The ordinary guy with a big heart and wasn’t afraid to show it, Iruka marked the early story of Naruto with his compassion and kindness. He was the first person to recognize Naruto as a vulnerable little boy who needed a little extra care, instead of a nuisance or a ticking time bomb. This feat is even more remarkable considering that Naruto contained within him the Nine Tails demon that killed Iruka’s parents. But Iruka had the inner strength to see beyond that and care for Naruto like he was his own son.
Despite making few appearances later in the series, Iruka managed to stay in the top 10 of nearly every annual Naruto Character Popularity Poll. Nowadays it’s easy to forget how much an impact Iruka had on Naruto because it’s been a while since he’s had a prominent role in the story, but he was Naruto’s first teacher, and arguably the one who set the foundation for the man he would become. Even after Kakashi takes over the role of teaching Naruto, Iruka still periodically provides his former student with guidance. While Kakashi taught Naruto a lot about being a ninja, Iruka arguably taught him more about how to live a good life. Iruka was far from the strongest shinobi, and he certainly didn’t have the mysterious cool of Kakashi, and he didn’t teach Naruto any badass jutsu. But he was always there for his students and taught Naruto to believe in himself just as much as he did.
The sneakiest of sneaky bastards, Kabuto helped define the early parts of the Naruto storyline as an antagonist and Orochimaru’s right hand man. At first it seemed he was just a lackey, but as time passed we learned more about his impressive skills. It’s not often that the bad guys in anime hide in plain sight as well as Kabuto did. Kabuto was a master manipulator who fooled everybody, and even Orochimaru wondered what side he was truly on.
But what really made Kabuto an interesting and sympathetic character was his history. His childhood was tragic, but it was also marked by kindness. As a deeply embedded spy with many cover stories, he started to question his own identity and purpose, which led to his association with the power-hungry Orochimaru.
Kabuto grew from a sidekick to a grand villain himself, undergoing physical and mental transformations that made him one of the most developed characters in the series. And in the process he used his heightened intelligence and abilities to defeat some of the greatest Shinobi around, though in the end he came around and turned out to be not such a bad guy after all.
Perhaps a little too intense, but always fiercely devoted to his cause, Rock Lee added all sorts of flavor to the series. He had the notable “handicap” of only being good at taijutsu, the martial arts branch of ninja abilities. That meant he couldn’t access all the cool Saiyan-esque powers like Chidori and Rasengan. But for Lee it didn’t matter; he became a mighty ninja despite his limitations.
And Lee’s disadvantages weren’t just limited to his lack of other types of jutsu. This is a kid surrounded by ninja “geniuses,” many from notable families with long histories of incredible feats. Not to mention his very odd appearance, which earns him abundant teasing from his classmates. Lee was the true underdog of the series — the kid in school who had to fight extra hard to earn respect because he looked funny and wasn’t born into the right family. All Lee has is his determination and his body, which he puts through incredible ordeals to achieve his goals.
Although his story is somewhat incomplete without his teacher, Might Guy, it’s his emulation of his mentor and father figure that really helps add a poignant element to a character who, like so many in this series, had a rough childhood. Of all the characters in Naruto, Lee is probably the one that parents would most like their kids to learn from.
Naruto’s rival and closest friend, Sasuke was a constant force in the story. Though he was never quite the warmest guy in the world, his screwed up past certainly gave him reason to be a little cold. But Sasuke always had a dark side that gradually led to his conversion to a full on antagonist who betrayed everyone who loved him. His transition from valued friend to bitter enemy is the core driving force of the series.
Part of what made Sasuke’s story intriguing was his power. Even from the beginning of the series, he was a talented little ninja with abilities far advanced for his age. But his power made him arrogant and overly proud, traits that stuck with him throughout the series despite some humbling from Naruto and Kakashi. That sense that he always knew what was best led to his belief that only he could serve as Hokage and create peace through destruction. The level of hubris is almost Shakespearean, and Sasuke’s journey between the dark and the light is a complex and entertaining one.
So why isn’t Sasuke higher on the list? The problem is consistency. Although Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto did write some great moments for Sasuke, his story was often dragged out to the point of tedium and there were times when his character seemed to have powers and abilities out of nowhere.
It’s somewhat rare for a woman in a “boys” manga to be both strong and beautiful; to encompass elements of both masculine and feminine. But that’s what Tsunade was, and it was a refreshing change from the usual.
Tsunade was a gambling, drinking, face-punching, no-nonsense woman with the face of a fashion model and boobs big enough to serve as flotation devices in a water emergency. Despite her somewhat stereotypical “assets,” when she became Hokage it was a powerful statement about gender equality in the series. There were few female characters in the show at the time, and all of them were portrayed as less important and less influential than their male counterparts, but Tsunade changed all that and brought some much-needed feminine perspective to the story.
On top of all that, Tsunade provided a strong mentor figure to Sakura, who was oftentimes overshadowed by her male teammates. There are plenty of male student-teacher relationships in manga/anime, but Tsunade and Sakura created a rare and effective female version.
