29 January 2008

Naruto (ナルト, 2002-2007)

Sakura's inner demon is revealed

I don’t often watch or read shōnen fiction (manga and anime for boys), but with a son rapidly nearing the age when boys become interested in such things, I thought I’d better start educating myself. There are so many popular shōnen animation series to choose from so I thought I’d start with one of the series that often makes the most-viewed lists on video-sharing sites.

The Studio Pierrot series Naruto is adapted from the manga of the same name by Masashi Kishimoto (岸本斉史). The title character, Naruto Uzumaki, starts off the series as a pre-teen ninja in training. His distinctive trademarks are his blue eyes, his yellow spiky hair, three marks on each cheek like the whiskers on a fox, his orange and blue jumpsuit, and his insatiable appetite for ramen. Shortly after his birth, the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox (Kyuubi no Youkou) attacked his home village of Konohagakure. Naruto lost both his parents during the fight to save the village. His father, who was the fourth Hokage (village leader), died while sealing the Demon Fox inside the infant Naruto, thus saving the village for further destruction.

Growing up an orphan, Naruto has a tendency to act the class clown in order to draw attention to himself. He has problems with concentration and controlling his powers, which leads his peers to believe that he is less-skilled and more stupid than the rest of them. He also engages in puerile jokes and pranks. Most of the older villagers shun Naruto for fear of the Demon Fox they know is sealed within him, but Naruto and his peers do not learn about the Demon Fox until well into the series. Naruto’s loud and often obnoxious exterior mask a good heart and true determination. He dreams of becoming Hokage one day in order to prove to his detractors that he is worthy of their respect. The clear message of the series, that reiterates itself repeatedly in each of the characters, is that no matter what your background, if you do your best (がんばって、ね!) and work well as a group, you can achieve greatness and the respect of your community.

The half hour episodes are cleverly designed to seduce viewers into becoming addicts of the show. Catchy pop songs during the intro and closing stick in the head for a long time. The soundtrack features rock inspired music designed to escalate the excitement during fight scenes. The soundtrack also includes guttural voices saying ‘huh!’ and ‘ha!’ like the sounds people make when practicing martial arts.

When watching multiple episodes of Naruto in succession, the repetition of story elements can get a bit annoying. The episodes are designed to be watched weekly with a commercial break in the middle. There is always a hook just before the commercial break and just before the closing credits to leave the viewer hanging with anticipation about what will happen next. When we return to the action (usually a fight or confrontation of some kind), the animators increase suspense by reprising what happened before the break. It’s not always shot for shot, but it is still a bit of a bother nonetheless.

One thing that is very different from the American action cartoons that I saw as a kid is that fights can go on for more than one episode…. sometimes even over three or more episodes. The action cartoons that I remember had the usual classical narration of a crisis which was resolved by a fight scene with the status quo returned in the end. The fights usually didn’t last longer than a few minutes, and there was little talking involved apart from witty repartee. Naruto, influenced by its manga origins, can have long spells of dialogue giving lots of new character information. It often seems like the two combatants are standing and chatting for ages. These scenes can involve complicated flashbacks than may also include fight scenes. Although I do find this elaborate unfolding of character information fascinating, sometimes even riveting, at other times I hear the voice of Tuco from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in my head saying: “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.”

That pretty much sums up all things the producers intended to hook viewers like me into watching Naruto, but my real motivation for watching Naruto obsessively (101 episodes so far and counting) in recent weeks is my curiosity to see how far they would go with the female characters. The series has the usual generous helpings of sexism, typical of the shōnen genre, exemplified by Naruto’s Sexy no Jutsu (sexy ninja technique) when he transforms himself into a large-breasted female form in order to distract or play a joke on a male mentor. One of the Densetsu no Sannin (the Legendary Three Ninja schooled by the third Hokage), Jiraiya takes every opportunity he can to leer at women. This leads Naruto to insist on calling him Ero-sennin (perverted hermit) instead of addressing him by his proper name.

Naruto performs his Sexy no Jutsu.

I also find it disturbing that some of the evil characters take on female, or at least feminine forms. This is something I have encountered in Japanese fiction and films before. There are many tales of vengeful female ghosts in Japanese drama, so much so in contemporary Japanese horror movies as to constitute a sub-genre of its own. For an example of this see Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On: The Grudge (2003). Many of the characters in Naruto come straight out of Japanese mythology, such as the evil character Orochimaru, who takes on a feminine form and a snake form in the series. This combines the myth of the snake-god Orochi who lived in the mountains with the association of women with snakes in Japanese folklore. (See Ghosts, Demons and Spirits in Japanese Lore by Norman A. Rubin). Just because it has a tradition in Japanese folklore, however, does not make it any less creepy for the female spectator.

