This was one of my two big vacation winners - I finished 12 volumes and would have read more if my vacation had lasted a little longer.
This series is like popcorn. Once I get started with it, it's hard to stop. That said, I've resisted buying it. The series is currently over 50 volumes long and still growing. No matter how you get your volumes, used or new, on sale or not, omnibus or single volumes, the cost of 50+ volumes really adds up. My vacation reading has gotten me within 10 volumes of being completely caught up.
In one of the volumes, I think Kishimoto made a comment to the effect that he just needed to keep the end in sight, and all I could think was "does that mean he really has an ending in mind?" I have no idea what this series is working towards. An eventual future where Naruto has finally become the Hokage? A renewal of Sasuke and Naruto's friendship? Sasuke's death? The removal of the Nine Tails Fox from Naruto's body? I really couldn't say. Even if Kishimoto ever wrote an ending for Naruto, I could easily see him writing a spin-off series based on a future generation of ninjas.
The possible lack on an ending is daunting, but I enjoy reading this series is great big chunks. There's so much character history and drama, the battles are fun, and it's hard not to have a favorite character (or even just a favorite fighting style or jutsu) when there are so many to choose from.
As I was writing notes about the volumes, it occurred to me that it was getting to the point where I could describe certain volumes with a couple simple sentences: "Character A fights Character B. This is the volume in which Character __ dies." There is a lot of death in these 12 volumes. I don't know if Kishimoto decided the cast was getting too large, or if there's some kind of plan for future volumes, but it seems like hardly anyone is safe from being killed off anymore, except maybe Naruto and Sasuke.
All in all, I enjoyed these volumes, but but there were so many battles that things started to blur together. Also, darn it, Sasuke seems to have become little more than an icy mask. Since I always kind of liked him, that makes me sad. At least he still seems to be reluctant to kill people if he doesn't absolutely have to. I'll cross my fingers and hope he thaws in some future volume (and please let that volume not be something in the hundreds). The revelations about Itachi's reasons for killing his clan and saving Sasuke were heart-breaking, but also kind of messed up. He might've intended to protect Sasuke by not telling him everything and inviting his hatred, but the end result was a Sasuke working to destroy what Itachi had wanted to protect. Again, I'll cross my fingers and hope that bit of drama gets dealt with in a satisfactory way that won't make me bawl my eyes out.
Let's see, what else...? Sai, a new character and new member of Team 7, was introduced in these volumes. I'm not yet sure how I feel about him, but I like his ability to make the things he draws real. I also liked all the various tidbits about Naruto, his past, and the Nine Tails Fox. Kishimoto finally flat-out confirms that the Fourth Hokage was Naruto's father (although I don't think many people, including Naruto, know this) and gives Naruto's mother a name - yay! And Naruto can do at least two things that both make him stronger and risk killing or harming him.
One other thing: I tried watching the Naruto Shippuden anime a while back and stopped at the beginning of the events in volume 34 of the manga (before Team 7 finds Sasuke). While reading the manga, it became clearer and clearer how bad the anime is. The original Naruto anime almost killed itself with too much back-to-back filler, but Naruto Shippuden went too far in the other direction, drawing events from the manga out to such an excruciating degree that the energy and drama of the original story was lost. It's really a shame.
Again, GIANT SPOILER ALERT. Don't read the descriptions below if you want to avoid spoilers.
- Naruto (manga, vol. 32) - While Kakashi is out of commission, Team 7 needs a new leader. Team 7 also needs a new third member, since Sasuke is still gone, so Naruto and Sakura are forced to work with Sai. Sai manages to antagonize both of them, and Yamato, their new leader, has his hands full keeping them from each other's throats. Happily, Naruto and Sakura are at least willing to put their issues with Sai aside for the sake of getting Sasuke back. Yamato, disguised as Sasori, goes to meet Kabuto on a bridge, with the rest of Team 7 as backup. Yamato is a mysterious character who is able to use wood-style ninjutsu, which only the First Hokage could do.
