Uzumaki Naruto: The Patron Saint of Hard Word (Yes, Really)
An essay about embracing failure and pushing on.
Staten Island, NY, Circa 1990
Now, it’s clear to me that this essay won’t appeal to everyone. That’s natural, how can it? I grew up in the 90s as the child of former Soviets who’d moved to Staten Island, NY for a quieter life.
And while I was about as white bread as most of my other American friends at school, what they didn’t so much understand was the incredible pressure put on us by our parents to succeed. After all, those same parents had sacrificed so much already to put you here, why not go as far as you possibly could with what they’d given you?
And my parents sacrificed a lot. For large swaths of my childhood, I remember barely seeing them on weekdays, where they worked late nights and commuted to be able to support me and my two older siblings. Unsurprisingly, I grew up as a tomboy who was mostly looked after by my teenaged brother (which was a sad issue for reasons I won’t go into), and I can’t tell you how many hours of Gauntlet or Diablo we would play.
Later in the 2000s, it was Halo, then Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim…
It wasn’t a large leap, discovering anime, after playing games forever, but it was definitely a weird one for my family.
But with latchkey, I had plenty of time to figure out what stories I myself liked. This meant that on the days that my brother and sister had to work, I took the bus and walked home on my own. Sometimes we could afford a babysitter, but a lot of the times, I had to make sure to walk home safely and let myself in to watch cartoons until someone came home.
Personally, I loved those days. It meant racing home off the bus and watching Sailor Moon and Ruroni Kenshin on Toonami before my dad came home from work. At that point, I’d have to rush to the table to pretend like I’d been doing my homework the entire time. I remember those days with a lot of fondness.
I didn’t truly love an anime before Naruto, though.
When It Really Clicked
There was something so special about it, that it captured a generation of people’s imagination so hard, it made them run around with metal plates strapped to their heads like clowns. (Yes, also me.)
What was it about a cartoon from Japan, named after a ramen fishcake, that people loved so much?
Born out of the mind of a student who ranked 30th in a class of 31, and an intense love for film, Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto was first published as a one-shot story in Weekly Shonen Jump in 1997. Two years later, it ran in Jump as a full series about a boy at the bottom of his class in a village full of ninjas.
At its heart, Naruto is the story about a character who is told that he’ll never be good at anything. Some of you may know exactly what this sounds like. It’s a phrase I know I heard at home a lot.
As a girl who grew up in the fever dream of progress in the 1990s, we were told we could be anything. But as the Bush Era approached, it became clear that the ‘anything’ that was implied was actually a very small group of choices afforded to us as an afterthought. When we asked why that was, we were mocked and called feminists. Each time a woman or a person of color was lauded on television, we watched the narrative of them becoming successful ‘despite’ their identity, not because of what they went through.
Resilience is not something a lot of us learn with happy memories. If you’re someone dealing with any modicum of trauma, you know this. Coming out on top of what you go through requires an almost unthinkable amount of faith.
Just like Luke with his X-Wing in Empire, your spirit must be indomitable or the world convinces you that you will fail.
When the LA Times interviewed him in 2008, Masashi Kishimoto was asked what exactly made his character a runaway success across the world.
“It’s rather awkward to talk about what makes Naruto appealing to audiences, but I think his being a knucklehead gives him an appeal. Perfect heroes are cool, but no one can really empathize or identify with them. Naruto often makes blunders, and he has weaknesses. Naruto feels inferior to his peers, but he hates to be a loser. Although he doesn’t think about it too much, he knows he hates to lose, and we all know what that feels like. I think readers see themselves in Naruto, and that’s what appeals to them: They can empathize with him and his weaknesses.”
Trusting the Process
One of the things that sticks with me the most about Naruto is his capacity for resilience in the face of his weaknesses. He never does quite allow the world to make him buckle. And despite losing friends, his parents, and generally being regarded as detrimental to his community — he pushes towards the dream of leading his village.
As a kid, failure was not an option in my household. Low grades and unimpressive report cards were met with months of grounding. When I hid my failed math tests, I got classic Soviet beltings for it. Am I resentful of my parents for doing this? No. Not particularly. I know for a fact that I was a tough kid to sit down and make focus, and I still struggle to sit down and finish a simple essay. But here I am.
Our lives our not free of struggle. And oftentimes, it’s the struggle that ends up becoming the most formative parts of our lives. The moments we were sure we’d never see the other side of, until we did.
One particular part of Naruto comes to mind a lot nowadays, as I send my writing out for review by magazines, and to different programs, preparing generally for years worth of rejection and failure as my writing improves.
I think about when Naruto tries to master Rasengan, a technique that requires harnessing the power of the wind. In the shortest terms possible: it’s a beautiful metaphor. As believers, all we ever do is thread the wind into gold. I come back this feeling a lot.
After days of trying, it’s only through sheer force of will and coming back to face the problem again alone, that he realizes there is a way he make himself learn. It’s the belief in the process that sees him through.
That is a truly defining act of hard work: believing in yourself enough to come back to your failures. Putting in all the hours to till your soil until it’s fertile. We’re only ever given two choices when things get hard: either show up or give up.
Uzumaki Naruto is my personal patron saint of hard work exactly because of this. Giving up is easy. What comes afterwards is personal accountability and measurable progress. None of it will happen overnight, so I’m strapping in for the long haul, who knows — maybe one day I’ll be Hokage.