In the world of anime and manga, few have seen the success Mashashi Kishimoto has with his smash hit Naruto. In terms of manga sale numbers, only Eiichiro Oda (One Piece) and Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball) have him beat, and perhaps only Toriyama can claim more international success.
Maybe. Naruto was, and still is, a phenomenon. For many, Naruto is a coming-of-age story that was airing on TV during their own adolescence. Much of Naruto’s story depicts him struggling to be accepted by peers and adults alike. Few took him seriously, and his awkward brashness often made his problems worse. This made Naruto relatable in a way other shōnen heroes simply weren’t and contributed to the story’s success.
Kishimoto was able to use Naruto as a framework to try and tackle two deep and difficult questions: Can people truly understand one another? And if so, how? As the story progresses, Naruto learns how to understand others, then teaches his friends, his ninja clan, and eventually the world. When I think of Naruto, I consider these core philosophical questions to be the story’s greatest asset.
Naruto’s final arc is met with justified criticism as it is too long and messy, and Kishimoto’s burnout from 15 years of writing is easy to spot. But even with a problematic final arc, Naruto remains cherished by many in the manga/anime community, and even those outside of it.
It’s no wonder, then, the moment Kishimoto hinted at a new science fiction manga in August of 2015, the community was abuzz. Two years later at Jump Festa, Kishimoto showed a sneak peak of draft pages with a character holding a katana, which prompted many to assume the manga would debut in 2018. That assumption was off, and after one more year of waiting, Kishimoto’s return to Weekly Shōnen Jump was announced for spring 2019 with Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru, which would be illustrated by one of Kishimoto’s former assistants, Akira Ōkubo.
Though some fans were disappointed Kishimoto would not be drawing the manga himself, his choice is understandable considering just how strenuous drawing weekly manga is, and how poor health plagues almost all mangaka. The initial drawings shown by Ōkubo proved he understood Kishimoto’s art style and reassured fans that Samurai 8 would not lose that distinct Kishimoto flavor.
Caution: mild spoilers ahead.
Samurai 8’s first three chapters were a delight to read. Kishimoto has constructed a vulnerable and relatable protagonist who differs from Naruto. Hachimaru is a frail, sickly child who dreams of becoming a samurai, but cannot leave his house. His doting father does all he can to take care of Hachimaru and hopes to someday build a portable life machine so his son can explore the world. A lot of mystery surrounds the worldbuilding of Samurai 8, but Kishimoto has made good on writing a science fiction manga. Some of Samurai 8’s aesthetic reminded me of Ghost in the Shell, and it only served to heighten my excitement for this new adventure manga. Also present in the manga are virtual reality video games, multiple planets, and the threat of universal destruction if Pandora’s box is not found. It is the sworn duty of samurai to protect the cosmos, and their abilities have a science fiction flair that I will not spoil here.
Chapter two introduces a character called Nameless who has not yet decided whether they are male or female and, like Hachimaru, is a shut-in. Every character in this manga seems to have an element of mystery to them, and it’s clear Kishimoto has been stretching his character-writing muscles. Samurai 8 also seems devoid of the “middle school drama” which Naruto’s beginning was full of. Instead, Samurai 8 banks on optimism and adventure to drive the narrative, and I couldn’t be happier.
The only downside to Samurai 8 is the drafting. A manga’s composition is roughly made up of story, character designs, art, and drafting. Drafting can be broken down into manga panel size and placement, how action flows from one panel to the other, and black-and-white balance. During Naruto’s run, it was clear Kishimoto was not as good at drafting as his contemporaries Tite Kubo (Bleach) and Eiichiro Oda (One Piece), but he was still competent. Unfortunately, Samurai 8’s pages can be difficult to read because the black-and-white balance is completely skewed toward white. This makes backgrounds difficult to see and action gets lost. My hope is that Ōkubo will learn and improve his drafting with time, and the white pages will become a nonissue.
In the meantime, Samurai 8 is a welcome addition to the Weekly Shōnen Jump lineup. As a veteran, Kishimoto brings a lot to the table, and it’s clear his willingness to try new techniques and story ideas will only serve to heighten the magazine’s prestige. If I had to guess, I would bet Kishimoto will find new and important philosophical questions to tackle with this manga, and perhaps more than anything, it’s what I look forward to most. I don’t expect Samurai 8 to go on for 15 years as Naruto did, but I do expect a solid run, so long as health concerns don’t force Kishimoto to stop writing.
Whether you’re a fan of Naruto or not, I wholeheartedly recommend Samurai 8. This adventure manga is sure to make you smile, tantalize you with its mysteries, and make you cheer for Hachimaru and his friends. You can read the latest three chapters for free via Viz.com or the Weekly Shōnen Jump app.