Last time, I talked about the problems inherent in the Kishimoto’s writing of women in Naruto. Today, I’ll be looking at an aspect that is closely tied to that problem: relationships. Since many of the female characters’ stories are based on romantic relationships, the two problems can’t be separated. Most of the relationships are either horribly unbalanced or downright toxic and that’s dangerous for both boys and girls who enjoy the series. No matter how much I like the series, this cannot be overlooked.
There are very few healthy romantic relationships presented in Naruto. As I write this, I can think of only two, and both are good because most of the courting is subtle or not shown. That is not a great endorsement of Kishimoto’s ability to write healthy, compelling relationships.
Asuma and Kurenai’s relationship is almost entirely off screen. There are a couple small flirtations and then later in the series they are together. They have equal standing and power before they are together and when shown later on appear to maintain that relationship. There’s nothing wrong, but there is also very little there.
These two get a bit more screen time together, but the romantic thread largely remains understated. The two have several emotionally intimate (not romantically intimate) moments after the Rescue Sasuke Arc, which builds a pairing of equals from the start. There are a couple other flirtations, but for the most part how they got together is left to the reader.
What these two pairing have, besides a lot of conjecture on the reader’s part, is equal power in the relationships. Not physical strength or battle power, but the agency those involved have to make decisions that matter to both of them. The lack of equal power in the relationship is one of the major issues with Kishimoto’s relationships.
This may not seem like an actual pairing, and if Kishimoto had let it go post-time skip, I wouldn’t include it. But he doesn’t. It baffles me that he felt it necessary to continue Ino’s crush on Sasuke despite the fact that
The implication is that a girl’s first crush is the person she’ll love for years no matter what they do or what happens in their separate lives. Ino, more than anyone, had every reason to move on from Sasuke. She’s a beautiful, badass ninja, and this continued crush is unnecessary for anyone’s character development.
This one is my favorite pairings, so I tend be a little more forgiving, but I can’t in good conscious call it a healthy relationship. It’s nowhere as toxic as Sakura and Sasuke, but it still has two major problems.
For the majority of the series, this is a one-sided crush. Naruto has zero interest in Hinata pre- and most of post-time skip. He’s not indifferent to her, and they seem like if they had more screen time they’d be viewed as healthy friends, but this one-sidedness starts the power imbalance that only gets bigger as the series progresses.
The one-sided relationship also has the same problem as Ino, in which no matter how much time passes or how little interaction the couple has, a girl will continue to love someone forever. This is a reoccurring problem with Kishimoto’s relationships. Love is always a part of the woman’s story so much that removing it would remove a huge chuck of their character. But this has the side effect of saying that a guy doesn’t have to put any effort or consideration into a relationship and he’ll still get the girl.
It also causes the power imbalance that plagues this relationship. Because Hinata has been crushing on Naruto for so long, he has all the power to decide when and how any relationship occurs. Even after Hinata confesses, Naruto makes no mention nor shows any outward reaction to indicate he even acknowledged what she said. Hinata must wait for Naruto and must accept whatever little affection he shows her.
This is not done cruelly, but the indifference Kishimoto gives Hinata’s confession is baffling, especially for Naruto, who desperately wants to be seen and loved. We start to see Naruto treating Hinata with subtly more than friendship during the Fourth Great Ninja War, but that doesn’t fix the power imbalance. Naruto is never shown in the manga canon as clearly romantic toward Hinata. He is never a participant in the relationship, which makes Hinata submissive to him, waiting for him to acknowledge her feelings and then automatically accepting him once he (off screen) finally does. Naruto never has to earn her love and attention.
In its favor, of the primary romantic relationships presented, Naruto and Hinata are at least constructive. Hinata’s crush doesn’t hold her back. Naruto becomes an inspiration for her to better herself. On the other side, Hinata gives Naruto emotional affirmation starting at the Pain Arc. She acknowledges him without condition. He doesn’t have to save everyone for her to care for him; being Naruto is enough for her. That creates an emotional connection between them that gets him through Neji’s death. She brings Naruto back to a place of confidence. That’s probably why, despite its failings, I still like them together. I’d just wish they were more equal in the relationship.
I have to break this pairing down to pre-time skip and post-time skip, because those are very different relationships.
Before Sasuke leaves Konoha, I’m not against their relationship in theory. It has the same power imbalances as Naruto and Hinata, but they are given ample screen time together and Sasuke appears to genuinely care about Sakura. Not love necessarily, but real affection and concern for her as a friend at least. You could see where if Sasuke thought about anyone but himself for more than a few minutes, a relationship could form that would be on the unhealthy side but not toxic.
Post-time skip everything changes. This goes from one-sided crush to completely abusive, and the fact it is presented as pure, true love is a dangerous message to send. Sakura’s unyielding love for Sasuke despite him abandoning her and Konoha, despite him treating her and Naruto as obstacles in his path, despite the fact he tries to kill her, is terrifying. At no time does Sasuke show any care or affection for Sakura post-time skip. If Naruto doesn’t have to earn Hinata’s love, Sasuke can literally do anything—no matter how terrible—and Sakura still loves him. That’s not love; that’s abuse—mental, emotional, and physical.
There are times when love is not enough, and calling toxic relationships what they are is vitally important to showing boys and girls what is acceptable and what should be cut out of their lives for their own well-being. Girls should not accept terrible treatment just because they love someone, and boys shouldn’t be taught that they don’t have to care about treating a girl well for her to love them.
Every relationship (platonic and romantic) involving Sasuke is toxic. Sakura’s story would have been more satisfying if she’d acknowledged what Sasuke was doing and made the choice to not accept it. If she was willing to accept Sasuke as an ally again to help them save the world, that’s one thing, but she should never have wanted or encouraged him to pursue any romantic entanglement. It’s possible to love someone and understand how bad they are for you at the same time. Sometimes you have to cut out family or lovers who will only make you suffer.
