One of the challenges of shonen anime is managing its large ensemble casts; a series such as Naruto features dozens of diverse characters, which creators and artists must provide with meaningful stories, memorable designs and balanced abilities. To let their various personalities manifest, one common trope is the competitive examination.
In Naruto, this pattern exists in the “Chunin Exam Arc” of the original series, but with its own twist: the first component of the Chuunin Exam — an impossibly difficult test that allows cheating — helps develop the series’ many characters, but puts particular focus on Naruto. This theory, proposed by Reddit user and professional screenwriter u/yourdeadneopet, describes how the unique constraints and permissions of the Chunin Exam’s written test make for a “master class” of screenwriting.
The Exam is Unfair
So within the first 10 minutes, we understand the rules of the game. We know what every character’s goal is and we clearly understand the difficult obstacles they must overcome. Then, we see how each of them cracks the puzzle.
The concept of the Chunin Exam’s written test creatively meets the challenge of effective exposition: creating emotional stakes within specific settings and terms. The kicker though, as u/yourdeadneopet explains, is that these emotional stakes follow most naturally from situations from constraint, vulnerability and disadvantage. In doing so, this fictional test inverts the typical expectation of shonen anime in that here, it is a situation of relative helplessness — versus empowerment — which brings about character development.
The Exam Makes the Characters (and the Creators) Improvise
Some of them employ the powers we’ve already seen in clever ways – Sasuke uses his Sharingan to detect the movement of the pencils to figure out what the smartest students are writing. Some of them expand on jutsus that have been hinted at but we’ve never really seen up til now – Neji’s Byakugan, Shino’s connection with bugs, Kankuro’s Crow Puppet.
By preventing its participants from using either their signature weapons or characteristic abilities, the test forces the teams to think and act in creative ways. The importance of this creative choice is that in this moment of frustration, viewers and readers are acquainted first with the characters’ personalities and thought processes while they strategize.
The Exam Makes Characters Doubt Themselves
While this is happening, test-takers keep dropping like flies because they get caught cheating and Naruto still hasn’t figured out that you’re supposed to cheat, while the clock is literally ticking, raising the stakes.
While the other teams find ways to cheat, Naruto falters, his fear of letting down his teammates paralyzing him. As u/yourdeadneopet elaborates, the characters getting caught out and the dwindling remaining time amplify both Naruto’s anxiety and the viewers’ suspense.
The Tenth Question Hints At Naruto’s True Potential
A character trapped in an elevator isn’t dramatic. But a character with crippling claustrophobia who is trapped in an elevator is.
With only minutes left, the examinees reach the tenth and final question. By now totally unnerved, Naruto has failed to answer a single one of them. At this point, the proctor announces that there is still a Tenth Question not listed on the exam sheet. However, this comes with another catch: the examinees can either take this final question with the immediate possibility of permanent disqualification from the Chunin Exam or leave now with the option to return next year. Having seen Naruto’s confidence shattered over the course of the episode, no one is sure how he will react.
As many take the offer and quit by raising their hands, Naruto raises his hand but surprises everyone by loudly refusing to be intimidated, even if it means never passing the exam. His outburst of him encourages the others. Seeing their resolve unwavering, the proctor announces to those remaining that they have passed this “test” — thanks in large part to Naruto’s uncanny ability to inspire.
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