Considered one of the "Big 3" of mid-2000s anime (The other 2 being Bleach and One Piece, respectively),
Naruto not only shifted from many of the worn-out tropes of earlier eras, but also set a new bar for story-wise. Before Naruto, many of the troupes we see in older shows, from Inuyasha to Dragon Ball, Ranma 1/2, or even Sailor Moon, ran many common themes to the ground. Some of these troupes typically ranged from relatively flat, straight-forward villains or episodic villains
or the heroes winning every fight every time or having the MC (main characters) fully developed-i.e., very little character development is seen within the series.
While Naruto definitely wasn't the first to challenge these normal tropes, it was more of how the show challenged these tropes. It did so while still balancing being an approachable series, and in a way, is what helped it become so famous. For example, we see Naruto grow up from a wild child to becoming the Seventh Hokage of the Hidden Leaf.
We see him grow, develop, and struggle with several issues throughout his journey.
That leads us to the second point: the show deals with mature themes.
Now, mature themes don't need to be all about death, blood, gore, or lewd (which there is a lot of!); some adult themes can include political matters, which the show isn't afraid to tackle. For example, the exhibition explores the gray areas of politics, exploring that even the 'good' villages may have bad intentions (looking at you, Hidden Leaf Village) or what it means to be a leader.
Switching that color scale to a bit more on the dark side, the Naruto series has a cast of complex villains. Not only are most of the villains unique, but many of them (except for maybe Kakuzu or Hidan, who are evil just to be evil) are all interesting on their own. From Orochimaru
to Kimimaro, and even the Akatuski (the main villain group of the series).
Many villains were written so that you could tell many were more than just general henchmen or that episode of the week style baddie. Many villains had a crucial part in the series, with some sticking around long after completing their main arc. While a few shows before the 2000s had done this: for example, Naraku from Inuyasha, but Naruto seemed to have taken this concept to a new level. Being evil just to be evil wasn't necessary either, as many villains had complex motives, having depth when you thought about their reasons.
Pain and Itachi… need I say more?
Tying these themes together, the author Masashi Kishimoto does so in such a way that it seems as if almost anyone can enjoy it. Being inspired by shows such as Dragon Ball, Masashi set off to create his own series. As well as being a shonen series (shonen series tend to be more of the mainstream 'popular' anime), what also helped bolster its popularity was when the anime aired, and for how long it aired for: the show began in 2002 and ultimately ending in 2017, a total of 15 years! The first season, just called Naruto,
ran from 2002 through 2007, and then its second season, Naruto: Shippuden,
ran from late 2007 through 2017. With shows such as Sailor Moon or Dragon Ball having been wrapped up before 2000 or taking a hiatus (such as with Dragon Ball, with a nearly 12yr hiatus in the anime from G.T. in 1997 to Kai picking up in 2009. While Dragon Ball G.T. and Kai aren't fully canon, you could just make the hiatus longer, going from '97 to Dragon Ball Super in 2015. However, I digress); there was some free real estate to be had in the area of popular mainstream anime.
Going back to what the story brought to the table, it also bolstered a coming-of-age theme and well-executed fight scenes. (For example, look at Jiraiya vs. Six Paths of Pain just as one example), and the types of villains that weren't as often seen until that point. And boy, did Naruto deliver! Ultimately becoming the sixth best-selling manga series in HISTORY, as the series has currently 250million copies in circulation and in nearly 50 countries! It's received numerous awards and escalades, from appearing in USA Today and The New York Times to the seventh volume winning a Quill Award in 2006. (Note: The quill award was an award running from 2005 – to 2007, helping to promote material that promoted literacy.)
The popularity of Naruto extends far beyond the bounds of manga pages and anime episodes, as the series has seen numerous popular culture references over the years since its release. For example, we know the series has been referenced many shows outside of anime-sphere, such as the Simpsons and D.C. comics. In the famous Treehouse of Horror Halloween special, specifically the "Tree House of Horror XXV,"
we see Bart cosplaying Naruto. In D.C., Naruto appears in Super Sons (in which the story focuses on Batman and Superman's sons). In volume 1, we see a poster of Naruto in Jon's room (Jon Kent, Clark Kent's son).
Within movies, we see Naruto recognized in the film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Director Edgar Wright said he was inspired by how whenever there was a "killer move" in the manga.
We see Naruto even mentioned in music, specifically in the rap genre, where Ski Mask the Slump God, and Juice WRLD mention Naruto in their work:
“16 Naruto” - Juice WRLD -
Naruto in "Catch Me Outside" By Ski Mask the Slump God
We even see Naruto in games, ranging from Jump Ultimate to Jump Force,
and even Fortnite!
While odd at first, it makes sense from a popularity standpoint, as Naruto is an extremely well-known character. Fortnite is also currently (as of this writing) adding a lot of well-known characters from other series: Ken from Street fighter, or even Joker from the Batman franchise.
Lastly are the memes. Probably the most well-known is the Naruto run, where you have your arms thrown back, you lean forward, and just run. It became popular in 2017, in which many students and groups worldwide have had events to run like Naruto characters, especially on anniversaries of the series. Probably the most famous example of people gathering to do the run was on June 27, 2019, where a man by the name of Matty Roberts posted a satirical event called "Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All of Us" on Facebook.
He posted on the event that: "We will all meet up at the Area 51 Alien Center tourist attraction and coordinate our entry. If we Naruto run, we can move faster than their bullets. Let's see them, aliens." To no one’s surprise, with how much steam it gained, it resulted in nationwide alerts and warnings issued by Nevada law enforcement and the U.S. Air Force.
Now, as we wrap up this article, I mentioned what the "Big 3" are:
One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto. Starting in 2022 with One Piece, in 2003 had Naruto, and Bleach in 2007, these 3 encompassed similar high popularity and maintained it all around the same time. The big three are often mentioned due to that point in anime history, and why don't you see Dragon Ball or Sailor Moon in the talk?
It's due to those two series being just before the term 'big 3' was coined. The ‘big 3’ was (and still is) primarily a generational term that best described the influence of those series and the fact that they all came out around the same time. If you want a similar equivalent for today’s generation, (at least, at the time of this writing) think: Demon Slayer, My Hero Academia, and Jujutsu Kaisen.
For our last article of the 2000s, we'll be switching jitsu for alchemy; look forward to Full Metal Alchemist!