Naruto’s journey has touched and inspired the lives of millions across the world. To celebrate the anime’s 20th anniversary, we’re speaking with notable fans and professionals about Naruto, their ninja ways and what arcs they like the most!
Jan Ochoa is a Senior Producer at Giant Bomb, where he creates podcasts and videos exploring the world of video games and other things. He’s also a big fan of Pokemon, professional wrestling and Shonen Jump action anime. When we reached out to him to chat about his favorite Naruto arc, he was kind enough to oblige. He picked the Chunin Exams, a section of the series so packed with memorable moments that we weren’t sure we could fit them all into one interview! Read on for Ochoa’s memories of what it was like to watch Naruto as it aired, why Shikamaru rules, and why it matters that Rock Lee lost his big fight with Gaara.
A note on spoilers: If you haven’t seen the Chunin Exams arc yet, this interview does contain major plot points. Watch the arc starting RIGHT HERE if you’d like to catch up or rewatch!
Note: The interview has been edited for clarity.
Adam Wescott: First question: If you’re going to pitch the Chunin Exams arc in Naruto to someone who wasn’t familiar with the series, what would you say?
Jan Ochoa: I think this is where it all kicks off. This is where everything starts to manifest. During the early bits, you definitely see all the different students and the other Genin in the Leaf Village. This is where all of that starts to actually pay off. [Naruto] doesn’t stop being like a kid show, but I think this is the turning point where like, “oh, there’s a lot of stakes here. There are a lot of things going on.”
Early you really only know Team Seven. Well, first, you only know Naruto, and then you learn about Sasuke, Sakara and then Kakashi. But then you start to learn about all these different people, like who’s the kid with like the bowl cut that looks like Bruce Lee, who are the two kids who have blank-looking eyelids or the kid with a gourd on his back. And then you get to start to know all of these kids and start to build relationships with them as they are building relationships with each other.
When I would think about it, I always thought in my head that Shikamaru and Naruto were best friends. But then I didn’t realize that they really weren’t like they kind of were strangers to each other. And it is just so dope to see that organically grow and that trust starts to develop. [Naruto] does get super serious because the first exam takes place in a place called the Forest of Death. So you just have to assume like, “Okay, big things are about to happen. I know Naruto and company just beat up those two people on a bridge, but the big stuff is about to pop off.”
Is there a particular scene or episode where you remember just clicking for you and you going, “Oh, this is where we are?” Was it the Forest of Death specifically or is it like before or after?
Ochoa: I mean, there are so many moments. Honestly, the standout moment of the Chunin exam mark has to be the Rock Lee and Gaara fight. That gets memed to death. There are so many AMVs, but I think it deservedly earns that spot. I think it’s it’s very telling that this show is kind of about friendship because one of my favorite scenes in the show doesn’t involve the titular character. It’s because of his relationship, or what will become his relationship with both Gaara and Rock Lee, and Rock Lee’s ability to just keep growing and becoming better. It just always puts a smile on my face.
I wound up rewatching that arc, and when [Lee] takes the weights off, he unlocks the gates, I’m just getting progressively more and more hyped. Like, I know what happens, but for a split second, I believed that he could be Gaara. I started thinking, “Did I misremember this? Does he actually win?”
Out of curiosity, how many times have you rewatched it? Do you find yourself rewatching this arc often? Is it more like you find you find a couple of episodes and you start just rewatching those?
Ochoa: I’ll definitely skip around, but this is definitely an arc I will often revisit because you wind up learning so much about the different characters. You learn how much of a tactician Shikamaru is. You even learn how some of the side characters, that don’t often get their shine, like Tenten, this is their moment at least in the spotlight. Then it really highlights how Naruto has the ability to be an ensemble show on top of highlighting Naruto himself.
Do you remember where you were the first time you watched the Chunin Exam arc? Do you remember where you watched it and what you were doing?
