I really wanna get back into Naruto. And I really want to write papers about it.
So I’m going to.
But why? Why a series that hasn’t really ended, but has shifted the focus to a son? Why a series that, like Megatokyo –another favorite comic series that I’m re-reading soon to critically look at its problems while appreciating a bit of nostalgia– has gone on forever and has been rather hated at times by fan culture? Why a series notorious for Dragon Ball-esque fights that take episodes to resolve?
Why? Well, because I have these really stellar memories of The First Wave of Naruto in America, back when the dub first aired. It’s all crystal clear.
It was 7 p.m. CST on a Saturday Night on September 10, 2005. I was in 7th grade, had finished confirmation, but was still 12: my birthday wouldn’t be for another 7 days, and after a bad foray into trying Inuyasha –it was rated OT and a seller sold it to me, only for my mother to realize it, get incredibly angry that I was being given somewhat mature material, and powerfully scare the clerk into a refund– I was hungry for something that I could consume.
So I sat down on the sofa, a snack in hand, and watched as the television lit up with a new adventure: Episode 1 of Naruto. Man, I remember hearing that first theme song: ROCKS by Hound Dog. Honestly, If I hadn’t already been into J-Pop via PERFUME and PuffyAmiYumi, Hound Dog would have done it.
(Seriously, go look up ROCKS and tell me that isn’t good. I haven’t listened to it in a long time, but I’m humming what I can remember and feel really excited even though I just have desk work today.)
I was amazed as 22 minutes of animation sped by. It was great: certainly, I’d grown up in the heyday of Toonami, so I’d seen some good anime –shoutout to Samurai X/Ruroni Kenshin! – but Naruto was a game changer. The dub was solid for the time, and it was exciting and humorous, if not a bit sophomoric at times. Still, it was great, and 12 year old me was going to tell all the friends on Monday.
After that first watch, I watched pretty dutifully for two years or so, chatting with my friends, and unfortunately, when friends started using the internet term Narutard –a disgraceful portmantaue of Naruto and retarded that I hope has been removedfrom conventions and fan culture– to describe any fans and the fandom as a whole, I fell to peer-pressure and at 15, gave , and started the same teasing, trying so hard to be cool because honestly, I never felt like it.
Unfortunately, that meant I never got to the Black characters in the series.
A lot of shounen manga have the Dark Skinned Character Trope. They’re usually noticeably darker skinned, have dreds, twists, bantu knots and otherwise clearly natural, ethnic hair, can have either a Western or Japanese name, are the object of infatuation and often boost the cool factor of the manga by just generally being there. As a kid, I noticed them because they looked like me: it’s why I cosplayed Yoruichi from Bleach. She had the same coded traits as me, even though she could turn into a cat and I… well couldn’t. I would never be that Cool Black Kid: I would always be just me.
(Mind you, 15 year old me would think it’s super rad that I now live in Japan and can go to Tokyo at least twice a year.)
As I read and consume more manga and teach myself to be a Better Reader, I began notice that there’s a lot –not hundreds, but certainly dozens– of characters that exist within the worlds of manga, and within a fictional Japan, that are Black.
Naruto has got a wealth of black bodies. It’s the mother load, as far as I’ve seen in my reading, and they’re not Ambiguously Brown: these are characters clearly coded to be black, to have African traits and be of African descent.
And now, years later –almost a decade after quitting Naruto in full– I want to finally see them in black and white action and animated in the movies and core series.
I want to explore that: a lot, in fact, and see where I land. Are there authentic, black persons in The Village of the Leaf and beyond? Are we dealing with a Japan in which African influence is an active, vivid part of the landscape? Is Kishimoto using black bodies as background, or is there real value to their existence that passes “Black Rapper” or “Dark Skinned Beauty?”
I think that diving into that in an academic lens is really, really cool.
So that’s why Naruto.
It’s going to be a lot of combing, a lot of checking to see which arcs I need to watch, which arcs I need to read, reading in-depth to tropes, and of course, reading a lot of peer-reviewed materials over time to build my case. I am, however, going to give you the bare bones of it now:
The black bodies in Naruto are a combination of the cultural diffusion of 1990s Black Culture to Japan alongside a growing desire and appreciation for African-American hip-hop culture as an aesthetic, but not necessarily as a lifestyle. Because of that, certain coded traits are identifiable to Japanese readers as Black and thus cool.
(It’s work in progress: I haven’t’ really thought where my mind will land on this, but it’s tending towards a look at how Kishimoto is using images and identifiers for Black characters in a Japanese setting.)
I’ll be making a list all day of the things I’ll need: I’ll have to pool together the War Funds for buying a bunch of Naruto manga, will have to check and see if Crunchyroll still has Naruto episodes for view, might do some cosplay and analysis of outfits –because cosplay is totally research y’all, and there’s a store that ships from Tokyo with custom plus-sized costumes for real, real cheap, okay?– and doing my thing, pulling sources, reading on the bus, skimming when I don’t have time, debating, talking to fans –specifically black fans– and even doing a survey to pull information from the American demographic.
At the end, I’m going to pen a paper and combine what will most likely be months of research into a conclusive thesis about the Why of Blackness in the Naruto series. Hopefully, it’ll be as good as I’m thinking it will: not to overestimate my writing skills, but I’m pretty darn good.
(Maybe some videos will sneak their way in!)
There’s a lot I can do with Naruto, and this base research is only the start. I’m hoping that with time –i.e. Summer Vacation– I can relax at my desk, sweat a bunch, and outline, genuinely outline, this entire endeavor. A solid base builds a solid argument, and I want to go in armed with a good foundation when I dive into Naruto.
After all, I’m a fighting dreamer!
(Btw, get used to my sense of humor: academia may have killed my desire to read books for a year, but humor and laughter are forever!)