Approximately two decades ago, the tale of Naruto Uzumaki was born and became an actualization of Masashi Kishimoto’s wild imagination. The series — both in manga and anime — have irrefutably set a standard for the production of shōnen masterpieces not only because of its near-perfect action scenes, but also because of its well-thought character development (from Naruto himself down to his comrades), its reasonably lengthy plot (especially its twists) and its explicit and implicit messages. Moreover, due to its immense popularity, watching or reading the series became a part of countless peoples’ lives; some even experience nostalgia especially when the series met its denouement.
Many viewers and readers enjoyed the series probably because of the flashy or intricate jutsu (techniques) that the characters executed; the fundamentals of which were ninjutsu, taijutsu, and genjutsu. However, beyond those jutsu, Naruto itself offers a wide range of lessons: from relationships to purposeful living. In fact, due to these lessons, the tough lives of Naruto and of his comrades in a war-torn period have become an inspiration to many.
Moreover, the series, whether intentional or not, describes the dynamics of war politics and is a reflection of the state our world is currently in.
The Neorealist Agenda: Tailed Beasts as Weapons of War
Naruto will never be Naruto without the existence of nine tailed beasts (bijū); one of which was sealed within the body of the titular character. These beasts were a driving point of the series’s main conflict: first, the shinobi villages were attempting to steal the beasts from their respective hosts (jinchūriki) in order to gain advantage against their rival villages; second, the Akatsuki seized villages to obtain the beasts in order to establish a ‘new world order’, thus pressuring the previously warring villages to unite against the common enemy.
This whole act of stealing and keeping the tailed beasts in order to win wars and influence world politics could be explained by an IR theory called neorealism. Under neorealism, war takes place because of the real (i.e. resources) or abstract structures (i.e. survival instincts) that compel nations to compete against each other. It also highlights that the self-interests of the nations themselves (not of the individuals) play a vital role on how these nations move or behave in the global political arena. Lastly, it emphasizes that military weapons are an important determinant in analyzing the relative power a nation wields as compared to other nations.
In Naruto, the ownership of tailed beasts transferred from one village to another because these villages are primarily motivated by their self-interests — they aimed to increase their offensive military capabilities by using tailed beasts as weapons of war. A fan of the series knows how powerful these beasts are, as they can, in fact, destroy a whole village in an instant. Thus, obtaining at least one tailed beast was a requisite for a village not only to survive, but also to play a major role in world politics and leverage the resources that it already had.
It could also be noted that the pacifist First Hokage, Hashirama Senju, tapped into the balance of powers — a neorealism subconcept — which could be observed when he attempted to distribute to four other great villages the tailed beasts he had captured and sealed, thanks to his innate talent. With this balancing, he hoped that no one village, including his own, could dominate the others and that the five nations, or the world at large, will soon cooperate. However, despite his goodwill, this attempt failed, because of each nation’s ‘security dilemma’ — that is, they will never trust each other because the cycle of war had already made them deem the other as a threat to their existence. For them and for their successors, cooperation was almost impossible because a nation will betray the other anytime due to competition for resources, which include the tailed beasts.
In other words, in Naruto, the tailed beasts served not only as physical resources (that would show a village’s military might), but also as weapons of war that each village sought to protect. The villages’ self-interests and lack of trust for each other compelled them to implement policies focusing on the capture of tailed beasts and on waging wars in order to fulfill such purpose. Thus, in a neorealist’s perspective, Naruto succeeded in tracing one of the root causes of war, which modern scholars often fail to consider.
The Critical Constructivist Critique: ‘Othering’ and Identity Formations as a Fuel of Conflicts
Naruto, Jiraiya, and Hashirama Senju — these characters believed that achieving peace is possible and that there will come a time when nations will set aside their differences and achieve full cooperation. Such ideal became the central moral of the series; that is why, at the latter episodes, even most characters from all nations believed that regardless of where they came from, they considered their fellow shinobi as ‘comrades’.
This whole scenario is actually covered by an IR theory called critical constructivism — in which the root cause of war is not the competition for resources, but the nations’ identity formations that lead to ‘othering’, which takes place when a nation considers the ‘other’ as an enemy, simply because the people of latter do not belong to the former. In more complex scenarios, the root causes of war could also be traced to the involved nations’ inherent differences — skin color, race, and even moral perspectives. Lastly, identity formations also tap into the shared past of two or more nations; and as such, the very identity of a nation could also be shaped by the wars and conflicts it waged against the ‘other’. Hence, if two or more nations were historically enemies, peace among them may never be possible.
In the series, Nagato (also called Pein) even took the effort to explain the cycle of war, with hatred and pain as both the causes and effects of war. The nations’ hatred against one another was always reborn no matter what the era because whenever they would attempt to cooperate to achieve a common goal, the people would always be reminded of their respective past in which they suffered in the hands of their enemies. The trauma brought about by war automatically triggered the minds of standard shinobi, who believed that those who wore distinct shinobi attires were inevitably considered enemies.
One of the most inspiring scenes in Naruto took place during the Fourth Shinobi World War, in which the shinobi of Five Great Shinobi Nations, including the isolationist samurais of the Land of Iron, gathered at the Land of Lightning with the goal of collectively facing Akatsuki and its allies. The meeting was in upheaval since the shinobi refused to cooperate with those of the other villages because of the traumatic past they shared and simply because the other shinobi are ‘different’; hence a sign of their hatred against one another. Their squabbles apparently ended when Gaara — now the Fifth Kazekage and the commander-in-chief of the Allied Shinobi Forces — delivered his speech (which drew inspiration from his relationship with Naruto) before the crowd, who then responded to the Kazekage’s challenge: that is, for all of the shinobi to cooperate in order to win the war for sure.
A viewer could also take a look at one of the final scenes of Naruto Shippuden, in which the reanimated Hashirama channeled his memories (via Ino Yamanaka’s telepathic jutsu) in order to keep on pursuing hope, despite the fact that the tide of the battle was already against their favor. Moreover, the feelings of Naruto reached the heart of the remaining shinobi, as his experiences, including the hatred he received from the people he swore to protect, made them feel that they — regardless of the nation they came from — were no longer different from each other and that ‘solid’ cooperation and trust were vital in order for them to win against their enemies.
Despite these lessons, however, critical constructivism, like any approach to IR, posits a reality — that is, war is inevitable; thus, despite all the similarities that could help unite the nations, they will still end up waging war because the things that divide them outweigh those that unify them. In other words, in Naruto universe (now continued in Boruto), absolute, long-lasting peace will never be possible.
Critical constructivism and neorealism are not the only IR theories that could help explain the politics of war in Naruto. Topics such as the role of the kunoichi in war, the behind-the-scenes of village control and foreign policy implementations, and the impact of terrorist-like organizations in world politics demand to be discussed and need application of IR or political theories. The series, overall, went beyond laying down the best life lessons that people of all ages could appreciate, since it made us critically think about the birth and cycle of war and/or conflict and about how these events are shaped by the involved nations’ self-interests and shared experiences.