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.