With his constant mutterings of “What a drag,” Nara Shikamaru initially seemed like a one-note character. The joke has always been that his natural genius is at odds with his desire to live a relaxed, carefree life. However, as one of Konoha’s foremost thinkers, and the first of the Hidden Leaf 12 to become a chunin, he’s fully aware that his talent is too useful to go untapped. Throughout the parent series, Shikamaru has functioned as a fairly important secondary player, serving as the de facto leader of Team Asuma after Sarutobi Asuma’s death and acting as the voice of reason when gung-ho characters like Uzumaki Naruto and Rock Lee want to charge in without a plan of action.
All things considered, he isn’t a bad choice for the starring role in a novel, and Naruto: Shikamaru’s Story presents a surprisingly accurate portrayal of both Shikamaru and Masashi Kishimoto‘s expansive ninja world. After the disappointment that was Naruto: Kakashi’s Story, I didn’t have high hopes for the latest Naruto-inspired literary outing. However, the change in author (now Takashi Yano) appears to have made all the difference, as even the translator (Jocelyne Allen) remains the same, yet Shikamaru’s Story springs to life more vividly and tells a much more compelling story than its predecessor.
At the start of the novel, Shikamaru is overwhelmed by his duties and longs for a break but convinces himself that he can’t possibly take one. He’s made promises to his deceased father and teacher, the men he most admired, and he has a plan for the greater good: maintain the peace between the Allied Force, prepare Naruto to become the Seventh Hokage, and act as the spirited ninja’s advisor.
When a team of Anbu, led by the pallid and formerly emotionless Sai, doesn’t return from its latest mission, Hokage Hatake Kakashi summons Shikamaru to discuss a letter he received from Sai. The team’s mission had been to investigate the disappearance of thousands of shinobi during the Fourth Great Ninja War in the Land of Silence, an often-ignored outlying country. Sounding a lot like a newly-converted cult member, Sai claims that he’s staying in the Land of Silence because he’s met a man, Gengo, who has shown him the true way to peace and prosperity. Kakashi and Shikamaru both realize that a man capable of swaying the perpetually stoic Sai is dangerous. To make matters worse, countless shinobi who never returned home from the war—and whose bodies were never found—may also have fallen under Gengo’s spell. They agree Gengo needs to be assassinated as quickly as possible, and Shikamaru, the person in charge of assigning missions, trusts no one but himself to get the job done.
Since he operates “in the shadows,” Shikamaru believes himself to be a perfect fit for this mission, reasoning that people like Naruto should stay “shining in the light.” Shikamaru even comments on the Gospel of Uzumaki (as I’ve termed it in my anime reviews), acknowledging the fact that Naruto “talks” many of his adversaries into embracing the light—a skill Shikamaru admires but doesn’t think will work this time around. Although he considers bringing Ino and Choji along, he ultimately decides not to taint them, either. He even refuses to bring this mission to the attention of the Allied Shinobi Forces. When Shikamaru requests specialized Anbu assistance, Kakashi introduces him to bubbly teenager Soku and old-fashioned middle-aged Ro.
Soku and Ro are the book’s weakest aspects, but their time in the limelight is mercifully brief. Created for this story, their presence seems almost pointless, other than for the fact that Shikamaru wants his friends to be kept away from this mission and he knew he’d need shinobi who were able to cloak chakra (Ro) and send a projectile chakra-based kill-shot across a long distance (Soku). Unfortunately, the author tries to give them “character” by making them talk funny. Affectations are often used in anime (like Naruto’s own “Believe it!”), but they come off terribly on the written page. Soku uses “like” in almost every sentence, sometimes at the strangest possible moments, while Ro speaks like a samurai in a period drama. Luckily, Soku’s “like” affectation and her strong dislike for her given name (a recurring joke that isn’t funny and is repeated far too often) does pay off later. When she’s brainwashed, she loses her affectation and doesn’t care about the name, but those two defining characteristics are hard to get through as a reader nonetheless.
