4. Of Ninjas and Nincompoops – “Kamui” and Naruto

What I have to say this week does not necessarily please me, for it demands my looking back on something I enjoyed for many years (and still, perhaps, do) and seeing in it something sinister that is not readily apparent.  I have been a long time reader of Kishimoto Masashi’s Naruto, since its very first chapter, and for the longest time I have thought of it as an entertaining example of a very conventional form of shōnen manga: boy has ridiculous dream, boy persists in ridiculous dream despite being kind of shit at what he does, boy cries with manly tears of masculine frustration, boy trains and trains and trains, boy fails, boy keeps training, boy wins (barely), and boy cries with tears of barely restrained joy.  Repeat this cycle numerous times with ever increasingly ridiculous obstacles to overcome, and you have the essence of contemporary mainstream shōnen manga.  Naruto begins his life as an outsider, incompetent in nearly everything he does, ridiculed by his fellow classmates, but by nearly imperceptible degrees, he is befriended and mentored by his fellow villagers, and he develops into a powerful young ninja who could potentially achieve his dream: to be the leader of his village.  This is, in a nutshell, the Japanese myth of social assimilation: those who are at first understood as being outside the group, through a kind of nurturing discipline, are assimilated back into it and their talents and powers are leveraged for the benefit of the whole social unit.

Uchiha Obito as "villain"

Uchiha Obito as “villain”

In the current narrative arc of Narutostill ongoing, so what I have to say may be later rendered inaccurate–all of the ninja villages are embroiled in a global struggle against a ninja formerly of Naruto’s own village, who seeks to impose a grand illusion upon the world in which everyone is “happy” because failure, sadness, death, etc.–all the “bad” things have been wiped out of existence and people will linger in a dream of perpetual “happiness.”  Obito, the character who would perpetuate this enforced peace, is set up as a clear foil for Naruto himself, though Naruto has many foils throughout the manga’s run.  Gaara and Nagato in particular are indicative of how these foil relationships typically work out: they succumb to the loneliness of being outsiders and, in a sense, turn bad, but because of their experiences with Naruto are redeemed by him.  Now, admittedly, this might still happen with Obito, but for Naruto and for the series as a whole Obito represents a different kind of beast, one who has become the series’ primary antagonist precisely because of his connections to others, because of that very same quality in Naruto that seems to redeem those who were lost.  As Obito says in chapter 616, “those connections that you keep rambling on and on about… are what turned me into the man standing in front of you now. / Know this!  What you speak of… can also become a powerful curse!!”  Naruto responds with precisely the hokum you would expect in this situation: life “means more,” because the people we love are constantly dying around us for… um… something… for the plot to progress with the maximum number of emotional highs and lows.

Obito as "hero"

Obito as “hero”

Whether Kishimoto is aware of this, or even cares, remains to be seen in how the plot develops.  The context for this moral grandstanding is the recent death of a major recurring character (Neji), who in saving Naruto’s life dies in the process.  Dying, he utters to Naruto something that inspires the young protagonist to renew the fight, but which, as you mull it over in your mind, becomes increasingly sinister: “keep in mind… that your life… / is not… your own… anymore…”  On the surface this sounds noble, sacrificing oneself for the good of others–something that makes sense enough only so long as you never really think about the system of institutionalized brutality that these “others” constitute.  In many ways, this is the essence of the paternalistic mythos underlying Japanese education, we have sacrificed ourselves for you, now you must sacrifice yourself for others.  Pay no attention to how we are, in fact, the very source of the problem with which you are now dealing.  And this is what makes Obito and his partner in “crime” Uchiha Madara very different from the converted villains to precede them: they both come from the very village that Naruto and the others who fight them do and were raised in precisely the same ideology, the extreme of which is revealed in their master plan, to rob the entire world of self-determination so that there can finally be “peace.”

Ijime and Coerced Assimilation

Former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro (1982-1987), in a 1967 speech at Takushoku University, where he was president at the time, makes quite clear the sinister ideology at the heart of the expectation of self-sacrifice: “did these [kamikaze] pilots die for the sake of self interest, or was it for the sake of vain-glory or for imperialism?  Or was it not rather that they set off on their mission with their hearts filled with pure love of their fatherland and their people?  There is nothing more precious in any society than the voluntary abandonment of one’s life for the sake of one’s country and compatriots.”  Perhaps Nakasone is speaking of the young Korean men and boys who conscripted into flying Japanese “baka bombs.”

In my course on manga I try to (over)emphasize how the themes that recur again and again in manga are closely related to the nature of the Japanese educational system, and that you cannot truly understand one without the other.  This is not merely because so many manga deal with school life in one form or another (be it tales of actual Japanese students or of magical wizard/ninja schools), but because so much of a young Japanese boy or girl’s life is taken up with education, both in sanctioned public schooling and in elective cram schools that the vast majority of pre-college students attend, even if it is technically voluntary.  If you were to see only the schools of manga, you would think that they are a place where lifetime bonds of friendship and rivalry are formed in the face of adversity.  This is true, to an extent, but they are also a form of institutionalized violence, be it corporal or verbal, and social control, modeled quite explicitly along militaristic lines.  I do not have time to get into the gritty details of modern Japanese education, though I would recommend reading Yoneyama Shoko’s The Japanese High School: Silence and Resistance.  In this book, she makes a distinction between bullying, which is generally understood to be an anti-social behavior, and ijime (the Japanese word for bullying) which she understands to be a form of systematic brutality and social control.  Rather than focusing on the pathology of the individual bully in terms of trauma or psychological dysfunction (i.e. child is abused at home and then abuses others at school), she emphasizes how students are coerced into participating in a culture of interpersonal violence and ostracism by the very authorities who ostensibly “care” for them.

