“Parents, in my opinion, have to be finessed, thought around, even as we love them: They are so colossally wrong about so many important things. And even when they are not, paradoxically, even when they are 100 percent right, the imperative remains the same: To live an “adult” life, a meaningful life, it is necessary, I would argue, to engage in a kind of symbolic self-orphaning.”
-Terry Castle, “The Case for Breaking Up with Your Parents”
Naruto, for better or for worse, is arguably one of the most popular anime of all time. Virtually anyone who gets into anime encounters loud-mouthed, magic-wielding, orange-jumpsuited ninjas at some point in their viewing career. For younger casual fans and hardcore otaku alike, Naruto is a popular entry point into anime. Hardly surprising, considering its quintessentially shonen appeal, which has spawned over 72 manga volumes, over 650 (and counting) anime episodes, and 11 animated movies to date.
A sprawling epic-length blockbuster, Naruto, despite its tendency to crash headlong into the trappings of cliches that most shonen titles have trouble avoiding, does offer, with its enormous cast and inefficient use of screentime, plenty of opportunities for nuanced character development, necessary world building, and commentary (sometimes too much!) on morality, confronting differences and negotiating peace.
I open with a quote from Terry Castle about the concept of self-orphaning, a process by which youth–specifically teenagers and young adults–leave the protective auspices of their parents and self-fashion themselves into “orphans” to truly become adults of their own making.
Self-orphaning, a common outcome in most bildungsroman “coming of age” narratives”, is popular with young audiences. Unsurprisingly, shonen titles–especially Naruto–embrace this philosophy wholeheartedly. It’s the reason why so many shonen (and shojo) protagonists are young, generally middle and high school students (or at least of middle or high school age if the story doesn’t happen to take place in an actual school) and adults are either villainous, unreliable or completely absent.
Not to say that all adults are incompetent in Naruto-verse. On the contrary, many of them are quite powerful. But at the end of the day, kids are invested in the growth and character development of kids like themselves. Beloved fan favorites like Kakashi and Jiraiya are great and all, but they’re rarely in the spotlight for more than a few episodes at a time and are intended to playing support and mentors to the next generation of heroes.
What makes Road to Ninja so particularly interesting is its unusually keen awareness of just how stereotypically shonen it really is. Naruto doesn’t try to pretend that it’s an anime masterpiece but rather embraces the conventions that come with the genre and very occasionally, in an insidiously digestible manner, disseminates some self-reflective criticism on parenting.
Chalk it all to narcissism, but we’re easily interested in what we can relate to. Kids like stories about other kids. Adults like stories about older folks (how many times have older anime fans bemoaned about the scarcity of well-rounded, interesting protagonists that aren’t high school students but actually adults?). But I argue that Naruto: Road to Ninja, though far from perfect, offers at least a temporary reprieve and presents an emotionally effective commentary on parenting and the role parents play in the hero’s journey, a message that’s been watered down for kids but one that will resonate most with adults.
Iruka: Just because you saved the village from Pein and became a hero doesn’t mean we can give you special treatment. Even your dad, the 4th Hokage, went from being a Genin, to a Chuunin, and then a Jounin before becoming the Hokage and a hero.
Naruto: And then he became a face on the stone. A stone face can’t say “Welcome back.”
Naruto: Sometimes, I think like that.
In typical shonen fashion, Road to Ninja immediately sets up the main problem of the story arc–Naruto coping with a flare up of resentment for his parents not being there for him as a child. It’s an old conflict, something that harkens back to the earliest episodes of Naruto, a callback to Naruto’s origins as a lonely orphan who’s ostracized by the village for housing a monstrous power. A reminder of Naruto’s orphan status and of the tribulations and trials he’s had to suffer and endure while growing up, Naruto’s bitterness is not an entirely unreasonable thing. For a kid who’s practically been emotionally neglected, Naruto’s a fairly mentally stable guy and through sheer grit and determination, has accomplished far more in his tender fifteen years than shinobi twice or thrice his age. But sometimes, it’s easy to forget that he’s still a child, and as an orphan, especially sensitive to overt displays of familial affection, an emotion he desperately craves but can never have. And while some viewers, impatient for more cocky ninja action, may groan and call Naruto “whiny,” I think it’s refreshing that our protagonist’s allowed some space for emotional vulnerability.
We see here Naruto’s attempt to reach out to Iruka, the closest person he’s got to a father figure. His request is to ask Iruka for a letter of recommendation, but that’s not all he’s asking. He’s ultimately looking for reassurance, for acknowledgement of his accomplishments as a hero and a person. It’s not the first time Naruto asks for such acknowledgement from Iruka, who’s usually reliable for giving it so it’s weird to see Iruka not be able to offer some of his usual reassuring words.
