By Tom Speelman
From filler arcs, mixed canon, specialized ninja terms like “hokage” or “jutsu” and a ton of characters that you will absolutely come to love, it can be tough to just jump in!
We’re here to help you sharpen your kunai and get ready for ninja school. Welcome to your beginner’s guide to the legendary, the iconic—Naruto!
What is Naruto about?
Naruto Uzumaki (Junko Takeuchi in Japanese, Maile Flanagan in English) is, like every other kid in the village, a wannabe ninja. But he’s also a quirky loudmouth, prone to pulling pranks like defacing a monument to all Hokage and flustering every adult male possible with his “Sexy Jutsu,” a transformation technique where he turns into a naked girl.
But Naruto’s dreams are much bigger than his elaborate pranks. He wants to be the next Hokage, the leader of the Hidden Leaf Village.
Though, his antics and general vibe (and one more very important reason we’ll get to in a second) land him in a world of ridicule, and his fellow villagers look down on him. His classmates aren’t too fond of him either, but they’ll come around.
There’s the determined yet flighty Sakura Haruno (Chie Nakamura, Kate Higgins), who rejects Naruto’s crush early on for the brooding Sasuke Uchiha (Noriaki Sugiyama, Yuri Lowenthal). Sasuke couldn’t be bothered, though, because his goal is to enact revenge on the person who slaughtered his entire clan. Rough stuff.
There’s another reason the villagers aren’t kind to Naruto; he just doesn’t know it: when he was a baby, the demonic Nine-Tailed Fox, one of the many-tailed beasts that are pure, living chakra, attacked the Hidden Leaf Village and nearly destroyed everything.
In order to stop the beast, the ruling Fourth Hokage sacrificed his life, as well as that of the baby’s parents, in order to seal it inside the newborn Naruto. Wow, rougher stuff.
While the plan worked, the Third Hokage (Hidekatsu Shibata, Steve Kramer), who reclaimed his role as ruler, forbade the villagers from mentioning the Nine-Tailed Fox, in the hope that they wouldn’t hate Naruto for harboring the one who murdered their loved ones. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, and the village looks down on Naruto, abandoning him out of cruelty.
Long a straggler in class despite his relentless training and loud boasting that he’ll one day be Hokage, Naruto finally proves himself by saving an ancient, powerful ninja scroll and protecting his teacher, Iruka (Toshihiko Seki, Quinton Flynn), from a thief, mastering the powerful Shadow Clone Jutsu technique in the process. That’s where our story begins in earnest.
What is chakra, jutsu and the Shinobi Organizational System?
Naruto takes place in a world made up of the Five Great Shinobi Countries, each with their own hidden village. Overseen by an appointed Kage (or chief), they contain ninja of all type and of immense skill.
Many of these ninja possess the ability to harness chakra, or powerful energy, and perform jutsu, special techniques (utilizing chakra) that can do everything from clone you to turn you invisible.
Our story kicks off in Konohagakure, the Hidden Leaf Village, ruled over by the Hokage (leader of the village). There, young ninja train at the Academy to become full-fledged defenders of the village.
After graduating from the Academy in slightly better standing as ninja, our protagonists Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke are grouped together as genin (or junior ninja) under the tutelage of the powerful, playful and mysterious jonin (or full-fledged ninja) Kakashi Hatake (Kazuhiko Inoue, Dave Wittenberg).
These genin are placed on teams once they graduate from the Academy, like Kakashi’s Team 7. And the young genin are just one link in the chain of ninja rankings, known as the Shinobi Organizational System. Here’s a handy breakdown of what that looks like:
Genin – These are young ninja, as mentioned before.
Chunin – A step above ninja-in-training, chunin are mature and display leadership ability at a high enough level to head out on C- or B-rank missions.
Tokubetsu Jonin – Think of these ninja as masters of one specific skill, which can be used in specialized cases, like interrogation or investigation.
Jonin – These are some experienced ninja. The jonin are more well-rounded than their tokubetsu comrades, and are often military captains.
Kage – This rank is special, and is given to represent the leader of one of the villages of the Five Great Shinobi Countries.
There are other secret or specialized type of ninja, and you’ll meet a handful of them throughout Naruto. You didn’t expect us to spoil everything, did you?
Who are the heroes and villains of Naruto?
Initially assigned low-ranking missions like rescuing pets, Team 7 finds themselves tested when a body-guarding mission to the island Land of Waves sees them go up against the enigmatic Haku Yuki (Mayumi Asano, Susan Dalian) and the terrifying Momochi Zabuza (Unsho Ishizuka, Steve Blum).
This is where we get our first glimpse of the intense and emotional action that is at the core of Naruto.
As the series continues, Team 7 takes on the likes of the psychopathic Gaara (Akira Ishida, Liam O’Brien) and the literally cold-blooded Orochimaru (Kujira, Blum), among others that you’ll just have to watch to learn about.
And of course, there are the incredible allies that Team 7 makes throughout their adventure.
Maybe you’ve heard of the bashful Hinata Hyuga (Nana Mizuki, Stephanie Sheh), who has a not-so-hidden crush on Naruto. Or how about the brash Rock Lee (Yoichi Masukawa, Brian Donovan), who, despite having no chakra-born abilities, is a master of taijutsu (physical martial arts) and is objectively awesome.
This is a beginner’s guide, so we don’t go into everyone here, but rest assured you’ll have more than a handful of favorite characters by the time you’re done.
Why should I watch Naruto?
Naruto is often considered among the “Big Three” of ‘00s Weekly Shonen Jump alongside Bleach and One Piece. But this series isn’t just worth watching to see what all the fuss is about, but to see why the series is still such a big deal, spawning sequels and films and permeating pop culture in a major way.
Series director Hayato Date and his team make every fight scene sing and excel at showing off the wide variety of techniques and powers the ninja use, as well as making you care deeply for the characters and invested in what happens to them.
Backing them up in this are the excellent performances by the cast—with Takeuchi and Flanagan in particular managing to make Naruto at turns annoying, sympathetic and achingly relatable—and Toshio Masuda’s propulsive score that enhances and underlines both action and quieter moments.
Even outside of its mainstream success and legacy, Naruto is worth watching all on its own. It’s an epic; a modern masterpiece of shounen storytelling.