Naruto ostracized at a young age by his fellow villagers.

Naruto ostracized at a young age by his fellow villagers.

Ijime is the harsh reality of the myth of nurturing paternalism in which so much shōnen manga is clearly complicit.  It would be easy to take this complicity too far, though, for in 1995 Shōnen Jump, the popular weekly magazine in which Naruto appears, solicited and received over 1800 letters from its readers describing their own experiences of ijime, many of which were later published in Jump Ijime Report.  What is so remarkable about this is that previously no one had bothered to try and collect accounts from students themselves, perhaps because their accounts so clearly damn the system itself.  There were letters from bullies and the bullied alike–in fact there is a great deal of overlap between these groups–and there is a recurrent theme of helplessness in the face of a system that will likely expose them to daily harassment should they speak out against what they feel to be so clearly wrong.  The only “way out” is to refuse to go to school, as many do, or to begrudgingly participate.

The Revolution’s Success is its Greatest Failure

When I said last week that the peasant uprising in the final volumes of Shirato’s Kamui-den was a failure, I was being more than a little duplicitous.  The fact is, the peasant uprising led by the genin Shōsuke does manage to raid the storehouses of the Hioki fiefdom and raze the castle and its environs.  The insurrection’s “success” initially looks something like this:

Kamui-den ser. 1 vol. 14 pp. 324-325

Kamui-den ser. 1 vol. 14 pp. 324-325

Mountain Man: Kamui* / Oohh

But Shirato hastens remind his reader that revolutions often look much more like the following.

Kamui-den ser. 1 vol. 14 pp. 356-367

Kamui-den ser. 1 vol. 14 pp. 356-367

From this bird’s eye view, it is nearly impossible to distinguish the peasants from their feudal lords, and in this nondistinction is revealed the truth, as far as Shirato sees it, of any revolutionary gesture: complete chaos.  The act itself is far less important than that the message the act represents be properly understood.  When agents of the shogunate logically retaliate in the final volume, rounding up the leaders and torturing the peasants in order to find them, Shōsuke and his captains submit to turning themselves in, both to stop the violence and so that they can go to Edo and explain the significance of what they have done.  Shōsuke’s attempt to speak truth to power could be read as quite noble.

Kamui-den ser. 1 vol. 15 p. 274

Kamui-den ser. 1 vol. 15 p. 274

Shōsuke: You can no longer ignore the fact that peasants are the foundation of this country. / No people, no country…… / Without us there is no Japan!!

However, Shirato knows all too well his recent and archaic Japanese history and how revolutionary movements are undermined by the ruling class and fractions within the movements themselves.  All of Shōsuke’s captains are publicly executed, but he is returned to his people with his tongue cut out.  Because Shōsuke is no longer capable of speaking for himself, the hinin assume that Shōsuke betrayed them in order to save his own life, and when his fellow genin try to protect him, the hinin turn against them, effectively circumventing any future uprisings by sowing the seeds of mistrust among the lowest of the low in Japanese society, precisely in accordance with the plans of the local authorities and the shogunate in Edo.  Shirato, at least, seems to understand how Japanese social order perpetuates itself, by forcing the brutalized and oppressed to become complicit in the means of their own subjugation.  The only way out seems to be to opt out entirely.  Perhaps this is why Kamui, the character, hardly appears at all in the first series’ final three volumes.

Next week: beautiful girls are idiots, Hagio Moto’s Hanshin (Demi-god), and the ’70s reinvention of shōjo manga.

Stay tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com

*N.B. The kamui here is not the character but the Ainu word, analogous to the Japanese concept of kami, for the tutelary deities and divine forces that are understood be ubiquitous in the world.


  1. L. Krueger · · Reply

    I love literary analysis of manga. I once wrote a paper (in undergrad…) looking at the manga Saiyuki as a rejection of Japanese self-sacrifice. I consider the rejection similar to Kate Chopin’s rejection of ultimate self-sacrifice in The Awakening.

  2. […] Next week: a tale of two ninja; Naruto, Kamui, and the forced assimilation of “outsiders.&#822… […]

  3. […] education.  You might recall, dear reader, that I have even written something along these lines, not just once, but twice.  Today, I’d like to focus on the phenomenon of moral education, its inherent […]

  4. […] I get to AK, though, it’s worth revisiting something I mentioned in a much earlier post, but never delved into too deeply: Shūeisha’s Jump Ijime Report (Janpu ijime ripōto).  In […]


  6. […] [Comics], even as a creature of mass media in print periodicals—remember, I mean this as much conceptually as concretely—have historically been used (perhaps abused) in precisely this manner, whether we see it in the obsessive reproduction of the detritus of “advanced” economies (signs, power lines, and what have you) in the work of Robert Crumb or the appropriation of Shirato Sanpei’s ninja character Kamui as the incidental mascot of the student protest movement in 1960s Japan. In fact, one could argue that [comics’] tendency toward parody, caricature, and gross, comedic types would seem to point toward a likelihood (if not an absolute destiny) that [comics] would poach in this way. This tendency to view the world askew, to reproduce it with a mind toward seeing its many, often repressed, facets, which Ippei in chapter 2 regarded as an attitude or orientation rather than a formal construct, functions also as a form of engagement with and in that world, in the manner of Doc Yak at the close of chapter 3. So too, the failures and eventual suppression of the student protest movement came to be reflected in the final narrative arc of the first part of Shirato’s Kamui-den, his narrative grounded in the world even as the world was grounded in his narrative. […]

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