This is not an indulgence of ignorant universe-crossing what-ifs. I’m not comparing the characters of these series in terms of how powerful they are, but how effective they are as characters. In other words, this is a comparison of the series as entertainment.
The basic premise of each of these series is irresistible to children, as usual with anime and manga directed at that age group.
Dragon Ball follows a character based on the Chinese Monkey King, Sun Wukong. Simply called Goku, the character is small, cute, and incredibly small. He is also super strong, and in fact half of the series’ appeal is watching bad guys underestimate Goku, and then have them be completely wrong.
Then you have Naruto, a series about a young ninja in a ninja village who wants to grow up to be… the best ninja in the village.
Goku’s adventures involve him traveling West, to find the legendary Dragon Balls for some noble, Goku-related reason. In fact, Goku is inexplicably kind, innocent, and giving, with almost every other character having some kind of flawed personality. His main pull is his naivete. Goku is always the kindest, most innocent character in the room. His foils are the vain Bulma, the posturing Yamcha, the obsessive Tienshinhan, the lecherous Master Roshi, the similarly perverted Kuririn, and other characters that are part of his revolving entourage. The other irresistible element of this series is Goku’s ability to befriend former enemies, as to him fighting is a sport, and part of the game is knowing how to separate that from personal feelings. Almost every comrade Goku travels with has fought against him at some point.
To sum up his character as introduced by the series, Goku is:
- super strong
- constantly underestimated
It’s no wonder people love this guy! It’s a blast to watch him defeat whole armies led by fat, corrupt commanders, or take down a master assassin who can kill people with his tongue.
Naruto, however, excels in its execution. Immediately Naruto is presented as a bratty orphan that everybody hates or looks down on, including the wise adults and the good guys.
Adults may be quick to hate such a character, but children latch on immediately. Who hasn’t felt like everybody was judging them? Who hasn’t felt like the world considers them a nuisance? Who hasn’t had a dream that they would show everybody that ever doubted them that they were wrong? Naruto is what Goku isn’t; an Everyman. Naruto is not initially skilled at anything; he must always find his own niche, and that’s what makes him fun to watch. His version of the Rasengan involves his own special method. His Shadow Clone jutsu as a specialty is in itself a symbol; he relies on himself to support himself in battle, because he knows himself the most. His constant flashbacking shows his power to reflect. If the children I knew were as reflective as Naruto, they’d all be young novelists.
As a result, Naruto is more grown than he has the maturity to show. He can see when an adult is looking out for him because he has spent so much time as an orphan. However, he doesn’t know how to properly repay such a kindness – he lacks the social maturity to do anything but act out.
Instead, what becomes Naruto’s trademark is to pay it forward. If Kakashi treats him a certain way, he makes sure that he treats anybody else the same way if he’s in that position. Did someone save his life? He’ll save someone else’s, because he’s learned that life is precious. Especially potent are times when Naruto sees himself in other people and moves to protect them. He sees Neji insulting Hinata, and even though he is not involved in that family’s conflict he rushes to Hinata’s aide. When fighting Gaara, a stranger, he immediately recognizes the loneliness they have in common.
“It’s almost unbearable, isn’t it… the pain of being all alone. I know that feeling, I’ve been there, in that dark and lonely place… but now there are others – other people who mean a lot to me. I care more about them than I do myself, and I won’t let anyone hurt them. That’s why I’ll never give up. I will stop you, even if I have to kill you! They saved me from myself. They rescued me from my loneliness. They were the first to accept me as who I am. They’re my friends.”
Naruto is a very flawed character with a sense of right and wrong burned into him by the very role models that have failed him in other ways. One thing he has learned for sure is that he has to believe in himself, even when it seems nobody else will. Anyone who has spent any real time with Naruto cannot hate him.
I have been a fan of Dragon Ball since I was a small child. I was only introduced to Naruto this year, and even so it was with extreme skepticism and cynicism. I had a million questions, and I tore episode by episode apart with reckless abandon, annoying my wife horribly as I pointed out plotholes and obvious instances of filler – then Naruto opened his stupid mouth and ruined it for me.
Morally, I would want my kids to watch Naruto. My previous favorite is a deadbeat alien father who constantly abandons his family (Adult Goku). Naruto ruined me with his stupid optimism, his stupid compassion, and his stupid perseverence. Be a brat, kid. You grow up more with every episode… it feels real, even if it takes place in a ninja world.