INTERVIEW: My Favorite Naruto Arc with Tamoor Hussain
Naruto’s journey has touched and inspired the lives of millions across the world. To celebrate the anime’s 20th anniversary, we’re speaking with notable fans and professionals about Naruto, their ninja ways and what arcs they like the most!
In this installment of “My Favorite Naruto Arc,” I’m talking to Tamoor Hussain, the Managing Editor at Host at GameSpot and a Creative Director at Giant Bomb. An avowed fan of Naruto, Tamoor chose Jiraiya The Gallant as his favorite arc. This Shippuden storyline is as tragic as it is hopeful, and in this wonderful interview, I spoke with Tamoor about the interesting inner workings of Jiraiya’s character, the complicated issues of a narrative featuring so many traumatized child soldiers, the strengths of Pain, and the allure of the classic anime move “Old Guy Does Cool Stuff.”
A note on spoilers: If you haven’t seen the Jiraiya the Gallant arc yet, this interview does contain major plot points. Watch the arc starting RIGHT HERE if you’d like to catch up or rewatch!
Note: The interview has been edited for clarity.
Dan Dockery: How would you describe this arc? It doesn’t have to be every single plot point but if you had to give an elevator pitch for this arc.
Tamoor Hussain: It’s very difficult to describe in a few words because it is the culmination of a legendary ninja’s lifetime and it culminates in both tragedy and hope, but it’s a hope that he will never get to see come to fruition. It’s a really heartbreaking moment, the arc being Jiraiya the Gallant. It has implications on both singular characters like Naruto, but also has implications on the wider Shinobi world given the place that Jiraiya held. So if I had to describe it in as few words as possible, I would say it’s an arc that is tragic and hopeful at the same time.
I guess we can start off with Jiraiya, who’s kind of the centerpiece of the entire thing. One thing that I personally like is when Jiraiya first appears is that even though he gets fleshed out much more in Shippuden, he arrives in Naruto with a kind of sense of history that’s often lacking here because the characters are kids for the most part. And then comes somebody who’s been around he’s been since you know, the Second Great War and he knows everybody, he’s seen a lot of stuff, he’s seen what war does. Which, again, in a story about, in essence, child soldiers is kind of important and adds a lot of pathos to his character. What to you is the most appealing thing about Jiraiya?
Hussain: I think it is that many anime have this kind of archetype of like the bumbling buffoon. I mean, his nickname is The Pervy Hermit. He has this anime archetype, which is, you know, I’m always looking to hit on ladies, I’m getting drunk, I’m being wacky, I’m a bit of a slapstick character. But behind that is this incredibly smart, incredibly powerful, and as you said, very well-versed ninja. This shinobi, who in any other circumstance, were his personality any different, he would be a shoe-in for Hokage. And he is interesting because his life is defined very early in his career to a degree by Sarutobi, who shows him what he could become. And then in the pursuit of that, he ends up in the mountain with all these frogs and is told that, hey, you’re destined to find the person that is going to change the world and either balance it and make it stable or throw it into complete chaos. It’s kind of like you know, the whole Anakin Skywalker archetype and to a degree, that kind of understanding of what his destiny is redefines his life.
And he could have been such a different character. But I think the thing that I really love about him is that he is this boisterous, carefree character, but at the same time, he’s been kind of saddled and almost as accepted this destiny. And those two sides of him exist at the same time. And seeing him move back and forth between them until he kind of homogenizes those two personalities into who he eventually becomes, and who he eventually becomes is one of the most human characters in this series. There are a lot of characters in this series who are very larger than life wherever it’s because of the way their personalities are or just the things that they can do. But there are few characters that are as relatable in their emotional and psychological journey as Jiraiya, and I think that’s what makes him one of the better characters in the show.
You brought up his destiny to find someone who’s going o bring balance to, in effect, the world of Naruto. And the other major player in this arc is Pain. And Pain obviously believes that he is going to bring balance by effectively causing so much rampant violence that we will be like “Okay, yeah, we’ve gone too far. It’s a really messed up way to make people be good to one another.”
