I was going to do this as “11 Naturo Volumes in 11 Days”, but so much goes on in these volumes, it was really hard to stop. I had to keep finding out what was going to happen in the next volume, so after reading 5 volumes during the week, over the weekend I finished the last 6. And, I said I wasn’t going to read any Shonen Jumps with the new arc until I finished the first. My Shonen Jumps are piling up now.

It wasn’t as difficult as it sounds. The last 6 volumes, 21-26, is really one big chase. Volumes 17-20 was the set up for next 7. Naruto and Jiraiya are searching for Tsunade, the last of the Legendary Ninja. So is Orochimaru. After a lot of posturing, the Legendary Ninja face off, and though Orochimaru is thwarted, he is far from defeated. He decides it’s time to replace his body, and his chosen replacement is Sasuke. Sasuke becomes easy pickings for Orochimaru, as he first fails to even come close to defeating his older brother, and then sees how far Naruto has progress under Jiraiya’s teachings. So when Orochimaru’s underlings offer him power, he takes it.

The next 6 volumes is the chase after Sasuke, and what a chase it is! Shikamaru, the only genin to reach Chunin after the exams is given the task of retrieving Sasuke with a team of genin of his choice. Tsunade suggests Naruto. After that, it is a pick of characters that we saw in the Chunin exams, some a lot of, Neji, who Naruto fought in the exams, Kiba and Akamaru, and Choji, Shikamaru’s teammate and friend. As they chase after Sasuke and the Sound Four (Orochimaru’s henchmen), a member of the team breaks off to fight one on one. Each are pushed to the limits of their powers and beyond to defeat their opponent, and each volunteering until only Naruto is left to chase after Sasuke. Like Ron and Hermione in the first Harry Potter book, they know that only Naruto can face Sasuke and have any chance of bringing him back.

Volumes 25 and 26 is dedicated to this fight, with a long series of flashbacks into Sasuke’s life before and after his Clan was killed off. We finally see the whole confrontation between Sasuke and his brother Itachi, and why Sasuke is so intent on his revenge, and willing to throw away everything to gain the power to succeed. By contrast, we see Naruto evaluating his friendship with Sasuke. How he made Sasuke his rival, a goal to reach for in his skills. And then how their friendship grew into a bond that no matter how much Sasuke thinks he can throw away, he really can’t.

The heart of this manga is about friendship. Mainly the friendship that blossoms between Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura. Through their training and missions, and then the Chunin exams, it is their friendship that creates the bond that holds them together and gets them through the toughest spots. At the beginning this isn’t quite as prominent. It builds up slowly, letting us see the changes in all three, but mostly Naruto. Then, it takes center stage with the “Sasuke Retrieval” arc.

Sasuke and Naruto face off in a river valley at the top of a waterfall. There, they finally have the all out battle they’ve been talking about since the beginning. Naruto wants to prove that he is Sasuke’s equal. Sasuke believes to get the power he needs to defeat his brother, he needs to kill Naruto; his best friend. As they fight, they acknowledge their feelings; Sasuke, that Naruto is his best friend, and Naruto, that Sasuke is like a brother to him, a part of the family he never had. Through the battle they come to understand each other, but neither waiver in their path.

We see in Sasuke, Naruto, and Sakura, shades of the Legendary Ninja Orochimaru, Jiraiya, and Tsunade, especially as each takes one to be their apprentice. But, where things went badly between the first three, we can feel some hope for this new trio of ninja. Sasuke, for all his desire for power, doesn’t take his brother’s path of killing his best friend. He choses his own path, sparing Naruto, though it still leads to Orochimaru. Naruto, refuses to give up on Sasuke, believing in their friendship over all else, and despite warnings from Jiraiya, who has been in this situation before.

Naruto doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves. When all you see are the legions of “Narutards” in their orange jumpsuits and blue headbands, it’s easy to forget that there is a real story in there. Kishimoto really can tell a compelling story with a lot of action, and just as much character development. For all the battles we see through this series, it’s really the characters that drive it, even the secondary characters that are just as interesting as the main. And Kishimoto makes sure we get to know them as well as the main characters.

I really enjoyed this first part and am looking forward to getting into the second part. It’s three years later, and everyone is older, though not necessarily wiser. I expect the story to really pick up now, with Sasuke and Orochimaru’s story line, as well as the Akatsuki who want the Nine-Tail’s Fox sealed in Naruto to all come crashing together. It looks to be great fun!

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