THE NARUTO ESSAY HAS BEEN FINISHED
I've been writing this essay since July 2008. I wrote it several times, but the drafts were a jumbled mess for the most part. So I kept throwing them away and starting over. It's difficult to evaluate a story in the middle of the telling, and I kept changing my mind. I ended up with this.
I considered not finishing it. I'll be the first to admit it's rather…involved. Also, the conclusion seemed so obvious after the fifth time that I didn't understand anymore what I was trying to explain. But then I remembered that at one time it must not have been obvious.
This essay is complicated in part because what started as an endeavor to make a statement about Naruto's character turned into a reflection of the entire manga as a cohesive story.
It should be noted that I evaluate Naruto as a shounen manga. I expect the story to adhere to shounen manga tropes. What rhetoric I use to make my point does so within the expectations I have for the story's genre. These expectations are subjective.
Forgive mistakes. I'm not perfect.
Naruto: Hero Among Shinobi
The thesis of this essay is to establish a case for Naruto as the protagonist of a manga with a theme-driven purpose, and to demonstrate how Naruto is aptly positioned from the beginning of the story to the end to become a legendary hero among Shinobi.
To do this I will examine several reoccurring themes in Naruto. So as not to cause confusion, I define "topic" as a concept and "theme" as a message that runs throughout an entire story. Sometimes a theme is a clearly stated moral. Other times it is a conversation surrounding a topic. (Note: It is likely that different people will have different interpretations and different reactions to the same messages. However, disagreeing with a theme is not the same as the theme not being there).
The themes in Naruto are seen in a lot of shounen manga (meaning you will recognize them; veterans might even find them hackneyed), but I think Kishimoto weaves them into the story in a way that is more meaningful than some others I have read, in part because his characters are realistically flawed, which gives more weight to the messages as relevant beyond their medium and is one reason why I enjoy the series so much. The themes include ideas about topics such as:
- Self Reliance
- Growing up
Each of these topics is a conversation, and all the conversations blend together. At times they are indistinguishable, and the messages change depending on which character's viewpoint is used to examine it. What remains constant is that the story is ultimately about its themes and Naruto resides at the center of the story.
The Premise, in Short
Naruto is a manga named for and about the character Naruto. Who is Naruto? He is an exuberant, emotional, goofy, trouble making, hyperactive, knuckle-headed…ninja.
If you were to ask someone who has not read Naruto what classifies a "ninja" none of these adjectives would come to mind. The word ninja (or Shinobi) is derived to mean "one who uses the art of remaining unperceived."
Naruto is loud and explosive. He is the antithesis of ninja in a ninja world. He is a failed Shinobi from page one, and he doesn't ever change in this respect. This is important to note.
Part 1: Naruto as the Protagonist
Naruto is the protagonist. This means that the story is about Naruto. As a protagonist, Naruto has a dream, and because he's a shounen protagonist in particular, he will believe in his dream and pursue it against all odds no matter what.
Naruto's dream originates from his disadvantaged beginnings. Naruto is the vessel of the nine-tailed fox (Kyubi), the demon monster that attacked Konoha village and was sealed inside Naruto when he was just a baby. The villagers who were around to remember the tale believe that Naruto is a liability to the village. They hope that he never becomes strong, and ostracize him as if he were the monster itself. Naruto has no idea why he is ostracized, but to prove that he's worth something, Naruto's childhood ambition is to become the greatest ninja the village has ever seen—the kind of ninja that can protect the village and earn the acknowledgment and respect of all the villagers. To achieve this, Naruto's aims to become Hokage and surpass all the previous Hokage.
That is quite the dream for a ninja who failed the graduation exam for his third time in chapter one and has yet—over 400 chapters later—to graduate from being a Genin. However, Naruto does not give up.
To achieve his dream, Naruto must grow and mature as well as become strong. Growth requires several stages. The themes in Naruto are reflected in the stages of Naruto's development. They look something like this:
- Self Reliance
- Hard Work
- True Strength
Stage 1. Self Reliance
Before he can dream anything, Naruto has to have the self-reliance to believe in himself. This he achieved through his own will before the manga began. It is his trump card whenever things get sticky.
Because all the older villagers who knew about the Nine Tails shunned him as a child, Naruto was forced to regard himself as his only ally. He believed in himself when everyone else ignored his very existence. Naruto has alluded to this several times, mostly when he is at the end of his rope and searching for that extra bit of something to defeat a powerful enemy.
