When Naruto was first published, its many female ninjas were revolutionary, as the series went on though, cracks started to show.
As with any good shonen manga, Naruto is well known for its wide cast of characters. The series’ female ninjas in particular maintain a large fandom almost a decade after the original series concluded. Unfortunately, while the kunoichi were an important part of Naruto‘s appeal, they’re also one of its biggest failures and a symbol of all the things that went wrong as the series progressed.
When Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto first premiered in 1999, it quickly set itself apart from other popular shonen manga that had come before it. While Naruto shares much of Dragon Ball’s DNA, one area it outranked its predecessor was with its women. While shonen had female fighters such as Dragon Ball’s Android 18 before, they were rarely main characters. In contrast, Naruto made characters like Sakura, Tsunade, and Hinata important cast members and even gave supporting characters like Temari some of the series’ best fights. Though there were never as many kunoichi as shinobi, the series’ rule of every squad consisting of two males and one female theoretically ensured that women would always have an important place in the story. Unfortunately, things didn’t exactly end up that way.
Though Naruto’s female representation always had its ups and downs, things really went downhill toward the end of Shippuden. While males characters like Naruto and Sasuke got massive powerups, stunning new transformations, and huge revelations about their backstories, Sakura ended up with very little growth or development after Shippuden’s first few arcs. This shift even drips down to the series’ themes. The reveal that Naruto and Sasuke are actually reincarnations of two feuding brothers leaves Sakura as an awkward third wheel. What’s worse, is that this sloppy theming makes earlier elements worse in retrospect.
In the beginning, every trio in Naruto has a similar dynamic. From Team 7 to the most powerful ninja trio, the Legendary Sannin, almost every notable trio in Naruto consisted of an enthusiastic hot-head, someone more level-headed who is emotionally closed off, and… a girl. While it’s easy to draw comparisons between Naruto and Kiba, or Sasuke and Shino, Sakura plays a completely different role in her team than Hinata. These characters have serious potential to have compelling arcs of their own, but are too often reduced to supporting roles for their male counterparts.
Still, while all of this is legitimately a problem, it would be wrong to erase what the series does do right. Tsunade makes it out of the series as arguably her trio’s most important member. Kaguya is a flawed antagonist but having a series’ final villain be a woman is still quite rare in shonen. While many of the kunoichi don’t get impressive transformations, each of them is given unique powers and abilities. There’s a reason Naruto has a large female fanbase, and a large part of that is Naruto’s many powerful women.
Naruto is ultimately a shonen series, so it’s only natural that it would primarily appeal to young men. However, Naruto was partially revolutionary because it showed that just because a series was targeted at young men didn’t mean it couldn’t also earn a sizable fanbase of young women. While Naruto is a flawed series, its strengths are the reason it’s still fondly remembered to this day.
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