For those of you who don’t know, Naruto has just turned 20 years old, and everyone’s favourite knucklehead ninja is showing no sign of slowing down. With the highly successful manga having spawned not one, but two anime (Naruto and Naruto Shippuden) and even a sequel with the titular Naruto passing the flag to his son, Boruto, it’s no surprise that Masashi Kishimoto’s franchise has ingrained itself into the pop culture of Japan and the West. There are undoubtedly many reasons for its meteoric success, like the extensive cast of diverse characters and the utterly iconic fight scenes, but the most endearing part of all is its incredible, interwoven underdog tale. Having grown from the widely loathed troublemaker of the Hidden Leaf Village to the widely renowned and beloved Hokage, the path that our dear Naruto walked throughout the years has been far from easy. Throughout his journeys, Naruto and friends have had to overcome some seemingly insurmountable odds. While there were some casualties suffered along the way, Naruto has prevailed through them all. Today, then, on our trip down the Otaku Rabbit Hole, we’ll be taking a look at the organisation that was a constant looming threat throughout Naruto’s teenage years – the Akatsuki, a team of rebel ninja with a truly fear-inducing power who, in my opinion, were the greatest villains the the series’ history. Without further ado, let’s jump right into it!
*WARNING* – From here on out, there will be MAJOR spoilers for the entire Naruto manga and both the Naruto and Naruto Shippuden anime. If you do not want to be spoiled for the events of Naruto, then please click away now!
Still reading? Well then, its time to break this baby down!
Naruto: A (Very Brief) History
Before we take a closer look at the villains, let’s start with a whistle-stop tour of Naruto‘s storyline.
One day, long before the events of Naruto, the Hidden Leaf Village is attacked by a giant beast, the Nine-Tailed Fox. The Fourth Hokage, leader of the village, is able to defeat the beast by sealing it within the body of a newborn child. That child is Naruto. Due to his status as the host of the Nine-Tailed Fox that once terrorised the village, Naruto is reviled by his fellow villagers, but that doesn’t dissuade him. Naruto has a dream, that being to become the next Hokage, the greatest ninja in all the village and, by doing so, earn the respect of his fellow villagers.
He quickly proves himself worthy and qualifies as a fully fledged ninja, after which he is grouped with two other fledgling ninja: Sasuke Uchiha and Sakura Haruno – two allies that change his life forever. This team is placed under the watchful eye of teacher Kakashi Hatake, the copy ninja. Throughout his childhood, Naruto undertakes many missions with Sasuke and Sakura, forging an unbreakable bond with his friends. He also faces many great challenges and greater evils that threaten his way of life, but through it all, he stays strong and keeps his focus fixed on becoming Hokage. One day, Sasuke, fuelled by a lust for revenge, is stolen away by the sinister Orochimaru. After a difficult and ultimately unsuccessful mission, where Naruto and friends are unable to rescue Sasuke, Naruto realises that, at his current level, he has little hope of rescuing his friend and so decides to leave his homeland with mentor Jiraya the great, in order to train further and hone his ninjutsu, ready for the time when he can, at last, rescue Sasuke.
Three years pass…
The time skip allows the entire cast to grow and mature, and with that, the stakes are elevated considerably. There are, in reality, nine individuals whose bodies host a tailed beast, and these individuals are referred to collectively as Jinchuuriki. When Naruto returns after his three years away, he learns that a team of renegade ninja called the Akatsuki are hunting tailed beasts – placing him in incredible danger. These ninja are no joke, and, for the majority of the second act of Naruto, the Akatsuki are the main evil whose constantly looming shadow doggedly follows Naruto and friends. However, I’m sure no one will be surprised to hear that this danger means nothing to the lovable rogue, and he is determined to fight back against the Akatsuki, save Sasuke and do his duty as a ninja of the Hidden Leaf Village.
This is a gross oversimplification of Naruto’s earlier story arcs and doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the story. It has a LOT of the important, and downright epic, moments that have to be seen to be believed, which I’ve left out to avoid excess spoilers. As such, if anyone found themselves even slightly interested in what I’ve written here, I implore you to check out the series, because there’s so much more to enjoy than what I have written here. But, for the sake of this discussion, this is where we start our analysis.
The Origins of the Akatsuki
The Akatsuki are a team of ninja that operate outside the confines of a ninja village and are therefore considered renegade. There have been many different iterations of the Akatsuki, but they’ve all sported the iconic black cloaks with red clouds, making them immediately recognisable.