Ochoa: I remember desperately trying to find some upload of the episode on YouTube, and then just feeling like it was the worst crime imaginable. Then a friend told me, “Hey, no, no, no, no, just go get Crunchyroll. They are there. They’re coming out.” So I would go to my friend’s place, and we would watch them together because otherwise, you were hunting around YouTube for like part one, part two, part three, and none of them are the actual episode.
That was me, but I guess I got lucky because like the ones I found, it was like part one, part two, part three, and they would have the openings or endings or whatever. So you’re watching it with friends? Were you all kind of at the same point in the show as it was coming out?
Ochoa: Yeah, it definitely became appointment viewing, where as soon as we knew that an episode came out, we had to learn what was happening. And I don’t think we were, at the time at least, caught up with the manga at all, so we were super focused on the progression of the anime.
Did you find yourself coming around to the manga later? Or is the anime just more of your Naruto gateway?
Ochoa: As as soon as the episodes weren’t in time with where the manga was, and then I just needed to absolutely know what was going to happen, that’s when I sought out the manga. I wound up buying all of the volumes up until where Shippuuden would have popped off. Because I grew up reading comics like Marvel and DC and everything, but then seeing the level of detail in like the different styles of art in the Naruto manga, I was like, “Wow, like they’re absolutely going for it. There’s like blood everywhere.” And this is like a kid’s…well, it’s being framed or sold to as like a kid’s story.
Did you ever read this comic called Blade of the Immortal?
Ochoa: No, no, I think that missed me.
Yeah, I think I read an interview online saying that Kishimoto, the creator of the manga, was pretty inspired by the Blade of the Immortal art. It’s cool to think there’s this guy who made a comic for adults, and he had this other guy who sort of adapts some of that style for kids in a way that’s still really dynamic and cool.
Ochoa: Yeah, yeah. I feel like Kishimoto really adapted the art to be something that a lot of different ages can enjoy. I think it’s been very apparent how prominent Naruto stayed in the cultural zeitgeist. Sure, it has been memed to death, but you see professional NBA players, and NFL players referencing Naruto because they idolize it. Michael B. Jordan came up with a clothing collab for Coach that was Naruto-themed. I think that just goes to show the influence and the power of the series.
Yeah, it’s huge. Speaking of different generations latching on to different things, do you feel like when you first started watching Naruto and when you watch Naruto now, are there different things you notice? Like what appealed to you most back then and sort of now, what you see in it is sort of something new?
Ochoa: Oh, definitely. As time goes by, then when I was watching Naruto, I’m definitely thinking more so of the kids like Team Seven, and Naruto and all of his friends. But then as I revisit the series, now as an older adult, I’m more so watching how the adults in this series are playing their parts. Like how is Kakashi actually a bad teacher at first and then how does he grow into being a better mentor to the team? How is Guy actually one of the best characters in the show and arguably maybe one of the most powerful, straight-up humans without any fancy schmancy stuff. I mean, he does have fancy schmancy stuff but like it’s a dig deep for that.
I think I’m just noticing more so the relationships and how that is building and how it’s actually fairly, really great storytelling that I feel a lot of people would dismiss. They’re definitely folks that don’t like anime. They’re folks that think that because Naruto is a shonen-style story, they can dismiss it but when you really look deep into it, it’s a very mature story that is being told.
I feel like a lot of like shonen comics and anime especially it’s really going through this cycle. I remember back in the day like me ten or 20 years ago, I read all these reviews online of Dragon Ball Z that were like, “worst show ever,” and “worst anime to ever exist.” And then like ten or 20 years after that people say “I love Dragon Ball Z.” Naruto maybe came back around. It’s like sort of gone from being like, “Oh, everyone watches this show, so it’s bad.” And then over time people go, “Well, no, actually Naruto can be really good.”
Ochoa: Yeah, I feel like when something swells in popularity, it becomes popular to hate that because it is so popular. But I think it’s very telling how in Dragon Ball and Naruto that it circles back around from being the small thing that everyone loves, this big thing that a lot of people like to hate, to this thing that just universally is adored.