Stage 2. Friendship and Empathy
Naruto's self reliance is unique however. In moments where Naruto looks into himself for strength, Naruto also remembers what the pain of loneliness was like, and how angry and stubborn and hateful it made him.
It is Iruka who teaches Naruto how to understand others through self reflection. Naruto begins the story as a trouble maker out for attention, but Iruka is able to look past Naruto's misbehavior to see his loneliness. Iruka forms a bond with Naruto because he was once a trouble maker for attention too.
Iruka solidifies a friendship when he believes in Naruto's goodness over Mizuki's assumption that a "monster" like Naruto will turn against the village if he gains the power to do so. To Naruto, this acknowledgment from one other person is what makes his dream seem possible.
Naruto is saved from self-destruction by Iruka's acknowledgment and friendship. Because of Iruka's encouragement, he graduates Academy and becomes a genin on team seven.
The lesson Iruka taught Naruto stays with him the entire manga. Although not always the smartest or strongest, because of this self awareness, Naruto is able to empathize with others who have gone through similar experiences. Naruto also learns not to hate or dwell on pain. Naruto wants relationships—bonds—and for this goal directs self-reliance to a purpose.
Naruto thinks to himself during his fight with Gaara that if Iruka hadn't befriended him and if he hadn't joined Team 7, he might eventually have become unbalanced and crazy like Gaara. He may even have come to share Gaara's conviction that the only way to survive is to love only himself and exist as a tool for killing. Fortunately, this did not happen to Naruto, but he is always sensitive to it.
Because of the way he was ignored and misunderstood, Naruto garners deeply empathy. He consistently gives people the benefit of the doubt. Naruto's way of looking "underneath the underneath" is more sophisticated than the way of most Shinobi. Naruto looks into the hearts of his enemies. If he feels that others are fighting for something other than what they believe in, or if he thinks others simply don't believe in themselves enough to go for what they really want, he recalls his own lessons in self reliance and gives them crap about it.
Stage 3. Rivalry and Hard Work
At the beginning of the story, Naruto is the worst ninja in the entire village. He needs a competitor to push him to the top. Enter Sasuke.
Naruto initially hates Sasuke (out of jealousy, not malice). Sasuke is everything Naruto is not. Sasuke is talented, gifted, admired, and all the girls sigh over him, especially Sakura, who early on Naruto wishes would look his way just once. Because of this, Naruto sees Sasuke as the guy he has to beat in order to prove his own merit.
Despite their differences, Sasuke and Naruto develop a special friendship. The difference between them is that Sasuke was born gifted whereas Naruto was slotted to fail. Otherwise, they are a lot alike. They have both suffered a great deal, they are both emotional, and they both learned to rely on themselves from having suffered loneliness. At the Valley of the End, Naruto reveals that he secretly was always curious about Sasuke and wanted to befriend him; he just didn't know how because he was jealous and insecure and Sasuke was arrogant and unfriendly.
This hang-up is common between competitors in situations where one is the gifted star and the other is determined to surpass them. It is a fact of life that some people ARE gifted, and if such people are driven to succeed, their talent gives them advantages that seem unfair.
This kind of rivalry can lead to resentment and bitterness. The hard worker becomes frustrated when the genius achieves easily. In contrast, the genius becomes lonely because jealousy drives others to hate a genius for real or perceived arrogance. As Itachi confesses to Sasuke, it is difficult being really good at something, because even if it is what you hoped for, acclaim will distance you from other people. In this situation, the only friends gifted people can have (if they want to achieve and/or be recognized at their highest level) are those they acknowledge as competitors.
Underneath their exteriors (Naruto's goofiness and Sasuke's aloofness), both boys have similar hearts. Sasuke was a very sweet, almost shy, child. Something—we haven't yet learned what specifically, but I suspect something "kind" rather than "cool"—drew Sakura's interest. Naruto was also sweet, but far more outgoing. This makes them intrinsically like each other, even if they have trouble admitting it.
Fortunately, Sasuke and Naruto have good role models of how competition can be a positive force. Without Kakashi, Gai wouldn't have gotten so strong. Without Neji, Lee wouldn't have pushed himself so hard. It is the same with Naruto and Sasuke. It is because of his rivalry with Sasuke that Naruto learns one of his most important lessons: how to work hard.
