up future development for the series.
As some set up for anyone who doesn’t feel like watching over 150 episodes of Shippuden before continuing, the overarching plot is that the Akatsuki (the group that Sasuke’s brother Itachi and shark-man Kisame from the original show were a part of) are trying to gather Jinchuriki — the Tailed Beasts’ hosts, such as Naruto and Gaara.
By the time we get to the Pain Arc, the majority of the Akatsuki have been killed or taken out of commission in one way or another. Additionally, Jiraiya successfully infiltrated the Village Hidden in the Rain, where the Akatsuki’s leader, Pain, is based. However, when he confronts Pain, there are six people all with the Rinnegan, a legendary eye with special powers that supposedly only previously occurred in the Sage of Six Paths, the person who first created ninjutsu, the ninja magic that almost all the major characters use.
In the ensuing fight, we see Jiraiya go all out for once, including using some kind of transformation that makes him more frog-like, but eventually, he is killed, using sheer willpower to keep himself alive long enough to carve a coded message into a toad’s back to relay some kind of information to the Village Hidden in the Leaves.
This marks a substantial tonal shift for the show. In a previous season, Asuma — Shikamaru’s mentor, Konohamaru’s uncle, and the Third Hokage’s son — died fighting a member of the Akatsuki who Shikamaru eventually took down.
When Shikamaru confronts Naruto about Jiraiya, their conversation gives some insight as to why this arc is different from the previous ones. Shikamaru takes Naruto to the hospital where Kuranai is recovering after giving birth, and he talks about how Asuma tasked him with protecting both of them and eventually training Kuranai and Asuma’s child. This leads to Shikamaru outright telling Naruto they are no longer the next generation in training, they are starting to take over for their masters and become the next generation of mentors.
The episodes before Pain attacks are also markedly different than most other story arcs, even in the original show. Everyone knows that Pain is going to come to take Naruto, so Naruto goes off with the toads to learn the same Sage transformation that Jiraiya had used. At the same time, we get to see more of the inner workings of the Village as the intel division try to gain information from a Hidden Rain ninja that Jiraiya had captured and the cipher division works with Shikamaru to decipher Jiraiya’s message.
This is one of the only times we get to see the Village Hidden in the Leaves as an actual organization, with multiple departments all working toward the same goal, rather than one or two small field teams trying to accomplish a mission, potentially with some off-screen help from another division, like the ANBU Black Ops.
Unfortunately, even after decoding the message and hacking the ninja’s brain to learn about Pain’s secrets, the leader of the Akatsuki still shows up before Naruto finishes his Sage training and launches a major attack on the Village.
Previously, we’ve seen Orochimaru’s forces attack the Leaf at the end of the Chunin Exams in the original show, however, whether through building up the villains for so long, or because the team animating and making the show had matured in the intervening years, Pain’s attack on the Village is much more visceral and personal.
Instead of a giant multiheaded snake crashing through the Village walls and some nameless Chunin falling into the forest below, we see civilians fleeing from massive monsters trampling the streets. When major characters like Kakashi and Choji fight more than one of the six Pains at once, Kakashi dies in the process. The fight culminates in one of the six Pains using his Almighty Push ability to destroy the entire Village. Sakura, emerging from the rubble and seeing the destruction, yells for Naruto in a scene that has stuck in my memory despite having not seen the episode in years.
Meanwhile, in Naruto’s Sage training, we also see development with respect to the show’s fighting and magic system. Sage Mode works by Naruto staying perfectly still and sensing the Nature Chakra around him, then absorbing it and mixing it with his normal chakra to create a new energy that is limited, but extremely powerful.
Obviously, Naruto can’t just stand still in battle, so the elder toad training him offers to stay attached to Naruto so one can take in Nature Chakra while the other fights. However, due to Naruto having the Kyuubi in him, the elder toad can’t stay attached, meaning the transformation is effectively useless in battle. Then, in a truly shocking turn of events, Naruto actually has a good idea.
In a previous season, Kakashi showed that Shadow Clones are connected to their original body, which allowed Naruto to train at hyper-speed since all the experience of the clones would flow back into him. Naruto realized that clones could maintain their Sage chakra until he needed it, then he could release the Jutsu and absorb the power, giving him another burst of Sage Mode without needing to stop moving.
