The Medievalism of Naruto

By Peter Konieczny

Set in a world that is half-medieval, half-modern, the story of Naruto occupies a unique place in medievalism. How much does a story about ninjas borrow from the Middle Ages?

Now approaching its 25th anniversary, Naruto is one of Japan’s most recognized cultural exports. First as a 72-volume manga and then as a long-running anime series (720 episodes, plus movies and spinoffs), it has found a huge fandom around the world – including this author who spent hundreds of hours watching the English-dubbed version


As a medieval historian, I always enjoy movies, shows or books set in the Middle Ages; at first glance, Naruto is one of them. It tells the tale of a boy named Naruto Uzumaki who is learning to become a ninja. We watch his training, taking part in missions and learning more about the world around him. If one does not look carefully, this world might be mistaken for pre-modern Japan.

However, a keen eye will soon detect pieces of modern technology – a camera, a video tape, and even satellite dishes. The characters here are familiar with DNA and genetics. On the other hand, this is also a world without cars, trains, airplanes, or even horses – to go from place to place means walking (or doing the Naruto run). Nor do we have firearms used, even though this technology was used in the Middle Ages


The answer for this incongruity is that Naruto’s creator, Masashi Kishimoto, decided to create a world that is both modern and medieval. He is making a place where ninjas are at the top of society – therefore any technology that could challenge that (like guns or 21st-century computers) just does not exist.

What else does Kishimoto take from the Middle Ages to create his world? The society itself resembles a medieval construct – we have “feudal lords” (daimyō in the original Japanese version) who seemingly run the government, as well as nobles, clans, monks and peasants. How all this operates is largely not discussed – they are very much in the background, with the people going about their lives and hoping not to get caught up in any ninja wars.

Ninja themselves are rooted in Japan’s pre-modern past, known from at least the fifteenth century. Basically spies and experts in guerilla warfare, they are often in the shadows of history, leaving a void that gets filled in by legends and folktales. Often depicted as cunning warriors with unusual abilities, it is not surprising that Naruto is one of many anime or other Japanese books and movies that have made extensive use of ninjas as characters.

A ninja and Prince Hikaru Genji by Utagawa Kunisada in 1853 – Wikimedia Commons

Borrowing from Japan’s past

The world of Naruto is quite expansive – we meet hundreds of characters and go through many lands. As the story plays out, we learn more about this world’s people, places and history. In doing so, Kishimoto made extensive use of Japan’s mythology and literary past. Sometimes it is little more than just recycling names like Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi, and Susanoo, which were part of the mythological tales recorded in the 8th century. However, there are two tales that are used more extensively: The Tale of the Gallant Jiraiya and The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.


The Tale of the Gallant Jiraiya (Jiraiya Goketsu Monogatari) may have been published in the 19th century, but its origins date back to Song Dynasty China. It centres around the character of Jiraiya, a Robin Hood-type figure who learns magic from an immortal toad. He is soon paired with a woman named Tsunade, who has the powers of snail magic and healing, as they face off in epic battles with Orochimaru, who has snake magic. In recasting this trio into the world of Naruto, Kishimoto kept many of their quirky characteristics and gave them a suitably epic storyline.

Tsunade, Orochimaru and Jiraiya depicted in a mid-19th century illustration – Wikimedia Commons

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Taketori Monogatari) is a much older story, dating as far back as the 9th century. It introduces us to Princess Kaguya, who has come to the Earth from the Moon and becomes the object of several men’s affections. Having some science-fiction elements has led this story to be adapted into quite a lot of Japanese media, including movies and many animes.

Another significant aspect of Japanese mythology and folklore to find its way into Naruto is the use are Yōkai – supernatural beings that inhabit both the spiritual and physical worlds. Many medieval-era stories from Japan reference the Yōkai, who often appear as some kind of animal. One example is the kitsune, a nine-tailed fox, which has various powers including the ability to possess humans. The very first scene of Naruto establishes one of these nine-tailed foxes – Kurama – as a malevolent force and one that will be connected with the main character.


Nasty, Brutish and Short

At first appearance, Naruto seems to be about kids entering a world of adventure with lots of humour and silliness. That may have been Kishimoto’s hook to bring in young readers, but he soon starts to reveal his true story. It is, as one character puts it, where the “only things that truly exist in this reality are merely pain, suffering and futility.”

Naruto and his fellow young ninja are essentially child soldiers, who have been indoctrinated into a life of war by their very own villages. Some are thrown into the killing as young as six years of age and are subjected to brutal trauma. Practically every major character is suffering from a tragic backstory. This is very much a broken world.

I would not be surprised if Masashi Kishimoto viewed Japan’s medieval past as “nasty, brutish and short.” This phrase, which actually comes from a 17th-century novel, is often used to describe the Middle Ages, and has become the dominant trope when it comes to depictions of the medieval past in movies and television. Japan had its own ‘Warring States Period’, lasting from 1467 to 1615, precisely the same time that ninjas existed. The civil wars, violence and lawlessness common in this period are echoed in Naruto, which when the series starts has already fought three “Great Ninja Wars’.

By placing the world of Naruto into a kind of medieval past, Kishimoto perhaps found himself freer to delve into themes such as pain, suffering and revenge. But he also places into this world Naruto himself, who is our hope that this world can change for the better.


Being a medieval historian, I don’t quite see the Middle Ages as the ‘Dark Ages’, but I can understand why Masashi Kishimoto wanted to set his world in that kind of past. Naruto finds a lot of its inspiration in Japan’s history and has used it to create a deeply moving tale.

Recently I was on Media-eval: A Medieval Pop Culture Podcast, to talk more about Naruto with Sarah Ifft Decker. You can listen to the episode below:

See also: Five things you can learn from a Ninja