[Warning: Will Contain Spoilers!]
Something that is hard for us to recognize nowadays is that the literature we call “classic”, such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, were, during their times, popular forms of culture. With that perspective in mind, when we look at current stories, myths, and cultural products, we have to remember that a few may indeed survive the passage of time and become classics. Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia are undoubtedly two examples from the British literature fantasy genre. For America, Star Wars has (or had) the potential for mythological significance, but in recent times, Star Wars has fallen out of favour due to perceived ideological propaganda poisoning the cultural well.
One of the common refrains is that Star Wars fans are alt-right fanatics and misogynists. Others suggest that as older actors retire, fans will need to learn how to deal with the inevitability of their deaths. Other social commentators suggest that current fan unhappiness stems from the mistreatment and disrespect of canon characters.
In the midst of all this, for the fourth or fifth time, I am enjoying reruns of Naruto Shippuuden, the second installment of an ongoing Japanese anime universe. Naruto, Naruto Shippuuden, and Boruto represent almost 20 years of ninja and Japanese mythology; although not as old as Star Wars, the Naruto anthology has had similar impact within Asia (and large parts of the rest of the world).
I remember waiting for the Naruto filler season to end. Naruto Shippuuden could not come soon enough. Unlike Star Wars fans when Episode I hit, however, I did not feel disappointed. Years later, when Boruto released quietly, just as Star Wars fans looking forward to Episode VII, I felt cautiously optimistic. After watching twenty episodes of Boruto, however, I felt relieved and excited – unlike Star Wars fans after The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. What is going on here? I believe that Star Wars Disney can learn a few tips from Boruto. Here are a few.
Step One: Choose A Logic Place to Restart the Story
When should you pick up the story? The place where you decide to restart the story defines much of what is achievable within the narrative. This is particularly true when it comes to live-action since time constraints exist due to actor availability and aging.
For the Naruto series, the initial show has a definite flow with specific ages for the characters. Naruto covers around a year (or two), when Team 7 are around 12/13. Naruto Shippuuden begins 2 to 3 years later, setting the general ages of Team 7 around 15, with the show potentially ending when they are around 17. Boruto begins when Naruto is in his 30s, which is a sizeable time gap bridged by a few light novels and a single film (The Last). Still, the characterization has remained smooth, helped by animation that realistically shows an aging cast.
Star Wars, on the other hand, had a few dilemmas to overcome. For starters, Harrison Ford wanted out, Mark Hamill has aged less well (to put it nicely – I LOVE YOU, HAMILL!), and Carrie Fisher wasn’t much better (she is dead now). Other actors – Denis Lawson, for example – did not want to return. Billy Dee Williams was absent. So, the clock was ticking, and time became scarce. As such, perhaps decisions were rushed.
Whatever the case, I believe, and many other Star Wars fans would agree with me on this, that how the characters were used was criminal; but I would add further that the mis-characterization most apparent in The Last Jedi was worsened by poor plot choices. I would have gone down the road of The Fate of the Jedi novel series, which allows for children and grandchildren, while keeping the age of the actors realistic. For reasons unknown, the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe (now called Legacy though not treated as such) was trashed without any chance to be referenced. This summary dismissal of previous canon led to another problem…
Step Two: Respect the Canon Universe
How does ninjutsu work? What is the role of chakra? How do the politics play out in Naruto? Where did we leave off with universe plot points in Naruto Shippuuden? These important “realities” about the Naruto-verse have remained solid in Boruto:
- The Byakugan can be only activated by the Hyuuga clan.
- Ninja still have to mold chakra to achieve ninjutsu.
- Naruto’s Nine-Tails form and Sage Jutsu remains intact.
- The Uchiha clan remains decimated (as in, almost completely destroyed).
- The Kage still exist.
These are just a few things I noticed right off the bat when I started watching the first ten episodes or so. (Maybe more.)
On the other hand, when watching The Last Jedi in particular, one of the things that stood out for me as a Star Wars fan was the appearance of completely bizarre occurrences that don’t feel supported by common knowledge of Star Wars lore and therefore don’t make sense. I will look at a few in this section: unclear political set up, the Force, hyper-drives and hyperspace, and gravity.
