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The Neverending Debate over the End of Naruto

by Amy McNulty,

When an orange-jumpsuit-clad 12-year-old ninja named Naruto Uzumaki burst onto the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump in 1999, few people gave much thought to whom the hyperactive young boy would one day marry. Understandably, fans were more interested in following Naruto's action-packed journey from social outcast to celebrated hero. Naruto's always been so devoted to pursuing his dreams of becoming Hokage, he's rarely had much time for anything else.

But many action-oriented shonen series include some nod to the fact that the protagonist might have more than just fighting on the brain. Goku has Chichi, Ichigo has Rukia, Zenkichi has Medaka, and as we learn in the manga's third chapter, Naruto has Sakura Haruno. Naruto had been carrying a flame for the short-tempered young woman with the pale pink tresses and (apparently) enormous forehead since before the start of the series. (As it turns out, his romantic tastes are eerily similar to those of his late father.) Unfortunately for him, she, along with most of the girls at the Hidden Leaf's Ninja Academy, was unflinchingly in love with the school's resident brooding ninja genius, Sasuke Uchiha. At first glance, Sasuke possessed everything Naruto lacked. Whereas Naruto struggled to perform simple techniques, Sasuke graduated at the top of the class. While Naruto was reviled as a social pariah, Sasuke was adored by his teachers and peers. The fact that Sasuke couldn't care less about all this praise made him even more attractive to Sakura and more loathsome to Naruto.

Naruto's desire to one-up Sasuke factored heavily into many of the earlier stories. Ultimately, Sakura's affections were only part of a much larger issue. Naruto envied Sasuke for his talent and hated him for his snobbery, but there was a lot more to it. He was jealous that Sasuke enjoyed other people's adoration when he was so hated for reasons he didn't understand. Naruto's clumsy attempts to get Sasuke riled up were evidence of how desperate he was for love and acceptance. Unfortunately, his efforts also proved counterproductive and frequently caused Sakura to view him in an even less favorable light. 

When Naruto's class graduated and became practicing genin, it was narratively appropriate that he and Sasuke would wind up in the same three-ninja cell, with Sakura forming the last third of Kakashi Hatake's Team 7. This arrangement provided Masahi Kishimoto with ample opportunities to focus on the boys’ rivalry and juxtapose their different methods of achieving success. Things may come naturally to Sasuke, but this ultimately inflates his ego and makes him less cautious. Naruto, on the other hand, works incredibly hard to achieve his small victories. We later find that he actually has an advantage over Sasuke: a near-unlimited supply of Tailed Beast chakra. Once he devotes himself to learning a new technique, he can accomplish things that other shinobi can only dream of. Never one to be left in the dust, Sasuke also evolves and achieves strength of a similar caliber, though through much darker means.

The relationship between Naruto and Sasuke has always been the core of the franchise. Their status as “perpetual frenemies” is echoed in other relationships that pop up throughout the series, most notably Obito and Kakashi, Madara and Hashirama, and Indra and Ashura. These characters all started off as close friends before deep-rooted ideological differences drove them apart and ignited long-standing feuds. It isn't until Naruto's series-ending brawl against Sasuke that these boys break the endless cycle of (figurative) brother-versus-brother conflict, and Naruto finally snaps Sasuke out of his narrow-minded self-martyrdom.

To say that romance is secondary in the world of Naruto would be an understatement. However, after the manga's chapter-long epilogue, in which Kishimoto revealed whom most of the characters marry and what their children will look like, the Western Naruto fandom reeled in shock. (Kishimoto says he was unaware of such a reaction in Japan.) Naruto didn't marry Sakura!

Although romance was never foremost on the author's mind, Kishimoto has stated that he decided on Naruto's eventual life partner roughly halfway through the series. This revelation led many NaruSaku shippers to believe that Naruto and Sakura were initially fated to be together. Regardless of the author's original intentions, there was always a group of fans who preferred to think of themselves as NaruHina: Naruto x Hinata Hyuga—and those were the fans who were vindicated at the end.

Soft-spoken, ghostly pale, and criminally shy, Hinata first appeared in chapter 34 of the manga, long after the introduction of Sakura. (She did, however, appear in the first episode of the anime.) Heir to the Hyuga clan, Hinata is practically Sakura's polar opposite. She's quiet and reluctant to speak her mind, unlike Sakura, who has no qualms about showing her violent and angry side in front of anyone but Sasuke. Hinata struggles to be accepted by her brutally harsh family, whom she continually disappoints, while Sakura's family life is as ordinary as can be (in a village populated by ninja, anyway). Hinata blends into the background in any group setting, whereas Sakura's unapologetic brashness ensures that her voice is always heard. No wonder fans are so divided on which heroine to root for.

