Annalyn’s Corner: Redemption Stories in Naruto

If I want examples of condemnation and judgment, I only have to log into social media. But, frankly, I’ve had more than enough of these examples lately. I’m tired of reading Tweets and Facebook statuses that declare wicked and/or foolish people subhuman. Because, yes, condemnation has its place—but it’s not the whole story. So today, I want to focus on stories of redemption. Thankfully, these stories are much more populous in anime than on social media. They’re particularly populous in Naruto and Naruto Shippuden, so I’d like to focus on a few characters from that series for today.

(Spoilers through episode 370ish of Shippuden ahead. Though, really, if you’ve been online at all, that part has already been spoiled for you.)

First, there’s Sasuke. Now, I’m only on episode 404 as of this writing, so I haven’t seen the full culmination of his story. But I have seen him fighting alongside Naruto and the rest of the united shinobi force against Madara, and it’s pretty clear that full reconciliation is ahead. Here we have a young man who betrayed his friends, left his village, and was about ready to destroy it—which would have meant mass murder. He worked with the Akatsuki and kidnapped the Cloud Village’s jinchuuriki, Bee, an act that finally pushed the authorities to classify him as a rogue ninja, to be killed if found. He was dangerous. But Naruto kept pursuing him. His older brother, Itachi, talked to him. And he finally made the choice to protect, rather than destroy, the Hidden Leaf Village.

Gaara—one of my favorite Naruto characters—was a cruel boy when we first met him, a weapon sent to destroy the Hidden Leaf. People could—and did—call him monster, demon, murderer. That last descriptor was true. He’d given up on the idea of others loving him and embraced the purpose his father gave him: to be a weapon. But then he fought Naruto and learned that Naruto, like him, had faced hate and fear as a jinchuuriki, yet continued to fight for his teammates and for the very village that rejected him. And so he changed.

Redemption Stories in Naruto | Beneath the Tangles

Then there’s Pain—or rather, Nagato. He let his grief and anger so warp his perspective, he believed the only way to peace was to first bring death and pain. He did destroy the Hidden Leaf, and killed many more before that. Anyone would consider him a murderer beyond redemption. The way he believed in his twisted cause almost made him worse. But then, after an epic battle with Naruto, he finally came back around. His last act was to bring the entire Hidden Leaf back to life.

The Naruto Redemption Pattern

When I reflect on the stories of Naruto‘s reformed villains and psuedo-villains, I notice four main points:

1. These villains are humans, just like us.

As we watch Sasuke, Gaara, and Nagato’s backstories, it’s easy to sympathize with them—not to excuse their actions, but to understand how they fell so far. Sasuke watched his brother kill his entire family and became consumed by a thirst for revenge that led him to leave the Hidden Leaf and pursue more power. Later, as he learned the whole story behind his brother’s actions, his all-consuming vengeful aspirations were turned onto the village instead. Gaara had an abusive father who only cared to use him (and sent assassins after him!) and a village that feared and hated him. That, combined with sleep deprivation, drove him mad. Leaf ninja killed Nagato’s parents in front of him when he was still a child—and on that day, he killed for the first time. As a young man, he seemed to be doing well, pursuing peace, but then he and his friends were betrayed, and his dear friend was killed.

Again, there is no excuse for their actions. But as we watch each character’s backstory, perhaps we can see that we have the same potential for evil that they do—and they have the same potential for good that Naruto and his friends do. Sasuke, Gaara, and Nagato are humans: precious and capable of great things.

2. Redemption is only possible because someone believed they could change.

When the rest of the world had given up on these three characters, Naruto did not. Gaara and Nagato were murderers. There’s no downplaying that. Even Gaara saw himself as nothing more than a self-loving weapon. But they were still human, and unlike true monsters, they had a chance to change. Naruto helped them and others believe that. This leads to the next point…

3. The characters didn’t change on their own.

Sasuke had Itachi and Naruto. Gaara was transformed by his encounter with Naruto. Nagato had not only his encounter with Naruto, but also the seeds planted by Jiraiya and Yahiko years before. These “bad-guy” characters benefited from others’ examples, reproofs, and encouragements. Naruto, Itachi, Jiraiya, and Yahiko gave them the reason change was necessary, the encouragement that they could change, and, in some cases, the promise that change would lead to reconciliation, to longed-for relationship.

4. Their story arcs didn’t end with their evil.

Team 7 Reunites | Redemption Stories in Naruto

If we stopped watching Naruto too early, we’d never have seen these characters repent. Sasuke would have remained a traitor in our eyes. Gaara would have remained an unrepentant killer. And if we stopped before Naruto and Nagato finished their conversation-heavy battle in Shippuden? We’d only know Nagato as a mass killer. But there was more to their stories, more to be told.

Real-World Context

And that is the main point I want to make today: Many people seem beyond redemption, but we only see parts of their stories. That applies to politicians, wayward YouTubers, mangaka, and everyday people. Yes, sinners’ stories may end in sin. Many people die unrepentant. But not all do. No person is beyond redemption, unless they choose to reject the redeeming opportunities presented to them. As such, it’s a mistake to dwell significantly more on wickedness than on repentance, redemption, and reconciliation.