On the more progressive side, the series at least does try to include women as ninja. The ninja-in-training (Genin) are divided into groups of three and each group contains one token female character. Haruno Sakura, complete with hair the colour of cherry blossoms, is in Naruto’s group along with Sasuke Uchiha. Naruto has a crush on Sakura, who in turn is in love with Sasuke. Sakura is given a double personality: she can be extremely sweet and kind, but when angered the viewer sees the Inner Sakura who curses the person who has angered her (usually Naruto or her rival for Sasuke’s affections, Ino-chan).

As with all the female characters in the series, Sakura usually stays in the background in fights and is limited to the role of ‘guarding’ a non-ninja or injured character. After a while, it becomes exasperating to only see Sakura-chan standing to one side and providing close-up reaction shots to the action at hand. This usually involves her gasping or crying out “Sasuke-kun!” But I kept watching and watching, hoping that eventually we would get to see her fight during the Chuunin exam.

Sakura’s strengths, compared to Naruto and Sasuke, are her intelligence and her advanced ability to control her chakra (energy force that allows the characters to perform jutsu). Later in the series, I understand that she hones healing skills and is also able to master super-human strength. Her other important strength his her loyalty to her team, which plays a role when she finally has a starring role in a fight scene in order to protect Sasuke. She fights until she can fight no more, and eventually is helped by her rival, Ino-chan and Ino’s team.

The final stage of the Chuunin exam, which Genin like Naruto and his peers must pass in order to move onto the next level of Chuunin, takes its inspiration from the old gladiator fights in the forum. The Genin candidates must fight each other in one-on-one battles with a referee determining the end of a match. Here one had the exciting prospect of seeing the female characters fight for the first time without any help from their peers. Sadly, the decision was made that Sakura and Ino should fight each other instead of against a male character. This made the fight less interesting for me because the subtext became that of an emotional catfight instead of a serious battle. To make matters worse, they wimp out by having the fight end in a draw with both girls unconscious. Ino-chan has a rather cool skill of being able to perform a mind-body switch in which she can take over a human or animal form for a while, but she is mainly memorable for her envy of Sakura-chan.

Other female characters in the series include Hinata-chan, who possesses powerful inherited Byakugan powers, harbours a secret crush on Naruto, and whom I desperately wanted to win her fight against her male cousin. There is also Tenten, who is skilled with weaponry. She also has to fight another girl during the Chuunin exam: Gaara’s sister Temari. This really made me sigh. There was clearly reluctance on the part of Kishimoto to have male characters possibly injuring female characters, let alone having a female character show superior strategy and fighting skills to that of her male peers. Temari is skilled at strategy and wields a giant iron fan as a weapon, and I was glad to see that they let her win the fight instead of wimping out with yet another girl-on-girl tie.

Tsunade strikes a sexy pose.

There are one or two female ninja mentors, but finally, during the fourth season of the series, they introduce a female figure with some power: Tsunade. One of the legendary Sannin, Tsunade is asked to become the Fifth Hokage (village leader). My excitement at the first female to assume the highest honour in the village (and the position the title character of the series aspires to when he grows up) was short-lived. Tsunade is by far the most sexualised of any of the female characters. I thought it was bad enough with all the sexy poses and crotch shots Sakura-chan and Ino-chan where getting, but Tsunade has been given huge breasts, which the camera swoons over with close-up boob shots. There is a suggestion in the anime that her appearance has somehow been enhanced by magic, because she is meant to be fifty years old and has the body of a woman at least twenty years or more younger. She is also an inveterate gambler. To be fair, they do show each of the Legendary Sennin to have a weakness (Jiraiya has an obsession with chasing women and Orochimaru has turned to the dark side and is obsessed by power), but by visually sexualizing her and then giving her a bad habit that is also associated with dissipation really was a bit too much for me. On the positive side, she is a healer and does have a good heart under her stand-offish and often tetchy exterior.

I will continue watching the Naruto series - I don't really expect any change in the way women are presented anymore but the series is also interesting for its overlapping storylines and complex character development. I will probably end up skipping the filler episodes when I get to them and jump ahead to the series currently airing on TV Tokyo in Japan: Naruto Shippūden, which jumps ahead two and a half years in the lives of the characters. The series, and accompanying movies are ably directed by Hayato Date (伊達勇登) for Studio Pierrot. Naruto did not start showing in English on Television until 2005, three years after the Japanese debut, so it is unlikely the will get around to dubbing Naruto Shippūden for some time yet.

For an interesting discussion about the female characters in Naruto, see the blog femtique.

For all you ever wanted to know about Naruto and more, see the wiki Narutopedia.

For a laugh: some fans of this show take it so seriously that they write lengthy wikipedia entries on Naruto trivia. For example, they have given the term jutsu (術) a lengthy description (171 A4 pages when I did a print preview), without giving any indication that jutsu is not a word made up by Kishimoto himself, but is actually a common Japanese word meaning technique or skill. To put this in perspective: could you imagine a 7,500 word encyclopedia entry on the use of the word ‘power’ in the He-Man animation series? Not likely. [I noticed the other day that someone has put a please edit warning on the aforementioned wiki page, so it may be altered soon]

NARUTO / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008