I don’t know if you’ve ever done this but there’s a way I like to break down fiction sometimes by identifying the elements of it as other works of fiction. It’s basically independent of any quality judgment on those works, it’s just about identifying similar story elements. Basic pattern recognition. People often compare works in a derogatory way (B is a ripoff of A) and I can slip into that, but this kind of excessive is kind of an antidote to that kind of thinking for me.
There are stories that are elemental and there are stories that are more complex and both have their merits. Halloween is a simple story, it defines the slasher genre; it’s elemental. Star Wars is a complex story, it’s made up of a lot of different elements that are sometimes working together and sometimes just coexisting in the same story for the hell of it.
When people talk about the elements of Star Wars though they’re usually doing it to identify influences (X was takes from Y), but that’s not what I’m interested in. Again, part of the point of this exercise for me is to be antithetical to the idea of fiction ripping off other fiction, I’m more interested in the same idea showing up in different works independently, or at least more oblique connections.
Also when you have multiple examples of things trying to do the same thing, or building off the same idea, you can evaluate them more concretely. Instead of just saying “Well I don’t think that worked very well” you can add in a specific example for something you think did it better, and if you break things down into their elements you might find points of comparison you would have otherwise missed.
Hopefully this will make more sense (if it will ever make any sense to anyone else) once I start doing it.
So, I started with the claim that Green Lantern + Game of Thrones + Shoujo Heroine = Naruto. What do I mean by that?
By Green Lantern I really mean a specific run of Green Lantern comics that ran from 2005 to 2011 headlined by writer Geoff Johns, running from Green Lantern: Rebirth through Blackest Night and to the War of the Green Lanterns(Obviously with the additional weight of years of stories informing that run).
With Game of Thrones and Naruto I’m looking at each of those as a singular story. This is about boiling stuff down and getting to big ideas, I’m not interested at all in minor differences, I’m interested in large similarities.
When I say Shoujo Heroine I’m referring to the prototypical heroine of Japanese fiction aimed at girls. You could sub in the character Sailor Moon, but I’m not looking at the details of any specific example I’m thinking about that kind of character broadly.
The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that I’ve been watching Game of Thrones for the first time since 2013 and watching it enter its endgame I realized it fell in with Naruto and that run of Green Lantern in a very simple way: These are all large epics that built to a confrontation with an army of the dead, with various character resurrections along the way. The similarities between Green Lantern and Naruto is just something I’ve carried with me for a long time but watching GoTs I realized that it kind of filled in the other half of Naruto, the elements of that story that Green Lantern had none of.
That’s how I got here.
So lets start with Naruto and Green Lantern, because those similarities have sat with me longer and are more superficial. The first big plot thing you learn about Naruto, other than that he has no parents, is that he has a giant Nine-Tailed Demon Fox sealed inside him. Over time we learn that there are eight other tailed beasts. These beasts are a big driving force in the overall plot of the series and the villains of the series want to capture them all.
A big part of Geoff Johns’ run on Green Lantern was retconning old stories in order to rehabilitate the character of Hal Jordan, the first human Green Lantern of the silver age, and restoring the Green Lantern Corps. The original Green Lantern, Alan Scott, had a magic ring that was weak to wood whereas the silver age reinvention was more science fiction based with Hal Jordan being one of many space cops weak to the color yellow.
In the Mid 90s DC decided to replace Hal Jordan and did so by having him go crazy, murder most of the Corps and take their power for himself, declaring himself Parallax and becoming the Big Bad of the DC universe for a while before he had a change of heart, saved the world by sacrificing himself to prevent the destruction of the Sun and then went on to become the new Spectre, the Spirit of Vengeance aka The Wrath of God.
Yeah. Comics are weird.
Johns starts the reclamation of Hal Jordan by copying an idea from X-Men comics: the way The Phoenix was retconned into The Phoenix Force, a cosmic symbiotic being. Parallax goes from being just a moniker to a giant yellow space cockroach that had possessed Hal Jordan. Johns then built upon this idea as his run went along, creating the emotional spectrum: 7 major emotions, each tied to a color and each with an emotional entity a powerful creature that embodies that emotion. Parallax being the embodiment of fear. Eventually the driving plot becomes about a villain who is going around and capturing all the entities.
It was at this point that I went “Wait is Green Lantern becoming Naruto?” What was even weirder to me was that then Naruto became Green Lantern. From the introduction of the color spectrum, Blackest Night was explicitly pointed to as an eventual event, much like Game of Thrones proclamation of “Winter is Coming,” Whereas with Naruto I didn’t expect a giant war with the undead until it was happening.
So I will say that the math of my statement breaks down a bit since Game of Thrones and Green Lantern share some elements of story that Naruto doesn’t have. Hype surrounding the buildup to the confrontation with the dead being one of them.
The dead in Naruto and Green Lantern are also similar in that they’re not there just for the sake of being zombies. These are stories about characters confronting the past and an excuse to dig up lots of important characters that have died over the course of these stories.
This is one of the places where Blackest Night suffers by being a DC Comics event spanning the entire line, because basically every tie-in issue was about someone facing a dead person in their past only to realize that this is an evil zombie version of that person so they should just destroy them and be done with it. It was just weak drama because the evil zombies were too evil for character drama.
In Naruto the zombified warriors keep their original personalities, it’s just their actions they can’t control, and their control is restored in some cases. Also we get to see some fighters from history that we’d never seen otherwise, so that’s another extra wrinkle. It has the problem where because this is all contained within one title there’s just too much, it goes on for too long, it becomes exhausting.