To make matters worse, even the deliciousness of Naruto’s beloved ramen seems to betray him in this moment of doubt. Rather than be comforted by the taste of his namesake, (“naruto” is a fishcake served as a ramen topping), to Naruto’s distaste (sorry, couldn’t resist), his ramen’s been topped with menma, or fermented bamboo shoots.
Naruto: I hate menma! What’s it made out of anyway? It’s too hard to chew!
Ichiraku: Well, it’s made of fallen bamboo shoots, fermented–
Naruto: So it’s rotten bamboo?
Iruka (standing up): The only rotten thing I see right now is YOU.
Whoa, harsh there, Iruka, but hey, this is an important scene. Not just because it’s about ramen toppings–a serious topic worth discussing in a future post–but about what menma represents. There are lots of pointless conversations in Naruto but this is definitely not one of them.
So why does Naruto hate menma? Because either on a conscious or subconscious level, he identifies with it. The fact that menma is essentially abandoned (unwanted) young bamboo is an eerie parallel to his history of growing up as an orphan. It might be great to hear from others that your parents were amazing heroes but that’s not much of a consolation compared to having your parents actually there for you. Though Naruto wears the mask of buffoonery extremely well, and can switch between contemplative angst to comically energetic in the blink of an eye, every mask becomes suffocating every once in a while, when we are again reminded of what we cannot have but desperately wish for.
The substitution of menma for naruto also foreshadows the identity crisis Naruto will suffer later in the movie, when he, himself, actually becomes a “substitute” for an AU version of himself called Menma…
Yes, they actually did it. They actually pulled the alternative universe (AU) travel card–a play pulled straight out of Fanfiction 101.
Many fans have complained that this movie, like most of its vaguely in-canon incarnations, pretty much screams “fanfiction.” Putting aside the problematic use of the term “fanfiction” as a slur, it’s nevertheless a fair evaluation. Travel to an AU-verse was done ages and thousands of times before Road to Ninja was released in theaters, and every Naruto fanfiction writer has practiced (or at least thought of practicing) has gone through various experimentations with Naruto characters–what would Hinata be like if she were just a little more confident of herself? What if Sasuke actually liked this mooning fangirls? And of course, the million-dollar question–what would life be like if Naruto’s parents were still alive?
“This jutsu grants a person whatever they want the most at the moment it is cast upon them. The world they want from the bottom of their heart. That is why, once the world is created, even I, the creator, cannot change it. The purer your deepest desires, the harder it is for people to fight against them.” -Uchiha Madara
More powerful than any genjutsu, Madara’s latest scheme to extract Kyuubi from Naruto is a surprisingly well thought out one (at least compared to your run-of-the-hill Naruto movie villain). And capitalizing on Naruto’s selfless nature, Madara’s alternate-universe-wish-granting jutsu becomes the perfect weapon aimed right at Naruto’s heart.
Parallel Narratives: Analyzing the Hearts of Naruto and Sakura
Despite the story’s pretense at gender equality by including Sakura in the journey to AU!Naruto-verse, her characterization is far more simplistic and unflattering. The shadow to the light and the warp to the woof, Sakura, rather than a character in her own right, is presented as Naruto’s mirror, and plays the foil the reflects the depth of Naruto’s morality. She is everything that Naruto is not–privileged. Unlike Naruto, she’s had a loving, perfectly normal and stable childhood, has parents who dote on her, has never known or experienced the pangs of loneliness and neglect, and has had make far fewer sacrifices.
“My mother always gets her way. She’s a good-for-nothing ninja with no hopes of ever becoming a jounin. So she should ease off a bit…I wish I had more respectable parents like everyone else’s. It’s better to not have any, rather than have parents like that!” -Haruno Sakura
Unless you’re a teenager throwing a rebellious fit, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Sakura. Juxtaposed with Naruto, her complaints about her parents’ embarrassing quirks and overbearing nagging make her come off as spoiled, self-absorbed and horribly insensitive to the plight of others. Not once does she ever consider that other people–like her teammate and close friend–might take offense to the idea of actually wanting to be an orphan.
So, okay, we’ve established that at least in Road to Ninja, Sakura’s a huge brat. Now the question is–what purpose does this serve in the movie’s narrative? For one thing, it provides a convenient and “somewhat necessary” (and by somewhat necessary, I mean, absolutely superfluous) parallel to Naruto. Sakura’s journey in Road to Ninja is, in the end, a child’s story. Although Naruto might be the more socially inept and buffoonish of the two, it’s Sakura who’s missing the emotional maturity required for her to fit the shoes of a hero.
