Naruto Shippuden has been a very dark series a majority of the time, with betrayal, cruel revelations, and death. Lots of death. Unlike the original Naruto manga, however, the anime gives the viewers “breather” arcs–known by many fans as “filler.” However, I hesitate to call the “childhood arc” of this anime filler, as it is a fairly substantial set of episodes that elaborates on the relationships between characters we rarely get to see interact.
Being the main characters of the series, there is no shortage of scenes featuring interactions between protagonist Naruto, his eternal rival Sasuke, and the female ninja of the group Sakura. There is a large number of characters in Naruto that are never seen with each other, or at least, not seen with each other in certain situations and not for a long period of time. These include Naruto’s mentor Jiraiya, Sakura’s mentor Tsunade, and of course, Sasuke’s mentor and series villain Orochimaru.
Throughout the series, Orochimaru is seen as a cruel psychopath who has no care for human life. However, in the episode where he and his former comrades are featured, he shows a more comedic side. He follows his perverted friend Jiraiya to the wall of the bathhouse while he peeks at the ladies, and even assists him in his sneaky (and pretty stupid) scheme to have a romantic rendezvous despite being reluctant to do so.
In the main series, Jiraiya is often seen making the moves on other women, but we get to see quite a few moments in this arc in which he is boyishly smitten with his teammate Tsunade. When Tsunade is asked what her dream for the future is, she says she wants to travel the world. When Jiraiya is asked the same question, he replies bashfully that he wants to travel the world with her. Rather than his usual perverted advances, his innocent love is both heart-warming and heart-breaking to watch.
In the main story of the anime, we see a few rare interactions between the solemn sand ninja Gaara and his siblings–who, when we first encounter them in the Naruto anime, are on fairly bad terms. In the anime’s childhood arc, however, we can see that at one point–before their father tore them apart, that is–the three actually had fun together. Gaara’s brother Kankuro doesn’t hesitate to ask his little brother to use his powers–powers that are considered frightening by the rest of the village–to make crazy and rather immature sand sculptures. This friendly banter makes it all the more painful when their father takes Kankuro and Temari away, leaving Gaara to impotently hold his hand out for them, almost as if he is begging them not to go. While short, this interaction between the siblings brings more meaning to the later moments of the series when the three have grown up.
In the case of another two characters whose relationships change with their family, we get to see genius ninjas Neji and Sasuke at a more innocent time in their life. These episodes show us that despite the fact that Itachi and Hinata become enemies to Sasuke and Neji later in their lives, there was indeed a time they meant a lot to each other. Similar to Gaara, these innocent moments make other scenes in the anime when the characters are older–and when Sasuke and Neji hate Itachi and Hinata–even more heart-wrenching.
But it’s not all sadness–although Naruto has a fairly lonely childhood, the childhood arc shows that he had a friend in the Third Hokage, who came to check up on him once in a while. The biggest surprise in the arc, however, is when Choji stands up for Naruto. Since the beginning of the series, we’ve always been told that Naruto was alone and suffered during his childhood. However, the anime shows us that he actually got along with Shikamaru and Choji despite their misunderstandings and played together, causing mischief in the village. It’s a wonderful sight to see the three ninjas who would eventually becomes very good friends and comrades in arms in the future play together and, well, just be kids.
This arc serves as a quiet interlude between the emotional episode adapting the final chapter of the manga and the first episode adapting the Sasuke Shinden novels, which are bound to get back into dark territory. While some fillers are pretty unnecessary (does anyone remember the ninja ostrich?), I am completely open to more “filler” arcs that expand on character relationships and the world that Naruto and his friends live in.
Both Naruto and its sequel Naruto Shippuden can be viewed on Crunchyroll. Viz Media also streams and releases the series on home video and publishes the original manga by Masashi Kishimoto in North America.