The Akatsuki were first formed during the Third Great Ninja War by the three children of the Land of Rain trained by Jiraya – Nagato, Konan and Yahiko – as a means of bringing peace to their war-torn nation. However, in a tragic turn of events, when Konan was captured by the leader of the Land of Rain, Hanzo, Yahiko – as leader of the Akatsuki – was forced to sacrifice himself in order to save Konan. Upon his deathbed, Yahiko entrusted the future of the Akatsuki, a future he beloved to be one of peace, to his dearest friend Nagato. Nagato was a rare child, blessed with the Rinnegan – an ocular ninjutsu so rare and so powerful that the one who wields it has the potential to become either a god of creation or a god of destruction, depending on the path chosen by its wielder. It is the tragic death of Yahiko, however, that forever changes the path of the Akatsuki from an organisation in search of peace to one of pain and suffering. The indescribable pain and sorrow felt by Nagato over the loss of his friend warped him, hardening his heart and resulting in him forming the new Akatsuki and “Six Paths of Pain” – a group of the dead manipulated and controlled by Nagato to oversee the Akatsuki and fight in his place.
Who Are the Akatsuki?
The new iteration of the Akatsuki, overseen by Nagato/ Pain are a group of S-rank renegade ninja, all working together to capture the tailed beasts. These ninja were diverse in their origins and each held their own speciality to aid in the capture of the tailed beasts. The final goal of Nagato was to harness the chakra of the tailed beasts and perform a powerful jutsu in a display of power so great that war and conflict would inevitably dissolve.
Within this new Akatsuki, there were 10 key members (not including Orochimaru who left the organisation prior to the events of Shippuden):
The puppet master extraordinaire and living puppet, originally from the Village Hidden in the Sand.
A demolition expert whose art is an explosion from the Hidden Stone Village.
The misunderstood and complex older brother of Sasuke from the Hidden Leaf Village.
The immortal zealot who could survive almost anything, hailing from the Hidden Steam Village.
The terrifying, heart-eating “immortal” and master of the Earth Grudge Fear technique, from the Hidden Waterfall Village.
The wielder of the ninja sword Samehada (Sharkskin) and Ninja of the Hidden Mist village so powerful, he became known as the Tail-less beast.
The spy of the Akatsuki and two-halved being with an ancient origin.
The newest member of the Akatsuki. A real klutz with a knack for running away and who holds an incredible secret.
Founding member and sole female member of the Akatsuki. Master of paper-style ninjustu and referred to by many as an angel due to the paper wings she crafts on her back.
Leader of the Akatsuki and wielder of the Rinnegan.
Each member was powerful, dangerous and unique. Some were calm an collected; others a loose cannon. While they were incredibly different, their united focus in gathering the tailed beasts meant that nothing would stand in their way. This unity and power ultimately made the Akatsuki a major threat to both the ninja world and to Naruto.
Why the Akatsuki Are the Best Villains in all of Naruto
Now that we’ve finally set the scene, lets take a closer look at what makes the Akatsuki, at least in my opinion, the greatest adversaries in Naruto. To start, let’s define the terms of what I think makes a villain or adversary good, or even great. There are four categories that the villains must adhere to:
- Threat: Do the villain(s) present a real threat to the characters and their way of life?
- Power: Are they strong enough to provide a threat that can potentially be faced by anyone – are they god-tier or simply incredibly powerful?
- Growth: Does this villain give ample opportunity for their opponent to grow as a character and to become stronger than before?
- Heart: Do we as an audience feel for the villain in some capacity? Are they endearing, are they likeable?
Without further ado, let’s finally get into it.
Pre-Time Skip Villains
The pre-time skip villains can broadly be classified as flash-in-the-pan villains – great potential, but don’t stick around long enough to truly make a lasting impact. The sole exception, in my opinion, is Zabuza and Haku.
Honestly, the battles that Naruto, Sasuke and Kakashi face against Zabuza and Haku are phenomenal and nail-biting. Both of these adversaries provide a considerable challenge (Threat: Check!), all while telling a story that makes your heart break – they make you feel for them, which makes their encounters all the more memorable and important in the development of Naruto into the great ninja he’s destined to become (Heart and Growth: Check!). Each fight is a neck-and-neck battle of wills, and the only thing that’ll decide victory is their conviction (Power: Check!). Both Zabuza and Haku could easily have overpowered our heroes, but they didn’t, and our heroes grew from their encounters. The only issue with them is the fact that both Zabuza and Haku are merely the introductory villains to the story, showing that the world can be rough and unforgiving. Had they played a greater role in the overall narrative, then this ninja duo might have become the focus of this blog post. They’re honestly a great pair, and I was so glad to see them make a return later on. Despite this, I have to say that Zabuza and Haku are a definite strong second overall, just behind the Akatsuki.
For this next one, I’m going to group Orochimaru, the Sound Village ninja, and the Sand Village ninja into one group. In all honestly, these villains can be seen as somewhere between good and decent. Ultimately, all I can say about the these Ninja is that they have potential to be great but have no real staying power or impact. What they do is somewhat mediocre and, while they do contribute to the growth and overall narrative, it often feels more indirect – Naruto or one of his allies overcomes an obstacle and then train due to the need to improve and not find themselves in that situation again. Seldom are they pushed to their limits in a fight and grow from that, and even if they do, these villains tend to fall by the wayside as the series continues.
