I've been meaning to ask this for a while, but what are your thoughts on how empathy (or lack of) is used as a plot device in Naruto (the series)? Then, specifically (if you're up to it), in how Naruto (the character) empathizes with various good and bad characters.
Ohhhh this question is SO GOOD because it gets to the heart of what I saw as the driving story of what made Naruto both great and distinctive. Part one and Shippuden Naruto is this irrepressible revolutionary character out of a driving desire to connect. Yes Naruto wants to be Hokage but he wants to be Hokage so that he is acknowledged as somebody important. Wanting to be Hokage is initially about desire for validation and connection. It’s only as Naruto’s journey picks up and he meets Haku and Zabuza that he comes to change why he wants to be Hokage. Rather than “if I’m Hokage, everyone will have to respect me”, Naruto’s motivation changes to “I’ll become Hokage to…” change the Hyuuga, “I’ll become a shinobi in my own way”, and of course, “I’ll never go back on my word”, which means both not giving up and being trustworthy and unconditionally loyal.
That unconditional part is important because Naruto’s inner emptiness results from lack of family and parents, people whose love and acknowledgement does not rely on his deeds. That above “if I’m Hokage, everyone will have to respect me” really masks an even deeper desire to have someone who will give Naruto love unconditionally. Not because he’s Hokage or a great shinobi or a hero.
So this comes back to both Sasuke. Naruto empathizes with Sasuke, perhaps even more so because of their differences. Sasuke has the superficial acknowledgement by the village and the establishment that Naruto thinks he craves–but Sasuke acts indifferent to it. He’s not satisfied by it. I think that caused part of Naruto’s initial (academy days) anger and acting out against Sasuke. Sasuke had what Naruto wanted–being the number one student, all the adults and other kids thinking he’s cool–and he didn’t even appreciate it, which to someone of Naruto’s temperament must have been extra infuriating.
But when Naruto finds out why Sasuke’s like this, and then Sasuke challenges him with the main challenge he hurls at him throughout the series–”you don’t know what it’s like to lose important people because you never had them”. And that sets up a critical turning point for Naruto, which is echoed with the fight with Pain: do people’s sufferings have to be identical for them to have compassion and understand each other?
Unfortunately the series falls down by the end on this theme.
Empathy in particular, and emotions generally, are antithetical to the shinobi system. The system can’t function if shinobi have empathy for opponents, targets, or even clients. They have to harden themselves against the client who can’t pay enough, for example.
In the beginning of Naruto this was a problem to be solved, but by the end of the series, the meta problem was how to keep this cash cow producing milk. Enter aliens! Convenient opponents you don’t need to empathize with; just destroy them!
And after this buffer of two movies about aliens, we are gradually reintroduced to a world that is very familiar: distant adults, pubescents taking life or death missions, rich clients who expect servitude, and snazzy animations of punches and flaming dragons and stuff. Only this time they won’t make the mistake of introduce any kind of plot line that would make the series end.