NOTE: Cross-posted from my LJ - just a little rant that popped up as a critiqued my waste of money on Hellsing manga.
Last night I got into another "Naruto sucks"
discussion argument. While it all boils down to taste (or tolerance, from my perspective), I'd like to expound upon why Naruto, and other popular animes, blow so hard.
The problem is a lack of plot. Animes which are mainstream yet looked down upon by other anime fans like myself lack this simple element of good storytelling. These animes run on a central conflict, move along with a "quest" engine, and then garner their popularity from basic entertainment value. Often character driven, they ultimately fail in their lack of character depth; for those which attempt to follow a general plotline, they end up as conflict stories instead as they express no completion of that plot. Naruto, for example, operates on a coming-of-age conflict rather than plot; economically driven, it is without a conclusion and therefore a long tale of a boy, his friends, and their never-ending quest for acceptance. To distract its viewers from its refusal to mature into a true story, Naruto relies on drama and humor to carry the tale.
To contrast, Gantz and Bleach succeed by taking this basic set-up of a character driven conflict tale and acknowledging its architecture rather than ignoring it. The difference is akin to a model of a castle for a movie-set when contrasted to the winding and intriguing depths and mechanics of the genuine monolith. In successful animes such as these, the story triumphs on the same guildelines due to the simple fact that the characters are round rather than flat. It is a defending turret to a decorative protrusion - the series can succeed on character motivation and development since the characters do so three-dimensionally rather than superficially. It is Sakura, Sasuke, and Naruto's puppy-love triangle to Kurono's struggles with Kishimoto's sexuality and thereby his own - and further subplots developing thereby.
Inuyasha is perhaps the best example of an exhaustive avoidance of plot. The show is set up thusly: drama conflict between main characters, action conflict between "good" character heros and "bad" character villians. Its problem lies in its apparent resolve to remain superficial in its unfolding of these conflicts; there are no resulting subplots, no multiple motivations and conflicts in the main conflict, and no rounded depth to these characters who are supposed to be driving this neverending story - faults shared with Naruto. Further, each episode is the same formula with interchanging characters: demons + Shikon no Tama + heroes + villian in background, with a dash of drama and comedy to distract. Ultimately, Inuyasha fails in the basic fact that this story never ends and, based on the reputation of its mangaka Takahashi, never will. This is best displayed in that, initially, the Shikon no Tama grows quite rapidly; but as the series progresses, it seems never to change at all.
This premise works in comedies, which are light and forwardly superficial to begin with, but rarely if never succeeds with action or drama in the sense that a serious tale with no conclusion simply does not satisfy. This is why American cartoons and sitcoms can go on forever. An action must have a plot, it must ultimately end, the heroes must succeed and move on to greater and further quests, not remain the same unending time trap. This is why Ranma had no problem, and why Tenchi Muyo has so many branches - because the former is a slapstick while the latter actually wraps up its plots and creates new ones.
The crowning achievement of a good character driven, quest anime with humor and drama to flavor is, of course, Cowboy Bebop. Its characters hold a depth rarely seen in most media endeavors, while its admittedly formulaic episodes deviate from and build upon the basic structure to such an extent as to make reducing them to formula comparable to the Greek epic formula - each story great and independant, even though containing similar, generalized elements such as deity intervention. Most importantly, the series ends as is due a plot - but what sets Bebop apart is that the seemingly simple series possesses an overarching question, a motivation behind the question and tomfoolery and character interaction. It has a purpose.
Aimless animes with weak characters driving a story are the porkrinds of the anime world. Satisfying on the most basic and gluttonous level, they contain no meaningful compounds; they are simply air, fat, charcoal and grease. They are a Hollywood facade of the true castle of what they could have been, if only the creators had given the time and honor to plot, subplot, and true character and story development.