Hard work is the only way Naruto could hope to compete with and be acknowledged by Sasuke, and it is a lesson that comes to shape his training principle from the day of their first meeting. Without Sasuke, Naruto would never have acquired the discipline to achieve his dream.
Sasuke is very important in Naruto's story for another reason, more exemplified in Part 2, but let's first continue with Naruto's character development.
Stage 4: Humanity and What it Means to Be a Shinobi
After working so hard to be acknowledged, first as a human being instead of a monster, and then as a competitor and possible friend, Naruto is very discouraged in the Wave Arc to learn the reality of what being a Shinobi means.
The question of "what it means to be a Shinobi" is important, especially considering that Naruto wants to be the greatest of all, when in fact, Naruto is the opposite of the Shinobi ideal.
As we learn through Zabuza and Haku, True Shinobi are bred to be killers--instruments of death. True Shinobi are tools to be used--and discarded. The true shinobi is forced to make hard life-and-death decisions. In order to perform, a True Shinobi is one that kills his own heart.
This is accepted by nearly everyone in the Shinobi world. It's just "the way it is" and has been for so long that tradition has made it a fact of life. Even Sakura, who is obviously a sensitive person, comments on "the rules" she memorized about how Shinobi don't cry. She cries anyway, of course, but hates herself for this human weakness.
We have seen the Shinobi ideal echoed throughout the rest of the manga, in characters like Gaara, who was made to be a living weapon, and Kimimaro who lived solely for Orochimaru, and in Nagato, who was abandoned (by Jiraiya) in a war torn world. This "true Shinobi" way exists also in Konoha. Kakashi explains to Naruto after the Wave Arc that a "Shinobi isn't supposed to pursue his own goals. Becoming the country's tool is most important. That's the same for the leaf village."
Of course, there are disagreements as to how far this is carried out. Since at least the reign of the Third Hokage, some factions of the Leaf have come to place more value on camaraderie and teamwork. In Kakashi Gaiden, Kakashi's father was reviled for failing a mission because he disobeyed Shinobi rules for the sake of his friends. Obito deviated and thought of Kakashi's father (the White Fang) as a hero for protecting his friends, a code Kakashi himself later adopted. This philosophy isn't entirely accepted however (by Danzou for example) as favoring the people closest to you often DOES put the mission at risk.
Even so, for every Kakashi-esque dissenter there is a conformer. Perhaps the character that most exemplifies the "true" Shinobi ideal in Konoha is Itachi, who smothered his own heart and killed his family--as ordered.
From the beginning, Naruto has fully rejected this concept that being a tool is the Shinobi ideal. In fact, he's done it so thoroughly that it's hard to remember that almost everyone around Naruto lives under another expectation. After all, we see the story through Naruto's eyes, and Naruto sees different possibilities than other Shinobi. Furthermore, Naruto is the one who brings others to see the possibility of doing not as the situation seems to dictate, but as your heart tells you. Naruto only hangs around and admires people who value human life—Iruka, the Third Hokage, Kakashi (who learned it from Obito)—and is so vocal about his opinions around everyone else, that he even causes some people to change—Team Seven, Gaara, Neji, Tsunade, etc—to be more like him.
Of course, Naruto's resistance to the Shinobi ideal is naturally very attractive. It really doesn't take all that much for Naruto to convince others to agree that he has a point. At no point in the manga is Naruto really "changing" people. He's basically just telling them to do what they really feel and believe in rather than conform to emotions they think they are supposed to have. Surrounded by people who are disciplined by military psychological training, Naruto just happens to be undisciplined enough to say something, and loud enough to make his voice heard.
It is worth asking: What makes Naruto so different? Why does only Naruto go to such lengths to defy the conventions of the Shinobi world?
In part, he was born with this personality. But Naruto is also different from the other Shinobi for another reason: He wasn't raised as a Shinobi. Naruto's greatest distinction (with great irony, and not intentional by the Fourth Hokage, I don't think) is that he was ostracized as a child.
No. Really. I'm serious.
Naruto flat out missed being indoctrinated into the social norms of Shinobi society. Naruto didn't have parents to teach him how to behave. He didn't have friends to pressure him into conformity. He also didn't study in school. Because no one paid Naruto any attention no one really educated him about the Shinobi world until he joined team 7. By then, Naruto had gone ahead and formed his own ideas. Basically he made them up. He created ideals that fit his natural values and desires… rather than conform to socialized ones.
