I only recently started binge watching Naruto. I’d always been aware of the anime series, but never knew what it was actually about. I’d wrongly assumed it was a kid’s show and didn’t think much of it, but on a whim, I started streaming it and have been hooked. The easiest way to sum the series up would be describing it as kind of like an anime Harry Potter, only with ninjas. But even that doesn’t do it justice.
An adaption of a Japanese manga series that was created by Masashi Kisimoto, it’s the fourth best-selling manga of all time, and it’s easy to see why. Naruto is one of the most intense and captivating anime series I’ve ever watched.
Naruto is studying to be a ninja, despite the fact that he’s an outcast in his society. This is due to the fact that there’s an evil demon called the Nine-Tailed Fox sealed inside of him. That Nine-Tailed Fox nearly destroyed Konohagakure (the Hidden Leaf Village) and was only stopped by one of the great shinobis, the Fourth Hokage. Since Naruto carries the demon inside his belly, the villagers are wary of him. This in turn means he had a lonely childhood and was looked down upon by many. Despite his isolation, Naruto trains hard to be a ninja, dreaming of one day reaching the ultimate rank of Hokage.
While there’s a rich and complex history to the shinobis, what really makes the series shine are the characters and how their personalities are expressed through their combat. Most of the ninjas have special powers called jutsus and a unique fighting style that reflects their family history and training. Even though the narrative gets into the spiritual energy of chakra, which is essentially their form of magic, the series actually takes the time to try to express a lot of these ideas in scientific ways, lending a sense of realism. Naruto’s characters might be born with certain innate gifts to better channel their chakra, but these mean nothing without the gruelling training that often takes them to their physical and mental limits. This is a bloody show with lots of violence that’s about as much for kids as Neon Genesis Evangelion was.
I’ve gotten through the first five seasons (I can’t believe I’ve already watched over a hundred episodes of it) and a big chunk of the story has revolved around their early training and examination process.
As each of the students engage in battle, what’s compelling is that the matches aren’t so much about skill as it is what motivates and drives them to be where they are. Sasuke Uchiha, who starts off as Naruto’s main rival, seeks revenge against the man who murdered the people in his clan. Gaara of the Sand Village is a killer who gets a thrill out of taking people’s lives, until we learn how his upbringing was part of an attempt by his village to harness the powers of an evil spirit, Shukaku, within him. Then there’s Neji Hyuga, who Naruto fights in one-on-one combat as part of his ninja exams to reach the rank of Chunin.
From the opening of the match, everyone in the crowd dismisses Naruto, incredulous he’s lasted this long. “No matter how you look at it, he can’t beat the Hyuga clan,” one of the observing ninjas comments.
Neji Hyuga is considered a prodigy, unparalleled in his ability to use the Byakugan. The Byakugan gives him the special ability to have a 360 field of vision and directly see the chakra pathway of his opponents. Using that vision, he knows exactly where to attack to cut off the chakra of his foes, leaving them helpless since they can’t use their powers. In an earlier battle, his supreme confidence in his abilities led him to dismiss his opponent, Hinata. Neji’s arrogance infuriated Naruto, who vowed to beat him in a future match. Unfortunately, most everyone is convinced Naruto has no chance against Neji, which is why Naruto receives special training in the leadup to the competition.
I love how Naruto isn’t some chosen one who can overcome all obstacles no matter what. He has to train and improve himself. There are entire episodes devoted to his training as he learns more about the ninja arts and what he can and can’t do. During this training specifically to deal with Neji, Naruto learns to harness the chakra of the Nine-Tail spirit which exists inside of him and up until then, emerged only during times of extreme duress.
The Neji-Naruto match starts off in silence as the two face off against each other. Neji’s uncle comments to his daughter that Neji’s kekkei genkai, which is his genetic gift for fighting, is stronger than anyone else in the family. Some in the crowd note that Naruto should avoid a frontal attack since that’s Neji’s strength. Naruto throws caution to the village wind and charges Neji. Close quarter combat ensues, and Neji, using his Byakugan, easily defeats Naruto.
As I’ve come to learn, no Naruto fight is complete without a flashback or three. Memories become interlinked and turn into a lifeline for the combatants, sometimes teaching, other times motivating. In this case, Naruto remembers Neji’s earlier fight with Hinata and how he stopped her Chakra flow, preventing her from using jutsus. Naruto realises he’s fallen victim to the same attack and that the best approach is to attack from a distance. Even when things aren’t looking good for Naruto as he gets knocked to the ground, he keeps his spirits up. “You understand, right? You have no way of winning,” Neji scolds him. To which Naruto laughs scoffingly and retorts, “All I wanted was to verify your power.”
Naruto gets to his feet and uses his iconic power; the shadow clones. These are often for comedic effect and serve as an appetiser for the battles; four more Narutos appear with the chakra distributed evenly between them. They attack Neji, but Neji’s defence is too good. He defeats the shadow clones, showing viewers that Naruto’s standard suite of tricks won’t be enough to defeat this opponent. Neji then tells Naruto to give up his delusion of becoming a great ninja, the Hokage. “Those who become the Hokage are born with a destiny,” Neji says with bitterness in his voice, hinting at a past trauma. “It’s not something you become by trying to become it. It’s determined by destiny. People must live within their different respective currents that can’t be defied.” His words are forged in the sorrow of something he was forced to learn at a young age.
