An opinionated series examining where exactly Naruto went wrong
Part One: Battle In The Sand Country (Or: Why I Found Sakura's Improved Battle Prowess Underwhelming)
One of the most frustrating things about reading Naruto is that it could have been, should have been so good. In the hands of a competant manga-ka like Hirohiko Araki, Eiichiro Oda, Hiro Mashima, Hiromu Arakawa, or even Nobuyuki Anzai, the concept and characters could have produced one of the best shonen series to date. It could have been incredible.
Unfortunately, we didn't get any of those. Instead, we got Masashi Kishimoto, who proved himself just as capable of foundering interesting characters and concepts upon the rocky shores of mediocrity as he is of creating them.
In short, Naruto is the story of incredible potential, wasted in the hands of someone with no idea what to do with it. This makes it an incredibly frustrating read for a critical reader such as myself. One can see all the little places the story could have turned, all the ways it could be better, all the easily-averted problems that are instead rammed head-on.
This series of essays will examine where he went wrong, what he should have done better, how it could be improved. it's not my intention to completely rewrite the story for him (although it will occasionally drift into that territory. Oh, how I loathe your arc, Uchihas) but rather to point out how essentially the same story could have been told better.
Of course, no essayist is without bias, and I freely admit mine. To give a better idea of who I am, for these purposes, I'll just quickly describe myself and my tastes.
I am twenty-one years old, and a fervent enthusiast for animation and sequential art. I consume a rather ridiculous amount of both, and make no distinction between western and eastern styles. I'm a rather action-oriented reader; I like superhero comics, and shonen manga/anime. However, I will almost always prefer a fight where one side wins by outwitting the other, or by making use of powers or abilities in creative ways. I'm also fond of when people win through hard work or sheer tenacity.
I'm a highly critical reader, always breaking apart and analysing works as I consume them. In particular, I watch for poor treatment of female characters, and stereotyping. Although I can be forgiving of such flaws, I always make a point of acknowledging it.
To give context to where I'm coming from a manga reading perspective, I have read through in the entirety to date Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, One Piece, Naruto, Eyeshield 21, Bleach, Flame of Recca, History's Strongest Disciple Kenichi, Gantz, Hellsing, and Fullmetal Alchemist, among others. Yes, I'm a bit of a shonen nut. I make no secret of this.
Now that you have some idea what sort of biases I bring to the table, without further ado let us begin!
This series is really unplanned, and will just go on until I run out of topics or lose interest, whichever comes first. The topics are selected in no particular order, and this one just happens to come first because somebody said something that set my brainwheels turning on the topic.
Now, it's no secret that Kishimoto has serious problems writing female characters well. They are consistently sidelined, shown up as weaker than an equivalent male character, stand around doing nothing, put into support roles, or just plain ignored. Perhaps the most egregrious example, if only due to her prominence in the series, is the main female character, Sakura. I really wanted to like her, I really did, but when fifty chapters in her entire contribution to the plot was standing around in the background with a kunai, in nothing that can even remotely be called a fighting stance, while her Y-chromosome enabled partners actually fight...well. It made it very difficult.
Still, as awful as Kishimoto's treatment of his main female character is, that's a topic for another part of the series. What this piece specifically deals with is Sakura Taking a Level In Badass during the timeskip. The story skips forward two and a half years and in that time, under Tsunade's tutelage Sakura gains both healing abilities and super-strength. Thus empowered, she takes on a member of the Akatsuki and defeats him, thus (finally) claiming her proper place among the series' badasses.
Good in concept. But the execution left something to be desired. Which is appropriate, since that's practically Kishimoto's calling card.
Why So Unimpressed?
There is a common conception among Naruto fans (Sakura fans in particular) that her character completely 'redeemed' herself of her history of incompetance in the fight with Sasori. While I can see where that is coming from and even agree to a certain extent, it's always rung a bit false to me.
