Naruto: The Unresolved Revolution
This article contains spoilers for the Naruto Shippuden manga.
Naruto begins quite innocently — it’s about the titular character who wants to be the strongest ninja in the village, the Hokage. His dream is fueled by his desire to be acknowledged by the people in the village who shunned him for having a monster sealed inside him. It follows the typical shonen underdog trope, in which the weakest character grows to become the strongest and most respected of them all. As the series progresses and Naruto learns more and more about the troubled shinobi world around him, he makes repeated promises to those he meets that he will become Hokage and change the system. The series, in its discourse between oppressed groups of people, is full of politics.
Masashi Kishimoto, the author of the series, ineloquently drops all political issues come the final chapters of Naruto Shippuden. Indeed, in the end, Naruto becomes Hokage and is gifted with godlike powers. There is peace in the ninja world. But what did Naruto change about the shinobi system? Fans who have had years to examine the questions the series addresses are greatly disappointed in Kishimoto’s subpar handling in the final chapters. Kishimoto followed the anti-establishment tropes prevalent in many shonen anime, but failed to follow through, instead telling a story about lawful endurance.
The two major political issues in Naruto are the demonization of clans (notably the Uchiha clan) and the discourse between compliance and revolution, as mostly illustrated by Neji Hyuga’s story.
In the first part of Naruto, Neji Hyuga’s story centered around his obsession with destiny. It was by stroke of destiny that he, as a branch family member of the Hyuga, was to bow down to and sacrifice themselves for the main branch. He lost his father to the conflict, and now holds a grudge against the innocent and powerless Hinata Hyuga. The discourse is highlighted in the series with many images of caged birds.
The issue is resolved when Naruto vows, during their Chunin exam battle, that he would change the Hyuga system when he becomes Hokage. As Neji reflects on this, the head of the clan comes in and reveals to him that his father voluntarily chose to sacrifice himself for the main branch. Neji begins to believe that destiny doesn’t exist — that he can choose his own path. The scene cuts to a caged bird flying, as if free.
Come Shippuden, the bad blood between the clans seemed to have diminished. Neji happily defends Hinata in the war — he loses his life for her. This fittingly repeats the narrative of his own father protecting the main branch. Neji dies, oddly at peace with the end he so dreaded in the beginning of the series.
This turn of events may, at first look, be simple character development. Neji happily chose to die for Hinata, showing how he grew from a resentful child into a loving, accepting adult. The underlying theme of Neji’s story, is, however, complacency. Easily, Neji could have survived to later become the more fitting, powerful head of the Hyuga clan. It is extremely telling that out of all the original twelve genin, Neji died precisely the way he originally feared, complying with his original destiny. To add insult to injury, the very kid who told Neji that destiny doesn’t exist turns out to be a destined child — Naruto.
The Demonized Clans
Much of the latter half of Naruto Shippuden is dedicated to the age-old grudge between the Senju and the Uchiha. Hashirama and Madara’s battles end in a peace treaty, forming The Hidden Village of the Leaves. For generations after that, however, the Senju maintained power while the Uchiha’s power diminished. Madara, one of the main antagonists of the series, notices his clan’s suppression and fights back against it. His powerful dissenting voice worsened the Uchiha’s status amongst the Senju, and by extension, the entire village, until the Uchiha are left quarantined into their own section, their powers delegated to policing the non-shinobi.
This sequence of paranoia of minority groups, of fear of otherness, is relevant in today’s real world society. It truly is no wonder that, when Sasuke first learns the truth from Tobi after Itachi’s death, he is filled with anger towards the Leaf Village and plans to overthrow the entire shinobi system by killing all the leaders, the Kages. For irrational reasons, reasons tracing back to the bloody clan age, the people of the village have always distrusted the Uchiha. They feared that the powers of the Sharingan would be used to summon the Nine-tailed Fox to wreak havoc upon the village. In simpler terms, the village feared them because of their “otherness,” because of a conspiracy theory.