Hussain: Yeah, his whole philosophy is like “I will be a nuclear deterrent by being a nuclear weapon.” And it’s very strange and if you think about it, it kind of makes a lot of sense from a characterization perspective, because we last see the characters that eventually become Pain to a degree or the characters that would form around Pain. You know, the three kids: Yahiko, Konan, and Nagato. It makes a lot of sense that he would have that very childlike mentality into cleansing or bringing balance to the world where it’s like, if I just start killing everything, people are gonna stop killing each other because they’ll be scared of me instead. It’s a very childlike pursuit of power. And it speaks to a lot of what happened to Konan, Yahiko and Nagato while Jiraiya was away. They suffered through a lot of things, but they never truly matured as people. And it kind of speaks to what happens when, which is when you lose a father figure or a parental figure or a guiding hand, which is one of the key things of Naruto as a whole. And it’s something is inflicted upon another character in this arc.
His approach to finding balance is just completely illogical and mad. But he’s a kid at heart. He’s a kid who clearly has too much power now. And that’s the only way you can expect that to happen, really. And in that moment, I think one of the most tragic parts of this arc is Jiraiya kind of realizing that it could have been different if he just had stuck around. It’s never explored, but you can tell he realizes that his actions have some contribution to what happened to those three kids and now what stands before him.
It adds a lot of tragedy in the fact that there’s a real sense of regret for Jiraiya. You brought up earlier how his life could have gone different ways. And I think that’s very important to look at that, not just his destiny could have been changed, or he could have become Hokage, or whatever, but the way he could have affected people. This didn’t have to be this way, even though what he was looking for is ultimately good.
Hussain: Yeah, exactly. The arc ends with, sadly, the death of Jiraiya. And it’s a really interesting thing because Pain is robbing Naruto of what he was robbed of — this figure who would be there to guide him. And it’s in trying to break the cycle of violence that he’s potentially perpetuating another cycle of violence where another person, another child with incredible power could be led astray because he’s been robbed of a guiding hand, which is a really cyclical and interesting way to approach it. And it’s one of the reasons I really love this arc.
One thing that you mentioned that I think is really key to look into is the idea that Naruto is kind of full of these characters who experienced serious tragedy at a very early age and it’s stunted something about them. It’s probably one of the reasons that Sasuke never really grows out of his edgelord phase. He had his whole family and his whole clan taken away from him, and that instills a very, as you put it, kind of naive “I gotta burn the whole thing down. That’s the only way I’ll accomplish anything.” You’ve probably seen a lot of people get frustrated with that kind of character trait. But what do you think it brings to Naruto to have these young characters saddled with the sins of the past that they’re not really ready to handle?
Hussain: I think that the important thing about that is it’s something that many of us often face, whether it’s, you know, sins of the past. It could be having to deal with the mistakes of the generations that came before you. Whether it’s in your world, in the world around you, whether it’s political or socio-economic or personal. It could be family stuff – a lot of people, they carry on and they shoulder the burden of their parents and siblings and that kind of stuff. And it’s a very real thing that happens to a lot of people. And it’s something that in this series is explored from a bunch of different perspectives both on the side of characters that you would describe as good protagonists, and also characters that you would probably describe as evil antagonists. But the fact that it comes from so many different angles means that you get this really well-rounded look at the different ways that you can approach a challenge like that and explore how things can go well, and how things can go wrong.
And you can see the lessons and instead of living life and making those mistakes, you are given a leg up and a way to process some of that information. One of the best things about anime or any sort of storytelling medium is it provides you a safe space to explore perspectives and consider things that you probably wouldn’t consider in real life, or at the very least, wouldn’t be in a position to consider or even follow through on to see how it goes. You can do that with a lot of fiction and narratives. And a narrative being about a bunch of kids who are essentially child soldiers and also have been lumbered with different kinds of trauma in their early ages, it allows people watching to have formative understandings of these issues in a way that the real world often struggles to give them and helps them figure that stuff out.