Naruto desired friends. He wanted a family. More than anything, he wanted to be recognized as a person and acknowledged as a great fighter. Naruto wanted to prove that anything is possible and heroes do exist—in part because he needed to believe it to believe in himself. These are the reasons Naruto wanted to be Hokage.
This makes Naruto unique, especially for a Shinobi. Naruto never believed that anyone is or should be a tool. In fact, he's disturbed and disgusted whenever it comes up, and he's not afraid to be vocal, and even insubordinate, about it.
Whether foolish or wise, Naruto was on to something. Despite the rules, the training, and the conditioning, or how they are used, ninja can't escape that they are human. Secretly, they all have hopes and dreams, and they are all emotionally motivated. This is why Naruto has such an impact on those around them—he is a Shinobi that refuses to be a Shinob. Merely by standing out, he makes other Shinobi remember that they are human too. If Shinobi—ones that used to have kind hearts—could re-imagine the world, it would probably look something more along the lines of what Naruto would make if he had the power.
Stage 5. True Strength: A Reason to Fight
Which brings us to the strength. Naruto cannot achieve his dream if he is not strong, but what is strength? How is it measured and where does it come from?
There are two kinds of power that make up strength: physical power and spiritual power. Physical power encompasses all jutsu, talent, and special abilities as well as stealth, speed, and actual muscles. Spiritual power is about the inner character of the fighter—the intelligence, ambition, heart, discipline, principles, and perseverance that leads one to understand battle and drives one to fight in the first place. The measure of true strength is a combination of physical power and spiritual power.
A ninja's physical power can be difficult to measure.
There is taijutsu, genjutsu, ninjutsu, five (maybe six) elements, different chakra levels, different control over charka, yin and yang charka, etc. There are also obvious factors like age, intelligence, speed, size, stamina, muscle strength, etc. Most recently, we've seen the addition of Sage Techniques. Etc and so forth.
You can get a rough idea of a ninja's physical power based on his or her missions (remember that "D" "C" "B" "A" and "S" apply to missions, not ninja rank), but it's impossible to compare one ninja to another and know for sure who would come out on top in a fight. This is because there simply aren't enough common denominators. Rather than power levels, ninjas win battles by tactics.
There are factors to influence favorites, of course. There are special abilities like Kekkai Genkai or Bijuu. Some ninjas come from fearsome families or have had fearsome parents, teachers, or trainers. There are also statistics in the data books, which are helpful or basic comparisons. Most of the time, the more intelligent fighter has an edge over the stupider fighter, and the same with the faster fighter to the slower, or the more experienced fighter to the inexperienced, or the chakra high to the chakra low, or stamina high or low, or the fighter with more or powerful jutsus to the fighter with fewer or weaker jutsus, etc. However, much of the fight still depends on how the fighters trained, how their assets are used, how the match-ups are determined, how their statistics match up, and the conditions of the fight (where, when, if the fighters are tired or wounded), etc.
The spiritual power of an individual is a combination of knowledge and motive. It can be partly measured by a simple question asked at the given time and place of battle: What is a person's reason for fighting?
People get into conflicts, some of them violent, for all kinds of reasons. However, on the simplest level, the reasons for fighting can be broken down into two categories: fighting for yourself (for survival, achievement, glory, revenge, etc) or for others (friends, country, obligation, etc). Like Yin and Yang, the difference between these reasons is not the difference between "evil" and "good," but a measure of balance between inward seeking and outward seeking motives.
Fighting for Yourself
Let me stress: Fighting for yourself is not bad.
Everyone can be expected to fight for survival, and achievement is natural for anyone who defines him or herself by fighting ability. I have already discussed the value of competition. The goal to be strong, or to be as strong or stronger than someone else, to be acknowledged by someone you respect, or to assess your growth by measuring your progress against another person, is not evil. How could it be? It is the natural result of self-valuation and ambition.
Competition inspires people to improve and achieve. With a degree of sportsmanship, competition creates good will between competitors and can even turn enemies into allies. When the best compete against the best, they acknowledge and come to respect one another. This was the purpose of the Chuunin exams. This is why Naruto was so excited when Sasuke told him he wanted to fight him, and also why he insisted that Sasuke wear the Konoha headband to symbolize their equality before their showdown on the hospital roof. Fighting with Sasuke, and growing powerful enough to defeat Sasuke, was the only way Naruto was ever going to get Sasuke to acknowledge him.
