By Masashi Kishimoto. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.
Really, I was starting to feel a bit guilty about the whole thing. Here is the top manga in America, the title that outsells everything else by a considerable margin, and I'd never read it, or seen the anime. I remember that I did buy Volume 1 when it first came out, but I never did keep up after that, and now it's up in the 50s. So, as with Kekkaishi, I used Viz's omnibus re-release as an opportunity to close the gaps in my reviewer knowledge and see what the fuss was all about. Unfortunately, the first 3 volumes of Naruto were a lot harder to slog through than Kekkaishi was, and reminded me that most series *do* start off slow.
For those of you living in a cave, the basic premise is that Naruto, our hero, is a ninja trainee who's disliked by his town as he holds the spirit of a fox demon within him... something Naruto's been unaware of his whole life, thinking that he's just naturally disliked. As a ninja trainee he's a bit of a class clown, but he certainly holds genuine skill, and finally manages to pass his exam. Of course, that's just the start, as now he's an apprentice, going through hellish training along with his crush Sakura and the moody Sasuke. Can he overcome his past and become an amazing ninja?
To start off with, I'll note that the three leads all begin as very difficult to like. This is not uncommon in manga, and always leads to character development later on, but the author also has to be able to keep a balance, as you don't want them to get so unlikeable that the reader decides not to continue. (I recall trying to sell people on Teru Teru x Shonen, only to be told Shino was such a brat in Vol. 1 they didn't care if she got better.) So Naruto is a bit of an impulsive brat, Sakura comes across as shallow and petty, and Sasuke is blunt, grumpy and rude. And through these three volumes, even as they do start to learn to work together, that mostly remains the case. It made the volumes a bit of a slog.
I also found the battles to alternate between confusing and boring. While not nearly on the level of, say, Trigun Maximum, the art here during combat doesn't always make it immediately clear what's going on, or translate well to action in my mind's eye. And honestly, I may just not like ninjas. The doppelgangers and special secret techniques rolled out here made me long for people to just start beating the tar out of each other face to face. (Yeah, I know, ninjas...) That said, the 3rd volume's battle was considerably better than the others in the volume, and may point to bigger things in the future.
There were things I enjoyed a great deal in the book, rest assured. Kakashi is fantastic, and a breath of fresh air amongst the sullen teenagers. First off, he has droopy eyes, which I've noted in previous Banri Hidaka reviews is a personal favorite of mine. He's clever and tricky and basically exactly what I want a ninja to be, which is why he makes an excellent teacher. I did feel the "he's failed everyone before" plot was overhyped, especially when he passed Naruto & company simply for ignoring his instructions and caring for each other's well-being, but I suppose that speaks more to the poor quality of prior ninja trainees in the past than anything else.
Likewise, while I disliked Sakura herself, the 'inner Sakura' schtick was great, adding some nice humor into the middle of any situation. Hopefully this either continues, or she learns to speak her mind and we get to see Inner Sakura blend together with outer Sakura. The other choice bits of humor through the volumes were also well-handled. And I like the fact that our first big ninja villains are getting their own backstory, showing that (as I noted with Kekkaishi as well) nothing is really 100% black and white or good and evil.
When I expressed my ambivalence to this omnibus on Twitter and with my friends, I was generally told that I needed to keep going through the 'Chuunin Exam' arc, so I'll get the 2nd omnibus and hope it starts there. I'm sure it must pick up, because come on, this is the best-selling manga in North America. But honestly, reading this omnibus I was simply reminded why I didn't get it after Volume 1. It's just okay, but needs improvement.