Because Game of Thrones hasn’t ended yet, and we’ve only gotten a taste of what its confrontation with the dead will be like. The penultimate episode of season 7 and the history of the Night King point to a similar direction but I don’t know how far the show will push there. I just feel like there has to be more too the army of the dead than just endless nameless zombies because of the importance of history in the Game of Thrones story. That’s the big element that fills in the part of Naruto that Green Lantern doesn’t to me.
There’s a scene in Game of Thrones where Tyrion is talking to Daenerys about the politics of Westeros and the trouble she’s going to have making allies. Daenerys gets fed up and calls all the various houses spokes on a wheel, this one’s on top and that one’s on top round and round it goes crushing everyone else underneath. Tyrion assumes she means to try and stop the wheel and she responds that she intends to break the wheel.
That’s a powerful idea. Although as of yet the show doesn’t seem to have figured out what that means. In the last episode Daenerys explicitly said she’s not worrying about that until she’s at the top of it. That idea stands out to me because I think it’s a good idea for a story, and it’s an idea that’s at the heart of Naruto.
It’s not defined the same way. The way Naruto gets at it I think is actually deeper, with Game of Thrones more focused on (har har har) “The Game of Thrones.” Whereas with Naruto it’s more the simply the cycle of vengeance and hate. The important thing is that both stories are built around the idea of the cycle of history and the ways children inherit the suffering their parents and the world inflicts upon them.
I don’t know how Game of Thrones is going to conclude itself. Will the wheel be broken in a meaningful way? What will the army of the dead ultimately mean to the story? What will the final struggle even be against? I will say, Blackest Night certainty suffered because Nekron made for a very boring villain and right now that’s who the Night King reminds me of.
To me, the Night King can be the big flashy endgame spectacle, but the wheel is the real final obstacle. The army of the dead is the existential threat, the war for survival they have to win first; but defeating the wheel is winning the peace afterward.
Green Lantern had none of that. Blackest Night ends with a Deus Ex Machina and then comic books go back to business as usual. In fact the story that made me compare Green Lantern to Naruto so explicitly actually happens after Blackest Night.The wheel keeps turning.
The thing is Naruto had its answer to solving this problem before it got there. And it’s because Naruto is a Shoujo heroine. That was the first defining aspect of Naruto that separated it from other stories in its genre, from other Shonen tournament stories, for me. This is a genre defined by Dragon Ball, stories where the protagonist is focused on being the strongest. Naruto starts out by wanting to be the leader of his village, the person who protects everyone, the Hokage. And at first glance this just makes him a standard shonen hero who wants to be the very best like no one ever was. But as the story goes on and expands the part of protecting everyone that being Hokage entails becomes the driving factor.
Naruto isn’t driven to be the strongest just to be the strongest, he’s driven to become stranger to save others. Both his friends and his enemies. Well before the story becomes about Naruto’s endless quest to save Sasuke, it is repeatedly about suffering kids and the way Naruto confronts and empathizes with them. We see that cycle of suffering established and we see Naruto break it many times in separate instances well before the show explicitly becomes about Naruto breaking the cycle and changing the world.
The other part that separates Naruto as a story is how incredibly adolescent it is, which I’m also covering in the Shoujo heroine part of the equation. It’s about characters wearing their emotions on their sleeves. I mean they do that in Green Lantern too, but in an even more cartoonish way. Game of Thrones is pretty broad but it varies; Cersei wears her emotions on her sleeve but a lot of the show is driven by political machinations, not emotions.
I also want to make clear that Naruto as the protagonist of his story gives his story a strength I feel is lacking in Game of Thrones and Green Lantern. Green Lantern was about bringing Hal Jordan back because 30 year olds like Geoff Johns at the time had nostalgia for him, not because he’s really all that compelling as a protagonist. He’s like John Snow in that’s he a heroic but flawed white dude that died and got better. With Game of Thronesthough this is more complicated.
Part of the appeal of Game of Thrones is how it obfuscated who the main character was for so long. People watching, who hadn’t read the books, thought Ned Stark was the hero until he was dead and then they felt like this was a show where anything could happen. At this point Jon Snow is clearly the main character, instead of a show where everyone is in danger of dropping dead at all times, it’s a show that bends over backwards to keep people alive. We are now in the Harry Potter endgame phase of finding irrelevant/extraneous characters to kill off.
So my main question with Game of Thrones is whether we’re going to get an emotionally satisfying story about breaking the wheel (Like Naruto delivered on) or will it just be about defeating the existential threat and that’s enough (Like Lord of the Rings)?
Also before you go thinking I like Naruto too much, remember that I found the pace at which the manga and anime moved to be painfully slow and only finished the story in videogame form. Game of Thrones has the benefit of only having one more season of eight episodes with which to wrap up its story so it’ll easily be better paced and less poisoned by filler, despite the fact that A Song of Ice and Fire started a year before Naruto did and so will have taken more years to tell its story. Storytelling that bleeds across media, that’s another similarity.
That Daenerys doesn’t seem to know what she meant by break the wheel anymore, and is too busy burning people alive, frustrates me. I mean I’m not looking for something super complicated, Naruto broke the cycle by punching people and being punched. I just think that stories about confronting problems are more compelling than stories that end with murdering all the loose ends.
Also, you can do both.
And if you want an actually great story about children suffering for the sins of their parents and their struggle to overcome then watch Mawaru Penguindrum.