Search This Blog

Monday, May 23, 2011

Naruto! Season One

So, my woman holds the keys to the NetFlix account.  Worse, she monopolizes the TV time.  So I don't usually get to watch at home.  I only get to watch at work when I'm doing something particularly monotonous.  Which means  Which means free.  We're already paying some $20 bucks a month to stream.  It may at some point be worth it to pay an additional $10.  But given how much free content is still on the site, well, it hasn't proven necessary.

Anyway, Naruto was one of my finds.  I loved cartoons, as most kids do.  And as I grew older, and my taste grew more sophisticated, I found myself turning to Manga where it's "ok" to watch adult cartoons.  Oh to be sure, we have many adult comedy cartoons of our own.  But frankly, no drama, no sci-fi or fantasy cartoons.  I'm not a huge fan.  As I said, I really don't have much time for TV or video content.  But I do have a few favorites including Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Robotech and a few others.  Anyway, manga cartoons are usually science fiction in nature, featuring giant robots facing off against huge aliens.  And like much science fiction, they tend to be apolycalptic in nature.  Narruto is an exception to these tropes.  Narruto is strictly fantasy.

From my own little research for this post, Japanese culture isn't much interested in the Western world's fantasy tropes.  And why would they be?  It was never their culture, and they have a rich and fascinating culture of their own.  It could be argued that Americans have no real reason to enjoy fantasy for a similar reason.  But, we are migrants from the Old World, and ancestor worship for Americans means harkening back to cowboys and indians, or to medieval Europe.  I don't know much about Japan.  So all of my comments are essentially ignorant of that culture.  My apologies if I get anything wrong, or offend in ignorance.

1) Character

What makes Narruto a fantasy? Short answer, the character of Narruto. The TV show, while a hit for older audiences as well as younger ones, has some pretty blunt, hit-you-over-the-head themes meant for a younger audience. However, the blunt nature of the messaging, may also be a part of the Japanese culture. I've often laughed at transliterations of Japanese shows and films with really obvious titles. Something lost in the translation, or a tendency to just name things as they are? But the theme of Narruto is simple, "We're all different, of different ability, but whether you're born talented or not, any one who tries hard enough can succeed." That is the nature of the main character, Narruto.  He does, in fact, have a wellspring of amazing power.  But he's a fillbertygibbet, a clown, impulsive, often thoughtless.  The other thing that makes him a character worthy of fantasy fiction is that he is deeply, deeply good.  At some point in the second season, he is assailed by a couple of bumbling debt collectors.  He kicks their butts, but when he learns of their plight, he arranges to help them.  Debt collectors, thugs!  In the first season, one of the enemy ninja is an orphan who murdered his parents.  Narruto takes pity on him too.  Why is this fantasy?  It's all tied up, to me, with the notion of what is good.  In Jordan's epic, there is a saying "No man can stand in the Shadow so long that he cannot find the Light again" from The Eye of the World.  Naruto takes a very similar stance, even evil ninjas are not beyond redemption. 

Another fantasyesque characteristic of the show is that there are literally dozens of characters.  And the show makes a real effort to provide real distinguishing characteristics to all of them.  So Narruto, when he passes his test to become a Genin, the lowest level of ninja, gets put into a squad with Sasuke and Sakura.  Sasuke is much more of the hero type, dark, quiet, driven, good looking.  And of course, Sakura plays love sick girl to his tall dark and handsome.  While on the topic of Sakura, none of the female characters in the first season are particularly strong.  I understand that Japanese culture can be heavily sexist, this could be an indication of that, though I hope to see this myth dispelled in further episodes.  The world of Narruto features a plethora of interesting, fun and real characters.  This is classic fantasy.

2) Cliche
I don't know much about Japanese fiction cliches.  Even so, I can venture a guess at some.  Personal paralysis.  This is something I noticed first in the Neon Genesis Evangelion series, one of my faves.  Since at heart they are cartoons, grouped in twenty minute episodes, and shown to children.  Young kids are at the heart of them.  Funny, I grew up watching G.I.Joe.  There were no kids in that show.  There are no kids in any of the syndicated versions of Batman, or the X-Men series.  I wonder what that says.  Naruto is twelve or thirteen when the story starts.  Likewise, children are at the heart of Evangelion.  And they are impulsive, and they get really really scared when faced with these life threatening situations.  All to the good.  Still, its a cliche.  And when Naruto freezes up in fear in the first B rated mission outside the Village of the Leaf, overcoming that fear is what the next few episodes are about.

