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May 5, 2010

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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2010 10:17 PM

    Yeah, I actually liked the Naruto manga, and even the Bleach manga, and Hunter X Hunter manga. Which is why I never got to watching the anime, since a) I knew they were long as heck series and b) I already knew what was going to happen. I managed to go through about 20 eps of Bleach before dumping it.

    Anyway, the point is, what I found with all these ‘hot’ shounen series is that they tend to start off terrifically. But in all honesty, their creators seem to burn out after the first super cool arc. Much like Toriyama wanted Dragonball to DIE but had to let it go on, the diff is that Toriyama turned it into a totally different series featuring Superman and the lost Kryptonians.

    Bleach’s quality dropped with the start of the Soul Society arc. Once you reach there, you’ll notice the author just plain stretching out the crew infiltrating Soul Society, and aside from the Kenpachi fight (which ended kinda lame actually, it’s just Kenpachi himself that’s cool), everything’s pretty much phoned in and horrible.

    Similarly, that’s pretty much what happened to Naruto after the Chunin arc. Everything before the Chunin arc was great (Naruto was annoying in some stories though), but as soon as they had to start going after Sasuke, it all began to fall apart. The whole affair started becoming stretched out and repetitive and horrible. Oh, you wouldn’t notice it at first. But in retrospect, you can see it going downhill from there. Eventually, it became a horrendous series, and while I applaud the author for trying to keeps things fresh by rebooting the series with the characters older and much more powerful, just as Toriyama did, it’s kinda too little too late for me.

    So in conclusion, go read Monster. It’s an uber long series, but except for a slightly dull start, it’s terrific right till the slightly anti-climatic but still appropriate in its own way end.

  2. coburn permalink
    May 6, 2010 10:26 AM

    I tend to think that a lot of series in this genre rely for their reputation on the enduring impact of one or two arcs where everything just clicked. It’s the emotional connection with the characters earned through specific arcs that really makes fans of viewers. I’d say there are a lot of these “miniature masterpieces” floating around, although perhaps it’s true that relatively few of them are the result of mastering the tournament model.

    Personally I though the arc where they chase Sasuke in the forest was pretty good too – but that was more because it had a good ratio of fun to boring in the fight scenes than any plot element.

  3. May 6, 2010 12:43 PM

    Another problem with Bleach and its ilk is that even when things do change and grow in scale, it never really feels like it’s any different. The same basic premise is there, even if they introduce new characters: get stronger, beat bad guy. It doesn’t help that with Bleach the bad guy’s been the same person for over 200 chapters.

  4. May 12, 2010 3:03 PM

    Kenshin’s Kyoto arc. They never said the word ‘tournament’, but the format was there, the escalating stakes, stronger enemies, deep and involved backstories, epic fights, everything. Kenshin is different enough that it doesn’t get mentioned with the other shounen fight shows, but it should be there.

    • Landon permalink
      May 12, 2010 3:35 PM

      Yeah, you can toss that in there as well. My issues with Kenshin have little to do with the storylines and more to do with Kenshin himself. He rubs me the wrong way, much like Vash from Trigun.

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