When I was in fifth grade and already a good year into my awkward anime phase, a friend and I sprawled out on the floor before her box television set to catch Cartoon Network’s latest series premiere. It was Naruto's third episode that hooked me: The image of a bashful 12-year-old Haruno Sakura leaning in to kiss the shocked face of her crush, Uchiha Sasuke, tickled the hopeless romantic in me. Their ensuing tumultuous relationship kept me tethered to a story about ninja wars for almost 10 years. And now, like most young love, it’s all spiraling toward an inevitable conclusion: Naruto's final chapter will be published on November 10.
I think a lot of people can point to a book, movie or television series that shaped the way they look at the world. Through it, you’ve experienced many a vicarious life lesson; it’s the one fictional source of wisdom you constantly find yourself looking back on to make sense of the here and the now. If we get past the pointy hair and bright orange jumpsuits, Naruto goes something like this: When a parentless victim of gang violence named Sasuke leaves town on a revenge mission, his two former best friends – the lovelocked Sakura and an orphan named Naruto – embark on a long journey to bring him home. It’s a story about loneliness, acceptance and how our bonds, past and present, define and shape our lives. It’s one that’s carried me, weekly and without fail, for nearly a decade.
I fortunately graduated quickly from Viz Media’s (tremendously awful) English dub of the anime to the online scans of the manga. From there on, I joined the thousands of Naruto fans worldwide waiting for Wednesday night to roll around bearing the newest chapter in the adventures of these three passionate kids, whose approach to dealing with the bonds between them I used as a model for my own relationships with those around me.
Even in high school, when my interests drifted away from Japanese comics and towards things like music and acne-covered boys in my AP history class, I still checked back every few months to see what I’d missed. Mostly, I internalized panels of Sakura’s conscious efforts towards a goal of self-improvement. Her perseverance to become the best version of herself – not for herself, but to have the strength to take care of the person she loves – was nothing short of amazing to me. It was my very first experience of love, though a bizarre, “unconditional” strain of it that, out here in our individualistic, careerist culture, is a viciously rare thing.
Time passed. They all grew. I did, too.
Northwestern’s glamour and gore pulled me further from the ninja world, but friends still caught up in it kept me up-to-date with the latest developments, no matter how distant it had begun to feel. Somehow, I felt relieved to know that somewhere out there, even if I didn’t know the details or the directions, that trio was still pushing forward. No matter how my feelings and attitudes toward the world changed, theirs didn’t. That crazy pink-haired girl was still fighting somewhere out there.
And now, in just three more chapters, Naruto will come to a close. It’s strange to think that my life will continue after their story ends. Their growth will stop permanently, and Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura will be frozen in time as I keep getting older. The fight will be over. I will know the end: if everything she fought for for all these years led her to her happy ending, or if it was all for nothing. Something to accept and move on from.
I can’t tell if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the more I think it over, the more I think perhaps it doesn’t matter. When you’re following a series for nearly a decade, you begin to know the story perhaps even better than the writer himself. The characters outgrow him. Or maybe it’s just that at some point your memory, perception and personal relationship to them become more real to you than the actual chapters themselves, which I guess isn’t all that dissimilar to life itself anyway.
So I guess this is all to say no matter how their story ends, when I look back, it won’t erase all the things I gained from them. I’ll still be able to reflect on the parts that matter most to me – the parts that taught me how to persevere, how to fight and how to love. These are the lessons that have shaped who I am. And that’s something I’ll be able to hold on to no matter who I become and, yes, no matter what happens on Naruto’s last page.