This review contains spoilers up to chapter 435 of the Naruto manga. Read at your own risk.
Naruto is currently one of the leading titans of the anime industry, and probably the biggest thing to hit it off stateside since Dragonball Z. At first glance, you would think it is completely deserved, and rightly so. After all, this series has all the components of a major success. Nice art? Check. Interesting-looking characters? Check. Unique and clever fighting styles? Why yes. And don't forget the ninjas. After all, what's cooler than ninjas?
Unfortunately, none of that means jack squat if it isn't executed correctly. This is where Naruto
falls flat on its face.
The story is typical shonen fare, a young boy hated by his peers sets off to prove himself useful. I won't go into detail as to why, since MAL's Naruto page covers that quite nicely. The problem here is that said boy is set up as almost instantly unlikeable. He's a juvenile delinquent with low motivations, low intelligence, low skill and pie-in-the-sky dreams. Soon after the start of the series, he gets teamed up with Sasuke Uchiha, a mildly interesting lad with murderous feelings toward his own brother, Sakura Haruno, whose personality can best be described as "only there to be a gushing Sasuke fangirl," and Kakashi Hatake, their adult leader who is cool, lazy and just about the only interesting thing about this group.
I will admit that the first few arcs are actually kind of neat. Pretty darn enjoyable, actually. Masashi Kishimoto had talent back in those days, and it shows. the Zabuza arc, for example, is going to grab you and take you along for the ride all the way through. Most of the others after that are also kind of fun, up until after the Chuunin exams.
One of the best parts about this series early on is its wide, diverse and interesting cast of minor supporting characters. They all have their own hopes and dreams, and every single one of them has an interesting fighting style. For example, there's Rock Lee, a martial artist and the only ninja in the village who has no need for fireballs and shuriken, Neji Hyuuga, a child prodigy who aims for the weak spots, Kiba Inuzuka, who teams up with his pet dog in battle, Gaara, who controls and manipulates sand in battle, and Tenten, who....
Oh, damn. What does she do? Something to do with weapons.
Oh, well. She's basically a throwaway character. Kishimoto invented her to keep the "two guys and a girl" status quo he had going. She barely gets any screentime and says all of three or so lines in the entire series, which is a damn shame. She has a very neat character design.
Anyway, most of the side characters are fantastic, and they all get some screentime to show off their unique abilities.
Until after the Chuunin exams.
Now to be a little more fair, there is an arc right after the Chuunin exams that gets them all an excuse to play around with their powers and provides a decent amount of entertainment. Unfortunately, I have to call that the beginning of the rot anyway, because that is the point where the series takes a gigantic nosedive. And that nosedive's name is Sasuke.
Yes, Sasuke. The mildly interesting young fellow goes from being kind of cool to being an overpowered wristcutter with all the personality of a chunk of cardboard. In his quest for power, which he plans to use to murder his own sibling, he enters the tutelage of a fifty-something Michael Jackson impersonator with a bizarre snake affinity, betrays his friends, and generally acts like an utter moron. Worse yet, the story shifts its focus from a balance of all the fantastic side characters to this emo Mary Sue punk. At certain points, you might as well just call the series Sasuke. At one point, he manages to actually kill his brother, only to find out that Itachi threw the match. What's more, Itachi was dying anyway and only ever had the best intentions at heart, giving his life to protect his home. Sasuke then immediately decides to destroy said village, which makes no sense no matter how you look at it.
Compounding on that dilemma is the story's pacing, which more or less comes to a grinding halt. Fights suddenly begin to drag on chapter after chapter, villains become dull and unmotivated, and characters become dumber and dumber as the plot demands.
The most recent arc involves Naruto's final showdown with Pein, an elite warlord superninja with six individually sentient bodies and a knack for showy, destructive rampages. Though there were quite a few clever developments, such as Naruto's most recent powerups and development from whiny brat to competent, clever tactician, this arc suffers greatly from many side character-related flaws. Kishimoto has begun to kill off Naruto's mentors left and right for no apparent reason and in completely embarrassing ways. For example, Kakashi, the coolest thing this series had going for it since the Zabuza Arc, recently died of exaustion after failing to do any significant damage to one of Pein's bodies. Meanwhile, halfway across town, a young, weak Naruto wannabe named Konohamaru knocks out another of Pein's bodies in one blow. What's more, people began to acknowledge Naruto as their only chance for salvation long before he arrived at the village, despite the fact that he had previously done absolutely nothing to deserve that kind of respect. As of the current chapter, the minor characters who were once so clever, imaginative and fun to watch are basically sitting around muttering about how they'll only get in the way of this person that's fighting the ultimate enemy of their entire village, despite the fact that said person was until very recently regarded as the village idiot.
These ratings are generous due to the beginning of the series. Back then Charactes would have gotten a perfect ten. Now they barely deserve a two thanks to all the derailment. The story, once at least an eight, has now puttered down to no more than a one. The enjoyment rating is only as high as it is because this series is almost fun to read if only to laugh at Kishimoto's desperate attempts to motivate a character that's already got more than enough motivation, thanks, and to observe how very, very tired of this series he obviously is. The only reason I can fathom for him to continue is because his editor wants to milk this franchise for all it's worth, rather than risk starting over with a newer, more interesting franchise. I only continue it in the shallow hope that it may one day become half as great as it once was.
In conclusion, Naruto starts out great, but crashes like Michael Scott from The Office on sugar. It hasn't regained its boundless energy yet, and it's likely to keep sleeping for a while. There is much, much better out there, people. Please try to broaden your horizons.