One of the best things about early Naruto is that its sense of progress is relatively grounded. The way it introduces its characters, their powers, and the world they inhabit gives its audience a chance to digest and connect. It strengthens the interpersonal relationships, whether they be Naruto and Sasuke, Sasuke and Sakura, Rock Lee and Might Guy, Zabuza and Haku, etc. In keeping its viewers from getting lost in the escalating struggles and expanded mythology, it ensures that they stick with the show rather than throwing their hands up in frustration over all of the encyclopedia-ready details being tossed their way.
One way Naruto’s first few arcs do this is by tying a bunch of achievements to a kind of relatable sense of physicality. Obviously, these are ninja teens we’re dealing with and within the first episode, Naruto has already created a bunch of Shadow Clones, something none of my friends could do no matter how many headbands they bought at Hot Topic. But things like Naruto being given food to conclude the bell test, Sasuke’s Sharingan allowing him to “see,” Sakura cutting her hair, and Rock Lee dropping the weights are all very simple and, more importantly, all very uniquely visceral.
Naruto, in particular, is meant to relate to his (likely) young audience. He begins the story as a lonely kid who wants to become Hokage, a dream that represents his need to be accepted in general. Hunger is a universally relatable aspect, so by setting it up as the climax of the first real team-based adventure, your understanding of Naruto’s character only improves. It’s a very basic need, and by identifying Naruto’s wants as what we would want, any fantastical extrapolation of it being like becoming Hokage is something we can potentially empathize with.
Next, during Sasuke’s battle with Orochimaru, he announces “I can see,” and is able to combat Orochimaru despite the snake dude’s experience and vast strength. This has to do with his Sharingan, but rather than feeling like someone harnessing a supernatural ability, it’s an upgrade we can grasp. “I can see. I can see!” Sasuke repeats, giving actual physical weight to the fight.
Sakura cutting her hair in the fight against Team Dosu is obviously tied up in Sakura’s continuing inner turmoil. Characters like Naruto and Sasuke wear their intentions on their sleeves, while Sakura tries to mask her’s out of the need to be polite or appear collected. As such, Sakura slicing her hair off and then lashing back out against her opponents in violent fashion isn’t just a turn of character but a relatable revelation. It’s an admittance of her true self, something many of us desire — especially when we’re growing up and feel confused in a world that seems to pull us in different ways. The visual metaphor is obvious but in a series full of chakra, possession, and beast spirits, meaningful.
Rock Lee dropping the weights is perhaps the most well-remembered moment in the entire Naruto franchise, a sequence that not only shows off Rock Lee’s premiere characteristic (his ability to only use Taijutsu leads to him being the closest thing we have to a normal human stand-in) but turns his fight against Gaara into palpable action. We’ve seen Rock Lee train and we’ve seen how Might Guy pushes him to the extreme in order to compete on the level of those with outlandish abilities. Thus while the “dropping the weights” thing isn’t reserved for Naruto, it forces the move to become tangible to us. The fact that he’s facing a murderous sand child is secondary, as is the fact that he will end up losing the contest. Rock Lee has achieved the ultimate goal of the series — an emotional connection with his audience.
Naruto changes over time, as all series like it do. The stakes get grander, the characters grow up and become more ridiculously strong, and, in the case of Naruto, the worldbuilding goes all over the place. But by translating these feats and many others like them into small, real maneuvers, we can better follow it. The fact that Naruto would get bigger as it went along was all but inevitable. In taking the time to establish its characters in relatable ways in the beginning, there’s a good chance that we stay along for the ride.
Daniel Dockery is a Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. Follow him on Twitter!
Do you love writing? Do you love anime? If you have an idea for a features story, pitch it to Crunchyroll Features!