Is it an improvement over Kishimoto's previous treatment of her character? Yes, absolutely. It gave her an ability to call her own (previous to this she only had generic ninja abilities that everyone had, and book-knowledge as an Informed Ability), and gave her her first victory, and against a powerful opponent to boot. But is it as much of an improvement as people claim? But is it enough of an improvement? I didn't think so. Not quite. And after over two hundred chapters of Sakura being the very definition of useless, and having no real role within the story despite having nearly as much screentime as Naruto and Sasuke, she really needed more of an improvement to overcome that long, bad first impression.
So, why did I feel this way? Well, I gave it some thought, and I came up with a few reasons, all of them easily averted.
1. Sasori was not a credible threat. Put simply, we hadn't seen this guy in action. The only thing we knew about him was that he managed to defeat Kankuro easily. But that happened almost entirely offscreen, and Kankuro's record isn't exactly awesome either. The only displays of power on his record are getting his ass beat by Shino, and defeating Sakon/Ukon...who were already worn down from fighting Kiba and whose powers are confusing and stupid anyways. Not exactly an impressive resume.
Speaking of stupid powers, can I just go off on a minor tangent here and say that puppet jutsu is really goddamned stupid? It forces you to remain stationary and requires the use of your hands, making it impossible for you to protect yourself is something gets past the puppet, and anybody with chakra disruption abilities (which is pretty much everybody and his mother) can cut the strings on the puppet. It could be potentially useful in small corridors where you can't be flanked, but out in the open (which is where almost all Naruto fights take place), it seems like more of a liability to me. Sasori's got the right idea by using a puppet as armor, at least, but the way Kankuro uses it is just dumb. Which makes Sasori beating him seem even less impressive.
Now, I'm not saying that every villain has to beat down somebody powerful in order to be taken seriously. Indeed, for almost any other fight in Naruto, Sasori would have worked great. But if you are using a fight to demonstrate how much stronger a previously weak character has gotten, you have to be sure that she's fighting someone that we know is a major threat. Otherwise, she doesn't look strong, it just makes him look like a chump.
Now, the world doesn't operate in total polarity, the way I'm discussing it above. Sasori has some demonstrations of power that were fairly effective, like tossing out a hundred puppets or most of the shit the Kazekage puppet did. Although...human puppets are also really stupid! Sorry to get off on a tangent again, but it does relate, because stupid powers that don't make sense hurt his credibility as a fighter, so let me just speak on this for a second.
Although not as offensively dumb as some of the stuff Kishimoto introduces later in the series, human puppets really do not make any sense. Not the basic idea: of course you can hollow out a corpse and preserve it and manipulated it as a puppet. The question is why you would want to. The stated reason is that doing so allows one to use the special jutsus that they had in life. Wait, what? They're dead! That knowledge vanishes with their mind! Corpses don't know shit!
Oh, but wait. Apparently the reason why you can use the jutsu they know is because their body contains all the chakra they had in life, so the user can access all the special chakra that they need in order to perform the technique. This actually makes less sense than what it's supposed to explain! Chakra is energy produced by the body's cells, and mixed with spiritual energy. A corpse should have no chakra! And even if it did retain the energy it had at the point of death, chakra is finite! It needs to be constantly renewed by the body, which it can't bloody well do because it's dead. This is the voodoo shark at its finest.
For most purposes Sasori would do fine, but when you're trying to show off how tough Sakura's become (which was the clear intention of the whole arc) you need to pit her up against a tested opponent, one that we've seen in action and know is rough and tough. It doesn't matter if you tell us that he "destroyed a whole country" (which is raw horse shit, but that's a topic for whenever I take on Kishimoto's shoddy world building) if you don't show him doing feats of power that make that claim credible. And although Sasori wasn't a pushover, he didn't quite manage to impress me enough.
2. She had help. it wasn't just her against Sasori, it was her and Chiyo against Sasori. And while I have no issues with Chiyo as a character, I do think that as a demonstration of how tough Sakura has become, it loses a lot of its impact when it's a two-on-one scenario. Especially when...
