A Defense of Naruto

A Defense of Naruto

By: Brianna Noll

 

I just let out a rather embarrassing squee. You see, this week, Naruto: Shippuden will be airing a double episode. That’s 47 minutes of ninja world war action, a moment I’m looking forward to almost as much as the weekend. (And I’m attending a Heaven & Hell-themed Halloween party on Saturday, which is going to be super fun).

I’m not embarrassed to say I like shounen anime. Sure, the target audience for these shows is teenaged boys, and as an almost-thirty-year-old woman, I certainly don’t fit the demographic. And sure, the Internet may suggest that Naruto in particular is [insert offensive adjective here]. It’s certainly not a perfect anime, glutted as it often is with distracting filler and lengthy, repetitive flashbacks. But I really love it, and more than that, I believe Naruto is good pop culture.

Why?

Well, for me, pop culture is “good” if it has some kind of aesthetic appeal, if elements like character and plot contain interesting tension and ambiguity, and if I can point to something in it that challenges or highlights something about our social reality.

Naruto (including its Shippuden sequel) does all three.

It’s (usually) well-animated, particularly when it comes to climactic episodes. Some of the best moments in the art occur during major fight scenes, like the following:

Naruto Episode #134, “The End of Tears” (Naruto vs. Sasuke)

and

Naruto: Shippuden Episode 138: “The End” (Sasuke vs. Itachi)

But the one I really want to focus on is Shippuden Episode 167: “Planetary Devastation” (Naruto vs. Pein)

There’s a certain—rubberiness—to the animation here, which you might say highlights the characters’ elasticity—they cannot be defeated easily, “bouncing back” from even the most devastating attacks. At the same time, both characters are inelastic in their goals and values. The art in this episode thus presents us with a great first example of tension and ambiguity, which you can also see in the quasi-rudimentary appearance of Kyuubi Naruto, which is in such stark contrast to its power.

In this same episode, tension and ambiguity can be seen in Pein’s motivation and character. Corrupted by a similarly corrupt shinobi world, which he blames for the death of his friend Yahiko, Pein pursues a kind of paradox: peace through pain. He believes that no one could understand true peace until they understand true pain.

Then, of course, you have Naruto himself, who quite literally has a monster inside him. The kyuubi is the mark of his anger and the seed of potential vengeance; it overtakes Naruto when these feelings become pronounced. But he learns to control it—to tame the nine-tailed fox demon and the anger it fosters and feeds—so that his most negative qualities become a force for good. This may be a somewhat heavy-handed metaphor, but what makes the tension inherent in Naruto’s character interesting for me is the fact that Naruto’s father, the fourth Hokage, put the kyuubi in him because he knew Naruto would grow to control it. In fact, he’d be the only one to control it. This decision leads Naruto to become a social outcast, a child vilified for the demon within him, but later enables him to become a hero and change the hearts and minds of his village. The familial aspect here can thus be seen as a mix of cruelty, unfortunate necessity, and even fatherly devotion.

This conflicting good and evil within Naruto reflects the shinobi world itself. The fourth Hokage tells his son that it’s a ninja’s job to confront hatred brought about by past generations of ninja, to literally fight for peace. This may not be much of a revelation, or a particularly innovative ambiguity, but really precisely reflects the state of the world we live in.

It’s not just the way Naruto highlights the corruption and complexity of human life and values that interests me; it’s also the focus on the society, the shinobi world at large, which is prized over the individual in this anime.

As in a typical hero myth, Naruto overcomes a number of challenges in order to save the world. And as in typical hero myths, Naruto receives help from friends, mentors, and his father. But Naruto’s ambition is not rooted in pure self-interest, but rather in a desire to better both himself and his society. He wants to become Hokage, to be recognized by his village, but more than anything, he wants to bring peace to the whole shinobi world. When he feels as though he’s unable to unite everyone because he failed in saving his friend Sasuke from the evils of vengeance, Naruto argues that he’d make an ineffective leader, and puts aside his own ambition.

This could be, you might say, because Naruto is a Japanese show, influenced by Japanese culture. We might assume that in Japan, the society is favored over the individual, which we might also assume is the opposite in America. If indeed America is as Neoliberal as many claim, then yes, the focus on the betterment of the individual (sometimes at the expense of society’s less fortunate) is certainly touted in this country. But if that is the case, isn’t it notable that a show so focused on the community—on the genuine social interest of the main character, despite his own rejection from that society as the nine-tails’ jinchuuriki—can be so popular among American youth (and adults!)? It may be idealistic to hope that this will change the way future generations perceive the individual’s role in society, but the seed of communality is certainly planted with Naruto. That’s a message I gladly stand behind.

Something really big has been happening in the Naruto manga, and I can’t wait to see it animated, even if it takes a year. That’s fifty-two weeks of gleeful anticipation.

About the author: Brianna Noll is a PhD candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Recent poetry and prose can be found here. Her interests include poetry (of course), magical realism, the fantastic, Japanese language and art, anime, Harry Potter, and puppies.
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