Naruto & child soldiers / The thrilling tragedy of Kakashi Gaiden

Does Masashi Kishimoto think about how children are depicted in Naruto? Ninja are tools of war, after all, and Konoha trains its children to become ninja; isn’t that wrong? On a base, moral level? Of course, Naruto is intended as entertainment and, as such, there’s a certain amount of distance one feels between it and the real world, but to compare it to another boys-orientated action anime, like One Piece, reveals just how dark a world Kishimoto’s characters are born into, a place where children are trained to fight almost as soon as they can walk.

Kakashi Gaiden is one of the series’ most interesting arcs for precisely this reason. A much younger, school-aged Kakashi and his equally as young team-mates, Obito Uchiha and Rin, are sent to the front-lines of the Third Great Shinobi World War, to fight against (and kill, presumably) another country’s blood-thirsty adult ninja. What’s so surprising is just how fierce and cut-throat the various skirmishes become, not least of all when Kakashi loses an eye to the unseen slash of some heartless bastard’s knife. His comrade Obito, still just a naive boy, cries tears of fear when faced with the enemy, his reaction still one of a child (and a perfectly understandable one at that,) and even though he develops bravery enough to fight back, he still loses his life, caught out by the trick of a more experienced warrior.

Obito, the boy, dies. His left eye, with its newly developed Sharingan, is transplanted into Kakashi’s own damaged eye-socket. And so born is the famous Copy Ninja.

There are larger action scenes in Naruto, bigger pay-offs, more dramatic sacrifices, but Kakashi Gaiden is ferocious and exhilarating because it depicts ninja not as super-heroes, but as real people and children, clashing in battle, where there’s no time to stand still and trade philosophies, but merely the quick and the dead. There’s a moral ambiguity at its core, feelings torn between the vicarious thrill of watching a series of awesome encounters with heroic characters, and the reality of seeing these children maimed and killed by a bunch of hardened, heartless soldiers. It’s thrilling in its triumph, but thoroughly sad, too, which is just the way it should be for such a dark premise.

Author: bateszi

A huge bloody nerd. I apologise in advance.
I live in Cambridge, England. That’s not an excuse, by the way.

13 thoughts on “Naruto & child soldiers / The thrilling tragedy of Kakashi Gaiden”

  1. Kakashi and his teammates had it hard, but remember that at the end they were in the “winning” side, Konoha.

    The next arc in the anime (after this filler) is the Pain Flashback story, in which it tells the story of Yahiko, Nagato, and Konan. They were also young kids that had to survive while their own village, the Hidden Rain, was defeated by the Leaf/Rock village and their parents killed.

    1. Interesting– so it’s suggesting that Konoha isn’t so morally infalible after all? I’m still some way behind on the Shippuuden anime (ep. 120, as of this comment,) but it’s good to know there’s more about the respective villages in the future.

  2. I was going to mention the upcoming arc of the manga, but I’ve been beaten to the punch.

    Somehow, my own feelings about Naruto are entirely in contrast with this post. While perhaps, as viewers, we might question the moral alignment of certain events and characters, on the whole the characters within the Naruto world don’t feel this. While they are born as weapons, as you claim, they have incredibly strong moral compasses. I’m sure you’ve noticed, but there’s a strong tradition in all of the villages (naturally, in Konoha as well) of Mentor-pupil relationships that exist on the level of family bonds. These mentor-pupil relationships often span generations. Sarutobi -> Asuma -> Shikamaru is a good example of this; along with the more obvious Jiraiya -> 4th -> (Jiraya ->) Naruto. I think it’s this structure within the villages that keeps their constituents from descending into Evangelion-esque levels of madness in regards to being a living weapon. In becoming better ninja (weapons) via this mentor-pupil relationship, they also validate their existence outside as something beyond that.

    I suppose what I’m trying to say is that, internally, the characters have a set of morals. What may seem questionable to us (child soldiers) is justifiable to them. While there are certainly ninja families (Shikamaru again comes to mind, also the Uchiha), the amount of people in Konoha who are simple civilians leads me to think that there is, in fact, a choice: much like a child choosing to take up violin at a young age (even before understanding the full consequences of said choice) children are also enrolled in the ninja school we find Naruto & co. in initially. There is a life outside of the villages and the ninja world, and often the conflicts the cast finds themselves embroiled in are conflicts simply between ninja – only in extreme cases, it seems, do real “civilians” get involved. If anything, the entire Naruto world is simply playing at war, and while the casualties are real, they are a layer removed from the “real world” that most people live in. But this is straying into wild conjecture, so I think i’ll just stop here :)

    1. I think it’s this structure within the villages that keeps their constituents from descending into Evangelion-esque levels of madness in regards to being a living weapon. In becoming better ninja (weapons) via this mentor-pupil relationship, they also validate their existence outside as something beyond that.