However, when out of balance, fighting for oneself can become wrong. Fighting for oneself is wrong when it is childish, spiteful, or cruel. When fighting in pursuit of glory or achievement, it is possible to dominate, humiliate, or become sadistic and fight for the pleasure of hurting others. When fighting is empty, dangerous, barbaric, or cruel, it weakens in spiritual power.
Fighting for Others
However, fighting for others can also lead to weaker spiritual power. If one is too generous, too complacent, or pours too much of the self outward, especially to those who don't deserve it, one loses spiritual power. This can happen whenever one is taken advantage of, or if the reason for fighting is assigned rather than built from personal conviction. Shinobi in particular have this problem. They are hired to fight for others' causes, yet many of them do so with empty feelings, or even contradictory feelings. To be an empty fighter, to allow oneself to be used, or to fight for something you don't believe in, is to be spiritually weak.
Naruto learns the meaning of true strength from Haku. When Naruto reveals to Haku that he wants to be the strongest of all ninja, Haku asks Naruto what it means to him to be strong. Naruto has to stop to think about this. Haku explains that fighting for someone you care about, rather than for your own glory or because you were ordered, is the basis of true strength. At this moment, Haku and Naruto are strangers, and Haku knows (as Naruto doesn't) that they are also enemies. However, this philosophy of strength and the importance of protecting someone precious is something Naruto and Haku agree upon.
This idea that strength grows when fighting from the heart is not just a noble notion. Passion may not actually build skill or muscle, but it is true that people really do summon reservoirs of strength on behalf others that they can't muster for themselves. Fighting for someone else adds depth to spiritual strength, which in turn fuels physical strength. Perhaps more importantly, it creates connections between human beings, who then stand up for one another to create a wall of strength. When you know others are relying on you, and especially if they are fighting with you, confidence and resolve (as well as the combined strength of your compatriots) adds to your power.
When Naruto fights Gaara, he becomes convinced of the truth of Haku's statement. He is so convincing in turn that Gaara changes his mind about what strength means. Gaara cowers at Naruto's ferocity, and determines that Naruto's strength comes not from the Nine Tails or love for himself, but from love for others. Gaara thinks of Naruto as a "maelstrom" and comes to respect him above anybody else he knows.
Of course, Naruto isn't the only Shinobi in Konoha to believe in the philosophy of protecting others. Rock Lee uses it as a condition for the Lotus. Kakashi's way of the Shinobi is not to let his team down or his friends die. Protecting others is a core concept in Konoha's "Will of Fire," the philosophy that drives each generation of Konoha Shinobi to protect the village in order to pass the mantle to the next generation. At the passing of the Third Hokage, Naruto is referred to as a "little sprout" in the leaf village, with the implication that he is the sort to grow into a great sheltering tree because of his desire to protect everyone.
At the Third Hokage's funeral, Naruto reflects about what it means to be human, and Iruka answers with a philosophy about death, struggle, and what it means to live and die for others. Iruka explains: "Family, friends, lovers, and all the other villagers. To me, those are the most important people. From the day we are born to the day we die, we start to feel that love is the most important. And that kind of relationship takes time to develop and trust. Everyone with this headband on knows… Because it's very important…" And Naruto answers: "Yeah, I know that as well." At that time, Iruka also notes that Naruto is a "little fire" protecting Konoha.
Part 1 focuses on themes and Naruto's "blossoming" spiritual strength. If the manga ended here, however, there would be a problem. Despite securing a number of victories that lend credibility to these philosophies, Naruto isn't actually strong. In fact, spiritual strength aside, Naruto kind of sucks. Naruto had a lot of help in Part 1 from the Kyuubi, Gamabunta, Tsunade, etc. to secure his victories. He proved to his enemies he had heart, principles, self-reliance, and determination, but his physical strength in Part 1 was rather lackluster.
The only fight Naruto really won on his own was against Kiba. In every other fight in Part 1, Naruto relied on the Nine Tailed Fox, or the aid of someone else. Naruto shows in Part 1 is that he is not a cursed demon, nor a failure, nor the worst ninja ever. He showed he had determination, stamina and chakra reserves, and beyond that, something going on spiritually which improved his place in dead last to be a challenge to the best of his class: the other "genius" Genin (Neji, Gaara, Sasuke). However, it still took three years of training with Jiraiya before his physical statistics (see the Databook) could match even the other Genin.