Her emotional journey could not be more simple. It doesn’t reflect too well of your character when a world of your deepest desire is one where your loving parents died. While handouts from grateful Konoha citizens might keep Sakura from starving or living in discomfort, Sakura quickly finds her deepest wish to be far from satisfying, once she realizes that the pros of being an orphan are vastly outstripped by the cons. Ironically, this works out to be the perfect counter to Madara’s alternate universe jutsu–because her deepest wish is far from “pure”, she’s less vulnerable to the temptations of the AU world.
They’re always telling us to look underneath the underneath, right? So if Sakura’s story–a child’s story–is the surface, then Naruto’s story is the underneath, the hulking iceberg lurking under the tip. Naruto’s struggle is way more interesting and complicated than Sakura’s because while Sakura is motivated by a desire to escape a world she’s regretted wishing for, Naruto has to fight against a world that has everything he’s ever wished for.
In contrast to Sakura’s quick delight and use of the advantages of being a hero’s daughter, the AU world’s enchantment takes a much longer time to work its way into our blond ninja’s heart. As an orphan, Naruto guards his heart more closely and even when greeted at the sight of his parents–something that he has been desperately yearning for all of his life–his initial response is not delight but anger and suspicion. He curses Madara for playing such a cruel illusion and staunchly avoids any parental contact or display of affection, repeatedly reminding himself that everything in the AU world, including his parents, were “fake”.
It’s only when Kushina takes a hit for Naruto that Naruto’s cold facade breaks entirely and he succumbs to bewildered rage.
We’re used to Naruto getting out of life-threatening situations that the thought of Naruto being in danger is never one that particularly worries us. After all, Naruto’s a hero, and the protagonist to boot, so we know he’s going to be okay.Frankly, Naruto would have probably been fine even if Kushina hadn’t swooped in and “saved” him and from a certain point of view, Kushina actually got in Naruto’s way. It’s a hero’s job to overcome obstacles, so the idea of a parent coming in to intervene comes off as…well, not nearly as heroic.
It also comes off as disconcerting for Naruto, who, you can tell from his uneasy reaction, that he is totally out of his element in this. What do you mean I can’t throw myself in danger without causing people to freak out? Yet, all Naruto repeatedly manages to say is “Why?”
It’s a sad day indeed when you see a child ask their parent why their parents care about them. Love is something that’s hard to imitate in an illusion, something that Naruto’s aware of. It’s harder to call someone a “fake” when their concern for you is genuine. And what’s more real than the love of a parent?
The repetition of Naruto’s question “Why? Why do you have to say that?” is one that merits some thought. Minato interprets the question as an inquiry to a general puzzlement at why Minato’s being so…well, parent-like and simply muses, “Am I saying something strange?” Naruto answers immediately, “No, that’s not it…why?”
It’s an infuriating vague question but we’ll let it slide because we know Naruto’s having the devil of the time grappling with the concept of love. Not the concept of a parent love’s for a child–that’s something Naruto can understand–the idea of parents loving him specifically. Naruto is so starved of affection that he can’t wrap his head around the idea that his parents would love him so much they would get upset if he were in any kind of danger.
“I have everything here. Everything I’ve ever wanted. Dad is here…Mom is here…I have always wanted to live like this. This was my dream!” -Uzumaki Naruto
And so the trap is sprung as Naruto finds himself laughing in pure, unadulterated joy as he basks in the warmth of parental love. Naruto is willing, for a little while, to shed “Naruto” to become “Menma”, a child of two powerful, but ordinary ninjas who love him dearly, would go to the ends of the earth to keep him safe.
Unfortunately, no one else gets this courtesy.
Poor Sakura. Relegated like so many other females in Naruto, Sakura plays the damsel in distress, serving as the plot device to snap Naruto out of the illusion he’s allowed himself to be seduced by. Minato and Kushina’s lukewarm enthusiasm to go rescue Sakura leaves Naruto stunned. Again, the movie forces another rendition of the incompatibility of being a hero and a parent. Being a hero is all and well when your child’s okay but as soon as you get more than a whiff of danger, you hightail it out there and leave it to someone else more crazy and with less to lose.
“So what is a ninja? I’ve often asked that question. ‘A ninja is one who endures.'” -Naruto
Naruto letting go of Kushina’s hand symbolically captures his orphaning–this time of his own volition rather than that of circumstance–and return to walking the hero’s path, and consequently, abandoning his dream of childhood for good and shouldering the burdens of an adult. Because as much as he desires to have his parents alive and well, he knows who he really is–a hero. Unlike AU Kushina and Minato, who are content to limit themselves to be “human”, to be parents before ninjas, Naruto is no stranger to self-sacrifice–in fact, he embraces sacrificing for others, because that’s become part of who he is. And who he is can be traced back to his parental roots–the son of two heroes, a legacy that Naruto–now fully empathizing with his parents’ decision to give their lives to protect the village–honors and can bear with pride.