To begin with, unlike the originals which had a simple easy set up of the opposing political forces at play…
and the prequels which had more complex, sometimes confusing/boring, political explications,
the most recent films have no political reality or grounding. What happened to the Empire? What is the First Order about really? Where did Coruscant go? Did Coruscant just get blown up?
No, it didn’t. The New Republic appears to have centered on a planet called Hosnian Prime, which we are not familiar with and therefore don’t care about. We don’t even get a throwaway line like Alderaan got: “No! Alderaan is peaceful, we have no weapons.” With the New Republic so casually dispensed, one would assume that the political scenario went from a complicated four-way complication (the New Republic, the Empire, the Resistance, and the First Order) to a simpler binary opposition (the Resistance and the First Order) because the Empire is also conveniently absent or destroyed. Unfortunately, the script remains confused, particularly evident in its uncertainty as to whether the Rebellion is a Resistance or Rebellion. Therefore, we lack grounding to understand who we are cheering for. This can’t be good. When I googled “the last jedi resistance rebellion confusion”, I found a solid article on the confusing politics of the recent Star Wars trilogy. I recommend you read it.
Another point of confusion originates with the newly revealed Force perks – the ability to project oneself across the universe and the ability to remain alive in space longer than usual. #carriepoppins That is never good. Although I am willing to believe in multi-varied abilities in the Force, I felt that these Force abilities were more plot devices than Star Wars-verse realities.
Also, the ability for ships to split other ships through hyperspace confused me. That felt weird to me – and although I could have believed that it was possible, I was puzzled as to why Star Wars characters hadn’t used it before in the thousands (or more) of years the cultures of Star Wars had been existing. Even worse, why was a person required to pilot the ship? Why couldn’t a droid have done it? Or remote control? And doesn’t it look like all of the Star Destroyers are also destroyed? How are they destroyed? Did she somehow bounce around in space and hit all of them? They sure didn’t look lined up to all get hit. Could the jagged lines apparent in all of them be caused by debris? Wouldn’t the lines be horizontal if the debris came from the Supremacy? I read quite a few articles and fan explanations and YouTube videos on this, but this scene, though gorgeous, feels staged.
Finally, Rian Johnson’s apparent obsession with bombers left us with a lovely visual – but a totally stupid rendition of how gravity works in space. (Hint: it doesn’t behave like it does on Earth!) Coupled with a forced “emotional” moment, the scenes left me cold, since I do expect a little bit of logic in my science fantasy films.
Boruto, therefore, from its handling of the Otsutsuki Clan to the minutia of the Naruto-verse, appears to be quite a bit more respectful, regardless of the change in staff. Star Wars, somehow, has gotten really skewed thanks to plot requirements.
Step Three: Respect the Canon Characters
We can really see this skewing in the relative differences between how the characters are handled within Boruto and Star Wars respectively. Another obvious change in the recent Star Wars films is how the canon characters are handled. Let’s have a look at how Boruto handles its characters and compare it to how Star Wars brings its canon characters back (and kills them off).
In Naruto-verse, the top three characters (like Star Wars) are two strong male leads and a feisty female lead – Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura. Given the length of time devoted to story, the characters go through a solid development arc that I found to be quite believable and fulfilling. Naruto learns to never give up and to use his head for strategy and diplomacy. Sasuke finally understands the futility of vengeance (after becoming quite a shit disturber). Sakura discovered her Inner Sakura, became a strong woman who understood the importance of her role as fighter AND medic.
Other characters around them – Hinata, Neji, Pain, Itachi, Haku, Zabuza, Shikamaru, Obito, and others – also went on character arcs where they had to confront their inner issues. Some characters had to overcome external obstacles as well – Kakashi, Tsunade and the Kage, Minato and Kushina, and a whole army of shinobi in Shippuuden fighting for their reality.
Boruto merely expands on these canonical realities. Naruto’s powers have not waned – but adulthood has taken a toll on his familial relationships in a very realistic way. Sakura has to deal with essentially being a single mom as her husband remains in self-imposed exile on an S-Class investigation. Sasuke remains a dick (IMO), but he is also more grounded.