Hinata was one of the only characters to not only accept—but even love—Naruto from a young age. Like him, she was bullied. When three kids made fun of her pupil-less eyes (the genetic trait necessary for her clan to perform their signature Byakugan technique) and because they assume she's as cocky as her cousin Neji, young Naruto stepped in to put a stop to it despite having no idea who she was. Although the bullies beat the snot out of him, the selflessness of this gesture stuck with Hinata. From then on, she quietly watched Naruto from a distance and admired his positivity and willingness to work hard in the face of overwhelming odds. His can-do attitude also inspired her to act the same way as much as she could, even when she faced so much adversity at home.

Regrettably, Hinata's crippling social anxiety made it impossible for her to say more than a few words to her crush, let alone befriend him. Because of her advanced sensory perception abilities, Hinata was assigned to Yuhi Kurenai's Team 8 alongside Kiba Inuzuka and Shino Aburame, whose families’ techniques complemented her own. There were times when they worked with Team 7—particularly in the anime adaptation's much-maligned filler episodes—but there were few opportunities for Hinata and Naruto to interact one-on-one. Still, whenever they were together, it was clear to just about everyone present that Hinata was head-over-heels in love with Naruto, even if no one understood why. Although Naruto himself remained oblivious to this fact, Hinata's sacrifice in the fight against Pain finally made him aware of her feelings for him. Still, he didn't treat her much differently after everything settled down and returned to normal.  

Most NaruSaku fans’ point of contention is that Naruto is never shown falling in love with Hinata in the main series. I'd argue, though, that Naruto had far more pressing matters to attend to between the ages of 12 to 17. Furthermore, few people outside of fiction actually meet the love of their life during those formative years.

We do see Naruto and Sakura's relationship evolve—just not in the way a certain portion of the fanbase wanted it to. Naruto went from a goofy idiot trying to “steal” Sakura from Sasuke (who didn't even want her) to a friend who genuinely cared about her as a person. Sakura went from having her blood boil at the sight of Naruto to respecting his hard work and admiring his dedication to helping others. When Sasuke defects from the Hidden Leaf to train under Orochimaru, Naruto and Sakura's friendship continues to grow as they get a break from the wayward Uchiha. Initially, their shared goal of bringing Sasuke home is all that unites them, but as the series progresses, they gradually come to see each other in a new light.

When Sakura tells Naruto she's in love with him later in the series, it's only a lie to stop her friend—someone she loves like a brother—from risking his life by continuing to pursue Sasuke. While the Naruto we were introduced to over a decade before would have been elated by a confession from Sakura, the current Naruto immediately sees it for what it is. (The fact that Sakura would actually hinder an effort to get Sasuke back is pretty impressive, though.) This was the moment most fans involved in this discussion will call on when arguing that NaruSaku fans should have recognized that Naruto and Sakura would never be more than the closest of friends.

Many years pass between the Fourth Shinobi World War and the series’ epilogue, during which time the teenage characters age into thirty-somethings. It makes sense that relationships would change, feelings would evolve, and unexpected romantic connections would be made within that time period. To cap things off, The Last -Naruto the Movie-—set two years after the end of the manga, and at least a dozen years before the epilogue—steps in to offer fans a look at how Naruto finally came to reciprocate Hinata's feelings. At the beginning of the film, there's no longer any question about whether Naruto loves Sakura; their relationship is stronger than ever, but it's not romantic. (Sakura even encourages Hinata and Naruto's union.) Although squabbles regarding the canonicity of the feature films rage on in the Naruto fandom, The Last's story was approved by Kishimoto himself and serves as the first entry in the series’ Start of a New Era Project. (The script also incorporates several of his ideas for how the featured romance should play out, including Hinata knitting a scarf for Naruto.)

Personally, as a fan of Naruto and having followed all of this, NaruHina has always made sense to me, and I was glad to see them wind up together, even if we weren't privy to every romantic detail along the way. If anything, I'm disappointed that Sakura was never able to get over her childhood crush. In my estimation (and this is all my personal take - it's hard to follow all of this stuff and not take a side!), after all the trouble Sasuke caused the Hidden Leaf—not to mention everything he put her through (almost killing her because she stood in his way, for example)—any lingering romantic feelings she had for him should have faded away. She could forgive him, yes, but not reward his actions with her continued love and devotion.

The epilogue reveals that she and Sasuke have a daughter—and are presumably married—but he's almost never home. Even as an adult, this “bad boy” can't be tamed and goes wherever the wind may take him. Even Sarada, the couple's prepubescent child, thinks her mother's unwavering devotion is a little ridiculous. Sakura moved beyond the zany mood swings and bouts of self-doubt she suffered as a child to become a young woman who could competently fight alongside Naruto and Sasuke. One of the physically-strongest and most highly-skilled medical ninja of her time, Sakura learned she needed to stand on her own two feet and develop an identity outside of her infatuation with Sasuke. Unfortunately, as long as he deigns to smile at her from time to time, her pre-teen crush will remain the undisputed love of her life.

Do you have a dog in this fight? What do you think of the most intense rivalry in Naruto fandom? Let us know in the comments!

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