Believe it! “Naruto” has a valuable lesson to teach

Bailey Tomlinson, Columnist

I recently watched both “Naruto” and its sequel, “Naruto: Shippuden” with my boyfriend at his request. It was an endeavor that took us six months of watching intricately plotted, at times convoluted episodes during dinner, but it’s finally over. 

Admittedly, I went into “Naruto” and its sequel expecting a children’s show about ninja fights. To my own surprise, I actually now believe that at the center of Naruto is a lesson on the importance of questioning why we hold our ideals and the value of critical thinking.

It wasn’t until we started getting into “Naruto: Shippuden” that I realized “Naruto” was a show that, at its core, asks its viewers to consider questions about why we accept ideals. The examples it gave, being at least a little bit a show about ninja fights, were particularly about how best to end conflict. 

In “Naruto: Shippuden,” a group of villains called the Akatsuki are introduced, and while it’s not immediately all laid plain, they’re working toward a larger ideology while still possessing nuanced (and at times conflicting) worldviews of their own. The way these ideologies unfold over the course of the anime ended up surprising me with how complex and intertwined they all were with each other and with the ninja world as a whole.

The Akatskuki are strikingly compelling villains, originally started by a war orphan named Yahiko as a means of pacifistically bringing peace to their country, which often suffered from being caught in the crossfire of larger warring countries on either side of it. 

After the traumatic death of Yahiko, the new head of the group and one of his best friends, Nagato, decides that the only way that peace can be achieved would be for everyone to experience such resonating pain that they could never again willingly inflict it on anyone else. 

He acts on this ideal, which through a long series of events ends up involving Naruto. Up to this point in the anime, Naruto has shown us repeatedly that he is both steadfast in his ideals and able to critically consider the perspectives of others. After a devastating attack on Naruto’s village by Nagato, Naruto faces him in person and hears the rationale behind his beliefs.

After doing so, Naruto explains that though he can understand Nagato’s reasoning, especially in the light of trauma Nagato has undergone, he rejects the path to peace he is trying to take. Ultimately, Naruto argues, cycles of hurt must be broken for healing to begin, and this healing from hurt will bring peace.

Naruto does this in a way that is so compelling, Nagato gives his own life to undo the damage he had recently done to the residents of Naruto’s village. I won’t try to pretend that to viewers Naruto’s argument is a give-your-life level of compelling, but for the purpose of the story it’s trying to tell the meaning is clear. 

Naruto believes in something more rooted in truth than Nagato does, and his willingness to listen and understand allows him to bring attention to Nagato’s faulty reasoning while proving the same flaws don’t appear in his own. 

We see Naruto do this many times over as “Naruto: Shippuden” progresses, facing off against ill-proposed solutions to conflict that range from ending all conflict by trapping everyone in a dream to becoming the most powerful villain in the world so everybody else must unite against them. 

Every time, Naruto argues that he won’t give up on the people he loves and that cycles of hurt must be broken for healing to begin, and every time he is able to show the villain of the moment that this holds more truth than their faulty, though just as tightly held, beliefs. 

This isn’t even to speak on the side plots that occur throughout the whole show. We see other characters struggle with questioning their beliefs, and surrounded by people who aren’t Naruto we see them led astray through faulty logic and malicious appeals.

Because it is an anime and Naruto is the protagonist, he invariably leads them back to the correct path. But seeing these characters struggle throughout the show is just as powerful as seeing Naruto be right in the face of irrationally held ideals, I would argue. 

Naruto provides a pre-teen crash course in critical thinking, and I think him modeling how to critically think in this way is a really valuable thing in a show, especially one aimed more towards the pre-teen age group. To that point, however, I’m 21 and I found the beginning and middle of Shippuden compelling. It has enough depth for it to be interesting for anyone who wants to engage with it, regardless of age.

As far as how it is as a show in general, I’ll say that if you plan to watch it and you’re not 11 years old, I recommend you skip all of “Naruto.” As in, the entire first anime. Read a synopsis. Go straight to “Naruto: Shippuden.” Naruto as a young child is one of the most nerve-grating, exhausting ordeals I’ve been put through in the name of entertainment media and there’s not really enough payoff content-wise to justify it. By “Naruto: Shippuden” he is a teen, and though he’s the same person, it’s more bearable and the plot of the show becomes much more interesting to help make up for it.

The ending of “Naruto: Shippuden” also takes a lot of big leaps very fast, which was disappointing. The focus shifts from the Akatsuki to other villains that get larger than life with otherworldly powers too quickly, and it reaches a point where it can feel entirely unrecognizable from the show it began as. 

Overall, in the parts where “Naruto: Shippuden” felt balanced and well-explored, I was pleasantly surprised with the questions it prompted me to ask myself about the situations it presented. There were moments throughout where some villains would explain their logic and for a moment I’d go, “Oh no, that makes total sense,” which I feel is the mark of a well-written villain with a compelling ideal behind them. 

I would show this to a pre-teen and fully believe that they could get something valuable out of it. I think many of us could be surprised at the value we could get out of “Naruto.”