Don’t get me wrong; we can and should speak against wicked and foolish action—against sin. If it’s done publicly, we may need to speak against it publicly. If it’s done privately, we may need to pull someone aside and go through the steps of personal confrontation, group confrontation, and/or legal confrontation. Even those who repent must often, rightly, pay the earthly consequences. Evil is evil. Period. I’m only suggesting balance, an understanding of both justice and mercy, not for anyone to minimize the gravity of wrongdoing.

My conviction on this matter comes, as you may expect, from the Bible. The Bible is full of redemption stories. There’s the big, overarching story: Jesus lived, suffered, and died as a human (and then rose again) in order to reconcile us to God. He will return to complete his work to redeem the world, and all in it who chose to name and follow him as their Lord and Savior. But there are the other stories, too, and I encourage you to look them up if you’re not already familiar. Here are three, to start with: Rahab, the prostitute from doomed Jericho who protected Joshua and Caleb and went on to become an ancestor of Jesus; Zacchaeus, the corrupt tax collector who repented and repaid those he defrauded four times over, in addition to giving half his possessions to the poor; and Paul, formerly Saul, who participated in the imprisonment and murder of Christians—then went on to become one of the most influential missionaries and writers in all of Christian history.

There’s a lot more theology behind my conviction, but this is enough for now.

Tell Me a Story

What are your favorite stories of repentance, redemption, and forgiveness? Whether your favorite is from anime, your own life, the Bible, or anywhere else, I want to read about it, and I’m sure others do, too. So, please, comment with a summary of a redemption story. (If it’s from fiction, be sure to warn us about any spoilers.) Let’s share a little hope, shall we?

9 thoughts on “Annalyn’s Corner: Redemption Stories in Naruto

  1. I’m just about through watching Naruto – then it’s on to Shippuden. These last few episodes had characters like Gantetsu and Memna – two people who were bad guys in their pasts, but they came to realize the evil they had done and spent their time so as to make amends. I see it foreshadowing for Sasuke’s story, if these two minor characters can lose their way and find it again, so can the major ones.

    1. I need to rewatch the first series once I’m finished with Shippuden. I’ve forgotten a lot of those minor story arcs, and it really is good to see characters, minor and major, recognize their evil and change their ways. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Jamie!

  2. No one is calling Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a Christian movie but I believe it’s a better Christian movie than any films I’ve seen that really try to embrace that label.

    Without spoiling it, because I think it needs to be experienced fresh and with no expectations, I think it’s a really effective story of redemption. Definitely gave me a lot to think about, anyway. Anyone who’s reading this comment, go give it a chance.

    1. Thanks for telling us about that, Seasons! It looks like it could be a hard movie to watch, but if you say it has an effective redemption story, then I might need to give it a try when I have the chance.

    2. Looks like a fantastic movie, and I keep hearing all the awards buzz (I read a bit, especially, about Rockwell’s character and performance). Thanks for the rec!

  3. There’s a curious irony to Christianity and Christian thought. No other religion that I know so extensively dwells on the possibilities of repentance and redemption, nor so lovingly opens the path of righteousness to those who have done terrible evil. And yet, no other religion creates adherents who despise people who have done great evil more, nor paints its spirits as more irredeemable, than Christianity. And many versions condemn to Hell even those not old enough to make a moral choice.

    Yet there is this as the other side of that coin of “hating the sin but loving the sinner,” and it is compelling and beautiful. And I continue to hope that the God who knows that sin is born of pain therefore knows what he is doing.

    1. As always, I appreciate your perspective, Luminas! I see what you mean about an irony to Christian thought. Christians ourselves are doing our best to grasp at truths about a God who is both holy/just/glorious and loving/merciful/gracious. It’s easy for us to focus on only his justice or only his mercy—whichever is easiest for us to accept in that moment—and represent him in an unbalanced, inaccurate way. Yet somehow, God is fully just and fully merciful at once. Then again, perhaps it is, in part, his justice that makes his mercy so strong, and vice versa.

      I believe that there’s an age of accountability—which varies depending on the individual. But most of all, I trust God to be fully just and fully merciful at once—to lovingly rescue, and also to let those who reject him embrace their path to hell. To bring fierce justice for those who have been wronged, but also to have mercy on the repentant. I find it’s easiest, and theologically safest with my limited understanding, for me to love evil-doers—without condoning their evil, of course—and let God take care of long-term justice and forgiveness. I would, however, argue that sin is not so much born of pain as revealed and exacerbated by pain. Plenty of sin is fed in comfort. Yet God knows all situations, has empathy for us and the temptations we have. (Jesus was tempted himself, as we read in Matthew 4, though he did not give in.) So, in response to your last sentence: I hope, and firmly believe, that God knows and empathizes with us, and knows exactly what he is doing.

      (Side note: Long time no interact! I was glad to see a notification from you again. I’m sorry for leaving your comment un-replied to last Easter… I was really worn out and just gave up on replying to anyone for a bit there. You’ve probably forgotten by now, but it’s been wearing on my mind for some time.)

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