Continuing with the series, I would like to first look at this group of characters. I am giving a basic rundown of each, including where I think their characters were most damaged. This is subjective, but there are basic themes running through their treatment.
He is perhaps received the worst treatment from the group, all things considered. I would agree that he had a rich, interesting development from the time he was introduced until the time he fought against Kidomaru. However, there’s a sharp contrast between that and his extremely limited role in Part 2.
From his re-introduction in Part 2, it was established that Neji was the only one from the Konoha 12 who became a Jounin, but not much was shown to justify that. Neji never may have some fights in Part 2, but those were either off-paneled or he was visibly struggling.
By the time the War started, Neji was completely neutered. He hardly had lines, let alone dialogue with Naruto. This was strange, considering the ideological split those two initially had. Neji struggled against Zetsu clones and had to be helped by the cousin (Hinata) he once resented. Later on, he lost some much energy that he was momentarily blind and was ribbed by Kiba. On top of that, Neji never even got to talk to the Edo version of his father, Hizashi.
The worst part was how Neji’s story ended. He was impaled by Mokuton spikes in an effort to protect Hinata, but never did he think of using Kaiten, which likely would have worked. Kishimoto would later say that Neji’s death was a catalyst for Naruto and Hinata’s romantic relationship. So, Neji literally died for their ship.
It was really like pouring salt into the wound. Although one can interpret Naruto’s rebuttal to Neji’s speeches during their Chuunin Exam Final about destiny as meaning “One does not have to accept a destiny he does not like,” but there was no answer to some of the things Neji pointed out. Before, he had mentioned how one’s life could be decided by birth and connections. This was certainly true for Naruto. It was ultimately true for Hizashi and Neji. Even though those two died “on their own terms,” they were really following the status quo.
I went a little long with this, but yeah…
Now, it was understood that Shino was an adequate and dangerous fighter who used the bugs that resided in his body. For example, he beat Zaku handily in the Chuunin Exam prelims and beat Kankuro during the invasion by the Sand and Sound. Also, Shino was featured in a skirmish with Obito around the time Jiraiya was in fighting against Pain in Ame. Additionally, Shino fought alongside his family to repel Konan’s attack during Pain’s invasion of Konoha. That said, his fights were short and the later ones off-paneled.
Like the team he was in (Team 8), Shino was largely marginalized and ignored. He was hardly given any lines and Naruto forgot who he was. That was more like a metaphor than a joke.
His introduction in the Forrest of Death wasn’t spectacular, but I came to warm up to his character after his fight against Naruto in the Chuunin Exam prelims (where the dog boy was defeated by a fart). As I mentioned before, I loved seeing Kiba’s fighting style, which utilized Akamaru, his concern for Hinata and respected his care for Akamaru. The latter was clearly displayed during their fight against Sakon and Ukon.
I also think it was big how Kiba was included in the team Shikamaru assembled to search for Sasuke. However, I’ll admit the fight against Sakon and Ukon wasn’t my favorite from the showcases each member received.
Since Kiba was also from Team 8, he also suffered from some degree of marginalization. Even worse, was how he became somewhat of a joke character. He also had the goal of becoming Hokage, but everyone in the audience (and village) knew that Kiba had no chance, especially when compared to Naruto.
It looks like Kiba found love with Tamaki, who had been raised around cats. However, it’s unclear if the two were married.
He fast became a beloved character since his introduction. Established as a taijutsu specialist — namely because he couldn’t mold chakra properly — Lee quickly made his mark by easily defeating Sasuke. Lee would later struggle against Dosu and give a thrilling effort against Gaara, although ultimately losing.
Since then, Lee’s action was very limited. He displayed the Loopy Fist against Kimimaro, although he could ultimately do nothing to the later. Lee was pretty much a bystander as his sensei, Might Guy, took on Kisame’s Shouten clone. Lee also became somewhat of a joke character in the Kage Summit Arc. Although getting some action by kicking an Edo Madara in half, that had no long-term effect, and Lee was largely overshadowed by his sensei in the end. I feel that Gai got some focus that could have gone to Lee.
What is especially biting about Lee’s character arc is his theme. He believed that hard work could defeat genius, but we know how that works in the real world and that was exhibited in the manga itself. Often, the gifted could beat the hardworking with less effort and a gifted person who works hard will merc all others. Lee never defeated Neji. Lee put up his best efforts against Gaara in the preliminaries but lost, and Lee’s injuries put his career as a shinobi in danger. Additionally, Sasuke stole Lee’s moves and exhibited as much speed as Lee without the weights. Lee had to use the Gates in order to pull off his best taijutsu. That this theme was introduced in the story pisses me off.