Another massive cliche in Naruto is vengeance.  It's almost tiresome.  No one is ever beaten who doesn't declare vengeance on the winner, thus perpetuating the whole damn cycle.  This leads to a competition cliche.  If at first you don't succeed, try try again, until you beat the mother effin' pants off the person who beat you the first time.  Another cliche is rooted in the eternal optimism mentioned above, that even the most evil have sad, human stories that lead them to their present state.  This is particularly true of Gaara, the season one baddy.  It turns out that the Village of the Sand, bred Gaara to be a cold hearted killer, including hiring the only people who cared for him to assassinate him.  Gaara is never fully redeemed, but Narruto, who also grew up an outcast, feels his pain and has several touching moments with him before battle drives the sand demon possessed Gaara from the field.  Gaara actually kills a dozen or more people during the first season.  That's a cliche breaker, at least in Western kids shows.  Batman doesn't kill.  I remember me and one of my best friends watching the G.I.Joe. movie again and again to see the nameless soldier who actually dies in the film's opening.

3) Scope
Like a lot of modern media, Narruto breaks the third wall consistently.  The show often breaks down in into "YouTube" video format where they describe or recap plot points in the show.  One such plot point showed the lands of the world of Naruto, pictured here.  The addition of a map, makes this full fledged fantasy.  Our heroes dwell in the Country of Fire, though this is rarely remarked upon.  In the first season, the heroes travel to the Country of Water, and are visited by ninjas from the Country of Wind.  This map, open ended as it is, leaves room for expansion.  Something I'm glad all Naruto fans are glad of.  Moreover, the sheer number of characters means that the world has a substantive history, which is gradually disclosed.  The Village of the Leaf is guarded by ninjas named Hokages.  At the time of the original series, Leaf Village is ruled by the Third Hokage, who is now an old man.  Though all the countries have warred before, they're militaries are these elite squadrons of ninjas.  At some point, fifty years or so prior to the series start, the Chunin Exam was instituted.  The exam, it turns out, was a contest to allow the hidden villages to demonstrate their military strength without relying on all-out war.  The World of Naruto is filled with battles and old feuds.  One of the nice things about the format of the show is that since it starts with the worldview of children, they can afford to be a bit myopic about politics.  What do kids care about wars and politics?  So, it doesn't seem manufactured or forced to learn new things about the world that are complete revelations.

4) Magic
So the form of magic practiced in Naruto is highly regimented.  This is a truly excellent aspect of the show that many modern fantasies eschew in favor of mystery and drama.  Each ninja wields several forms of fighting, Ninjitsu or Tajitsu.  Ninjitsu requires the use of personal energy, Chakra, which should sound familiar to practicioners of Yoga and other eastern arts.  Using complex hand gestures and a ton of practice, these ninjas can bring their Chakra to bear to throw fire balls, create clones, tornados, you name it.  Naruto's main Ninjitsu in the first season is the Shadow Clone Jutsu.  Given that his Chakra is enormous he is able to create a complete army of clones.  The clones disapear after a direct hit, but they can still wollop someone.  Each ninja has his own special techniques and seeing new techniques is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the series.  Also, the fact that old techniques are continually used, gives the show a continuity that it might not have if the characters simply moved on to the "move of the week."  Learning new techniques is incredibly arduous, and often takes characters several shows to perfect.  This adds realism but can be irritating, particularly in pitched battles which can take as long as six or seven episodes.  Something that given the sheer amount of time wasted coasting through opening and closing credits can be extremely vexing!  The show makes a conscious effort to describe every new Jutsu and how it works, often going into one of these sidebar "YouTube" clips describing how it works.  This is for the heavy duty fans.  Personally, I find it unrealistic to think that an enemy ninja is so curious about the Jutsu that is kicking his butt that he'd pause in mid knock out for a dissertation on the physics of the Water Clone Jutsu.  Still, they make an effort.  I appreciate that.

5) Theme
I've sort of already gone over the theme of Naruto.  To recap, they are:

1)  Never stop trying
2)  Always be kind
3)  Always forgive
4)  Life is a Competition
5)  Protecting those you love is the greatest thing to aspire to.

Overall, I'd say these are pretty good memes to live by.  Peace out until I finish Season 2!