Recently, after years away from the Naruto anime, I decided to check out a few recent episodes of the second series, Naruto Shippuuden. Watching the opening, I saw the Konoha ninjas fighting off an invasion of their home village, with each character getting their own time in the sun, as if the intro wanted to tell you that each and every character is Important. Given the immense cast of Naruto and the 90 second limit of the opening, this means that each character gets no more than a few moments. In fact, Uzumaki Naruto himself, our titular protagonist, hardly has more screen time than others. All in all, the opening is quite hectic.
Afterwards, I decided to go back and watch the very first Naruto opening, and right from when the orange ninja beckoned me to “C’mon,” I was getting an entirely different feel from the Shippuuden intro. Instead of the scores of figures that currently populate the series, the first opening features only four characters. Rookie ninjas Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura, as well as their teacher and leader Kakashi are each focused upon extensively, and it makes the newest opening feel almost claustrophobic by comparison.
Part of this has to do with the open-endedness of the first opening. With no specific plot developments to hint at, it’s as if the characters and the intro itself are given room to breathe. You get a real sense that these characters are important, Naruto in particular. In a way, it’s quite relaxing.
I compared Bleach openings, too. Once again, the simple, yet heavy emphasis the first opening puts on Ichigo and Rukia differs a good deal from the almost overwhelming number of characters featured in the current opening. Taking a step back, the sheer contrast between then and now seems to speak towards the character bloat that the most popular shounen fighting series almost inevitably experience. If you go and watch every opening back to back, be it Bleach or Naruto, you can really experience the cast creep.
Having an enormous cast of characters in a shounen title is not anything new. Kinnikuman for example sports so many wrestlers that it can be difficult to keep track of everyone. However, the anime’s openings do not try to partition roughly the same amount of time for every character. They do not try to say that everyone else is almost as important as Kinnikuman himself. And while there are a number of differing factors between Kinnikuman and Naruto, not least of which is the fact that Naruto simply has more openings, I think it also highlights the increased focus on a “pick your favorite” method of presenting characters in anime and manga.
Essentially, I believe the reason that later Naruto and Bleach openings feature so many characters with roughly equal screen time is that they know each character has their own fanbase, and they want those fans to feel that their favorites are getting treated right. While I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with this, it still makes me miss those simpler times, when it was mainly just Ichigo and Rukia.
If you want to check out the openings I’ve referred to in this post, Crunchyroll has the latest episodes of Naruto and Bleach. As for the older ones, I’ve provided links below. Keep in mind that due to copyright policies and such, most of these videos are modified somewhat, usually by making them widescreen when they originally weren’t.