Even side characters are paid respectful homage. Every time I watch an episode of Boruto, I find myself divided in attention between the new young cast and the obvious adulting going on in the previous generations who now carry the mantle of power. Naruto and his friends go out for drinks after work and come home drunk. Hinata, although a capable ninja, is a stay at home mom, for all intents and purposes. Kakashi is now retired from his Kage duties, but he remains as laconic, intelligent, and powerful as always. As new enemies arise, the older generation are threatened, but while they are challenged and give way to the new characters, their memories and characterizations are not disrespected.
Switching to Star Wars, however, it is clear to see that the old generation characters are at best dismissed, at worst disrespected or even “assassinated”. I’m not just talking about Admiral Ackbar’s off-screen death. This so-called character assassination is most apparent with the original three – Han, Luke, and Leia. Luke, the shining star of optimism in Return of the Jedi, appears to be a cynical, grumpy hermit who has abandoned the world and everyone he loves.
Watching binary stars set in an overly obvious way, he dies alone on a rock after giving a single show of power. Han appears to have regressed to his lone wolf days before Leia, abandoning his partner (wife?) and son for a life on the space road. Unsurprisingly, he dies a quick death, plummeting off the edge of a walkway at the hands of his estranged child. Leia, ironically, is the only one left standing – and her actress died.
Given that Solo: A Star Wars Story‘s Lando cracked an innuendo about sexual activities with robots (inviting some, including Kasdan the script writer, to infer that Lando is pansexual), hopes of seeing future old gen characters are mixed with fear and caution. Excitement and support for the film is further destroyed when the cast share concerns about the direction of the story. I believe that when an actor says that their character is not their character, then we really have a problem because actors, living in the skin of these mythological characters, understand the narrative more than anyone else. Furthermore, as stated above, the timing and content of the current Star Wars narrative also worsened the characterization.
Step Four: Respect Canonical Ideology
Why is this happening at all? Why has Star Wars lost control of its plot focus, its ‘verse’s axioms, and its characters? I would argue that it is due to a foundational shift in ideological priorities characterizing Hollywood today in general. On the other hand, so far, Boruto, despite its shift in messaging, still holds to the general ethos of the Naruto-verse.
To begin with, Naruto and Naruto Shippuuden themes surround the idea of ‘bonds’, which is a very traditional take on life for an Asian audience. Asia, after all, has strong investment in social bonds, which is often reflected in its cultural products including anime and manga. However, in Boruto, although ‘bonds’ remains a central theme, the explication of the theme differs.
Unlike in Naruto, where Naruto learns how to change the lives of those around him in the face of persecution and personal failure, Boruto explores how young people who are unknowingly privileged with a safe world must learn its dangers and learn the importance of their friends and family as support.
Boruto, having grown up in a post-war culture, begins to understand that the undercurrents of the previous wars still have cultural weight and cast a cultural shadow, as it were, across current relationships, both political and social. As the only son of the current Hokage, Naruto, Boruto has to come to terms with how to represent his family and country – and take responsibility both for himself and his bonded relationships.
In short, the importance of family, the importance of communication, the importance of peace-making has not been undercut in the narratives of Boruto. The ideologies which supported the narrative of Naruto and Naruto Shippuuden continue onward into Boruto, providing a strong foundation for the continuation of the spirit of Naruto-verse.
I am not so certain that the new Star Wars films have necessarily embraced the themes of the old Star Wars films. There may be a variety of reasons for that, but mainly I do think it boils down to Hollywood’s need to use film as a way to politicize culture for “the good of the uneducated masses”.
Let’s have a closer look.
