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Two Paths of the Outsider

When I first started talking to people about anime, those who didn’t need the term explained would often assume that I like many “serious” anime fans didn’t like Naruto. But they were wrong. Early on I would sheepishly claim it to be a guilty pleasure, but as time went on and I got deeper into the series and into the sequel series, Naruto Shippudden, I began to mount a more serious defense of the story. To me, the story of Naruto’s relationships with his home village and his best friend rival, Sasuke, is fundementally about outsider status. The major difference between the two is how they chose to adapt to being outsiders in a close-knit community.

Sasuke and Naruto, pictured here at the beginning of Naruto Shippuuden.

The Hidden Leaf (Konoha) Ninja village is a walled city populated by civilians and ninja. There are several cooperating major clans with different traditions and specializations along with lesser families who also pass along special ninja skills. In addition to the basic skills taught at school many young ninja further train with their families to hone not only their particular specialization, but also the discipline necessary to being a good ninja. But what happens when you have no family? This is the tricky situation in which Naruto and Sasuke both find themselves. Sasuke is the sole survivor of his brother’s massacre of the rest of their family; Naruto comes to young adulthood not being entirely sure who his family was, but they are gone now. Sasuke’s family was always a little apart from the population in general, and now that they died in so violent a way the general population is unsure of how to treat young Sasuke and so avoid contact with him. Naruto’s birth is connected with great tragedy for the village in general and many families in particular. He is also the embodiment of a dangerous but necessary power; people in the village at best ignore the boy.

When faced with this isolation, Naruto turns outward. His first attempts are a classic plea for attention defacing the stores in town with his name and likeness; making himself something that people can’t ignore even if they wanted to. Over time however Naruto’s desire to be connected with those around him creates a sort of family of choice. These are people who can help him meet the needs described by Kohut and the school of Self Psychology: the need for mirroring, the need to idealize, the need for peers, etc. His friends, the teachers at school, his captain, the higher-ups in the village accept Naruto for who he is, warts and all, and through this acceptance and the acknowledgement that they, too, need him Naruto grows into someone who is unironically hailed as a hero to the village (even if this raises some issue of its own).

In contrast Sasuke turns inward in the isolation that followed is family’s death. He becomes obsessed with his loss, the anger of the betrayal, and his thoughts of revenge. When he excels in acquiring skills, it is because he needs them to go after his brother. When he completes a mission, it is merely a way to bide his time until vengeance will be his. Sasuke makes no attempt to foster relationships with his peers or the adults around him. He sees the world around him only in terms of utility for his all consuming quest. Into this savage worldview arrives Naruto, the only one who can divert Sasuke’s attention — even if only for a moment — from what he has set as his life’s purpose. Naruto’s attitude suggests that even in the face of great loss, there can be great hope for the future.

It is hardly a surprise that the shows antagonists find Sasuke such an easy target. Cut off from those around him, obsessed with his own indignation Sasuke makes choices that are as obvious as they are painful to people who despite his attitude had come to care about him. And when he does make those decisions it is a surprise only to him that Naruto and others work diligently for his reconciliation. Naruto knows the pain of being a mistrusted outsider and it is what makes him strive to include and relate, and it is this empathy that Sasuke finds so uncomfortable.

As Naruto Shippuuden gears up for war (a war that is as much about the friendships Naruto has made as it is about putting down a terrorist threat) it is a chance to reflect upon the twisting paths that brought these two major characters so far and so far from one another. The position of outsider is ultimately one of painful vulnerability, but Sasuke proves that angry denial can build, at best, a false strength. Naruto show the path toward strength out of weakness, and it is ultimately the more rewarding one.

Both series are available for streaming on Crunchyroll.com: here (for subscribers) and here (for subscribers and ad supported), and on Viz Anime (both are ad supported) here and here.

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