It was a couple of years ago when I remember checking out Google Zeitgeist and being shocked to find that I - once an oh, so media-savvy youth - found an item in the top 10 that I had never heard of before. What was this thing called Naruto? One Wikipedia search later I and had my answer:
Naruto (NARUTO—ナルト—, Naruto romanized as NARUTO in Japan) is an ongoing Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Masashi Kishimoto with an anime adaptation. The plot tells the story of Naruto Uzumaki, a loud, hyperactive, unpredictable, adolescent ninja who constantly searches for recognition and aspires to become a Hokage, the ninja in his village that is acknowledged as the leader and the strongest of all.
This primed my curiosity for my next encounter. Months later, I stumbled upon the Japanese animated show on TV and was immediately impressed by its rocking theme music. Shortly thereafter I learned that my co-worker had become a fan of the show through his daughter and had the first season on DVD. “Don’t judge the series by the first episode”, he told me, “you need to watch a few before it really gets going”.
I borrowed the DVD.
I watched over 250 episodes.
I am hopelessly addicted to this anime.
Every Thursday night, I periodically wander over to my computer to see if the next episode of the saga, freshly broadcasted in Japan mere hours before, has been dubbed and ready for consumption via torrent.
The show can’t be compared to any North American cartoon as these are only vehicles for promoting character-driven toys and merchandise. The closest comparison that comes to mind is the Harry Potter series in terms of its imagination, emotion, detail, depth and scope. You watch the characters grow and grow up. There is slapstick comedy. There is teen romance. There are ninjas. But while there is much fighting and the occasional death, there is also grief expressed.
This series also contains scenes with smoking, potty humour, and sexual innuendo – all of which is excised from the painfully dubbed version that can be found on North American television. Part of my enjoyment comes from that I find I enjoy discovering the otherness and the nuances of Japanese culture that are largely new to me. I’m also new to anime. Naruto may be a pastiche of the genre, as others have claimed, but for me it’s an introduction to a new world.
When I’m watching Naruto, I find myself lost in it. Days after, I find my mind returns to the latest cliff-hanger. Thursdays are now the anchor of my week and the day I look forward to the most. I have not been so emotionally engaged in a TV show since I was a little kid.
I remember the frustration of being a kid and trying to watch serialized cartoons of the late 1970s. (What happened at the end of The Battle of the Planets? Who won the Laff-A-Lympics? Did the folks in The Land of the Lost ever make it home?) I cared about these shows. I was invested in them. I wanted to be in a gang like on Scooby Doo. I wanted to be in Scooby Doo’s gang. I wanted to have adventures. To be tested and succeed.
Like most kids, I think I had an unsaid longing to be sublimated into the stories I watched on Saturday mornings – a strange desire to transform your messy life into the neat, defined outlines of a cartoon. I think this desire is one small reason why so many kids who are very into anime express their longing through fanfict, deviant art and cosplay. It makes sense that while these adolescents, who are trying on new ways of being in the world, are trying on these anime characters for fun. Its classic learning through roll play (related TED talk).
And also, like most kids, the television was always there for me to alleviate the loneliness of childhood. As a friend of mine once put it, “TV is the friend that never leaves you”. I have come to think that most of the emotions that I get caught up in when I watch Naruto is actually a perverse nostalgia for the painful longing I would feel when watching cartoons as a kid. It’s a strange wound that I don’t think may ever heal.
But I can’t shake the feeling though that I’m too old for anime as I don’t want to buy into the current zeitgeist of infantilism. And I can’t help but think that adventure stories are for the young who have still have their life ahead of them. Kids still hold the potential to imagine a future – however slim the chance – in which they are transformed into a future wizard or next Hokage. What’s particularly depressing is that I can’t think of a single adventure story where the future of the universe suddenly hinges on the choices made by a middle-aged mother of two.
So since the universe is safe from the likes of me, I will choose to keep watching Naruto.