For sure. Going back to the Chunin Exams, you mentioned the Rock Lee and Gaara fight, but that has me wondering: If you’re gonna pick three fights from the Chunin Exam arc, and rank them you can’t get out of it. You can’t just say these are the three cool ones. It has to be number one, number two, number three, which ones would you pick? First of all, would you put the Rock Lee and Gaara fight on the top? Or what do you say there’s another one that stands out for you and should rank higher?
Ochoa: I think that is definitely top three. If not, number one, for me. Naruto and Neji is definitely in that top three as well because we start to see the full breadth of Naruto’s abilities in how you might have been hampered. And the reason why he’s considered the class clown is that he doesn’t know his own body yet.
It’s tight, because these are all great in different ways, right?
Ochoa: Yeah. Yeah. They’re all great in different ways. I was very dismissive, actually, at first of the Sakura and Ino fight. But then I rewatched it recently, and it was like, “You know, this has, this has a lot of merit. This is two friends going at it.” It really mirrors what would have been like a Naruto and Sasuke fight.
But that last spot I think has to go to…the Shikamaru and Temari fight. Just because they’re really laying the stage as to how smart Shikamaru is. You know, some of the parts of it haven’t really aged well. It borderlines on being misogynistic at times during that fight. But I think it is such kind of like a baller move that he just straight up calls it and gives up because he’s like, “You know what, I’m just not going to waste my time. I know I can lose. But I would have had you if I had more power stored up.”
Just to go through that one more time. You said Gaara Rock Lee at number one. And then you said Naruto versus Neji. Is that number two?
Ochoa: Yeah, I think that’s number two.
Okay, I’m holding you to that. Unless I like to put Sakura versus Ino in there somewhere.
Ochoa: I don’t think it reaches the top three. But I think there was more to it than I originally thought. Right, when I watched through it the first time.
Okay, in the last one Shikamaru [versus Temari]. One more question: You mentioned the Gaara versus Rock Lee fight. So the eternal question: Should Rock Lee have beaten Gaara?
Ochoa: No. I don’t think he should have won because that really sets off his character and then his road to recovery in thinking of like, “Is he ever going to be able to fight?” Why would you introduce this character, and then suddenly break his leg and break his arm and put it into question…It is really motivating. It’s good for both characters because we’re meant to hate Gaara afterward, and it makes his redemption so much more powerful, and how he salvages the relationship between the Hidden Leaf Village and the Sand Village. With Rock Lee losing that, it fuels him into, like when are we going to see him again. It starts to build that hype.
I’ve seen people draw comparisons between shonen anime and professional wrestling, like sort of a way it sets these conflicts up. I don’t watch a lot of professional wrestling…
Ochoa: Good, stay away.
…just like “Oh the heel is to stay away and hate this person” so that you can eventually see them brought down.
Ochoa: 100%. It is like classic storytelling, right? We need the bad guy, or the heel, to be bad for us to hate him. When he she or they finally makes that turn to become a good character, it’s like, “Wow, I respect this person,” because I’ve seen what they’ve gone through.
I think you’re right. It’s easy, especially when you’re a young fan, you read these comments and you say, “Well, what I really love is just seeing all these people fighting each other” and like their powers and you get obsessed with power scaling and saying, “Well, this person is stronger than this person, this person should have won that person should have won,” but Naruto isn’t just about violence, right? It’s about loneliness. It’s about how these characters are grappling with their own problems. It’s because Naruto is what it is that Rock Lee loses right? It uses that to build drama. It doesn’t just say, “Well, the end of the fight is what matters.” No, it’s a promise for the future that you get to see Rock Lee grow.
Ochoa: 100% For sure.
Since you work at Giant Bomb, I thought I would ask what your favorite Naruto game is, if you had one.
