Happily Never After vs Aggressive Heteronormativity: Families in Naruto
Long-running ninja shounen manga series, Naruto, concluded late last year with Chapter 700. It’s a finale that’s gone down in history as a serious competitor with the Harry Potter epilogue for Most Banal Ending Award.
Why? Much like Harry Potter, everyone gets paired. Everyone. Yes, even that person.
While the ship wars may lead you to assume otherwise, it’s not just the endgame couples of Naruto/Hinata and Sasuke/Sakura. Ino ends up with Sai. Shikamaru ends up with Temari. Chouji ends up with Karui, a female ninja from another allied village. Kiba ends up with a random minor female character with an affinity for cats. And the more I study the ending credits to the The Last: Naruto the Movie, the more I grow convinced Rock Lee ended up with Tenten.
That’s a lot of couples! And with the sole exception of Kiba and his wife, every single one of them had kids.
It sounds cute at first glance. Oh, here’s the next generation! What kind of shenanigans are they going to get into? Is Boruto going to be as much of a troublemaker as his dad, Naruto? Is Sarada going to have the same family issues as her father, Sasuke? How does the newest Shika-Ino-Cho trio compare to their predecessors?
The problem, though, lies in the connotation of this kind of ending. Naruto effectively changed the face of the Ninja World. He fought in the Fourth Ninja war. He defeated the alien princess who’s effectively the mother of the ninja world as they knew it. He released the tailed monsters that past ninja used as weapons of mass destruction. When fandom calls Naruto “Ninja Jesus”—Matreiya if he were incarnated as a warrior, if you will—they’re not completely wrong.
And one of the things this so-called messiah ushered in is an era of peace. It’s referenced multiple times. Tenten opens a weapons shop, but business is slow. When Naruto faces an enemy threat in the sequel mini-series, The Seventh Hokage and the Scarlet Spring, Kurama—the nine-tailed fox Naruto spent so much of his life bonded to—chastises him for letting peacetime dull his fighting skills.
Sure, all of those things make sense. If you’re not fighting for your life on a daily basis, your martial prowess probably isn’t going to be sharp. Who buys weapons when there are no wars to be fought?
But when you combine those things with the multitude of happy families, it sends a different message.
In the world of Naruto, why is a happy ending associated with marriage and children?
It becomes even more suspect when we compare to the previous generations. Shikamaru and Ino’s fathers died during the war. Asuma was killed in action prior to the war, leaving Kurenai to raise their child alone. Jiraiya made a career out of writing erotic romance novels but spent his life alone and died alone. The love of Tsunade’s life died at a young age and she spent her entire life mourning him. Kakashi became Hokage after Tsunade, and he lived his life alone despite being a certified hottie. As far as we can see based on Chapter 700 and Naruto: The Last, Gai also lived as a single man after the war. What does that say about disabled wheelchair users?
There’s a clear split here. Ninja who lived and fought prior to Naruto changing society have broken families. Naruto and Sasuke themselves are examples of this. Naruto’s parents died to save Konoha from Kurama’s rampage, and Sasuke’s brother massacred their entire clan when it became apparent they were planning a coup. But the ninja of Naruto’s generation, and most especially his friends and allies, get to have whole families and intact homes. Despite being an absent father, even Sasuke falls into this category because Sakura is fine with his constant wandering and redemption journey.
It’s not that I don’t want people to have a happy ending. Of course I want that! Who wants doom and gloom all the time? Not me. If I want grimdark, I can read A Song of Ice and Fire. I don’t need it in my shounen manga. But did everyone have to get married? Did everyone have to have kids? Did everyone’s partners explicitly have to be of the opposite sex?
Talk about alienating. Sure, we can say that Kakashi and Gai are partners—they’re planning to go on a journey together in Chapter 700—but the manga never explicitly states they’re queer, so those extrapolations lay purely in the fandom realm. Yes, we can revel in the fact that Gaara never gets married and, according to the light novels, just plain doesn’t understand romantic relationships at all, thus supporting the theories that he’s asexual and/or aromantic, but you could also argue that he’s a product of the pre-Naruto world since he became Kazekage before the Fourth Ninja War.
Sure, it’s nice that there’s enough space for fans to interpret characters as belonging outside of the heteronormative model, but that’s only a handful in a huge, sprawling cast. Putting aside the idea that fans must reinterpret the characters in apparently subversive ways because we’ll never get them in canon, why present this picture of heteronormative domestic bliss? Naruto and Hinata are presented as the perfect couple. Don’t get me wrong. I like that. It’s a refreshing change from the drama that characterizes the Uchiha household. But the Uzumaki household is literally a suburban stereotype: two kids, a dad who goes off to work, and a mom who stays home and knits. Ultimately, Naruto is a Japanese comic and portrays different sociocultural ideals that arise from that context. However, this narrow definition of domestic bliss is surely as stifling to Japanese readers who have no desire to pursue this lifestyle as it is to Western readers.
Why couldn’t Sakura have kicked Sasuke to the curb? Or maybe she got sick of his never being home and divorced him? She raised Sarada by herself, after all, so she was more or less a single mother in every way except for technicality. Why not have Kiba hook up with Shino instead of some random cat-loving woman who we’ve only seen a couple times in the manga? If we want to erase the clear divide between previous generation and Naruto’s generation, then explicitly say that Gai and Kakashi are together. They could even adopt a kid! There are sure to be orphans after the war. Don’t leave it to readers to make conjectures. We’re getting tired of that.
To be clear, I’m not saying these characters don’t deserve happiness. They went through a lot. I’m even okay with the Naruto/Hinata and Sasuke/Sakura marriages because those were telegraphed from the first volume. But for the final chapter to feature so many heterosexual marriages with biological children, and for the sequel miniseries to double-down on the importance of hereditary bloodlines, readers are forced to accept a message that Happy Ever Afters must include those things.
And that makes for a dull, uninteresting world, doesn’t it?