Naruto: In Defense of the Uchiha Clan
At the risk of facing significant backlash from followers of the Naruto manga/anime, I come forward to openly state that I am a fan of the Uchiha Clan. I love their character designs, empathize with some of the views espoused by its more vocal members, and enjoy the lore surrounding them and the powers they wield. I could go on and on about what I love about individual members Madara and Itachi, but you’ll want to contact me privately if you want that dissertation. Here, I wish to analyze the Uchiha along with their perceptions among the fanbase and their place in the realm of philosophical discourse. Ultimately, I hope to make the case that the Uchiha Clan gets a worse rap than it deserves.
For those not in the know, Naruto is a widely-acclaimed shounen manga by Masashi Kishimoto that has spawned an anime adaptation along with several movies and games of varying popularity. The titular character is a young ninja with a penchant for mischief and grand dreams of leading his village of ninja into an era of peace and understanding. With over 600 chapters and 300 episodes, there’s far more to it than can be described here, but the curious can find more information conveniently compiled on the Naruto wiki, Narutopedia.
Many “clans” (read: families) exist within the realm of Naruto, but none more infamous than the Uchiha Clan, who boast a long history of producing many of the Naruto world’s most feared and powerful ninja. The Uchiha are revered for their powerful chakra (essentially the “chi,” the “ki,” or the “magic fuel” of Naruto), their natural aptitude for martial pursuits, and above all, their Sharingan, an ocular power that grants them access to a host of abilities: copying enemy techniques/skills, hypnotizing foes, and more. By the time the series starts, the Uchiha have been rendered near-extinct, slaughtered wholesale by one of their own. Only the killer and his younger brother remain (at first), and the stated mission of the latter is to kill the former and “restore the clan.”
Ask any random sample of Naruto fans how they feel about the Uchiha Clan, and you’re likely to find the majority opinion to be on the negative side; whether because of their smug dispositions, their “undeserved” prominence in the plot, or their plethora of powers, Naruto viewers/readers are generally quick to express their disdain for the clan and its most prominent members, and it is not difficult for them to find their opinion validated in canon; after all, the Uchiha are painted as villainous within the world of Naruto as well.
Through their ancestor and founder Ōtsutsuki Indra, the Uchiha are directly descended from the legendary originator of the chakra that characters in Naruto use to do battle (long story). They have this in common with the Senju Clan, a similarly-defunct family of shinobi descended from Indra’s brother Asura. Indra and Asura had something of a Cain and Abel relationship, the former attempting to kill the latter over issues of favoritism, and this relationship is carried on by their descendants; each clan became recognized as the only one that could challenge the other.
It is here when protagonist-centered morality begins to show itself in the world of Naruto. The Uchiha, believing like their ancestor that power is the key to bringing about peace, became a warrior clan unrivaled by any other, routinely defeating enemies and forcibly integrating them to increase their numbers and power. The Senju, believing like their ancestor that love is the key to bringing about peace…became a warrior clan unrivaled by any other, routinely defeating enemies and forcibly integrating them to increase their numbers and power. Yeah. You can probably see where this is going by now.
The Uchiha are sure of themselves, but only because they consistently prove themselves to be the best of the best. They are cold and aloof, but only because they live in a world where emotional displays can prove to be a liability. They want what all clans want: peace and safety for the people they hold dear. They are willing to fight to get it, to dirty their hands in pursuit of their ideal of peace. They differ from the Senju only in that they openly acknowledge and embrace their search for power, refusing to stand on the pretense of moral superiority in favor of seeking more tangible victories, and for that, they are vilified.
The Uchiha serve as an effective allegory for one of America’s own historically-oppressed minorities, the Native Americans, with the Senju standing in for the European settlers. In both cases, you have two groups of people who set aside their differences in order to build a society: the Uchiha and the Senju eventually came together to found the “hidden village” where the tale of Naruto begins, and Native Americans helped the Europeans survive and build their colonies in North America. In both cases, one side began to mistrust and manipulate the other, and any protest on the part of the victim was touted as a manifestation of inherent greed and savagery by the oppressor.
That these people had dreams, families, needs, and rights stopped mattering as soon as those things conflicted with the desires of the “victors.” To the Europeans who became the Americans, “Manifest Destiny” was more important than the rights of the Native Americans. To the Senju, the “Will of Fire” was more important than the rights of the Uchiha.