3. She didn't actually defeat Sasori. Sasori was certainly defeated, but it wasn't Sakura who did it. It was Chiyo. It was Chiyo's jutsu that trapped Sasori (admittedly, with Sakura as the launcher), it was Chiyo's puppets who held off Sasori's so she could do so, it was Chiyo who struck the final blow, it was Chiyo that kept Sakura out of the way of Sasori's barrages of needles, it was Chiyo that kept Sakura alive dozens of times that she would have otherwise died. For 80% of the fight, Sakura was just functioning as Chiyo's tool. For the most part, Sakura wasn't a combatant in this fight so much as she was a weapon for Chiyo to wield--for the most part literally, as Chiyo was actually directly controlling her with chakra strings. She only did one thing on her own initiative, and that was hitting the Sandaime Kazekage doll in the face. Which was pretty cool! But again, for a fight that's supposed to be her Big Comeback, that is insufficient.
This fight should be about Sakura. Instead, it's about Chiyo, with a few cool Sakura moments here and there.
4. The followup. Or, more specifically the lack of followup. This is the big one: Despite her new abilities, it's a full 145 chapters before Sakura gets to do any more fighting. Let me say that again, one hundred and forty-five chapters. That's almost three years, not even counting breaks Kishimoto took in that time! And that only really counts on a technicality. If you want to get into real fight scenes, she hasn't had a single one since.
Oh, sure, she was at the scene of fights during that time. But she never actually got to participate. She was always held back or immediately knocked out or what have you. Her super-strength is used for intimidation, but nothing else, and her role is pretty much just that of a healer. This is distressingly reminiscent of the manner in which her character was treated pre-timeskip (although at least her healing abilities now give her something to do). Despite Sakura's new abilities, not much actually changed about the treatment of her character, which is disappointing as hell.
What Should Have Kishimoto Done Instead?
I see a couple options. The first is to restructure the fight altogether: either remove Chiyo, or give her a lesser role, rather than have her run the show. Sakura should deliver the final blow, and smash his damn toy body with her fists. This is supposed to be her comeback fight, so let her be the one to end it. And let's face it: if the culmination of the fight was he charging her way through a hundred toy soldiers, smashing them out of her way, and then finally making it through the horde, bloodied and poisoned, and ending the fight with one hell of a punch to the face? Now that would have been one epic Comeback Fight, and a clear demonstration of how much she'd improved.
In addition, Sasori's power should have been better demonstrated to us ahead of time. Again, the problem isn't with the fight itself, it's just disappointing as a demonstration of Sakura's new power. If Sasori was the one to take down Gaara at the beginning of the arc, that could work. Or, alternately, have him fight someone else, on-panel, that we know is tough shit. I think it would have even helped if it was Temari that Sasori took down, instead of Kankuro.
Of course, there's always the second option, which I think I like better: Don't make this Sakura's first post-timeskip fight (the thing with kakashi doesn't count, that was just them playing around and it only really served to show that Sakura had superhuman strength. Everything else was Naruto). Again, there's nothing wrong with the fight itself. Actually, by Naruto standards, it's a pretty damn good fight! It just does not work well as a demonstration of Sakura's improved badassery. So, give that role to something else! Give Sakura another fight, before this one. One-on-one, no holds barred, let Sakura kick the shit out of someone to show off how much she's improved (maybe if you can find an excuse to have one of the SOund guys who ruined her shit in the forest arc return, that would work nicely). Then, armed with her new status already established, throw her up against Sasori and have the fight roll exactly as it does.
While there's nothing wrong with the fight between Sakura, Chiyo and Sasori, and it certainly is a marked improvement over what Kishimoto did with the poor girl pre-timeskip, it really doesn't work well at establishing Sakura as a skilled fighter, and the fact that Kishimoto returns to pretty much his same tricks afterwards just makes it feel horribly token, like something he threw in to get people off his back about his obvious sexism. I wish it was better, and it should be better, but it isn't. Story of Kishimoto's life. Also, puppet jutsu is stupid in general and human puppets in particular make no sense whatsoever.