      That’s still pretty messed up, though, isn’t it? I mean, in the way it’s justifying violence as a means of gaining emotional validation? You’re right to point out that the likes of Naruto have good moral compasses and are taught to always try to see the good in people, but I suppose what I’m getting at is that war is war, and that Kakashi, Obito and Rin are just a bunch of children standing on an adult’s battlefield, where they have to make hard, adult choices. Obito, for one, was way too young to be dispatched, Kakashi was still pretty immature, and when she’s caught, Rin is subjected to a very intense and violent interogation. I just don’t/can’t understand why they were out there, fighting.

      I must admit, I completely forgot about the ‘normal’ residents of Konoha, but even still, what age is the right age for teaching children how to kill? I realise I’m at the risk of taking Naruto a little too seriously here, it’s just interesting to think that such a popular series, which is ostensibly so heart-warming and inspiring, has such a questionable moral core.

      I wonder if there’s ever been a really indepth interview with Kishimoto? I’m convinced he wanted to draw these feelings from us with Kakashi Gaiden, but to what end? Will Naruto end with the dissolution of the hidden villages?

      1. About children sent to war, it is an usual practice in a war of attrition when one side (or even both) are running low in personnel. It is usually a last resort after running out of 16-18 years-old untrained men.

        During WWII, Germany had to employ 13 year old kids (the current Pope was one of them) to manage the anti-aircraft guns on the last months of the war. Russia got to the point in which they had to use LITTLE GIRLS since they had already ran out of boys.

        Also during the Cold war hot spots and today with the Jihad fighters/terrorists, it is a common practice. It is all based on the principle of “a grownups won´t shot a kid, even if he is carrying a bomb or sending an important message”.

        Ok, now moving back to Naruto:

        If you think it was cruel to send Kakashi, Rin, and Obito to war, what do you think of Itashi? Check chapter 400 page 4. Itashi was sent to the battefield at the age of 4.

        You have to consider that sometimes morrally right decisions aren´t politically right decisions. As Danzou said, “Sarutobi (the Third) was the green leaves that represent the village, yet I was the dark roots that gave strength/firmness to the tree”.

        Danzou and Roots are the CIA of Konoha. He orders the assasinations, makes and breaks coups at countries around the Fire Country, and does all the politically correct actions but morally wrong things to mantain peace and stability to his country and village.

        1. Although it’s probably unlikely, I’d love to see how some of these political/military decisions are being considered by the village leaders in Naruto. All we ever seem to see is Tsunade sat behind her desk, hiding under a huge pile of papers, but perhaps Danzou’s presence changes things in the future? He sounds like an interesting guy.

          For example, in Legend of the Galactic Heroes, there’s a very clear scene where Reinhard seriously debates allowing a nuclear strike (launched by his opposition) on a foreign country in order to provoke a huge backlash against that opposition. Ultimately, he lets the bombs drop, which wasn’t the morally right thing to do, but at least it helps him in his campaign to win the war.

          The strange thing about Naruto is, is that there is no attempt to justify what they are doing by sending their youngsters out to battle, as if it’s merely the normal thing that’s done? That’s what I see as the most unsettling thing of all. A lot of Naruto is emotionally driven, so, it’s easy to understand/overlook why Sasuke wants to avenge his family, but for something like Kakashi Gaiden, the reasoning provided lacks that emotional clarity, and we see things from a more objective, and ultimately, darker, perspective.

  3. My goodness is it that time already? Every few odd 20-30 episodes Naruto suddenly jumps up and gets right back into business. I assume this is one of those times? Uh its too bad I have like…a few dozen episodes to watch before I can consume this Kakashi arc. Tell me, do you think its worth it, going through 100 episodes just to reach this? I consider myself a fan, a heartfelt fan, that just couldn’t tolerate the endless exposition, constipated animation and horror-inducing dialogue. I used to trudge through the show back in the heyday, cause I knew Naruto rewarded those who were tenacious. Right now though I’ve grown impatient and incredibly critical. So in short, how GOOD is it? Like Chunin exam arc good? Or just good?