The Identity of Menma and Looking Underneath the Underneath: Naruto’s “True Desire”
So, who is Menma, really? The movie never bothers to go into Menma’s characterization beyond “batshit-crazy-Naruto-lookalike-with-a-bad-hair-dye-job-trying-to-bring-about-the-destruction-of-the-world.” Obviously the cause wasn’t bad parenting–Kushina and Minato, from what we saw of them, weren’t terrible parents. It’s not entirely clear how Menma started the path of darkness–is this the movie’s hint at how overbearing parenting can lead kids to become psychopathic murderers? I’d chalk it up to a temporary possession by Madara and this seems to be the explanation offered up by the narrative too but remember that huge gaping plothole earlier when we first come across Menma, who meets Madara for the first time, and before joining forces with him, was already racking up his kill count.
Just as the AU world is a reflection of Naruto and Sakura’s desires, I argue that Menma is a manifestation of Naruto’s true deepest desire–and surprise, surprise, what Naruto truly wants isn’t to have parents back–that train’s gone and left long ago. What Naruto’s deepest desire is to have the opportunity to relinquish his desire to have his parents alive.
Bit of a stretch for you? Given the lack of development in Menma–he’s really more of a plot device rather than anything else–given what Madara has mentioned about the parameters of his jutsu, it’s not as far-fetched as one might presume. One thing worth considering is the presence of Menma at all (besides just having an evil Naruto make an appearance just for the hell of it). Sakura’s desire was to have no parents at all and that’s what she got. However, Sakura never had an AU version of herself–she effectively replaced her AU self.
However, this didn’t happen in Naruto’s case. If Madara’s AU jutsu truly created a world based on the viewer’s deepest desires, the presence of Menma as an antagonist makes absolutely no sense. (Unless Naruto’s a damn fine actor and is actually nursing a deeply buried desire for parenticide…)
The last piece of the puzzle…the slap-dashed together piece of prophecy…offers the possibility of a far more complicated set-up.
“The crimson moon! A chance I’ll have to take–now! This is the time from the prophecy!” -Naruto
It seems rather convenient that the AU world would revolve around a so-called prophecy regarding the defeat of Konoha’s enemy…and that Naruto’s presence would be required to unlock the Crimson Moon scroll’s power. Again, I might be giving too much credit to the writers but what if the prophecy of the crimson moon was fabricated based on Naruto’s subconscious desires to become a hero and thus be able to let go of his resentment for not having parents? This would explain why the prophecy’s prediction that the scroll would help save Konoha came true in the guise of Naruto regaining his sense of self. The prophecy guided Naruto to his desired detour from reality and then back to reality once more.
What if Menma was set up to become an obstacle for Naruto to strike down to reaffirm his identity not as a lost and forgotten child but as a young man inheriting the legacy of his parents?
Why the name change to Menma? As a callback to the first mention of menma at Ichiraku Ramen, Naruto clearly hates it. His hatred of menma may have transferred over to the AU world based on his desires–and may also allude to why Menma is evil–he’s evil because Naruto himself is prejudiced towards not only the ramen ingredient but at the thought of it replacing naruto (the fish cake) and himself. Menma is the manifestation for Naruto’s desire to become himself, irreplaceable and without substitution-to become “Naruto.”
What are the implications of the AU world ultimately being a reflection of Naruto’s desire to resolve his lingering attachment for parents he no longer has? For one thing, it would suggest that Naruto’s a hell lot more mature than we take him for, that he would sacrifice his own happiness to ensure that he can continue being a hero, to continue to walk down the harder path while carrying the burden of loss. Even if we assume that Madara’s jutsu did an imperfect job of creating a world made to the precise specifications of a person’s deepest desires, the presence of conflict and villains–specifically conducted by one’s dark double–seems to allude to a masochistic guilt to punish oneself.
Whoa. When you think about it, that’s not really a very child-like desire at all–it’s the sentiment of a young adult crippled by doubt. In this regard, the option of self-orphaning doesn’t become a viable choice–it becomes a statement of fact, a necessary action. Naruto lets go of his parents in the AU world not after much pondering and wavering but because deep down, it’s something that he’s already made up his mind up about.
It also would also further cement the incompatibility of heroism and parents. Not to say that one can be a hero and be a good parent but that becoming a hero involves making sacrifices, including the lifelong responsibilities of being a parent. Minato and Kushina were certainly heroes, but because of their work, they were unable to be there, to actually be parents for their child. Yet despite this, their child actually ended up okay, and grew up to respect and live their ideals to protect the future of all at the cost of some of their own happiness. But luckily for us all, happiness can be found in more than one place, in more than one person. We just have to reach out to the ones who we love and love us in return to grasp it.