At first, the assassination seems easy, as Gengo frequently gives speeches. This prompts Shikamaru to move forward with his plan on the group’s second night in the enemy village—a decision he later regrets when Gengo immediately discovers the would-be assassins in the crowd despite Ro’s chakra manipulation. Adding insult to injury, Shikamaru’s shadow-based attacks have no effect on his target. Imprisoned for over a week while Soku and Ro endure torture, Shikamaru tries to figure out where he went wrong. Most importantly, he wants to know why Gengo frequently comes to speak with him about inane topics like the weather.
Luckily for Shikamaru, his friends noticed something was off about him prior to his departure—especially Temari of Sunagakure, who serves alongside Shikamaru on the Allied Forces council. The parent series is sprinkled with hints that these two share a mutual attraction, but for various reasons, their budding romance never quite took off on screen (However, the manga’s epilogue revealed they eventually marry and have a son.) Shikamaru’s Story features just the right amount of romantic tension between Shikamaru and Temari, going so far as to reveal the origins of their first date. The book even sheds a bit of light on how Ino and Sai, one of the most surprising couplings found in the manga’s epilogue, might have wound up falling in love. The author’s ability to seamlessly weave these secondary plotlines into the overall story and tie them into the overarching theme is commendable.
When Gengo starts proselytizing to Shikamaru about why ninja are better suited to ruling the world than the daimyo and non-shinobi citizenry, Shikamaru concedes that this charismatic figure makes some solid points. From a ninja’s perspective, Gengo makes a lot of sense. Why shouldn’t the most powerful run the show? Does the current system serve to keep the shinobi villages’ power in check, or do the daimyo simply view the ninja as weapons? A small part of Shikamaru realizes something is off, but since he didn’t lock eyes with Gengo during the failed assassination attempt, he knows he isn’t under a genjutsu. When Temari shows up with Gaara and other Sunagakure ninja in tow, she uses her wind technique to bring Shikamaru to his senses. It turns out Gengo has an auditory genjutsu. Like Killgrave of Jessica Jones fame, he can talk people into doing and believing whatever he wants.
The battle that unfolds is well-written, and despite being very descriptive, is never confusing. As Temari faces off against the brainwashed Sai, Shikamaru takes on Gengo. Attacks are described visually without being weighed down by overly-complicated explanations of each technique. The dialogue between blows and playful character banter serve to nicely break up the action. When Ino, Choji, Sakura, and eventually Naruto show up to lend a hand, Ino’s Mind Transfer jutsu—and Naruto’s very presence—wind up being the key to breaking Gengo’s hold over his slaves. Since Gengo had characterized Naruto as one of his movement’s core figures because of his role in the war, the scores of brainwashed shinobi won’t fight against him. In the end, Shikamaru realizes he was a fool to tackle the mission without his friends, and that he doesn’t have to carry the world on his shoulders. He finds a healthy balance between doing what he can to maintain the post-war peace and taking time to relax. He even finds his own dream, something he’d envied Naruto for having: to create a peaceful world in which lazy people like him who don’t want to fight don’t have to.
The story features a few jarring “anime moments” that don’t work particularly well in text-form. (Fortunately, it didn’t have nearly as many as Kakashi’s Story.) Sight gags like overblown punches that send characters spinning are much better suited to anime, manga, and other visual mediums. In novels, they just seem out of place.
The translation, perhaps due to better source material, has stepped up since the last volume. Typos and other small errors, while present, are far from frequent. Additionally, there were no instances of incorrect genders or technique names this time around. The novel also reads more smoothly, and the prose is solid, although it suffers from a long “info dump” at the beginning.
Shikamaru’s Story is a fast, compelling read that most Naruto fans should enjoy. Even readers who weren’t crazy about the previous novel should give this one a chance, as it significantly improves on many of the issues that plagued its predecessor. Unlike Kakashi’s Story, this book actually feels like it takes place in the world of Naruto.