For a title to reach its 50th volume is a pretty big deal. Only the most popular manga get to even double figures in Japan, but its even rarer for this success to translate to the western market (aside from Inu Yasha and One Piece I can’t actually think of any others). Viz has done well to make Naruto one of the biggest titles in the western market, and while connoisseurs might turn their nose up to something popular or mainstream, it must be doing something right!
You probably know the story of Naruto - the wannabe outcast ninja who had a evil fox-demon’s spirit fused with him at birth. It’s the typical shonen thing about ‘doing your best’, proving yourself against your peers, having a tournament and beating the bejesus out of bad ninja. And that’s pretty much how things proceed for many, many volumes.
There’s probably something to be said about a society which is happy to send 12-year-olds out and off into the battlefield, but Naruto is a fun, goofy character who is accompanied by a vast number of easily identifiable cast members. True a couple will annoy the hell out of you, but Naruto knows what it wants to do and it does it well. Nothing wrong with that!
Having sucked an entire generation of fans into his world by following the well-trodden path, the story then jumps a couple of years into the future and kicks the franchise off into new directions. The characters are already developed and pre-installed, so the series can cut the crap and go off into one long sprawling saga. And by scale I don’t simply mean just Kamehamehas or Spirit Bombs, but more characters, secret organisations, political coups and a plotline that feels like it has actual direction as opposed to being an excuse to create more merchandising opportunities.
Yes it still essentially boils down to ninja vs. ninja action, and for many that’s reason enough for many potential readers to hide the bargepole. It’s certainly not perfect, but given half a chance Naruto will totally suck you in.