Everyone knows – at least by name – Naruto, flagship and archetype of mainstream manga for teens. On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of its French publication, the Musée de la Bande Dessinée is exhibiting the most popular of ninjas. Back to this phenomenon saga.
It’s a bit like Harry Potter Japanese. A universal initiatory story, with delirious success. That of the little orphan Naruto, a left-behind rascal who aspires to become “master Hokage”, the highest ninja distinction. A pop epic published between 1999 and 2014 in Japan and adapted into a river animated series (as well as films, novels and video games), the saga of Masashi Kishimoto (47) mixes muscular adventure, humor and tragedy. The hero in the orange jumpsuit follows his training there, ages, earns the respect of his village, while the threat of a bad guy under the sign of the snake hovers (like a certain Voldemort, yes, and we will not list here all the similarities with Harry Potter, as abundant as they are probably fortuitous). Finally, first. The work spans 72 volumes, developing many characters as well as a large world.
In Japan, naruto appeared in Weekly Shônen Jump, the most famous manga magazine, which hosted – and continues to host – bestsellers like dragonball, One Piece, slam dunk and other My Hero Academia. It is intended primarily for male teenagers and its editorial line boils down to the concepts of “friendship, effort, victory”, a very Japanese mixture that celebrates both individual accomplishment and community spirit. Much like baseball, basically, the national sport of the archipelago. In addition to adopting these values, the series stamped Jump most often follow recurring, very identifiable graphic and narrative codes. And so popularized that when an outside commentator speaks by abuse of language of “manga style”, he is actually referring, most of the time, to the Weekly Shônen Jump style. That naruto embodies perfectly. Thus, the visitor will find the famous “dragonballian” spiky hair and other cataclysmic fights in Naruto: The Ninja Phenomenon, the exhibition for the general public which offers an introduction to this universe and a few dozen beautiful enlarged reproductions (no original plates). Of a limited surface, the circuit is however rich in didactic and informative texts, allowing to apprehend this saga which has everything, indeed, of the phenomenon.
Translated in more than 60 countries, sold 250 million copies worldwide, including 25 million in French, naruto is a behemoth, which has dominated the charts VF manga for ten years. Here, the series ended in 2016, but even when it’s over, it’s not over. “In 2020, we sold a volume 1 of naruto every 30 seconds. And in 2021, every 15 seconds”, explains Christel Hoolans, general manager of Dargaud-Lombard (parent company of the publisher Kana). This volume released 20 years ago is quite simply the best-selling manga of 2020 and 2021. The reasons: the confinement effect (exploding the interest of a young and new audience, under house arrest, for the animetherefore manga), the release of a discovery pack and the popularity of its sequel Boruto. No doubt also the famous French Culture Pass granted to 15-18 year olds. Thus, the reckless ninja today reaches its third generation of readers and is indisputably part of world pop culture. We remember, for example, the very publicized call-joke on Facebook to a “Naruto run” (run like him, arms back), direction Area 51, to rush to discover what the site hides by going faster than the bullets of the soldiers protecting the perimeter.
But basically, why this success? Why, while youth manga does not lack effective works, naruto did he stand out at this point? Perhaps because the conclusion of the legendary dragonball by Akira Toriyama in the mid-1990s (first in Japan, then at home at Club Dorothée), left a gaping void, a vacant throne calling for an heir. Several epigones presented themselves. Masashi Kishimoto and Eiichiro Oda (One Piece, another immense phenomenon) then shared this heritage, both claiming the major influence of Toriyama, a nourishing sap from which they each took the part that tasted them the most. But Kishimoto remains the most direct continuation of the master (while digging his own, more impulsive graphics). Thus, the next generation was able to be passionate about “his” Dragon Ball-in particular, at home, in a VF manga market whose supply remained relatively small in 2002.
No doubt there is another answer on the side of the sensitive strings. In Weekly Shônen Jump, each author cooks up the magazine’s values in his own way and Kishimoto has a taste for tragedy and melancholy. In his youth, the mangaka grew up surrounded by orphans and children with dysfunctional families. He was directly inspired by his memories. “I don’t know why, but I was a child quite sensitive to complicated family situations. I remember listening carefully to what my classmates told me, whose parents had divorced and who only lived with their mother. They confided their problems to me, and I tried, as far as possible, to give them advice.”, he delivered to the magazine Kaboom in 2014. There is therefore in him an intimate way of looking at childhood and therefore of addressing the reader. Just like to write the family. The ninja environment operates on a clan model, beyond blood ties, where social cohesion and symbolic filial relationships reside, which perhaps will heal the wounds of orphans. Naruto, he has now founded his own home. His son took over in the sequel Boruto (which Kishimoto oversees), continuing to expand the “Naruto-verse”, much like Fantastic Beasts ensure the offspring ofHarry Potter. So we haven’t finished hearing about the clan.
A souvenir from the exhibition. “Ik ben Narutooo!” A kid runs in front of us, his hands clasped like an orange ninja. Probably a new member of the clan. No, we really haven’t finished hearing about it.
Naruto: The Ninja Phenomenon. Until 13/11 at the Belgian Comic Strip Center (Brussels).