Warning!! Some minor spoilers for Naruto!
Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura. Three names that are highly popular in the manga/anime community. These are the names of three characters from the ever popular series, Naruto. Naruto, the protagonist of the series starts off the oddball kid striving to gain acknowledgment, Sasuke begins as the cool and handsome type who excels at anything he tries, but has a certain darkness about him, and finally, Sakura…well, she likes Sasuke. Harsh, yes, but this is honestly the first thing we, as readers of the manga or viewers of the anime, know about Sakura. Well, that and that Naruto has a crush on her (even though Sakura wouldn’t give Naruto the time of day in the beginning).
But Sakura actually has a lot of potential. Similar to Hermione from Harry Potter, she is the brainiac of the bunch and she’s eager to let you know it, comprehending some concepts before even genius Sasuke figures it out completely. And while she doesn’t have the brute strength or any special skills (initially) like the guys, Sakura has good control over some of the finer, technical points of ninja training like chakra (a type of energy) control. (For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it takes place in a fantasy world filled with modern ninja.) Sakura teaches Naruto and Sasuke a few things, here and there.
Despite this, Sakura sits on standby through much of the first several volumes of manga. There are a few moments of glory (Sakura showing up both Naruto and Sasuke at training then essentially teaching them how she did it being the best one), but mostly, she gawks over Sasuke, snaps at Naruto, participates in some dialogues, and stands on the sidelines.
Sakura isn’t stupid though, as I’ve said. She knows she’s the weakest link and that Naruto and Sasuke end up being the heroes while she does practically nothing comparatively. She’s just along for the ride. In an almost palpable wave of depression, this dawns of Sakura accompanied by symbolic pictures of her watching the backs of her two comrades. Luckily, Sakura isn’t the type to wallow in despair and do nothing to change the situation. She decides to change; no more looking at Naruto and Sasuke’s backs, she’s going to walk beside them from now on and be a real asset!
Finally, after sitting around uncomfortably for so long, her feet tingling with sleep, she moves somewhat awkwardly at first, but then with new-found energy that bursts forth spectacularly. Following these awakenings are beautiful times for Sakura, her real shining moments and the Chunin Exam arc of the Naruto series showcase a number of them. Protecting Naruto and Sasuke in a moment of crisis and taking on an opponet in a heated brawl of brains and brawns is one example. But while these moments are full of Sakura asserting herself, realizing new potentials, and allowing the readers to get to know her better, they are undermined ever so slightly for me. I say that because even though Sakura tries to protect Naruto and Sasuke (and it is truly intense), she ends up being protected. By the end of the Chunin Exam arc, Sakura is forced to play the damsel in distress more than ever before when she’s under the threat of being killed by another young ninja if Sasuke and Naruto don’t beat him. This kind of sequence of events (gaining power, playing a key part, but reverting back to leaving everything to her comrades) has repeated itself at least twice since the second part of the series began. It’s disappointing as a fan, watching her make a breakthrough, but having this remade Sakura yanked away just when I was getting excited.
The other thing that always disappoints me about the Naruto series is that, despite showcasing many times the power of friendship, friendships between females are unfortunately lacking. Sakura’s one female friend that is depicted is her rival in both love and profession and the two constantly fight. It seems their chosen greeting for each other is Ino (the friend) making some jab about Sakura’s forehead (because Sakura believes she has a large one) and Sakura calling Ino a pig. It is revealed that once Ino and Sakura were close friends, but when they realized they both liked the same boy (Sasuke), they changed to rivals. Now as a reader and fan of Naruto I understand that being one’s rival is another way of being a friend in the series, something that is discussed often about Naruto and Sasuke’s relationship, but Naruto also has a lot of normal friends who aren’t rivals, but just plain old friends. It would have been good to see friendship between girls instead of the usual jealousy depicted between girls. I think the other problem is main reason why the two became rivals. Fighting over a guy that doesn’t return either of their feelings just seems a little sad. While Naruto is jealous of Sasuke because he has Sakura’s attention, that is not the main reason the two boys are rivals. It’s true, girls can be mean to each other and fight over guys, but it would be nice if good friendships were shown in fiction because, believe it or not, it does happen.
Both of these scenarios undermine great potential that exists and Naruto isn’t the only manga that does this to its female characters. I’m speaking to women and men both when I say wouldn’t it be more interesting if female characters like Sakura could make that extra leap of faith and not depend so much on the male characters around her or if good relationships were shown between girls? If for no other reason, it would be less expected and provide new scenarios. As I wrote this, it occurred to me that another female character in the series, Temari is a good example. She doesn’t appear as often as Sakura and readers don’t get much of a chance to see Temari interacting with other young women, but she stands on equal footing with her male comrades and is not placed in such weakened positions as other female characters in the series. Sounds like I need to do a piece on her!