A Study in Naruto Part 1: The Rise of the Naruto Franchise in the West
Let me just start this work by saying that in recent years, I have become obsessed with Naruto...or rather, rekindled a childhood obsession with the series. Before observing the effect Naruto has had in the West, we must first examine how the legendary franchise came to be so mindbogglingly popular.
Popular opinions of angry teenage forums suggest that Naruto grew because humans like violence and it features violence. Therefore humans will like it. This opinion is easily challengeable and refuted by clear examples on unpopular violent television programs. Alternative reasons presented by the general fanbase (or anti-fanbase) list the ending of Dragon Ball Z. So as to say, that Naruto became popular because it was simply what was placed before the general existing anime audience. I believe this argument is stronger, as DBZ did indeed air it's final English episode in April of 2003, while Naruto established itself on Cartoon Network in Fall of 2005.
But can the western success of the series be attributed solely to being at the right place at the right time? The argument is easily supported by the success of One Piece, which also faced its Cartoon Network Debut in 2005. But what of Zatch Bell (2005 CN debut), or Rave Master (2004 CN Debut)? Why did these shows not catch as international superhits in the way that Naruto did?
Rave Master follows a hero on a variety of adventures around a fictional world that feels distinctly not Japanese. Perhaps this is why it was picked up to be dubbed: an attempt at a more broad appeal. One Piece follows suit. Meanwhile, Zatch Bell employed a similar approach. Though the series focuses on psuedo typical Japanese schoolboy that falls into strange circumstances when he gains a childly, dependent, magic-human-weapon companion, the plot is largely noninclusive of some traditionally Japanese styles and references.
To understand why One Piece, Dragon Ball Z, and Naruto were popular, we cannot assess the generalized plot of the series, nor can we assess the setting. No, these series are very distinct in their own ways. They set themselves apart with their fantastic worlds, curious fixtures, and ultimately, the characters. That's right, dear reader, I'm about to tell you that the thing these 3 series have in common (other than being of the shonen genre) is that they are all focused on character development, and that they all have relatively large casts.
A consistent theme that differentiates a shonen anime as legendary is the character growth. Though, the characters may appear flat at first ("I'm just gonna be hokage! Believe it!"), they evolve throughout the series, letting their age and experiences shape who they are as a character. While Haru Glory of Rave Master has his experiences, learns from them, and matures, he doesn't genuinely evolve through the series. (Perhaps this is what Mashima learned from and came to acknowledge in writing Fairy Tail)
An interesting difference between western storytelling and eastern storytelling can be demonstrated by comparing the tales children are told before bed. For example, a folktale told to children in Japan about called The Jellyfish and the Monkey tells the story of a Jellyfish sent to retrieve the liver of a monkey on behalf of his King and Queen, but the monkey ultimately tricks the Jellyfish into failing his mission. Ultimately, the jellyfish is punished by being beaten and having its bones removed. The story is told to explain why jellyfish don't have bones. Often in eastern storytelling, the story serves a purpose as to explain why something is the way it is.
Conversely, western children's folktales tend to focus on some sort of lesson learned by the hero, and are generally used to watch a character grow, or at the very least, go from grumpy to kind or vice versa. Though these themes can be found in traditional eastern children's stories, as how why themes can be found in western children's stories, typically they this is the way they tend to fall into place.
The cultural value of understanding a character's evolution, is therefore somewhat higher in western society. The person who Naruto is at the start of the series is NOT the same person he is at the beginning of Shippuden. And the Naruto we know at the start of the great ninja war arc is a new Naruto as well. Essentially, Naruto became a superhit in the west because it offers a chance to follow character growth. One thing that particularly stands out about the Naruto franchise is its plethera of characters who ALSO get to grow alongside Naruto. This allows the viewer to see themselves in the series more easily because it gives more opportunity for he or she to identify with someone.
As a child, I identified with Sakura. It was simple: I was a girl; she was a girl. Neither of us were standout in terms of looks. We are both only-children. She was considered smart, and I thought of myself regarded as smart. As the series went on, not only did I watch and grow up with Naruto, but I also grew up with Sakura. Though our paths diverged, I maintained a sort of friendly relationship with the character. I always rooted for her, even though her strengths in the medical field were vastly different from mine as an aspiring engineer in high school. To this day, watching the series makes me feel similar to the way I do when I'm reminiscing with old friends. And with the dawn of the new Boruto series, I often feel like I'm watching some special kids do some amazing things, just as a godmother might watch her godchildren with a twinge of pride on behalf of the parent.
It's simple really, Naruto is a hit because audiences like someone they can grow with. And perhaps the reason Naruto has fallen slightly in regards to anime culture is because of the rise of a new generation of anime fans in the west. The reason Naruto is so beloved is because of those of us that grew up with the characters. The reason it lacks traction now is because time has passed, and newer fans don't have that opportunity. This is why we are seeing the rise in popularity of shows like My Hero Academia. It's about character experiences, has a wide range of characters, and is ready to take on this generation's parallel growth.