Sure, it follows a common formula for all manga of that ilk: The underdog protagonist fights against increasingly stronger opponents, learning increasingly overpowered techniques along the way and eventually saving the world. But hey, it was fun! And any story that makes the classic–and honestly, rather sad–song Nobody’s Child play in your mind by the third chapter is a win in my books. (Yes, I grew up on oldies, and you can blame my parents for that.)
So it’s sad to see that about ten years after I first started reading Naruto (which was first published in 1999!), the series is finally coming to an end. Don’t get me wrong–it’s long overdue. But because it was such a large part of my high-school and uni life, its impending end feels like a final, definitive end to that stage of my life. Okay, I’m about six years late to that particular party, but it’s more than just the “studying” phase that I’m talking about.
I was thinking back on why I enjoyed the manga so much more in those early years, and it’s not because the manga’s changed. It’s because I have. My nostalgia isn’t so much for the study, but for the simplicity of my life back then. Politics was limited to the shifting relationships within my group of friends, and easily avoided by refusing to partake in it. Finances only needed to stretch as far as the next game I wanted to play.
But what I miss the most is my belief that the books I read, with the happily-ever-afters, were representative of real life. You know how it goes. Good guys might get knocked down over and over, they might have to sacrifice a lot, but they win in the end. They win. They aren’t gunned down in acts of senseless violence, brutally beheaded, forced into sex slavery or drug trafficking for the remainder of their lives. They aren’t forever oppressed by those with more cruelty than kindness, or defeated by villains who know how to play the game and have a ruthless desire to win. (And before you ask, despite being the fantasy fan that I am, I didn’t, and probably won’t ever, read Game of Thrones. Real life is depressing enough that I feel no need to pile more misery on top of it.)
Even in my own family, in this little bubble, I can’t protect everyone. I can’t shield my mum from the pain of how my grandma treats her sometimes. I can’t save my dad from the ravages of old age that’s stealing away his love of travel, of good food, even of driving. I can’t take away the acute loneliness my aunt experiences now her children are grown up, living seas away, taking up their own lives.
And unlike what manga like Naruto would have us believe, more power isn’t the solution. When was the last time anyone said, “Hey, we have nukes that can wipe out an entire country, that’ll solve everything!”? Someone who wasn’t a psychopath, that is.
But I think that despite imparting the harshness of reality, growing up has also taught me to appreciate the power inherent in our helplessness. We don’t need to be the ones to storm the enemy’s stronghold and kill the villains. We don’t need to be the white knight who slays the dragon and triumphantly emerges with the victims. We lionise those who do, and rightfully so–but I wonder, how many people watch and feel so useless and helpless in comparison?
Sometimes, all we need to do is be the one who asks someone else out to coffee. We just need to be the guy with a camera and a few simple questions. Or maybe we just have to dump that damn bucket of ice water over our head and know why.
Perhaps the good guys don’t always win. Perhaps many deserving people don’t get their happily-ever-afters. But even if we aren’t the ones to wrench an entire story back on the right track, we can be the nudges. The drops that collect on the seemingly impenetrable wood of injustice and wear away at its structural integrity over decades until it collapses from rot.
The stage of my life where heroes triumphed may be closed, but this new one… it’s yet another drop.