I wrote this almost two years ago, for Sociocide, but figured I should put it here. I recently came across a discussion thread on the Toonami forums which referenced it.
Let’s face it folks, kid’s television shows today are a festering cesspool of mind-rotting garbage. If you’ve ever been unlucky enough to flip over to the Disney Channel and catch “That’s So Raven”, or “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”, for example, you know what I’m talking about. The plots regularly feature unrealistic kids getting into all kinds of trouble, with minimal if any consequences for their zany hijinks, while their parents are clueless idiots who can be easily manipulated.
Now I realize that when entertaining a child, you probably don’t want to club them over the head with the realities of how rough life really is, and a good amount of fantasy is healthy. Heck sometimes showing a kid-hero getting away with something harmless can be empowering for kids. But the idea that the world is a great big playground, free of painful consequences, is a dangerous one to teach our children; especially in an age where the children of our enemies are being indoctrinated with a desire to kill us while they’re barely out of their diapers.
This brings us to a cartoon called Naruto, based on a manga (Japanese comic book) by Masashi Kishimoto. Now I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Anime. I don’t own a collection of Katanas, nor do I have a burning desire to run off to Japan and marry a Japanese woman who still wears a school girl outfit. I’ve watched Akira twice, Ninja Scroll three times, and most of the Dragonball Z show when it was on Cartoon Network a few years back. But about a year ago I started noticing posts on the Bullshido forums about this anime/manga and recently I decided to see what all the talk was about.
13 years ago, a massive, nine-tailed demon fox of legend attacked the hidden leaf ninja village of Konoha, one of several “hidden” ninja villages around the world of Naruto. The village’s ninja fought valiantly against the monster but to no avail until the Fourth Hokage (head ninja) showed up and sacrificed himself, sealing the demon in the body of an infant.
That boy was Naruto Uzumaki. Naruto grew up alone and unwanted. The Fourth Hokage had ordered that no one in the village was to speak about the demon fox, but that did not prevent them from shunning the boy. In his desperation for attention, Naruto had become the class clown at the ninja academy, and was generally a poor student.
This is where the story begins. I’ll admit that I had to force myself to watch the first few episodes of the show. I found them to be annoying, almost as if this were a version of Harry Potter, but with Ninjas. But as Naruto learns the secret of why everyone in the village seems to hate him, the story opens up and you get introduced to the amazing depth with which Kishimoto has developed not just the main character, but almost all of the supporting characters as well.
However, well fleshed-out characters aren’t the main reason why your kids should watch this show. As the story progresses, Naruto’s squad of four including his instructor, Kakashi, his rival, Sasuke, and the target of his affection, Sakura, go on their first “real mission” and the author takes this opportunity to introduce them to the realities of their chosen life as ninjas. These realities of life, presented in the context of fantasy, are what make the show perfect for children who are just starting to grasp the nature of how the world works.
Through the course of the story, Naruto and the other characters come to understand what it is to pursue a dream, to come to terms with the realities of death, and perhaps the foremost lesson or theme taught by the show: true strength is gained when you fight for your dreams or to defend those who are important to you.
In Naruto, even the “bad guys” have their own dreams to pursue, and people they care about. Instead of being stereotypical children’s show villains, the foes in Naruto come into conflict with the heroes through pursuing their own goals, which though contrary, are not always portrayed as “evil”. The rejection of a simplistic duality of good and evil enriches this show and provides an excellent opportunity for parents to discuss morality and conscience with their children. In one scene, a rival ninja fights not to kill, but to disable Naruto and his friends in order to protect his master. And when it becomes apparent that he cannot fulfill his purpose of protecting his master, he sacrifices his life for him. In another scene, Naruto struggles against a near-perfect ninja with a fatalist view on life, to prove that you do not have to be born with great talent to do great things.
As a parent, I am always thinking about what my child is learning about the world on a daily basis. I try my best to answer questions about things in a way that promotes independent thinking and allows her to come to her own conclusions based on facts and reason. If I do not let her watch a particular show, I make sure she understands why and give her the opportunity to provide justifications for why she should watch it, if there are any.
Life is complicated, and it doesn’t get any less complicated as a child approaches adulthood. Some parents, in a selfish desire to relive their childhood, seek to keep their kids innocent (ignorant) of the world around them. Instead of creating another generation of man-children, I believe in spoon-feeding small doses of reality to a child based on a well-intentioned assessment of how much that child can process and understand.
Childhood is not a magical time in and of itself. The very reason childhood is magical is because a child’s senses are on fire to take in everything about the world around them. But the magic is not meant to last forever and those who seek to selfishly prolong this state by keeping their children ignorant of the realities of life, are negligent and undeserving of the right to be called parents.
The best thing you can do for your child is to send them into the world ready to be an adult; a rational, thinking being with a broad understanding of the complexity of life and their role in it. And a show like Naruto, where things are not black and white, where dreams are pursued through effort, and where conflict is not avoided for the sake of preserving peace, is one of the best things you can expose your child to in this age where we seem to have lost the fortitude of our own identity.