Knowing a little Japanese history, mythology, and language will make you love any anime a lot more, but especially Naruto. Anime doesn’t come only come from the creator’s imagination. It comes from thousands of years of Japanese history recycled into the anime and manga you enjoy. Naruto is packed with more cultural gems than you can throw a shuriken at. Dig a little deeper into Naruto’s ninja world and you’ll hit buried ninja treasure.
1) “Believe It!”
Naruto introduced the English speaking world to chakra, jutsu, tailed-beasts, ninja headbands, and the most irritating catch phrase of all time, “Believe it!” Of course, “Believe it!” was just poor localization, the product of a translator without the foresight to realize that the main character saying “believe it” after each sentence might get old quick. Believe it! It is fairly common knowledge among Western fans now that, in fact, Naruto never actually said “believe it!”
What he was doing, was following a trend of adding nonsensical extensions to the end of sentences to make him sound tougher, cuter, more zany, whatever. Kind of like saying “I’m going to be the hokage-bogu” and thinking it was cool. If you watch subtitled Naruto episodes you’ve probably noticed Naruto say “-ttebayou.” Well, that’s just his way of making himself sound manly. Believe it!
2) The Kusanagi Exists
Let’s start at the beginning.
Susanoo is the Shinto god of storms and seas. According to the Japanese creation myth, Susanoo was banished from heaven after a disagreement with the creator god, Izanagi. Before he leaves, however, he stops over to say farewell to his sister, the sun goddess, Amaterasu. Amaterasu though, was worried he was only there for revenge. So to prove his intentions were honorable, he posed a god-birthing competition. (Because how better to prove your intentions?) They set to creating gods from items in each others possession by destroying them and breathing life into the remains. But after a disagreement about the victor, Susanoo goes on an angry rampage by spreading excrement over her fields, destroying her loom, and hurling a flayed horse through her roof.
Susanoo is banished from heaven, again.
While on earth he comes across an old man weeping, who reveals that every year an evil eight headed snake named Orochi (sound familiar?) comes and eats one of his daughters. Susanoo, like a boss, says “Give me the girl. I’ll kill the snake.”
He hatches a plan. He gets eight huge barrels of alcohol, gets it drunk, then hacks away at it while it’s sleeping. It all goes off without a hitch, except that he nicks his sword on something inside the snake. He opens up the corpse and finds the sword that later became known as the Kusanagi.
Okay, great, thanks for the mythology lesson. How’s the sword supposed to exist?
Well, it turns out that Susanoo actually is a nice guy. He felt sorry for breaking his sister’s nice things, so he gave her the sword as an apology gift. Amaterasu later bequeathed it to one of her descendants, the first emperor of Japan.
That means, according to legend, the imperial family of Japan are descendants of the sun goddess. It’s a belief that was generally upheld until the end of WWII.
The Kusanagi is one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan, and the property of the emperor. It’s supposed to be kept in the Atsuta shrine in Nagoya prefecture. I say “supposed to be” because no one has ever actually seen it. The late Emperor Hirohito certainly seemed to think it–and the other regalia–were real though. He ordered their keepers to “defend them at all costs” after Japan’s surrender in WWII. Believe it!
3) The Nine-Tailed Fox
As you may have guessed, it came from folklore. But what was it? Well, she was a ravishing she-devil who spent her days bewitching royalty. Because that’s what demon foxes do.
Folklore often mixes with history, and the nine tails first appeared possessing a concubine to the Chinese emperor Zhou named Daji. (Both real historical figures.) Daji drove Zhou to such cruelty and decadence he became the worst Chinese emperor in history. They had orgies, huge erotic parties, murdered for fun, and spent afternoons torturing innocent people. (All history, by the way.) The emperor was eventually defeated by his opponents, who took issue with abominable evil.
The real Daji was executed, but her literary counterpart was more fortunate.
Versions differ, but one has her escaping to India where she bewitched a prince into beheading 1000 men. Her identity was uncovered again–maybe when people started wondering why the prince suddenly started severing heads. And again she fled, this time to Japan, where she became the favorite courtesan of emperor Konoe, who fell madly in love with her.
But this time, instead of turning him into Doctor Evil, she caused him to grow seriously ill. It turns out she was working with an evil daimyo who wanted to usurp the emperor. After hiring diviners, monks, and anyone with a crystal ball to find the cause of his illness, Konoe finally found an astrologer who exposed her.
The jig up, she went into hiding until being discovered years later. After an epic battle of Narutopic proportions, she was defeated and turned into a stone. The stone was called the Sessouseki. Naturally, it released a continuous cloud poison gas and killed whoever touched it, until it was finally purified and destroyed by a monk. The area where she was slain is the Nasu highlands in Tochigi prefecture and has a shrine dedicated to the event.
4) The Sanin
Orochimaru is a snake ninja, which makes sense because everyone knows snakes are diabolically evil.
Jiraya is a toad ninja. That sounds a bit lame, but being able summon a godzilla-sized yakuza toad is pretty sweet.
Then there’s Tsunade. Strongest woman in the world, renown medical ninja, drunk, fifth hokage, who can summon…a slug? How did the author come up with that?
Well, he didn’t.
The legendary three are taken from a story called, well, the Legendary Three. Jiraya was a ninja that used toad magic. Orochimaru was his former follower who used snake magic. (Yep, Orochimaru was Jiraiya’s student.) And Tsunade was the object of their affections who used slug magic.
(Makes you wonder just what slug magic does, doesn’t it?)
In the story the two vie for the love of Tsunade until, in the end, the good guy wins and gets the girl.
Too bad his Naruto incarnation didn’t have such luck. Because this is anime, after all. Somebody has to die–a best friend, a family member, teacher, main character, or the entire cast except for the main character who ends the movie clutching his best friend’s severed head below his crucified love interest. (Thank you for that, by the way, X: Tokyo Revelations.)
5) Sasuke Sarutobi
You may have heard the name Sasuke come up in places besides Naruto. Maybe you’ve seen Sasuke: Ninja Challenge? Sasuke Sarutobi is Japan’s feral child story. He is a popular fictional ninja raised by monkeys. Sarutobi itself means “Monkey fly/leap.” Having been raised by monkeys, he was often depicted as being quite a wild character.
Think Tarzan or Mowgli, but with kunai and shuriken. Because every story is better when the main character is a ninja. Just imagine how much better Edward Scissorhands would have been.
Basically, Sasuke was the first superninja, an image he has maintained for four centuries. He was part of a group called the Ten Braves. They were kind of like the ninja Justice League–and he was Superman.
The ten braves also included Jubei Yagyu, whom Ninja Scroll’s main character is based off. And pretty much every other famous anime ninja, ever.
His former rival was Kirigakure Saizo. You might recall his name from Kirikagure (Hidden Mist) village. If Sasuke was Superman, Kirigakure was Batman. Saizo was a master of illusion, and much more dignified than the monkey boy. The two polar opposites were arch rivals before the braves, but after joining they became Superfriends.
Sasuke, or his incarnations, or characters named after him, appeared in countless ninja movies, TV shows, anime, even stage plays. You may remember the Third Hokage, Hiruzen Sarutobi, summoning a monkey to fight along side him? Well, Enma was just Sasuke Sarutobi’s uncle. Believe it!
And that’s where Naruto comes from. There’s a lot more I didn’t mention, but these few nuggets are enough to get you started. You can learn a lot of Japanese history and culture from anime, you just have to sort out the facts from the…well, anime. But, if you’re willing to do your homework, anime will be your open portal to understanding Japan better, even, than many Japanese.
If you liked this post, check out 6 Things You Didn’t Know About One Piece Pirates…And Real Ones.