Kishimoto has serious problems writing any healthy relationship, which stems partially from his inability to write complex and compelling female characters who don’t require on a man to make their story meaningful. I have to ask if this is him just not caring about the female characters, automatically making them secondary to male stories and relying heavily on female tropes, or if this is the way he sees women in general. I don’t know him to speculate the answer, but either way Kishimoto needs to do better.
Regarding your view on Sasuke / Sakura relationship, I would like to add one further point:-
One of the truely annoying things for me is the idea that just because Person A cares for Person B then Person B is obligated to care for them back.
In fairness this applies to Naruto-Sasuke as well but in Sakura-Sasuke this reaches toxic levels because it continues an idea that if you pursue a person long enough they will love you back (and are even obligated to do so) which is freaking dangerous in many relationships.
That being said I would also like to point out one further point I wish you would clarify. In my view Sasuke is NOT abusive (at least in love/friendship-relationship) terms to Sakura or even Naruto.
Pre-Defection most of his insults towards Sakura were when she tried to get him to go out with her. When she behaved more like a team-mate he responded the same. (Basically the same to Naruto to).
In otherwords Sasuke is the guy who does NOT want to be friends or go out with Sakura and Naruto and every time they try he responds negatively. Yet he responded positively as a team-member. Sasuke makes his boundries very clear.
Sakura herself shows the same behavior towards Naruto. She gets annoyed everytime he tries to flirt but can genuinely listen / care when he behaves apppropriately.
Yet Sasuke is getting stalked by Sakura despite his refusal.
In Part 2, this is issue grows.
In Sasuke’s view, he has defected, switched countries and stated that he does not want to be associated with Team 7 anymore.
Yet Naruto and Sakura are still STALKING him. If Naruto-verse had a restraining order system I think Sasuke would be the first to apply for one.
So while his behavior to them is violent it is not abusive as he is :-
1) A soldier on the opposing side.
2) Someone who has made it clear that he does not want to be ‘friends’ with them anymore.
This is why in my view Sakura’s (and Naruto’s) behavior towards Sasuke is more self-abusive. By refusing to accept his leaving, they are harming themselves.
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This is attempt three to reply to this comment. For some reason WordPress refuses to post my other two. I’m sure I’m going to forget something I had in my original reply by now.
I see your point, but I do believe that Sasuke did see Naruto and Sakura as friends, and more than just teammates, by the time he defected. While he remains closed off to many things, he does begin to open up to them emotionally, and shows genuine (though platonic) care for Sakura when she asks him to stay or take her with him.
The problem comes in the fact I don’t think Sasuke is capable of having a healthy relationship with anyone, platonic or otherwise. He’s willing to sacrifice himself during missions, but he doesn’t actually give the people he cares about any consideration. It’s Sasuke’s inability to see anyone else as important in any way that damages any relationship. His self-importance means no matter what he feels for someone else, he doesn’t care how his actions affect them, and this keeps him from a healthy friendship in which both sides consider the other. With Sasuke and Naruto or Sakura, the power dynamic is completely skewed as a result.
I whole heartedly agree that the expectation of reciprocation is extremely dangerous. It’s one of the bigger problems in his romantic pairings. It sends the message that relationships don’t actually require two people to participate and creates a state of one person actively giving feelings and effort while the other person passively receives it no matter that they do or don’t do. That’s a terrible power balance to have. And then Kishimoto compounds that with the idea that the initial feelings will never change no matter what happens. I think that’s where my problem with Sasuke’s relationships stems from. It’s not that Sasuke treats everyone badly, it’s that Kishimoto pushes the idea that this relationship not only should be but is WORTH maintaining throughout the entire series.
Considering all this, I actually think the only healthy display of feelings being refused is Sakura and Lee. Lee initially makes clear his intentions and affection for Sakura, but after her refusal and the chuunin exam, Lee never directly pursues her anymore, even though he clearly still cares for her.
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I do recall Kishimoto openly saying he’s bad at writing romance and women, when it comes to why we have such… Controversial elements and characters like SasuSaku and Sakura.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I had the feeling Konan was with Tsunade one of the few characters not to suffer too much from that issue.
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Sad thing is, to write women well is simply to give them the same consideration you give men. Women are not inherently different creatures with mysterious motivations. They are motivated by the same things that motivate men.
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I agree, in fact the relationship between Sakura and Sasuke is the same with Sasuke and Naruto, I am in doubt about which of the two relationships is less negative, but they are clearly encouraged toxic relationships, can you give me your opinion on which of these two relationships are more dysfunctional?
That’s a hard question, but if I have to choose, then I’d say Naruto and Sasuke is less dysfunctional for two reasons.
1. Sasuke respects Naruto. Not in the beginning, but easily after the chuunin exam Sasuke sees Naruto as a formidable opponent/rival. The fact he see Naruto as an obstacle shows he at least acknowledges that much.
But with Sasuke and Sakura that respect is missing. Sakura is not an obstacle to him, she’s an annoyance, something not worth his energy to give any thought to unless she is right there, and even then, if Naruto’s there also, she gets ignored.
2. Naruto has other options as friends. He has plenty of male and female friends around him to balance out the toxicity of his relationship with Sasuke. He has other examples of good, healthy friendships to draw on.
Sakura, on the other hand, is never given a comparable relationship. She has friends, but since Sasuke is never portrayed as just a friend through her eyes, he’s the only one providing her an example of a romantic relationship. She has no one to balance that relationship and is never allowed to let go of that toxic relationship with a separate love interest. (I am not counting Lee as a real love interest, since he’s never presented as a serious competitor to Sasuke in Sakura’s eyes.)
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