Even a “slow” volume of Naruto is still a good one. The amount of action in Volume 18 is relatively minimal compared to the last time we checked in, but that only allows the other things that are so good about the series to step forward. The most important is how character and motive, not coincidence and happenstance, drive this story: things happen in Naruto because of the way people are, not because the plot demands it happen just-so.
Volume 18 gives us two parallel bits of story that intersect, each fueled by their respective characters: Naruto and “Pervy Sage” Jiraiya, student and mentor; and Orochimaru and the future Fifth Hokage, Tsunade. In the former, Naruto’s on the verge of making a key advance in the command of his powers thanks to Jiraiya’s close tutelage. In the latter, Orochimaru preys on one of Tsunade’s hidden weaknesses — the loss of her lover and her younger brother — and offers her a deal that would make the devil jealous. “I’ve mastered the forbidden jutsu,” he tells her — you guessed it, the ability to bring the dead back to life (or at least he says so). All he wants in exchange for that is the use of her prodigious healing skills to repair his damaged arm … and maybe her assurance that she won’t get in the way when he levels Konoha for keeps.
Tsunade’s tempted — hard enough that when Jiraiya and Naruto have a sit-down with her in a restaurant and try to talk her into accepting her designated title, she’s having none of it. “The title’s a joke,” she declares, a line which almost sends Naruto’s fist crashing into her face right then and there. The two of them take it outside, and despite Naruto getting the ground wiped with his face he insists on challenging her to a duel: if he can master the last phase of the new jutsu he’s being taught within a week, she’ll surrender her necklace (a key piece of hogake history). None of this clashing is helped by the fact that Jiraiya and Tsunade go a long way back, and that despite his own feelings he’ll be more than happy to hunt her down and kill her if she takes Orochimaru up on his deal. Old friends mean nothing compared to the continued survival of the village and its tradition of strength, and despite his goofier side we know he is prepared to eat those words.
The volume takes the time to explain Tsunade’s loss in detail, and it makes her a comprehensible character instead of just an easy pawn. Her younger brother, seen only in flashback, comes off as an uncanny echo of Naruto in almost every respect, but he died when her back was turned,and she was also unable to save her lover on the battlefield despite her best efforts. Tsunade is not herself a bad person — we can see that much for ourselves — but Orochimaru’s expertise lies in taking people who have one foot on either side of a struggle and dragging them all the closer to him. The volume ends a cliffhanger, with Naruto training so hard that he almost collapses and misses his appointment — which, as we see, prepares to unfold in a way completely unlike what we were set up to expect.
Naruto never dips below a certain level of quality, and even when things are a little “slow” (as they are this time around), Kishimoto still keeps things moving forward on multiple levels and myriad fronts.