In Part 1, Naruto won his major battles by looking into the hearts of his enemies and talking them into acknowledging their true feelings. Again, it is important to note that Naruto didn't really change change characters like Zabuza, Neji, or Gaara.
Naruto's heart-to-heart technique was only effective on these people because they fought with empty feelings, or because they were suffering. Zabuza, Neji and Gaara were people with impressive physical strength but low spiritual strength who fought for reasons they didn't really believe in. Naruto's "listen to your heart" tactic would NOT have worked on people who are sure of what they're after and are getting exactly what they want.
It fails dismally with Sasuke.
Valley of the End – The Rift Between Sasuke and Naruto
Sasuke doesn't react as well as Neji and Gaara when Naruto demonstrates his growing ability. Sasuke has a number of reasons for being upset by Naruto's progress.
Part of Sasuke's angst has to do with the return of Itachi and Sasuke's humiliating defeat, but that's not the whole story.
Naruto's victories don't make sense to Sasuke. Naruto was supposed to be a failure, not because he was "destined" to be, but because he actually didn't have any skills. At the beginning of the series, Naruto had next to NO talent. Meanwhile, Sasuke was recognized as an Uchiha, a genius, and the number one rookie. Logically, their progress should be flipped.
It could be argued that Naruto showed so much success because of spiritual power and sheer perseverance (aided by stamina reserves), but this doesn't fully explain it. After all, Sasuke and Naruto initially fought for the same reasons.
Like Naruto, Sasuke believed in Team 7 and the importance of protecting his friends. Like Naruto, Sasuke tried to protect Sakura and the village from Gaara, but although he had the same spiritual motivation as Naruto, he failed. When Itachi is spotted in Konoha, Sasuke engages his brother to try and save Naruto. This was Sasuke's most important fight. If spiritual strength is all that is needed to win a battle, Sasuke should have won by all rights. But he not only fails, he's dismissed, damaged, tortured, and humiliated.
Then Naruto just seems to show up out of nowhere with kage-level jutsu. Remember, Sasuke didn't know about Jiraiya and was unaware that Naruto was the vessel for the Nine Tails. In fact, Sasuke was unconscious or absent for just about all of Naruto's training as well as all of his battles.
- When Naruto fought Haku, Sasuke was "dead."
- When Naruto escaped from Oro's snake, Sasuke was paralyzed/received the curse seal
- When Naruto fought Kiba, Sasuke was having his Curse Seal sealed by Kakashi
- When Naruto fought Neji, Sasuke was training with Kakashi
- When Naruto fought Gaara, Sasuke was compromised by the Curse Seal; he glimpsed pieces of the fight but did not understand where Naruto's power came from
- When Naruto fought Kabuto, Sasuke was unconscious in the hospital
Sasuke couldn't understand where all of Naruto's power was coming from. Stamina alone doesn't cut it. From Sasuke's perspective, Naruto went from loser to victor with no rhyme or reason.
Sasuke has no idea how or why Naruto became powerful, and in the wake of his own defeat, this kind of pisses him off. Naruto's biggest victories must have seemed completely incomprehensible to Sasuke, if not completely unfair and/or cheaply won (i.e HAX).
Sasuke undergoes a change in philosophy at this point. Naruto's success has just as profound an effect on Sasuke as Sasuke's own failures. He must have figured that Naruto's victories had to do with some special cheat, a power from elsewhere that Naruto was able to control. In other words, Sasuke guessed something like the Nine Tails. This is why Sasuke is unsurprised by this revelation at the Valley of the End.
And of course this would make Sasuke contemptuous of Naruto. Naruto came at Sasuke all self-righteous and condemning of Sauke's choice to go to Orochimaru for more power. To Sasuke, Naruto must have seemed like an absurd hypocrite. Going to Orochimaru for special powers to achieve his goals is no different than going to the Nine Tails "for a little help" when the chips are down. As far as Sasuke is concerned, that is how Naruto himself was winning.
Sasuke also thinks he has more reason to win—a more important, nobler reason than Naruto's desire to not be a loser and become Hokage so everyone will admire him. Sasuke fights for revenge, for justice. Sasuke lived to become powerful so he could avenge the murder of his family. He couldn't let someone like Naruto show that he's the loser.