As much as people joke about how dumb Naruto is, I loved this scene ever since I first saw it. It shows that Naruto might be stubborn and not a particularly fast thinker, but he’s not an idiot. He can come up with legitimately good ideas that will help him in battle.
When Naruto gets back to the crater formerly known as the Village Hidden in the Leaves, he's almost like a completely new character. He shows up in a completely new Sage outfit — which is almost an invert color-wise of the Akatsuki’s uniform and is close to the Fourth Hokage’s cloak, and I REALLY wish that it came back after this arc — with an oversized scroll on his back, reminiscent of Jiraiya’s outfit, and his mentor elder toad standing between his feet. Additionally, Naruto is standing on Gamakichi, who is in turn standing on his father Gamabunta, the chief toad the size of a building, who is flanked by two soldier toads of the same size.
After Naruto realizes he is standing in the remains of his home, he goes to fight Pain. In the ensuing fight, he is eventually pinned to the ground due to running out of Sage chakra and Hinata rushes in to save him. Her fight with Pain is completely one-sided, but she’s not fighting to kill the enemy, she’s fighting to free the boy she’s loved for years, — which she finally admits while bleeding on the ground before Pain stabs her, presumably killing her.
In the original series, we saw that the Kyuubi’s power can manifest as a chakra cloak around Naruto. Shippuden expanded on that, showing what happens when more power leaks out and more tails manifest. We’ve seen that two tails is dangerous, but basically just the original cloak with more power. We’ve also seen that at four tails, Naruto loses all control and basically becomes a mini Tailed Beast as his skin peels off and a black and crimson half-human half-fox creature starts rampaging. Jiraiya stated previously that he had only been close to death twice in his life, and one of those times was when training with Naruto after Naruto unleashed the four-tailed Tailed Beast Cloak.
When Hinata’s defeated, Naruto instantly goes into the four tails cloak, Pain egging him on to feel such pain and understand that peace can never be achieved as Naruto’s rage continues to increase.
In the ensuing fight ... Honestly, just go watch Naruto Shippuden Episode 167. It’s hard to even describe the insanity of Tailed Beast Cloak Naruto versus Pain, so I’ll leave it at this: Pain basically becomes Wile E. Coyote for about 10 minutes of non-stop action. For anyone who wants to go the extra mile and get a behind the scenes look, here’s an interview with the animation director who worked on the Naruto versus Pain fight:
Enjoy a charming interview with Shingo Yamashita, the animator behind the Naruto vs. Pain scene in Shippuden! ???? pic.twitter.com/Zw4crrbeNc— Crunchyroll (@Crunchyroll) February 25, 2019
At the end of the fight, Pain decides he needs to go all out against the rapidly transforming Naruto, destroying the surrounding area to create a giant sphere of stone encasing the Jinchuriki and noting that it should be easy since the Sage of Six Paths was said to have created the Moon with the same technique.
Meanwhile, Captain Yamato — who can seal the Tailed Beast back into Naruto thanks to having the First Hokage’s cells implanted in him and Naruto having the First Hokage’s necklace that Tsunade gave him back in the original show — has been rushing back to the Village from a mission, since his hand keeps burning with the number of tails Naruto has released. He stops dead when he sees “九,” the kanji for “9.”
Inside Naruto’s mental landscape, he’s about to remove the seal and release the Kyuubi fully when the Fourth Hokage stops him.
The two talk for a while, with the Hokage confirming he is Naruto’s father (which the audience had known since the beginning of the season but Naruto was learning for the first time) and that he would only be able to help this one time.
The show does an amazing job of portraying Naruto’s simultaneous relief at being saved, elation at knowing his parents, disbelief at knowing he is the son of the Hokage he’s looked up to his entire life, anger at his parents for having left him, and innumerable other emotions.
The Kyuubi now back under control, Naruto emerges from the sphere and goes back down to Pain, asking to speak to the original body. The two continue to fight for a while, Naturo employing more tactical thinking than ever before by having his ultimate attack be a multilayered distraction to hide a Mass Shadow Clones Jutsu that had all used the Transformation Jutsu to hide as rocks where Pain was standing.
With all six Pain defeated, Naruto locates the original Pain. When the two meet, Naruto wants to kill him, but also wants to hear out his reasoning before making a final judgment on how to proceed.