And I genuinely believe that you can watch something like Naruto and be a child and feel a little more capable and feel a little more well-rounded from a variety of different standpoints. And I think like, sure, it can be difficult to watch, and it might be a trope that is kind of played out. But the important thing to remember is that these kinds of shows have existed for generations and will continue to exist for generations beyond you. This is one of those seminal anime that is going to be around forever. It’s going to be around for children who aren’t born yet to watch and the importance of that is they get to have some of the experiences that shaped you and helped you come to terms with who you are and some of the challenges you may face in the same way. And that’s why it’s such a fertile ground for that trope to be reused is because it has that longevity and applicability where yeah, you can tell that it’s a very specific story and it will apply for a little while. But if you do that trope in an interesting way, there will be people for years and years and years to come who find value in that.
To switch gears for a little bit, we’re going back to you talking about Jiraiya embodying some of the pervy, old-man anime tropes. There is one that is very viscerally satisfying for anime fans. And it happened for Master Roshi on Dragon Ball too, and there are countless old characters on One Piece that pull it off. But we see Jiraiya do it with Sage Mode and it’s the “Old Guy Does Something Very Cool.” And it feels especially satisfying for Jiraiya because at least with the canon stories of Naruto so far, he’s not given a whole lot of time to flex. He’s mostly around to be a mentor or to be goofy. And then when he’s finally thrust into this life and death battle situation, it’s very, it’s very cool.
Hussain: Yeah, definitely. We’re told constantly that he’s one of the three Sannin with Tsunade and Orochimaru, and you don’t really get to see why for a really long time. This arc is one of those arcs where you learn why he was one of them and you also learn who gave him that name: Hanzo, of the Salamander, the leader of the Amegakure. So you get to see why these characters are legendary. But you still have to take it at face value for a long time. It’s not until the actual fight with Pain, that you get to see oh, this dude is legitimate. I think the most interesting thing about him is he has weaknesses as well as strengths, which is why it’s really cool to see him in action. There’s a point where he’s like, well, I can’t use genjutsu and very rarely will you find a character that’s like that. Everyone’s always got some cool thing. Like Kakashi has never come out and said, “Man, I suck at this thing.”
But Jiraiya is old enough and wise enough to know that “These are my weaknesses. I’m going to verbalize them. And I’m going to make it so we can use that as a strategy,” which is exactly what they do. They summon the two frogs who use genjutsu on his behalf, which changes the battle in many, many ways. But yeah, seeing him in action is amazing because of that. And it also speaks to a hint to the future of Naruto as a character, right? Because as his student, they walk similar paths. So the first time you see Sage Mode, you’re like, “Oh, I hope Naruto gets something like this,” and eventually he does get it. So it was a really fascinating look at where the main character of the series could potentially go. As well as seeing what one of the greatest ninjas of that Shinobi generation was like at full power. And it was only because he was fighting against a character that is, you know, considerably more powerful and is using a legendary technique against him that he was taken down. But yeah, I love the “Old Guy Does Cool Thing” trope.
I didn’t read the manga before I watched Naruto, so Jiraiya’s death took me by surprise. Do you remember your first reaction to Jiraiya kicking the bucket?
Hussain: Yeah, I remember and I think this is the reason why it’s devastating is because in that moment, you don’t believe he could die. Because he’s this legendary Sannin and they set it up where Naruto still has a lot to learn. And yeah, surely Jiraiya is the only person that can teach him. And I think the other thing is it’s heartbreaking because 1) Jiraiya is dead, 2) Naruto has now lost another father figure. Which is just really rough, because obviously he’s grown up without Minato. And then Iruka can only take him so far. But like this was the first genuine Father/Son bond that he’s had for a really long time. So to know that oh, he’s not going to take that well is going to be devastating. So that was really sad. I think the part that really hit me was when he’s been pinned down and the Pains have stabbed him and impaled him, and in his final moments, he starts looking back on his life. And he thinks about how his life was one of failure.