- Naruto (manga, vol. 33) - Naruto fights Orochimaru, and four of the Nine Tails Fox's tails come out. Naruto hurts Sakura before Yamato seals the Nine Tails Fox away again. Meanwhile, Sai becomes a double agent, joining up with Orochimaru in order to help his master eventually defeat Tsunade and take over leadership of the village. What remains of Team 7 takes a look through Sai's picture book, which he was forced to leave behind.
- Naruto (manga, vol. 34) - Team 7 attempts to retrieve Sai, and talking to Naruto brings Sai over to their side as he becomes more curious about exploring having bonds with others. However, when Team 7 learns that Sai's mission was to assassinate Sasuke, they think he tricked them and is going forward with his original mission. They go after him and encounter Sasuke, who talks big, says things that hurt them, and then leaves with Orochimaru and Kabuto.
- Naruto (manga, vol. 35) - Naruto is back at Konoha and must learn a new technique in order to get strong enough to beat Sasuke. Kakashi and Yamato work together to help Naruto learn how to change his chakra nature, which is wind, into some other nature, via an intense doppelganger training. Meanwhile, the Akatsuki continue to hunt down tailed beasts (they get the Two Tails, which was in a host, and the Three Tails, which was on its own). Also, somehow I missed this little detail in previous volumes: Asuma was the Third Hokage's son. Oh, and another comment: once the whole concept of chakra natures is introduced in this volume, it comes up again and again in future volumes, as though the concept has always existed in the series.
- Naruto (manga, vol. 36) - Naruto continues trying to create a new jutsu, a super rasengan. Meanwhile, Asuma, Shikamaru, and a couple other ninja battle Hidan, a member of the Akatsuki. Asuma gets caught in Hidan's spell, which causes any wounds inflicted on Hidan to be mirrored on Asuma. Hidan is immortal, but Asuma isn't. Sadly, Asuma is killed before reinforcements arrive. I've never really felt one way or another about Asuma, but this volume made me sad. He was such a laid-back, nice guy, and I liked watching him develop Shikamaru's potential in earlier volumes.
- Naruto (manga, vol. 37) - Shikamaru, his team, and Kakashi go after Hidan and...the Akatsuki guy with Hidan whose name I never wrote down (according to a Naruto fan site, his name is Kakuzu). Shikamaru faces off against Hidan, while everyone else battles Kakuzu, who can only be killed by the destruction of all five of his hearts. Naruto and the others show up as reinforcements, and Naruto prepares to finish off Kakuzu with his not-quite-perfect new jutsu, the wind style rasen-shuriken.
- Naruto (manga, vol. 38) - Naruto defeats (or nearly defeats - Kakashi finishes him off) Kakuzu with his new jutsu. However, the new jutsu is not one Naruto will be able to use lightly, since it could destroy his ability to wield chakra - Tsunade says he is never to use it again. Meanwhile, Sasuke kills Orochimaru (or rather, absorbs him) and begins forming a new team of his own, composed of Suigetsu, who wields Zabuza's blade, Karin, who seems to have a crush on Sasuke, and Jugo, a violent killer whose bodily fluids are the source of Orochimaru's curse marks. Oh, and another interesting thing revealed in this volume: Kurenai is pregnant with Asuma's baby.
- Naruto (manga, vol. 39) - Sasuke finishes assembling his team. Konoha puts together two teams (Sai, Yamato, Naruto, and Sakura, and Hinta, Kiba, and Shino, with Kakashi) to find Itachi, with the intention of then finding Sasuke. Sasuke, meanwhile, fights Deidara, who tries to blow him up. It's also revealed in this volume that Kabuto has taken some of Orochimaru's cells into himself - it seems possible that in some future volume Orochimaru's cells will take over Kabuto's body, and he'll essentially be reborn. We'll see.
- Naruto (manga, vol. 40) - Deidara battles Sasuke and uses his final, best attack, intending to blow both himself and Sasuke up. Unfortunately for Deidara, Sasuke escapes the blast. Meanwhile, Jiraiya goes to the Land of Rain, because that's probably where the Akatsuki leader is located. There, he learns of a terrifying ninja called Pain, who is so powerful others see him as a god. It's in this volume that the names of both of Naruto's parents are revealed. His father is the Fourth Hokage, and his mother was a ninja from the Land of Eddies.