To begin with, Star Wars as a whole was rather confused as a mythology [see here and here]. However, I do think it made sense to people on a certain level by the virtue of its simplistic, easy to understand character dynamic found within the Luke and Vader narrative. The hero’s journey – classically shown through Luke and inverted through Vader – makes sense to most Western audiences on a subconscious level. One might argue it is an intuitively human story that any audience might enjoy, but, in general, Star Wars resonates particularly well with Western audiences because it draws on familiar mythic tropes found within Greek and Roman mythology as well as historical realities like World War II. Although the mystical “Eastern” element of the Force added some confusion in the mix, I would argue that the total effect impacted the Western world which longed for something metaphysical in their materialist world through the genre of science-fantasy. In short, the original Star Wars stories made spiritual sense on some levels and brought mental and emotional order to the metaphysical lives and needs of its audiences through a familiar zero-to-hero narrative.
The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, on the other hand, have little to no spiritual foundation or journey for any of the characters. Although some ethically positive things are attempted (freeing animals, for example), the metaphysical foundations for doing so are not clearly presented. This is probably due to an exploitation of the previous films’ constructs regarding freedom and courage as well as an incorrect use of post-modernity’s skepticism toward meta-narratives, which results in said “pick-and-choose” exploitation. Within post-modernity, the inherent value of the hero’s journey, for example, is undermined along with cultural standards of beauty or ethics, yet the postmodernist may be able to pick and choose what parts of the meta-narratives that resonate with them, rejecting the parts that do not. In a similar fashion, The Last Jedi enshrines the previous films’ beliefs about freedom, but does not attempt to tackle personal responsibility, overcoming internal conflict, or the realities of good and evil.
Within this construct, character arcs do not necessarily have any conflict to face, except that of naming oneself. Women depicted within Cultural Marxist ideologically driven cultural productions are championed without any real challenge, resulting with characters like Rey, who neither improve nor worsen. She remains unchanged. Her spiritual journey simply involves the acceptance of the singularity of her identity.
Evil, good, and their respective representations are also deconstructed. Snoke is a nobody. Luke has lost his shining optimism. With traditional representations of good and evil on shaky foundations, Rey and Kylo Ren represent a kind of grey zone within the Force. “Old ways must die”, Kylo Ren suggests. Must they? Do we really want to explore a narrative where ethical behavior can no longer be clearly delineated? Luke and the Rebellion represented justice of some sort against a tyrannical order – the Empire. However, without clear depictions of battle lines, it is difficult for us to root for anyone. Our instincts are to cheer for Rey and her friends, but without any real source of danger, the narrative lags. Furthermore, the menace of the First Order is undercut by uninspired characterization such as that of Hux in The Last Jedi.
In short, the mythological aspects of the original Star Wars series relied on meta-narrative symbology, which, in the most recent adaptations, were removed or used indiscriminately for specific ideological purposes. On top of removing mythological meaning, the new Star Wars series appears to have allowed its narrative to be hijacked for current ideological purposes. It is hard to tell how much of The Last Jedi is ideological animus, but between the Holdo vs Poe scenes and the Canto Bight nightmare, I’d say that there was a fair amount of preachiness, resulting in some cringe-worthy lines. Perhaps explaining the ideological machine that is The Last Jedi requires a separate blog.
In conclusion, I would argue that Boruto is a great model for Disney Star Wars moving forward. Boruto (and the Marvel Cinematic Universe) draws on original content in a respectful way while still maintaining freshness by looking at old ideas from new angles. This freshness is not achieved by thoughtless “subversion” or ideologically-driven plot devices. It is achieved by a respectful and logical extension of the universe at hand through the lens of new characters who must undergo not only the challenge of maturity within the narrative but the challenge of audience acceptance.
Boruto understands that it must be respectful of its parentage and give the audience time to accept it for what it is. It is a humble and exciting entry into the Naruto-verse and I can’t wait to see where it takes the old and new characters.
Star Wars on the other hand appears to have gotten cocky in its old age. Fed on a diet of cultural normativity, it has gained confidence through a history of acceptance and fan participation. However, unlike Boruto, the new series assumes that it can revisit old faces with little to no respect for the characterization or ideological underpinnings of the older narratives. It tramples fan expectations and in-universe constants. When faced with fan backlash, the Star Wars production staff, actors, directors, and leaders blamed fans and audiences instead of taking responsibility for a poorly delivered product.
I recommend The Last Jedi check its privilege.