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I first started watching the Naruto anime about ten years ago, when it was airing the middle of the Chuunin Exam Arc. I caught up, then stopped somewhere during the Konoha Crush Arc because I couldn’t be bothered anymore with the week-to-week pacing of the series. Fortunately, I revisited the anime earlier this year and binge-watched both Naruto and Naruto Shippuden after discovering how to watch them without any fillers.
For the longest time, I thought Naruto and Naruto Shippuden were two parts of one series. Now, having watched both, I don’t think they are. They might share the same setting and characters, but there are many creative differences that set them apart—to the degree that I consider them as two separate anime series, rather than two parts of one whole. To me, Naruto Shippuden is, in many ways, a sequel to Naruto.
Here’s how Naruto and Naruto Shippuden differ, and which series is better. (Since I never watched any of the filler episodes in either series, my thoughts are solely based on canon episodes.)
Naruto’s plot is primarily personal—it’s all about Naruto’s struggle as a discarded outsider who wants to become Hokage and win the respect of those around him—whereas Naruto Shippuden evolves beyond Naruto himself and encompasses a wider plot that involves the fate of the known world. Some of the seeds were planted in Naruto, of course, but none of it really takes root until the time jump between the two series.
While Naruto Shippuden’s plot was full of mind-blowing twists and turns, it ultimately grew unwieldy and was far too contrived at points, resulting in retcons and plot holes and dropped plot threads that never really went anywhere. The tone of the series grew quite a bit darker as well, shifting from the youthful exuberance and optimism of Naruto’s childhood to the uncomfortable realities of adulthood, war, and grief.
That’s why, in retrospect, I find that Naruto was more enjoyable overall. The simplicity of Naruto’s singular goal and the progression of obstacles he had to overcome led to some of the most powerful moments in anime, and it was a lot easier to follow because the story was so focused. Plus, the optimism of Naruto was intoxicating whereas Naruto Shippuden often felt like it took itself too seriously, and it lost the jovial levity that made Naruto so fun to watch in the first place.
Not to mention that the Chuunin Exam Arc is still my favorite story arc in all of Naruto, followed by the Sasuke Retrieval Arc which had the best written fights of all time (back when fights were about theme and smarts, not just who has the most chakra and willpower).
In only 135 episodes, Naruto introduced us to all the key protagonists for the rest of the series, and fully fleshed them out with distinct personalities, interesting backstories, and powerful relationship dynamics. We got Naruto and Team 7, Team 8, Team 10, as well as Team Guy and the Sand Siblings, plus the Sannin. These are the characters that come to mind when you think “Naruto.”
In about 480 episodes, Naruto Shippuden not only failed to deliver the same level of character depth as Naruto, but actually went ahead and destroyed some of the more interesting characters from the original series. Madara is a one-dimensional villain with too much plot armor; the Otsusuki clan, which comes out of nowhere, is even worse; and both Kabuto and Orochimaru are butchered by character arcs that make very little sense if you really think about their internal motivations.
I don’t even want to touch on the other characters with wasted potential, such as Sasuke’s companions in Taka, or the Kages from the neighboring countries, or even Danzo who could’ve been very interesting if he wasn’t so frequently played as a one-note villain for fabricated tension. Other than Akatsuki and Yamato, Naruto Shippuden delivered far less than Naruto did in terms of characters, despite having 3.5x more episodes.
Check out the soundtracks for both Naruto and Naruto Shippuden to hear just how different they are. It’s like they were composed by two different people—which they were—and they rarely shared the same style, tone, or even the same set of instruments. Which is totally fine. It’s just jarring when you binge-watch Naruto and Naruto Shippuden right after one another. The differences are stark and readily apparent.
Compare this melancholy track from Naruto:
With this melancholy track from Naruto Shippuden:
While I hated the Naruto Shippuden soundtrack on first listen, it grew on me, and I came to appreciate it quite a bit when I realized that the story of Naruto Shippuden was intended to be much more mature. Through that lens, the new direction of the soundtrack fits perfectly, and I have to say that I now much prefer the music of Naruto Shippuden. It’s orchestral, it’s complex, and it’s deeply moving. Truly one of the best anime soundtracks ever produced, if you ask me. By comparison, the original Naruto’s music is simplistic and flat, even if it is fun and memorable.
Winner: Naruto Shippuden
Animation involves a lot: art direction, color palettes, framing and composition, cinematography, fluidity of the animations themselves, the overall feel of the animation as it pertains to the scene, and more. Generally speaking, both Naruto and Naruto Shippuden have average animation quality when compared to the entire availability of anime out there. After all, it’s difficult to create a consistently great look when you’re forced to pump out an episode every week in perpetuity. It’s a lot easier when you have a finite number of episodes to complete before everything airs.
Overall, I think Naruto takes the cake here. While I do think that Naruto Shippuden had some amazing character designs and worldbuilding, I don’t really consider those as part of animation. The art direction, framing and composition, and animation consistency was just better in Naruto, with more attention given to how things appear on camera and how that affects the viewer’s reception of what’s happening in a scene. Naruto Shippuden had a lot of basic, front-on composition angles that were uninspired.=
Plus, Naruto had two of the best animated fight scenes in the entire series: the first being Orochimaru’s reveal in the Forest of Death, and the fight between Naruto and Sasuke at the Valley of the End. The Sannin showdown near the end of Naruto also had a lot of creative direction. Whereas in Naruto Shippuden, we just got a lot of straightforward angles, mainly because everything kept ramping up to world-destroying scales and that doesn’t leave much room for creative battle depictions.
Naruto Shippuden was the more exciting series to watch from episode to episode because you’re dying to know what happens next, but after it ends and you dwell on what you just watched and the overall progression of the story and how it all wraps up, it’s ultimately not that memorable compared to the original Naruto.
For me, my impression of Naruto Shippuden is tainted because it felt like the story and characters fumbled toward the end, whereas I will always remember Naruto fondly because it executed everything well. For me, Naruto is the better series overall.
What about you? Let me know what you think of both Naruto and Naruto Shippuden in the comments below!