And he verbalizes how, you know, he was rejected constantly by Tsunade, who was the object of his affection for a really long time. He was unable to stop his friend Orochimaru from descending into darkness. And then on top of that, he was not able to protect his student Minato, Naruto’s father, and also his teacher, Sarutobi from death. So he feels like he’s insignificant in the context of legendary Shinobi and is like, “I wish I could have died as one of the Hokage did.” But the reason that was heartbreaking is that he doesn’t realize that he’s perhaps more instrumental in establishing that world peace than anyone else in history because of what he taught Naruto and the kind of values he instilled in him.
And there’s a quote, which really sticks with me, where he talks about failures being seen as amusements and he says, you know, I treated my failures as trials, which I used to hone my skills. And I believed that in return one day, I would accomplish a deed so great that it would obliterate all my failures. And I’d die a splendid shinobi. And it was like, he thought that was his role in life. And at that moment, he was dying, thinking he hadn’t done that, when actually he had done it — it just hadn’t played out yet. In the final moments of his death, he does remember that he had a hand to play in Naruto. And he dies confident that the child that he was prophesied to find that would, you know, establish stability in the world was Naruto. So there is some reprieve for him. But it’s just like, it was heartbreaking at that moment where he thought like man, I was worthless, I did nothing. And the reason it’s so powerful is because you can now go back and rewatch it, and, and when you reach this moment again, you’re like, “Dude, you have no idea what’s left. The things that you did up until this point, they change the world, and you just never knew about it,” which is just so sad.
Yeah, Naruto has quite a few moments where, in retrospect after finishing the series, a lot more stuff gets this added layer and future context. There’s a lot, even some things that build up during the original series that I’m like, okay, I get why they were portraying a character this way and I get what they’re building to. So at this point, you know, Pain is relatively new, and there’s not much of a better way to establish a bad guy than by having him kill off the mentor character. It’s very Clubber Lang in Rocky III where he gives the coach a heart attack. There’s the obvious thematic weight of a guy who believes he found the chosen one, getting killed by someone who mistakenly believes he’s the chosen one, and then by that new guy reversing all the damage he’s done, kind of ends up sort of being a chosen one. What do you think of Pain? I think he’s a fairly popular villain among fans.
Hussain: Yeah, I like Pain as a character. I think he’s really interesting because I love villains that the protagonist was a couple of bad hands away from being. And that’s what Naruto and Pain are to each other, right? Like when you meet Nagato, Konan and Yahiko, they have no parental figures in their lives and are wayward children fighting to survive. And it’s much gloomier than what Naruto was going for. He was kind of the outcast in a village and was getting up to no good but thematically, both characters didn’t have much of a social or familial kind of safety net for them. And one of them went real bad and took all the wrong turns and learned all the wrong lessons. And the other one, took a few wrong lessons, but is working his way up and knows what he wants to do and is a heart-of-gold character.
Pain is interesting because of the fact that everything went wrong for them. And this is what happens when this is the product of someone who has dealt a really, really bad hand, right? And by having that be the setup for the character, you open the way for redemption. Because if you’re a character that’s just outright evil, and there’s not much more to it than that, redemption is a very difficult thing to make happen. But you know, when there is that inevitable meeting between Nagato and Naruto, there is a moment where they connect as two people who walked the same path but took different directions at a certain, pivotal juncture. And that makes Pain as a character way more interesting as well.
And when I say Pain as a character is interesting, I’m speaking specifically about Nagato here. Obviously, Pain is multiple people. And the other part of Pain, which is, you know, the core part of him is the shock and awe villain, where they use to be like, we’re going to do the things that make you really hate this person, such as destroying massive chunks of Konoha, beating up Hinata in front of Naruto and, and doing various other horrible things. So I think Pain becomes a multifaceted villain because of the fact that it’s multiple people. Because of Nagato, Yahiko and even to a degree Konan, who starts to become a bit more of the conscience of the two of them. Consciousness and the conscience of the two of them. So as a kind of trifecta of characters, it’s very tricky to bring them as villains together in a way that feels cohesive, but it managed to happen in Naruto Shippuden. It could have been a lot messier. There are plenty of anime out there that have multiple villains in a group and it always feels like they’re at odds with each other. But this is a really good complementary system that ends in a satisfying way.
