I’m not a big fan of the stuff you see in Shounen Jump. I was too old to have jumped on the Dragonball Z bandwagon in the late 90’s. Bleach and One Piece and many of the other “hot” Jump titles do nothing for me. I kind of liked Yu Yu Hakusho back in the day, but it doesn’t even come close to being one of my all-time favorites.
As a whole, Naruto falls into the same category. It isn’t bad, but for the most part I just don’t find it all that appealing. The major exception to this rule is the Chunin storyline.
The Chunin arc is the only time I’ve seen a shounen series do a fighting tournament right (Not counting Air Master, but it’s not fair to compare and contrast gods to mortals.). What that arc has that many of the other tournament storylines lacked was a sense of escalation.
Most shounen tournament stories are content with going through the motions. X character fights Y. Spend a few episodes on that. Rinse and repeat until Goku wins in the end. Granted, this is more or less how Naruto’s tournament arc plays out, but with each phase in the story the stakes are increased in a way you rarely see in these series. Once the kids are out in the forest participating in what amounts to competitive camping, they find out that some of the participants are there only to fuck shit up. Once the one-on-one random fights start, we find out that some of the people (namely Gaara) are willing to kill to advance, upping the stakes once again. Finally, during the final round, the Sand Village reveals that it’s under the control of the series’ big bad and uses the tournament as a chance to launch an all-out attack on the Leaf Village.
With each phase of the tournament, things change. What was once a coming of age ceremony quickly becomes a dangerous situation, then a fight for one’s life, then an all-out war. All the while, the story never really frees itself from the tournament format. It keeps pairing off people into one-on-one battles, even when there’s no longer a need for such competition. Even though they’re in a state of war, everything eventually boils down to pairings, such as Naruto vs. Gaara. The tournament may be off, but the tournament lives on.
In this sense the Chunin arc reminds me of the better martial arts tournament movies. Enter the Dragon starts off with Bruce Lee infiltrating a fighting tournament, but it escalates into an all-out conflict against an evil criminal organization. The same goes for one of my all-time favorite tournament movies: Master of the Flying Guillotine. It starts as an “innocent” martial arts exhibition and escalates into a group of assassins trying to off the main character and anyone that dares to get in their way. Each movie seemingly abandons the tournament format halfway through while still adhering to the “me vs. you” mentality of pairing off and finishing their fight regardless of circumstances.
All of this compares to the sort of format that, say, Dragonball Z follows. In each of its “tournaments,” the only escalation we ever see is in power level. Goku fights someone. That enemy is more powerful. Goku runs off and powers up. The stakes are always the same. The world is in danger and everyone has to fight to save it. There’s no sense of build-up, only the knowledge that someone has to “get more saiyan” in order to defeat the latest villain. Bleach and the like follow this format as well. Ichigo has to save Rukia from being executed. The stakes never change, only Ichigo’s martial prowess increases so he can save the day.
The Chunin arc has this element to it, but it’s built into the escalation. Everyone is given a certain amount of time to train once they reach the final round, but this only serves as a means for Naruto to show off some new powers during his final battle with Gaara. The arms race in this particular arc of Naruto serves as a means to an end, rather than being the central plot point.
This is why I really dig the Chunin storyline. I’m not a fan of the rest of the series, and because of that my opinion of the series as a whole isn’t very high, but taken on its own the arc is something of a miniature masterpiece. It “gets” the way a martial arts tournament should work and plays it out wonderfully.
It’s a shame that the rest of the series is pretty lame.