God, I remember kids talking about this when I was in elementary school. That was… 2002 to 2007. Twenty to fifteen years ago. Christ, I’m old.
Shounen anime has changed a lot in the last few decades. Series have come and gone and, in a few cases, come back again. More shows go with the seasonal model over the endless run, as was so often seen back in the day. And as new dogs step onto the scene, I begin to wonder: how well do the old hounds of the genre still stand?
As stated at the beginning, the original Naruto anime (not Shippuden; that’s a can of worms for another day) is almost as old as I am. When it first aired, it was the hot new thing. I can remember all the fellow dweebs at my school getting into it and being subsequently bullied for it. Myself, I didn’t watch it until my teen years, when I first got sucked into anime, back in the glory days when I could watch twenty to thirty episodes in a day and I didn’t know the difference between filler and ‘real’ content.
Oh, the vigor and innocence of youth.
Today, I ask the question: is original Naruto still worth watching? To answer that, I put the show up on my second monitor and watched episode after episode while I worked. To slim down on time spent watching, I kept a filler guide open. Not to say I skipped all the filler; if a filler arc could grab my interest within one episode, I would keep going until it lost it. Now, I believe I am adequately prepared to answer my question.
You know the story. Naruto is a lonely little ninja boy in the Hidden Leaf Village, rejected by his peers because he has the Nine-Tailed Fox spirit locked inside him. Determined to earn their respect, he sets the highest goal a ninja can aim for: to become Hokage, leader of the village. But to get there, he’ll have to face all manner of deadly enemies, including his own rival and friend: Sasuke.
Narratively speaking, I firmly believe that the arcs in this first series are the best in all of Naruto. It does get off to a really slow start; the first two episodes are a slog and the first arc doesn’t get good until Zabuza shows up. Before that, we’re treated to fine but not exceptional character introductions, lots of exposition, and really awkward humor.
Are we gonna talk about the fact that Naruto created the Sexy Jutsu when he was, like, eight? Then he taught it to an eight year old boy? No? We’re just gonna ignore that? Okay.
But when the story of this series is good, it is really good! The Chunin Exam arc is an incredibly intense game of cat and mouse, perfectly introducing one of the creepiest villains in all of anime with Orochimaru (until they ruin him, but we’ll get to that another day) and treating us to some of the most intense fights in the series. The Fifth Hokage arc is a perfect blend of training arc and character study with Tsunade, as well as a great introduction to the other primary antagonistic force in the Akatsuki. And of course, the Rescue Sasuke arc is a perfect capper for this chunk of the story, featuring an intense chase, great character growth, and the best fight in all of Naruto to cap it all off.
I’ll get around to individual arc reviews later on. When I’m finally done with One Piece.
Unfortunately, as good as all that stuff is, it is broken up by a tedious amount of filler. This is a problem that only gets worse the longer the series goes on. Early on, it isn’t so bad. But by the end, the filler arcs grow to insufferable lengths. For god’s sake, the last eighty or so episodes, everything that comes after the Rescue Sasuke arc, are just filler!
Is it the worst filler of all time? No. In fact, I’d argue some of it is pretty fun. Like the Curry of Life arc. If you don’t take them seriously and watch them ironically (and with a few drinks) they aren’t completely insufferable. Still, the sheer amount of it is overwhelming to the point of being sickening, and they’re all only fun for a few episodes at a time.
Now, presentation wise, this show has aged like a fine wine. For a constantly running show from 2002, this shit looks dope! Kishimoto’s vibrant environments are translated into the anime incredibly well, the character designs are fantastic, and the sound effects are downright iconic now. It still looks and sounds great.
Especially in combat. Naruto fight scenes are something else, man. The beautiful blend of hand-to-hand combat and ninja magic is a delight on the eyes! Yes, if you pause, some of the in-betweens look goofy; there’s a reason the meme ‘Don’t Pause Naruto’ exists. But when put into motion, few shounen have fight scenes as dope as this.
It certainly helps that the music is fucking killer! It’s a perfect fit for the ninja-themed world of Naruto. Few OSTs get the blood pumping or the tears flowing like this one! Practically every track has become a meme at this point, which is simple proof of how iconic and memorable they truly are.
So, we come back to the question that started this article. Does the original Naruto anime hold up? Is it still worth watching, even twenty years later?
For the most part, yes. It does get off to a weak start and the sheer number of filler episodes is nightmarish. But the narrative of the canon episodes is the strongest between this and Shippuden, and the animation still looks amazing and the music still kicks ass. Sure, you’ll need a filler guide. But with one in hand, this show is still very watchable.
Not just watchable, but charming! With how complicated and over-the-top Naruto has become, what with the final arcs of Shippuden and all of Boruto, it’s nice to go back to the simple days of the series. It reminded me why we all had fallen in love with this series to begin with.
Has it aged entirely well? No. It’s definitely still a product of its time. But its still very fun, very charming, and very engaging. So, the answer to the question is yes. Original Naruto does, in fact, hold up.
And then there’s Shippuden. Holy shit, Shippuden.