Itachi, one of the most respected characters of the story due to his love for peace, chose the good of the village over the good of his clan. His actions are repeatedly commended by the narrative — he even says after he reunites with Sasuke as an Edo Tensei puppet that he is a proud ninja of the Leaf. He carries the iconic ‘Will of Fire.’ It is this declaration that forces Sasuke to rethink his path. He revises his plan for bloody revolution and instead announces his desire to become Hokage.
Of course, Sasuke never becomes Hokage, instead conceding the title to Naruto. In the final chapter, Sasuke leaves the village as a vagrant, searching for vague atonement. The Uchiha are now completely wiped out — effectively, they suffered simply from having the Sharingan, from being naturally powerful.
Obito and Madara address these same issues. Obito acknowledges that the system is ruined — he learned it the instant he saw Rin get impaled by Kakashi’s chidori. His very radical solution was to place the world into a dream state — but it was a solution nonetheless. Naruto quickly gets him to abandon his ideas by speaking of the ‘Will of Fire’ and boyish dreams to become Hokage (who he conveniently and consistently forgets is first and foremost a political figure, not just a position of respect and acknowledgement). Naruto’s habit of overcoming enemies by talking them out of their evil plans has become a trope throughout the series, known among fans as Talk-no-Jutsu.
Madara was swayed by Naruto’s Talk-no-Jutsu. It seemed that he would fight until the very end, like a true villain — until some secondhand antagonist decides to devour his power and squelch all protests from the Uchiha forever. The series ends when tired Sasuke concedes his loss to Naruto, effectively handing him the coveted title of Hokage. Sasuke, at this point, forgets everything he stood for. Naruto’s narrative wins, a narrative of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, peaceful, silent endurance.
It is important to note that the Uchiha are not the only ones demonized for their powers. Haku and Kimimaro were both characters shunned from society because of their clans’ ferocity or strength. Naruto, Gaara, and other jinchuriki, or shinobi with powerful Tailed Beasts sealed within them, also suffered for a fate they did not choose. With this in mind, one can see the battle at The Valley of End in a whole new light: Naruto and Sasuke reject each other’s shinobi path, the former’s path being peace, the latter’s, revolution.
With this in mind, the narrative becomes painfully clear. Comply to your destiny — the Uchiha complies to their destruction, the side branch complies to their sacrifice, the Senju comply very happily to their ascension. The ‘Will of Fire,’ in the end, is code for “do what’s best for the sake of lawful,” even if it means sacrificing yourself, your self-respect, or your family. Revolution or anger of any kind is discouraged.
Naruto ingrains this ‘Will of Fire’ in all the shinobi, including influential Kages, creating a peaceful ending. The peace exists by virtue of his godlike strength — none who know of the name Naruto would dare oppose him (all future narratives, such as in Boruto: The Movie, have alien races rather than internal discord as antagonists). He got what he wanted — acknowledgement from all and the title he so coveted. The side branches of the Hyuga comply to their destiny of destruction. The main antagonists of the series, the angry Uchiha, who spoke of revolution, were successfully repressed.
The ending of Naruto represents a utopia wrongly attained. Instead of reconciling old grudges, the Senju, via Naruto and the Edo Tensei revived Hokages, defeated the Uchiha by hammering into them their ideals. In the long run, the overwhelming power of the Senju (and The Hidden Village of the Leaves, in general) can create a power balance among the ninja world. This utopia is nothing more than a bandaid on the festering wound of hatred and fear in the shinobi system.
In the first part of the series, Naruto defends the lowly, the oppressed. His cause made sense because he was one of them, a child abandoned by the system. Once he gains power, he quickly forgets this, instead speaking words of compliance and creating peace by silencing the dissenters. A true end to the series would include Sasuke’s ideas for revolution, ending the power struggle between the Uchiha and the Senju. But of course, Sasuke, too, falls victim to Naruto’s blinding sunshine.
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