    1. Honestly, Naruto’s pretty good right now. I’m well behind on the broadcast schedule, too, but of the last 10 or so episodes I’ve seen (which is up to ep. 120,) Shippuuden’s finally starting to feel like it’s moving forwards, in the sense that a number of the story’s bigger arcs are reaching crescendo (Sasuke vs. Itachi is fast approaching, Orochimaru is ostensibly now forgotten, and I’ve no clue where it’ll go once all this stuff is finally concluded.)

      If it’s any consolation to you, eps. 89 through 112 consist of one continuous filler arc, and while I slogged through the whole thing (as far as Naruto filler arcs go, it’s one of their better efforts,) you can skip over it all and not miss any of the ‘real’ story.

      Anyway, Shippuuden may not yet have reached the consistent highs of the Chunin exam arc, but this is Naruto we’re talking about here, Ivy. Whether I like it or not, I’ll be watching this series to the bitter end. I’m simply way too attached to the story and these characters by now to know whether or not what I’m seeing is good or bad! All I can say is, as a Naruto anime fan, I think the series is still pretty exciting.

      1. Hopefully these story arcs converge at some point, creating that exciting and fresh melange of entertainment its known for. But ya I understand the commitment and time put on this show is so overwhelming for many of us, its probably hard to let go even if you wanted to. I still visit tokyotosho chug in Naruto checking to see which episode it has reached, even if I did stop watching, deep down inside I still believe I’ll pick it up someday! Maybe!
        (On a completely unrelated note, I haven’t read your thoughts on Durarara, such a sumptuous show right up your alley)

        1. I’m probably going to finish watching Durarara!! tomorrow, so, I may have something to say about it then. I’ve tried to write about it in the past, but, for whatever reason, struggled. I enjoy it, but in a detached kind of way.

  4. Threaded comments were not made for our essay-like tirades. :p

    @Maverick: Itachi at age 4.. well, even if we discount the fact that they were at war, Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura graduate ninja academy at age 13 and are sent straight to battle (remember, one of their first missions with the Zabuza arc). Team 7 makes its debut in a time of relative peace, as well.

    @bateszi: I don’t think they’re justifying violence – if anything, Naruto avoids that sort of philosophical examination into the nature of war. The characters and its world don’t ever question the act of war – due to the fact that the focal point of the story is in the hidden villages, the lens through which we view things is quite tinted. As I mentioned above, they graduate their ninja academy at age 13; it’s not just “normal”, it’s an established convention – just as it’s expected that, after completing university, one would get a job. It’s a rite of passage. It isn’t considered “right” or “wrong” to do so – it just is.

    As to they “are they too young” question, I’ll pull up an age-old argument which may land me in hot water: the idea of the “teenager” (“young adult”, even) , and the prolonged incubation period which is attached to it, is a relatively new concept which finds its home in developed countries. In places where that incubation period isn’t present, it’s natural for teenagers, and even older children, to be considered simply as “little adults”. Many of my Persian friends were raised in this way; and it is reflected in their personality. However, also in tow with that culture comes enough of a moral network that, while in those teenage years where they are still pliable as people, they are molded and guided, into becoming an adult. This is done without their being outright protected from the world – hence why said friends are observable more as “little adults” than teenagers or adolescents. It’s not unusual for adolescence to not exist. If anything, it’s a privilege.

    Finally, I don’t think their reactions are specifically having to do with being young. I think no matter what the age, when presented with the horrific and gruesome reality of war, would react similarly – a mixture of fear, shock, and horror.

    1. The use of children in war, though, is a taboo because (most) children aren’t able to make responsible or reasoned decisions in the same way that adults can. That’s why, especially in your last paragraph, I tend to disagree with the notion that adults and children have the same reaction to war; a soldier has (presumably) made the choice to fight, and therefore, is more mentally prepared for/able to deal with what follows, but a child is physically weaker, more easily influenced and even forced in certain directions (a good example is ‘Gunslinger Girl,’ which has an absolutely abhorrent premise and is gutting to watch.) Basically, an adult can understand why he’s fighting, but a child, not necessarily. Like you said above, a child merely follows his/her mentor, often without question.

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