Relying on friendship failed Sasuke. Relying on the Leaf failed Sasuke. It's not that Sasuke thinks these things are worthless, but he decides that they are not what it means to be a Shinobi and are not needed on the path he had chosen for himself. At once point, Sasuke comes to the conclusion that spiritually he was at his most powerful when he was driven entirely by self-reliance, before he befriended Team 7, when he was alone after the massacre, when he didn't care about anything but his goal, not even of what became of him in the process (although he may have changed his mind in recent chapters through his failure with the Eight Tails and his reliance on Team Hawk).
This idea of self-reliance makes up Sasuke's spiritual philosophy from VotE onward. Sasuke believes he survived the massacre of his family through reliance on himself, his goal of revenge, and his Uchiha heritage. As such Sasuke concludes that self reliance is what makes a person stronger. Although Sasuke comes to recognize Naruto as strong, he rejects Naruto's friendship, having come to the conclusion that befriending Naruto and the other Leaf Genin is what has been holding him back from his potential—the power he needs to kill Itachi—which he can only muster by relying on himself, feeding his hate, and taking the "dark" path.
Naruto had no chance to defeat Sasuke at Valley of the End.
When Naruto fights Sasuke at VoTE, Sasuke isn't looking for a reason to exist and to fight. Naruto couldn't change Sasuke's heart to acknowledge his real feelings because Sasuke isn't confused about his feelings. In fact, Sasuke tells Naruto that since he was alone from the beginning Naruto can't even understand how he feels. Naruto also didn't have the physical power to break Sasuke into pieces, or the will to kill him if it came to it. Thus, Sasuke won.
Sasuke deserts Konoha. This begins the rift between Naruto and Sasuke, a divide that is philosophical as well as spiritual. It also marks the end of Part 1 and the beginning of Part 2.
From Part 1 to Part 2: Leaving Childhood Behind
In order to become a real hero, save Sasuke, and have any chance of becoming Hokage, Naruto has to grow up and become physically strong as well as spiritually strong.
The transition between Part 1 and Part 2 is purposeful. Part 1 in its entirety largely represents the world of Naruto as a child. Part 1 is concerned largely with ninja school. The focus of Part 1 is on the development of the characters, the growth of their skills, and the formation of the themes.
Part 2 on the other hand broadens the scope the other nations and the greater ninja world, in the past as well as the present. In part 2 of Naruto's ninja training, Naruto must understand and find his place in this world before he can be considered a mature adult, much less a hero of Shinobi. As such, Naruto as a manga is a Coming of Age story (like most stories aimed at a young adult market).
Definition of a Coming-of-age story: A type of [story] where the protagonist is initiated into society through knowledge, experience, or both, often by a process of disillusionment. Understanding comes after the dropping of preconceptions, a destruction of a false sense of security, or in some way the loss of innocence. Some of the shifts that take place are these:
- ignorance to knowledge
- innocence to experience
- false view of world to correct view
- idealism to realism
- immature responses to mature responses
Stage 6: Accountability - The Transition to Adulthood
The scenes following the Valley of the End is a coda for Part 1 as well as a pick up for Part 2.
In the falling action, Shikamaru suffers, and almost rejects the resulting growth, but emerges from the pain of defeat to accept responsibility as a leader. Although no one from the Leaf died trying to retrieve Sasuke, something was lost, and that was innocence. The trial of experience—Shikamaru's first as a Chuunin—is the beginning of Shikamaru's transition from childhood to adulthood.
There is a message here about what it means to be an adult. In life there is suffering, especially a Shinobi's life, but the difference between children and adults is how they handle responsibility in spite of pain, hardship, and loss. The child throws a fit, rejects experience, backs down, gives up, lashes out, and runs away, abandoning everyone that depended on him or her. The adult understands, accepts, adapts, and moves forward for the sake of others. This theme of growing up is central to the story.
Naruto's growth toward adulthood is the resolution of Part 1, and herein lies the moral of the story. Based on the idea that children become adults when they recognize their limitations and start behaving "responsibly" as society expects them to, Naruto is a deviant.
Naruto goes through the same trials as Shikamaru. He was a part of the same mission, and everyone was depending on him. He suffers a devastating loss. He gave everything he had to bring back Sasuke. He even made the Lee/Gai "promise of a lifetime" to Sakura. And he hit a wall. He failed. As the reality of failure sets in, what comes next is reflection and growth. If Naruto were a protagonist in a one of those "disillusionment" Coming of Age stories, Naruto would accept Sasuke's loss and move from an idealistic child to a young adult Shinobi who understands the Shinobi world and adapts from his experience to become a part of it—by accepting limitations and realities. Many Naruto fans, in fact, wonder why he does not do this.