The natural rebuttal is that the Uchiha, visibly violent as they are (or were), are unworthy of the comparison, but as I have pointed out, they differ from their equal and opposite the Senju only in ideology. Their leader aside, the Senju at large were every bit as violent and power-hungry as the Uchiha are claimed to be. Despite their sweet words, they and their ilk eventually fulfilled the fears of the Uchiha Clan, steadily decreasing the Uchiha’s role in governing the village and having them slaughtered when they would no longer take the mistreatment lying down. Regardless, the Senju are remembered by and large as the noblest of heroes, just as the near-genocidal settlers and colonists of old. As the old adage goes, “history is written by the winners.”
Viewed through a philosophical lens, the ideals of the Uchiha can be construed as an examination of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of the “will to power”. Nietzsche did not take stock of perceptions of good and evil, but instead theorized that it was a natural part of man’s nature (and, indeed, the nature of all living things) to seek to possess the greatest amount of power over one’s self and one’s surroundings so as to minimize and, ultimately, eliminate suffering. Believing that power is the key to peace, the Uchiha act in accordance with this philosophy, with their once leader and most legendary member, Naruto antagonist Uchiha Madara, seeking to utilize a technique that will grant him complete power over all living minds in the world so that he might create a dream world free of pain and suffering: “a world without losers.”
“The ends justify the means,” one might say, but to the protagonist of Naruto and his allies, who hold to the ideals of the Senju (the Senju themselves are inexplicably absent from the setting of the story), this is an unacceptable dictum; if the means are “evil,” then so, too, is the outcome. This is the key factor in Kantian ethics (named for 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant): that there are certain acts which are evil unto themselves regardless of the positive effects one might achieve by performing them. The Senjulings (my new word for adherents to Senju philosophy; trademark pending!) have no answer to the question of how peace might be achieved. How can they? All of their greatest representatives died without seeing peace achieved no matter how strongly they believed in it, and is highly unlikely that no new conflicts will ever arise after Naruto himself has passed. All they do know is that Madara’s answer is inherently immoral even if it might technically work, and that is all they need to know to fight tooth and nail to keep it from coming to fruition.
All this to say that there is far more to the Uchiha-Senjulings conflict than is commonly acknowledged, though the manga itself, true to the nature of shounen, has not and likely will not address such complexities at length. We can all freely sit and watch as the Uchiha are demonized and the Senjulings exalted, the flourishing society of the latter rising up atop a foundation comprised of the corpses and tears of the former; however, I, for one, find that course of action unsatisfying.
The allegory is one that repeats itself throughout human history, even into the present day: how often do the rich accuse the poor of being self-entitled leeches? How often do we see one racial group accusing another of being universally more violent or inherently cruel? How often do we see those who have achieved success make the implication that anyone who has not simply does not work hard enough?
Each case stands as an example of the ultimate attribution error, a type of cognitive bias wherein entire groups of people–whether a race, a culture, or an economic class–are stereotyped under any number of negative perceptions by members of an alternate group, who see themselves in a much more positive light. It is a prejudice that rears its ugly head again and again in modern discourse, and it even accounts for those who prove it inaccurate: they are simply written off as “exceptions.” They worked harder than the others, they distanced themselves from the others, or were simply luckier than the others. The possibility that “the others” are as they are due to generational wounds and/or oppressive circumstances is ignored, as is the possibility that the prejudiced are as they are due to being free of those wounds and circumstances.
The occurrence of the ultimate attribution error in Naruto is no clearer than when applied to the Uchiha survivors Itachi and Sasuke. Those familiar with the characters know that Itachi, inspired by his cousin and idol, developed an ideal of peace more in line with the Senju’s Will of Fire, and in defense of that ideal, he slaughtered his entire clan, save his younger brother Sasuke, when he feared that they might threaten it. Sasuke suffered all the resulting losses and traumas before he was old enough to even properly formulate an ideal of peace, and as a result, he grew up cold, distant, and above all, vengeful. Each of them understandably carries a great emotional weight, but in-story and among the fanbase, the one who sacrificed his family to protect his allies is remembered as a self-sacrificing hero while the one who sacrificed his bonds with his allies to avenge his family is considered “a typical Uchiha.” It is telling that this perception holds true until Sasuke ultimately decides not to avenge his family, at which point he is considered to have risen above his clan’s “curse.”
To think of the central conflict of Naruto as “one side is good, the other side is evil” is to oversimplify it; as in the real world, a person’s actions cannot be viewed as the sole determinants as how they might like the world to be. Upbringing and experiences have as much to do with determining a person’s will as do inherent personality traits, and in Naruto, the world has shown time and time again that the methods the Uchiha choose are the methods most likely to yield tangible results. I do not claim to know whether the Uchiha or the Senjulings are “right.” But, if I had to guess which clan might succeed in creating an actual, lasting peace, my money would be on the Uchiha. Which clan would you choose?
What do you think? Leave a comment.