- Naruto (manga, vol. 41) - Jiraiya fights Konan and remembers when he first met her and the two other orphaned Land of Rain children. Jiraiya ends up having to go into Sage mode to fight Pain, who summons two others. It's then revealed that "Pain" is the alias for 6 people who all have Rinnegan (something about "capable of being a godlike force of creation and an all obliterating instrument of destruction").
- Naruto (manga, vol. 42) - Jiraiya fights Pain and loses, coming back from death just enough to send a message to Tsunade about who/what Pain is. Then he dies. Sasuke and Itachi battle each other, and Itachi uses his Mangekyo Sharingan, revealing that he will eventually go blind from it. He tells Sasuke he left him alive so that he could use his eyes as spares. Nice, huh? Also, this is the first volume that shows Naruto's parents together, while Naruto's mother was pregnant with him. Naruto was named after a character in one of Jiraiya's less successful books. Before Jiraiya dies, he realizes that Naruto is the child of legend he was told about, the one who would be either a force for great good or great destruction. (I feel like I'm writing out a Star Wars story right now...)
- Naruto (manga, vol. 43) - I think of this as the Itachi Volume. Sasuke fights and finally kills Itachi. To all appearances, Itachi was bad to the very end, wanting to steal Sasuke's eyes. However, Sasuke later meets Uchiha Madara, who tells him the truth about what happened to the Uchiha clan and why Itachi did what he did. Itachi was a double agent, protecting Konoha against the bitter Uchiha clan, but he couldn't bring himself to kill his beloved little brother, so he did everything from that point on to make Sasuke stronger. Even his last moments were geared towards this purpose - when Itachi touched Sasuke's forehead, he gave Sasuke his ocular jutsu. Now Sasuke's goal is to destroy Konoha (completely forgetting that Itachi probably would not have approved).
Now that my horribly long list of volume descriptions is finished, on to the read-alikes/watch-alikes list. Really, the list below could just read "Go take a look at lots of other shonen manga." I'll list a few specific works anyway.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Bleach (anime TV series); Bleach (manga) by Tite Kubo - Another long-running, action-filled shonen series. This one stars Shinigami (death gods) and a teenage boy who gains the powers of a Shinigami. I've written about volumes 22 to 24 of the manga.
- Fullmetal Alchemist (manga) by Hiromu Arakawa; Fullmetal Alchemist (anime TV series); Fullmetal Alchemist: The Movie (anime movie) - Like Naruto, this series gets heavier as it progresses, and the revelations keep coming. I've only finished the original anime series, but one of these days I'll finish reading the manga. I would recommend reading the manga or at least watching the original anime before watching the newest TV series, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and I would recommend watching the original anime before watching the movie. I've written about volume 16 of the manga and a little about the original anime.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender (non-Japanese animation, TV series) - This is a fun series that only gets better as it progresses, although it may be best for those who preferred Naruto when it was a little less dark - Avatar: The Last Airbender has its dark parts, but you won't find yourself keeping a count of the number of characters you've gotten to know who have died. I've written about this entire series.
- Nabari no Ou (manga) by Yuhki Kamatani; Nabari no Ou (anime TV series) - Although this has ninjas and action scenes, the focus turns more and more towards the friendship between Miharu, an apathetic boy who holds a great power inside himself, and Yoite, a deadly, dying young man who is at first Miharu's enemy. I haven't read the manga and have only seen some of the anime, but, from what I've heard, the series is kind of tragic (or maybe not - people have given me conflicting information, and I haven't wanted to go searching for spoilers).
- Inuyasha (manga) by Rumiko Takahashi; Inuyasha (anime TV series) - Another long-running series with lots of action and fights, although I don't think there's nearly as much family-related angst (Inuyasha and his brother don't see eye to eye, but I don't recall reading that Inuyasha ever idolized his brother, either). I've written about volume 33 of the manga.