Naruto refuses to conform.
Chapter 237 "Fool" marks the beginning of Naruto's decision to follow his own path—a path that still leads to adulthood, but gets there Naruto's way. Following Sasuke's desertion, Jiraiya and Naruto have a very significant talk in which Jiraiya, the Sage, explains to Naruto, the Fool, that he had better "forget Sasuke" and "wise up" to the ways of the Shinobi world. In short, they have a conversation about putting away childish dreams and having more reasonable "adult" expectations.
Jiraiya: "It's not only jutsu and power… As Shinobi, we must make sure that we always have proper judgment and make good decisions. If you want to live as a Shinobi, you must be wise."
Naruto's response—and the resolution of this much of the story—is surprising. Like Shikamaru, Naruto passes from irresponsibility to responsibility. He does not throw a crying fit or run away as a result of his failure. However, Naruto refuses to assimilate to the Shinobi measure of "maturity" as "giving up."
Naruto responds to Jiraiya's advice to give up on his friend with total rejection. "If that's what it means to be wise…then I'd rather be a fool!" he says. This isn't to say that Naruto wants to be stupid; what he's really saying is that this idea of giving up—and especially on a friend—is stupid.
Coming of Age stories (the depressing ones) sometimes depict the transition between child and adult as a choice between irresponsibility and social conformity—as if those are the only two options to choose from. They aren't. Naruto forges a third path: the path of realizing one's own power. Naruto wants to grow up, but he refuses to believe that being an adult means he has to lose hope and become cynical. He determines not only to be accountable, but to use his free will to get the power he needs to leap over the other two choices. He isn't going to be irresponsible. He also won't give up on his friend. Instead, he's going to do the REALLY hard thing: He will keep his promise, no matter what it takes, or how long. He follows up with "By myself I'll invent cooler jutsu, and definitely get Sasuke back! And then, and then… I'll beat Akatsuki!!!"
Jiraiya is shocked, so surprised in fact by Naruto's belief in himself that he is inspired to jump on board. Noisy, impulsive, hyperactive, knuckle-headed, foolish, and extremely vocal about his opinions, Naruto has never conformed to Shinobi ideals and he's not about to start now. Instead, he'll change "what it means to be a Shinobi". The idea that Shinobi have to be manipulative, silent, friendless, emotionless militant types is true only as long as they believe it. Naruto doesn't.
At this point, Naurto is determined to prove that a new kind of ninja—one that fights for others—is the most powerful kind of ninja in the world. Naruto himself aims to be the most powerful ninja of all, a ninja so strong that he can protect his village while also saving a friend from his own darkness…even if he has to beat down a gang of vicious criminals into a pulp, as well as the friend himself, in the process.
Naruto's decision to save Sasuke isn't just about Sasuke being his friend. That is part of it, of course, as Sasuke is an important part of Naruto's life, but saving Sasuke is about so much more than that. Naruto made a promise to bring back Sasuke, and he meant that promise. He didn't give his word lightly. He said it was a Promise of a Lifetime. A lifetime. To go back on that promise is to go back on his word. And we all know that Naruto's ninja way is to never go back on his word.
Naruto has thought about what it means to be an adult. He has thought about what it means to be a Shinobi. He has also thought about what it means to be a hero. He is determined to become all three. Naruto believes that adults, Shinobi, and heroes have one thing in common: They keep their promises. They make good on their commitments. They can be relied upon to take care of their dependents, their clients, and their friends. The only difference is in what kind of promises they make. To Naruto, being a hero among Shinobi means being able to make good on even the toughest of promises.
So it doesn't matter if it's foolish. And it doesn't matter how long it takes (he has a lifetime to make good on it, right?). It doesn't matter if no one understands it. It doesn't matter if he's ridiculed for it. Naruto's promise is wrapped up in his dream, and dreamers believe in their dreams no matter what anybody says. Naruto committed his life to bringing back Sasuke, and come hell or high water he will make good on that promise.
This essay was too long for LiveJournal (really) so The Ultimate Naruto Essay: Naruo As Hero Among Shinobi Part 2 - Shippuden can be found here.