Ochoa: You know this might be a cheating answer now but well…the actual answer, I forget the specific title for it, but it is like a Super Smash Brothers style game that came out on Nintendo DS.
Yes, Jump Super Stars or Jump Ultimate Stars?
Ochoa: I think it’s somewhere around that. That blew my mind as a child. I didn’t think a game like that was possible and it seemed like a no-brainer. But the cheating answer now, I think I would say Fortnite.
Good one. You can play as Naruto in Fortnight? I’m getting behind.
Ochoa: Yeah, they have a Naruto skin. The other day, I dressed up as John Cena, and a co-worker was dressed up as Goku. We were running to defeat a person that had a Naruto skin on and then Naruto jumped up in the air and did a Kamehameha to both of us.
Can you do a Rasengan?
Ochoa: It’s there as an emote.
What is Sasuke’s, like 10,000 birds? 1,000 birds, I think 1,000 birds, right?
Ochoa: I think it’s 1,000 birds. Yeah, I don’t know if that’s in there. But like you can definitely emote and do a Rasengan.
That’s cool. Do you have like a favorite character to play in like these sorts of Naruto games? Like living the Rock Lee lifestyle?
Ochoa: For as much as I like Rock Lee and Guy, I just have to constantly go with Kakashi just because he’s so effortlessly cool. Like, you see that dude? And you’re wondering like, why is he only have one eye or why is he covering one eye and the silver hair and he just like, drips and oozes charisma that you’re just drawn to like, check him out. And then it also helps that he’s a very strong and formidable character.
In the game do you like playing as Kakashi? Or is it more general Naruto games?
Ochoa: In games, when given the option. Like in Shinobi Strikers or any of like the Naruto fighting games, I’ll gravitate towards him more often than not.
NARUTO LIGHTNING ROUND!
If you could live in any village ninja village, which one would it be?
Ochoa: Let’s just say Hidden Leaf because there’s ramen.
If you could specialize in one jutsu which would it be?
Ochoa: Taijutsu because it’s just all about getting swell. Working on your physicality
Which Naruto moment made you cry the most?
Ochoa: I think it’s that moment when Naruto and Sasuke are like laying down hand to hand after their big fight. And then both of them now are armless and just realizing like, “Oh, man, we’ve done some stuff. Huh, buddy. We’re friends. We’re friends. Okay. All right.” And then just that moment coming together. The other moment that closely follows is Guy-sensei unlocking all of the gates and just wondering, “Oh, no, is he dead?”
Which Naruto moment made you cheer the most?
Ochoa: I think the first time that Naruto nails the Rasengan.
EXTRA NARUTO TRIVIA!
Ochoa: An idea I don’t want to say upset, but bummed out is probably the better word to say, that never got any traction just because it felt like an insurmountable task: Ben Pack and I were thinking about doing an anime podcast, and now we have 10 million of them, called “Na-roulette-o.” Because there are so many episodes of Naruto. Including, you know, controversial here, but including the filler episodes. I know it’s contentious whether or not to include those. But we would pick three episodes at a time and watch them using a random number generator and try and piece together the full story because Ben had only ever watched the first couple of arcs and a little bit of Shippuden and didn’t know how batshit it got later on. It was mostly like, “Hey, let’s watch three episodes, no matter where they are in the story, you try to explain to me what you think the whole story is.”
I mostly wanted to do it just so I could use the word, “Hey, I am your Host-Kage” I was just waiting for that. But that never got any traction because it just it’s so many episodes.
Stay tuned for the next installment of “My Favorite Naruto Arc” as we speak with Gamespot Managing Editor and Giant Bomb Creative Director Tamoor Hussain about his favorite Naruto arc: Jiraiya the Gallant!!
Adam W is a Features Writer at Crunchyroll. When he isn’t losing to his family at tennis, he sporadically contributes with a loose coalition of friends to a blog called Isn’t it Electrifying? You can find him on Twitter at: @wendeego