Naruto refuses to accept Neji’s fatalism and somehow musters the strength to create even more shadow clones as a big middle finger to unchangeable destiny.
All the battles are multi-tiered with new techniques being used to raise the stakes. Any time you think one side has won, almost always, the opposing force has some secret new devastating jutsu that makes it seem like they’ll win. In line with that, Naruto’s duplicates don’t fare better since Neji’s developed a special defensive ability, the 8 Trigrams Palm Rotation. The technique utilises the Byakugan to block any attack by unleashing chakra and is described as an “absolute defence.” Naruto takes an even bigger beating here as Neji strikes all 64 chakra points (think MP). Naruto’s ability to conjure jutsus has been knocked out of him. The vicissitudes of battle have shifted drastically and it seems like hope is lost for Naruto. Even the ref steps forward, considering whether he should call the fight. Neji taunts Naruto even more, mocking him for his delusion of becoming a Hokage.
Like all good underdogs, Naruto somehow struggles to his feet, refusing to give up. This in turn shocks Neji, who can’t believe it, a scene reminiscent of Rocky and Apollo in the first Rocky movie. “I don’t know when to give up,” Naruto states with blood dripping out of his lips, barely catching his breath. There’s nothing like an overmatched underdog who refuses to surrender.
Neji on the other hand urges him to quit. “I don’t have a grudge particularly against you,” he states; the unspoken implication being there’s no honour for him in winning such an unequal match.
But Naruto won’t forgive him for the way he treated Hinata, stating all of Neji’s talk about families and branch families means nothing. In an attempt for Neji to prove his philosophy is the right one, Neji tells Naruto his tragic backstory and the “Hyuga’s destiny of hatred.” In the Hyuga family, whoever is born first becomes part of the main family line and inherits the use of the Cursed Mark Jutsu. This jutsu is symbolised by a bird in a cage and is “a mark of those who are bound to a destiny they can’t escape.” All other siblings become branch families and as Neji’s father was the younger twin brother, he became subordinate to the main family. All the branch family members receive the curse on their forehead, a big X, which Neiji reveals on his own forehead. Any acts of insubordination by them are met with the curse being triggered in his forehead which “destroys the cerebral nerves of those in the branch family.” It’s an imprisonment that can’t be escaped.
When one of the rival clans tries to kidnap the daughter of the Hyuga’s main family, the head family’s father (Neji’s uncle) stops the assassin and kills him. But the clan refuses to acknowledge the kidnapping and demands retribution for the assassin’s death in exchange for peace.
The main Hyuga brother should be executed, but Neji’s father, as the younger twin brother, is forced to take his place “to protect the head family.” Neji is still furious at the memory of the injustice his father suffered. “Other than dying, there’s no other way to escape this accursed Curse Mark. Even though they were twins with nearly equal power, their destinies were already set by who was born first and born later.”
There is truth in Neji’s words. He is inflicting the wounds he received from the curse on his opponents, wanting to obliterate Naruto’s dreams the way his own were crushed (of course, all of this is set to sad music, making it even more dramatic).
Neji proceeds to take down Naruto with another powerful blast, stating the battle is over. “You’re a failure,” he tells Naruto.
Naruto seems at the end of the line with all of his chakra blocked. This is when his training comes into play. The chakra he learned to control from the Nine-Tail Fox is available for him. Thinking back on Neji’s mocking words, he is driven by anger to fight.
“I don’t know what the Hyuga destiny of hatred is! But if you’re going to say it’s futile, you don’t have to do anything,” Naruto shouts. “After I become the Hokage, I’ll change Hyuga!”
They clash and their blows are so powerful, a massive explosion ensues. In the aftermath, there are two craters. Neji emerges, sees Naruto in the other crater, unconscious. He is confident of victory, but even in his scorn, there’s almost a subconscious hope on Neji’s part that Naruto had won and proved him wrong. “Sorry, but this is the reality,” Neji says.
I was devastated, wondering if it would end like this. Naruto had given his best, but was the result really destined beforehand? In Neji’s hardened eyes, I thought I saw the brutal truths of fate.
That’s when the ground crumbles under Neji and Naruto emerges, giving Neji a nasty uppercut to knock him out. The body in the crater was just a shadow clone.
In this moment of triumph, the anime could have focused on Naruto’s victory and how great he was. Instead, we see them both bloodied and beaten. Naruto approaches Neji and explains how he failed the graduation exam three times since he couldn’t get the shadow clone jutsu right. “Don’t be whining about boring stuff like destiny and what not, and how it can’t be changed,” Naruto tells him. “Because unlike me… you’re not a failure.”
Just then Neji looks up into the sky and sees a bird soaring freely with the sun behind him. Without a word, we see the shift in Neji, a symbolic moment of liberation.
Naruto hadn’t beaten his opponent. He’d defied fate, overcome against the odds, and used his practice to win. I loved every minute of it.
I know I still have a long way to go to finish the series. But if this Neji fight is a taste of things to come, I’ll be in for the long haul and of course, I won’t ever give up.