The other week I was reading the very last chapter of Naruto, and it struck me how hard it is to come up with a good ending to a long-running franchise.
Now, I have to admit, I haven’t really enjoyed Naruto in a long time. I’ve kept tabs on what’s been going on, read any chapters that caught my interest, but it’s never been the same as when I started. The first three seasons of the anime, taking us from the beginning all the way through to Naruto’s fight with Gaara, are my favourite. That was when I connected with the characters the most. It was funny (most of the time), it was exciting and really emotional. The arc with Zabuza has to be my favourite, with the ponderings on what it means to be ninja. I loved watching Naruto grow from an idiot who wasn’t very good at anything, to the accomplished ninja who takes down Gaara. It’s not that it got worse after that point, it just didn’t top it, until we got to Pain. Naruto’s battle with Pain was the stuff of legend. An electric battle with heart-wrenching emotions, adrenaline charged action and thought-provoking philosophy. I found the stuff about trying to find a way to peace really interesting, and I think it was great that in the end Naruto didn’t have an answer. But, my favourite part of that arc was the aftermath. When Naruto returned to the village to be greeted as a hero. It was so wonderful to see the kid that everyone used to ignore and mistrust, finally be accepted. The series could have ended there and I’d have been happy.
The actual ending of Naruto I was less emotional about. Honestly the whole thing felt like a piece of fan-fiction, not that it was bad, it was nice to see where everyone ended up. The only problem I have with it is that there was no surprise to it. Everyone ended up with who you’d expect (though saying that there are several characters who I have no idea who they are), they all had kids and were all happy. The chapter before was a little better, with Sasuke giving a monologue about his new view of the world, and what it means to be a ninja. Though I have to say the sudden u-turn of his feelings from previous chapters is likely to induce whiplash. But, I can’t count that as a satisfying ending as I was never a huge fan of Sasuke. I never liked the way how the series was so in love with Sasuke, constantly telling us that he’s the best. Nor did I like how all the girls in the series drooled over him (and don’t get me started on him ending up with Sakura, after all the stuff he put her through. Get some self-esteem woman, leave that useless jerk! Sorry, that’s a rant for another day).
Now, in my opinion, endings are the hardest part to get right. They carry a huge amount of expectation from the audience, and each member of the audience will have their own way they want the story to end. And if you can’t do that, if you can’t satisfy those viewers’ expectations, then you’ll ruin the ending and in the wrong case scenario that could sour the entire story. That’s even if you have control over when a series ends in this age where the executives are too scared to back anything that isn’t a known brand, cutting down smaller independent stuff before it can get going, and keeping other series going long past their sell-by dates.
Now my favourite endings are often ones that speak to the core of the characters. Something that sums up the journey they’ve been on, and demonstrates how much they’ve grown, whether that be a noble sacrifice, or a moment of pure awesome.
In my opinion, one of the greatest endings in all of anime (scratch that, in all of television), is the ending to the original Fullmetal Alchemist. The sacrifice both brother’s make is completely true to themselves and beautiful to behold. I love that last image of both their hands reaching out to the sun, hopeful for the future. It’s why I’ve never watched the movie (because I’m terrified it will taint such a wonderful ending). Now I get why some people wouldn’t like this, because it’s not actually much of a conclusion, but it digs so deep into the core of the characters, that I can think of no better point to leave on.
Another of my favourite endings is in the comic book Batgirl written by Bryan Q. Miller, showing the rise of Stephanie Brown as the new Batgirl. The series transformed her from an amateur in over her head, into a butt-kicking heroine worthy of the bat symbol. Now my only complaint about the ending is that as a conclusion to a long-running arc it feels a tad rushed. The reveal of the mastermind behind the plan, and his defeat, only takes up a small portion of the book. I don’t blame the book for this. I blame DC for cancelling the series to make way for the New 52. (Must suppress Internet rant. Must suppress Internet rant.) What makes this such a good ending though, is what follows the villain’s defeat. We get a series of splash pages as Steph hallucinates all of her adventures that will never be. We get to see what could have been in store for us had the series continued, as well as follow Steph into adult life. Now this had more of an impact on me than Naruto, as her future life took routes I wasn’t expecting, it tore my heart out to know I would never get to see these things come to pass. Though I feel this ending came too soon, I can’t think of a better one for Steph. Her ending was just like her character, hopeful for the future.
When you watch or read something you want to know that all the time and love you’re pouring into following a group of characters isn’t going to go to waste. You want to see them fulfil their journey with a suitable conclusion, even if that ending isn’t always happy. Trying to find that ending is a big task, and you’re never going to be able to please everyone. There will always be something that someone wanted to be done differently. So maybe there isn’t such a thing as a ‘perfect’ ending, but there are many great endings.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.