Reversioning Old Myths: Naruto & the Hero’s Journey

This is an extract from my introduction to the first two Naruto movies at the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ annual Comica festival in November 2008.

“The word power, of course, can be read in two ways – something that provides an energy source to the human race, usually considered good, or something that delivers control into the hands of ambitious leaders or corporations, usually considered bad. This power is usually so deadly that it can only be controlled by certain people, like the citizens of Laputa in Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Castle in the Sky, and so deadly that it has to be kept secret or under strict control, as in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira.Sometimes the power source is portable, or even intangible, like the psychic energies in Escaflowne, but sometimes, as in Osamu Tezuka’s Jungle Emperor, it’s a natural location, a mountain or cave, which must be guarded and kept secret so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

The essential characters in both stories are an ambitious ruler, mage or clan seeking control, sometimes for selfish ends but sometimes not, and a hero, usually younger and less influential but determined to preserve freedom and overturn the status quo.

In both these stories we can see the essential outline of the hero’s journey, the path travelled by most heroes of myth and legend, as outlined in Joseph Campbell’s book also entitled The Hero’s Journey. The myth itself is extremely primitive, rooted far back in human culture and traceable in other animals. The untried but brave young stag or lion fights the mighty, battle-scarred leader of the pack for supremacy. The youthful idealists fight the old men who run the status quo. Barack Obama fights John McCain, with witch goddess Sarah Palin on the sidelines. It may even have started as a reflection of the young human race’s struggle to defeat the huge forces of nature that seemed so strong they must be personalities in themselves, and gave rise to the concepts of gods and mystical powers that still lurk in our subconscious.

Whatever the fan base in the West, we shouldn’t forget that Naruto was made for the Japanese TV market and specifically targeted at boys aged around 9-11, about the time that puberty looms and adult control really starts to chafe. Most successful boys’ anime series are retellings of the hero’s journey, varied to suit the current audience or the fancies of the creator, and Naruto fits squarely into this line of succession. Sometimes the journey makes diversions into local mythology, as in Dragonball and all the other retellings of the Monkey King legend. But whatever the culture, all the legends follow a remarkably similar overall outline. And here’s the trick – their intended audience doesn’t notice, and doesn’t care, because, if the writer and director have done their jobs properly, this is the first time they’ve really heard the story. All those old shows that their big brother or dad go on about are just junk. This show really understands what it’s like to have the heart of a hero in the body of someone who still gets told to wash behind his ears and do his homework, what it feels like to be bursting with energy and longing for recognition and yet constantly ignored or put down. The boys don’t know or care that the characters are archetypes, even stereotypes, and the plot elements have been recycled so many times they’ve worn thin. Right now, this story speaks to them in their own language. They feel that character X or Y is just like them, expressing exactly what they feel.”

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