I don’t want to jump ahead too much, since it’s kind of going into a whole other arc, but I like the thing that you alluded to with Naruto forgiving Pain and being like, “We don’t have to fight, we don’t have to do this at all” and stopping that cycle of violence. It builds up the idea that maybe Sasuke will be able to be forgiven one day.
Hussain: Yeah, lays the seeds for that, which is very cool to see — I guess I don’t have to, you know, kill the whole world to make a point. It’s that case where a child is given power and only manages to find one way to use it. And I think that’s what changes Nagato in major ways, seeing that there is another kid who is perhaps as powerful out there as him that has found a way. And that is the story of Naruto, right? Like Naruto is a symbol of hope, in a lot of ways. And in that kind of confrontation, hope wasn’t something that Nagato or Pain as a whole had seen up until that point, at least not on the scale where it was being displayed by someone on his level. At that point, he’s told Jiraiya that he’s ascended and moved past being human and is a God now. And that is also a naive, childlike response to having a bit of power — you suddenly think that you’re the most powerful thing.
And then that’s when you start isolating yourself and making foolish endeavors and thoughts and perspectives concrete in a way that doesn’t allow anyone else to challenge them. And when he comes into contact with Naruto, who is able to go toe to toe with him, I think that’s what gives all those fights meaning. it’s not just shonen fighting happening. It is a person who is incredibly powerful showing another person who is incredibly powerful that things can be peaceful instead of conflict all the time. And I think that’s what generally genuinely changes Nagato’s heart is seeing Naruto, and knowing that he’s possessed by a power that is corrupting that many people believe is corrupting, and he’s managing to use it for the betterment of other people, which is exactly what Jiraiya asked of him.
And when they first meet in this infiltration, he’s like, I wish you had used that power. I wish you had moved past the pain and you’d have been able to use that power for the good of all mankind. And that’s when Pain’s like “I’ve moved beyond that, I’ve moved beyond being a human.” And then this is his moment with Naruto where he realizes, “Oh, this is what Jiraiya wanted for me.” And look at this kid who’s loved by everyone and he’s living his best life for want of a better phrase.
Yeah, it has hints of a power-hungry child. You know when you reach a certain stage where if your parent tells you you’re doing the wrong thing, you’d be like, “Well, you don’t know anything. You’re old. I’ve surpassed you.” But if your friend tells you basically the same thing you’re like, “Well, I know you. I see what you’re doing. Yeah, I agree with you”
NARUTO LIGHTNING ROUND!
Hussain: Rock Lee.
If you could live in any village, which would it be?
Hussain: Konoha. I feel like Konoha has got a good vibe.
If you could specialize in one Jutsu, what would it be?
Hussain: Ah, man, what is my favorite jutsu? I would love to open the Gates and get like any of the Lotus. I’ll take any of the Lotus. Yeah, that would be pretty cool. But if I could have one basic jutsu, I think the Kage Bushin no Jutsu would be pretty useful on a daily basis.
Which Naruto moment have you cried the most about?
Hussain: Oh this is a tricky one. I think tears of joy I will count as crying. Might Guy vs Madara right at the end. When Guy comes out, there’s something about it that just makes me well up.
And finally, which Naruto moment made you cheer the most?
Hussain: If I had to force myself to pick a moment that wasn’t Lee versus Gaara when he opens the Gates and starts warping, I think that when Naruto uppercuts Neji is pretty cool. And when he digs through the ground during the exam and comes out from underneath and does it, that was pretty cool. But also his first summoning when he summons Gamabunta for the first time. And then goes on to have that moment where Bunta is like, we need something with claws. And he’s like claws, claws, fangs, claws, fangs, claws, things, and then out of the smoke comes out the Nine Tails. I remember just being like, oh my god, I like cheering.
Stay tuned for the next installment of “My Favorite Naruto Arc” as we speak with the Naruto manga’s English translator Mari Morimoto about her favorite Naruto arc: the Fourth Great Ninja War!!
Daniel Dockery is a Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. Follow him on Twitter! His book, Monster Kids: How Pokemon Taught A Generation To Catch Them All, is available wherever books are sold on October 4.