In terms of love, Lee tried to charm Sakura early on, but it was clear that she only had eyes for Sasuke. It appears that Lee eventually moved on, as he was last seen training with his son in the epilogue.
Sai’s overall development is a mixed bag. In some ways, his introductory arc was promising. He was part of Danzo’s Foundation (or Root) and as a result he had been trained to work without emotion. In short, Sai was the embodiment of what we were told Anbu was about. However, he was quickly disregarded by Naruto and Sakura because he wasn’t Sasuke. (Part of me thinks that’s how Kishimoto saw him.) A little later on, it appeared that the two original members of Team 7 were warming up to Sai, but he was still treated as an inadequate Sasuke substitute.
The above became apparent during the war. It wasn’t that Sai’s role was limited, but the way Sai was practically cast aside really stood out. It was a slap in the face to the character, imho.
Sai was not defined romantically, but it should be noted that he did have a lost loved one. Sai’s brother, Shin, was used as an Edo Tensei summon and that spurred Sai to take on the Edo Sasori and Deidara.
Although Sai would ultimately marry Ino and have a [weird-looking] child with her, we all know why that happened. Ino could not marry her first choice, so Sai was the consolation prize.
I put Naruto on the list because his was a very uneven development. Naruto had a fairly good character arc in Part 1then he hit a plateau. Sadly, he was largely ignored in the early half of Part 2 in favor of the Uchiha…then made a child of destiny. That took him from his own narrative and onto a contrived path, complete with forced dialogue and extraordinary powers in such a short amount of time. (Naruto needed to the powers to keep up with Sasuke in their arms race.)
The most damaging part of Naruto’s development was his obsession with Sasuke. As Naruto was worried about his wayward teammate, he was shown to focus less on his own goals, the other friendships he had made in Konohagakure and elsewhere and, making strides as a future leader. I would argue that the hyperventilation and fainting over the prospect of Sasuke being captured and executed did the most damage to Naruto’s character, and that had followed Naruto’s prostration in front of the Raikage and voluntary abuse at the hands of Karui.
Even before, Naruto’s character was never really challenged ideologically. Yes, there were moments when Naruto had to consider harsh realities and face roadblocks, but then those issues were quickly pushed aside as Naruto spoke platitudes and those roadblocks were generally weak and momentary. Most of the adults capitulated to Naruto, and if they didn’t, they were quickly wiped out by other forces. This of course didn’t help Naruto’s case as a future leader, either.
When the war began, there were also moments when Naruto would be repeatedly embarrassed. Intermittently, Naruto would go from being methodical to clueless. He and Killer Bee were treated in this way so that Itachi could shine and take out Edo Nagato.
Romantically, Naruto had a crush on Sakura as a child. That was, of course, unrequited. Yet, Hinata was always drawn to Naruto and he wouldn’t reciprocate those feelings until the film “The Last.” In the interim, he looked like a douche to not at least talk to Hinata after her love confession in the Pain Arc.
I say that overall, Sasuke had a better development than Naruto, even though it was decidedly negative as well. The worst parts of Sasuke’s character were exhibited during his prolonged face-heel turn. This was seen in the way he treated those who cared about him — although there were built-in excuses for that. At the same time, it was understood that Sasuke needed to be and would be redeemed by story’s end. His character was severely damaged as a result.
Sasuke turned out the way he did mainly because of how he was manipulated by Itachi and Obito and he sought more and more power. Itachi had planned out Sasuke’s path and tried to steer Little Bro through torture and lies. Obito was waiting for the opportunity to turn Sasuke over to his side. The alternative was Sasuke falling in line and ultimately doing what Naruto wanted him to do.
One thing that really limited Sasuke’s character was how he was being compared to his brother. Itachi was long set as a benchmark, but regardless of how strong Sasuke became, he could never beat his older brother cleanly and was never given the same kind of respect Itachi would ever receive in a fight.
Another thing limiting Sasuke’s character was the fact that he had to be redeemed at the end, as I mentioned above. No matter what he did, Sasuke had to return to the Leaf and cooperate with Naruto. Many of the things Sasuke did crossed the line and would have been unforgivable if a villain had done them. In that respect, this essentially made him and Naruto hypocrites. Additionally, there was no natural resolution to the issues raised by Sasuke’s situation. Things like genocide and manipulation arising from the very existence of the shinobi system were basically brushed aside and thus trivialized.
Romantically, there were a number of girls who found Sasuke attractive, but Sakura was always going to end up with him. We also had to have another Uchiha child. However, Sasusaku was one of the worst pairings in the manga and manga in general. There was an abusive spouse element to it. Sadly, neither Sasuke nor Sakura were called out on this by the mangaka. It’s interesting given what Kishimoto has said about handling Sasuke’s character.
Next in the series, I will talk about the villains.