Itachi was a classic example of the many Naruto bad guys who weren’t “villains” per se, but antagonists. But in Itachi’s case we didn’t know that until long after his introduction as one of the baddest badasses the series had ever seen. We’d been given plenty of lead up to his appearance through Sasuke’s memories, his younger brother who was the only member of the Uchiha clan spared after Itachi killed them all. In a way, Itachi made Sasuke who he was.
Killing your entire family is a sure way to get listed as one of Konoha’s Most Wanted, and when Itachi appears it’s a big wake-up call for all of the Hidden Village ninjas. Itachi was considered a prodigy among prodigies, and those deadpan eyes of his contained powerful Sharingan. But as Itachi’s complex story unravels, we learn that he’s not a villain but more of a hero in the sense of Batman in “The Dark Knight.” He took on an incredible personal burden to protect the village from itself — a thankless job but one that led to others stepping up their game and becoming heroes who could protect the peace. He was the hero Konoha deserved, but not the one it needed at the time. He was Konoha’s Dark Knight, and taught everyone a valuable lesson — the people that society encourages us to hate are often the ones most deserving of our compassion and admiration.
One of the most philosophically and psychologically complex characters in the series, Pain/Nagato had an ideology that was alien but logical. And although he was physically powerful, he arguably lacked conviction and was manipulated by others. But his faults don’t necessarily make him a poor character; quite the opposite is true. His weaknesses helped to make him more interesting and highlight the effects his past had on him.
Nagato’s philosophy of transcendence through pain isn’t exactly unique in fiction, but it was something not often seen in shounen stories. Kishimoto relied on the actual philosophy of asceticism to help bring the character to life, and he took extra care to give Nagato some of the best quotes in the series.
Much is made of how Nagato went out like a wuss, a subject of the worst kind of Talk no Jutsu (Naruto’s overused ability to talk people out of battle). But, although Kishimoto handled this a little unevenly, the sentiment behind Nagato’s final scene as a bad guy is powerful as long as you keep the right perspective. Nagato just needed see a real, living example of what Jiraiya was trying to teach him, right before his eyes. When that happened, it all “clicked” for him and he gave up a philosophy he really didn’t want to believe anyway.
When Gaara was first introduced, he was an intriguing new opponent for Naruto to deal with. Then we learned of his heartbreaking back-story, and he started to become one of the most sympathetic characters in the series.
Gaara’s history parallels Naruto’s in many ways, with both boys having actual demons trapped inside them and subsequently shunned by their villages. But Gaara’s experiences almost made him a sociopath, and for a while he was a proper scary villain. But over time, and with Naruto’s help, he became a great friend and even the leader of his village.
But Gaara’s most notable place in the storyline is as a beautiful example of what love really means. Love as a theme in animated shows often gets incredibly cliche, but with Gaara the themes of love, acceptance, abandonment, and forgiveness are woven into the story with care and Gaara gets some of the most genuinely emotional scenes in the series.
The title character of this series isn’t always everybody’s favorite. Naruto didn’t even always win the #1 spot in annual popularity polls for his own series. His development over 15 years of story felt somewhat limited. He grew older, and more powerful, but his core remained the same. Naruto’s strongest trait is his unshakable persistence, and although he is a flawed and somewhat limited character by himself, that stubborn optimism of his makes for some great storytelling with other characters.
There’s a quote by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, that goes, “Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” That is Naruto in a nutshell. He is not original. His character design and temperament are heavily influenced by Goku and the work of Akira Toriyama, which Masashi Kishimoto openly admits as inspiration. But the magic of Naruto is that he is more than the sum of his parts. Throughout the series, his persistence and bright optimism have changed both his friends and his enemies. But he has also grown through those experiences. Every enemy he fought, every new friend he made, every new challenge he faced and overcame added a little bit extra to his character. He’s got a little bit of Iruka’s compassion, some of Kakashi’s cool capacity for knowing the right thing to do in a situation, a little of Shikamaru’s knack for figuring out something new, and a little bit of Rock Lee’s drive to push himself to the next level. And in turn his one true defining quality, his endless persistent optimism, has an effect on each of that people who have influenced. Naruto may not be the best part of this series, but he is an effective core for everything to revolve around.
If you were lucky, during your school years you had a teacher who was cool and understanding. The kind of guy you’d go grab beers with after you graduated college. That’s what Kakashi was, and throughout the series he served as counselor to many other characters when they were going through tough times.
Kakashi is a complex character, with an iconic visual design and a laid back attitude that just exudes cool. He’s the kind of teacher everyone wishes they had; smart, relatable, chill, and utterly devoted to his students. But he’s not just a teacher. Kakashi has a storied history that’s full of sadness, loss, and retribution. Some of the most poignant stories in the Naruto lore involve Kakashi’s past. From the story of Kakashi’s father’s suicide, to the tale of how he acquired the Sharingan and his eye scar, Kakashi has always proven to have many powerful tales to tell despite his quiet demeanor. He’s got enough interesting back story to have a series of his own, and arguably that series would make for better material.
One of the big ironies of the Kakashi character is that although he’s called the copy ninja, he’s actually got more unique elements than most of Naruto’s main cast, and is far from the Goku clone that Naruto is. In Kakashi we see much of Kishimoto’s true creativity, and the epitome of his talent.