This is one of the biggest changes from before and after the Pain arc. Before the Pain arc, Naruto and his team would normally be on a mission, encounter an enemy trying to interfere or who was just evil, and the good guys would need to take down the bad guys. Even in Shippuden, the Akatsuki or other antagonists were almost certainly always in the wrong and clearly needed to be taken down.
Pain is the first major antagonist the show attempts to make sympathetic. He was a war orphan trained by Jiraiya and who was trying to make the world peaceful … by arming himself and his nation with the equivalent of nuclear bombs to threaten all the other nations into peace or he’d teach them the kind of pain he’d been through. Not exactly the most nuanced villain in all of anime, but more in-depth than the average Naruto villain before.
Even Orochimaru, one of the best villains in the series, starts very one-note and only becomes more developed as time goes on. Even then, his development is more along the lines of a ninja mad scientist rather than a truly sympathetic character.
After Pain, the series changes the focus of its battles more toward “how can this be resolved peacefully?” Naruto is always looking for a way to make the world better, rather than just doing his missions and helping people where he can. This echoes as far as the end of the Fourth Great Ninja War, where Obito has become the main antagonist for a time and yet still Naruto strives to befriend him and get him to stand down rather than outright kill him.
In short, the Pain arc is when the series matures from “beat up the bad guy” to “try to understand the bad guy and get them to change their ways, if possible.”
After talking to Pain for so long that Pain decided to use the last of his power to bring everyone in the Leaf back to life, Naruto returns, barely conscious from exhaustion. As Kakashi supports him in the last stretch to a crowd of people, everyone begins cheering for Naruto, including lifting him up into the air. He is no longer the shunned kid on the swing that no one spoke to, he’s not even a ninja that everyone in the village respects. He has surpassed his childhood dream and become the Hero of the Leaf — the ninja who saved the Village and protected everyone.
The arc isn’t without flaws. It’s the first time Naruto is outright a child of prophecy, destined to bring peace to the world. Sasuke lacks almost any character motivation after killing Itachi. Naruto gets stronger off-screen at least twice during his Sage training alone. And while many characters get fitting conclusions to their character arcs, others are left in the background or their payoff doesn’t actually do anything until later (like how Hinata confesses her love … and then absolutely nothing happens).
However, there are three reasons why the Pain arc works so well.
The character arc and plot thread resolutions are almost innumerable. Shikamaru has taken over for Asuma and is on his way to becoming a trusted advisor and mentor. Hinata has finally confessed her love to Naruto. Sasuke has taken his revenge on Itachi — in a surprisingly tactical fight that combines strategy, emotion, and future powers I wish I had time to detail. Kakashi got to speak to his father before Pain brought everyone back to life. Jiraiya passed on his hopes of a peaceful world to Naruto. Naruto surpassed his master and became the new Toad Sage. The Tailed Beast Cloak finally fully released but Naruto managed to fight it back. The First Hokage’s necklace broke. The Fourth Hokage and Naruto spoke. Naruto knows who his parents are. Naruto is finally acknowledged by the entire village, not only as a splendid ninja but as the Hero of the Leaf. The list goes on.
The Pain arc introduces the audience to the Rinnegan and Sage of Six Paths — both of which become increasingly important as the Fourth Great Ninja War goes on — and eventually become integral plot points to defeating Kaguya, the final boss of Shippuden.
Additionally, Pain’s Planetary Devastation and Almighty Push are the first times (outside of a filler arc or two) we’ve seen abilities of that level of destruction, which opened the door for future fights to scale even higher, eventually reaching the point of reshaping the entire landscape to create new mountains and valleys incidentally during the conflicts. While not exactly ninja, the series had long since left the realm of actual ninja techniques, so increasing spectacle is a welcome way to make the battles more exciting.
This is why I think that the Pain arc is the best in the series. It works as both a culmination of the series' past and as a gateway to the series’ future, both in terms of plot and visuals.
What is your favorite part of Naruto Shippuden? How does the Pain arc stack up to the more recent Boruto arcs? Let me know in the comments below!
Kevin Matyi is a freelance features writer for Crunchyroll. He's been watching anime for as long as he can remember, and his favorite shows tend to be shonen and other action series.
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