The Akatsuki are an excellent group for a number of reasons. The diversity of the ninja present here means that a conventional no-holds-barred approach will often prove ineffective. In cases like the battle with Sasori, Sakura is pushed to breaking point, and were it not for Chiyo’s reanimation jutsu, her healing ninjutsu and the moment where Sasori ultimately surrenderred, Sakura may in fact have lost. The case of having to approach battles from a new viewpoint is incredible; it forces the characters to get creative, to survive. Sadly, this did result in numerous deaths, none more tragic than the death of Asuma. The moment where Hidan’s curse claimed Asuma brought a tear to my eye. This was where the penny dropped and it finally became very real – no one was safe. Threat level: Check!
Most of the major encounters with the Akatsuki, be that Sasori vs Sakura, Hidan vs Shikamaru, and ESPECIALLY in the case of Itachi vs Sasuke, have one hell of an emotional clout to them. Itachi vs Sasuke in particular is a final face off between the warring brothers, and every second of the fight is an all-out war to decide who will be the last surviving member of the Uchiha line – the final culmination of a revenge tale built up from Naruto‘s very beginning. Ultimately, no matter what you think of the Akatsuki, the stories told will tug on your heartstrings. Heart: Check!
Pain vs Hinata is probably the best example I can show as to providing the ability for characters to grow. While Hinata does lose the fight and her life, in spectacular fashion I might add, by diving in to save the one she loves, this fight sparked growth. She wasn’t afraid to die and she wasn’t afraid of Pain – she was strong and she was fierce. Even in her death she showed this strength and allowed Naruto to grow into a greater ninja worthy of the village’s admiration. This isn’t even a one-off – Shikamaru shows similar character growth at the hands of Hidan, as does most of the village at the hands of an Akatsuki member. Sometimes, it’s not just physical strength that’s a measure of growth, but the strength of the heart, and the Akatsuki, due to their constant and, frankly, lethal presence, give an almost constant source for both. Growth: Check!
The final measure is the most important in my opinion – power. Each member of the Akatsuki is a terrifyingly powerful ninja. Regardless of their methods, be that paper, puppets or explosions, each has the potential to decimate their foes and annihilate anyone who stands in the way of their goals. HOWEVER, this doesn’t make them untouchable. Unlike the villains that came later, i.e. Madara and Kaguya – both of whom are untouchable by anyone other than Naruto or Sasuke – the Akatsuki are powerful adversaries that present a major challenge and may prove fatal should someone misstep, but ultimately they’re human – anyone has the potential to stand against them and win. Shikamaru, Sakura, Sasuke, Naruto, Kakashi, Asuma, Hinata and Might Guy are just some of the ninja to have battled against the members of the Akatsuki in some truly spectacular encounters. While some of these ninja were less successful than others, you still felt as though they stood a chance, something that made the Akatsuki a force to be reckoned with, but not one that inspired absolute dread and hopelessness (apart from Nagato). Power: Check!
Madara and Kaguya
The final two adversaries to have stood before Naruto, in all honestly, lack the meaningful setup given to all prior enemies, often making us as viewers/ readers lose interest in them and dislike them more than what came before – only acting to weaken the final presentation.
Madara is unlikable and a major pain in the butt, being so powerful that even the combined might of the Five Kage couldn’t take him down. Kaguya is no different, only truly introduced at the 11th hour, and is the origin of all chakra. These two lack heart, have an excess of power and effectively force Naruto and Sasuke to become as gods due to the issue of power escalation. All of the characters that we as viewers/ readers have grown to love are now little more than inconvenient ants in the face of these titanic adversaries, which, overall, makes the final acts of Naruto less of a thrill ride and more of a chore. I have little more to say on these two other than that they are pretty unlikeable and have far too much power for their own good, removing one of the greatest parts of the Naruto series – that being a diverse cast of lovable characters fighting against, and overcoming, seemingly insurmountable odds in the name of honour and friendship.
Well then, guys, it’s time to wrap things up. Ultimately, the reason I say that the Akatsuki are Naruto’s greatest adversaries is thanks to their diversity and heart. Each member contributes something special to the table, be that their explosive passion or a calm stoicism, and regardless of their quality, their presence within the Naruto storyline resulted in some of the finest moments seen in the story. I, for one, will never forget the battle between Naruto and Pain, and the Sakura vs Sasori fight still reserves a place among my favourite moments in the entire anime – it’s pretty great! It could be said that the Akatsuki were a double-edged sword, however, as by spoiling us with such a great villainous troupe, we as Naruto fans will inevitably judge other villains and enemies against the Akatsuki, a high bar that few others could ever hope to reach.
With that, thanks once again for joining me this week on our trip down the Otaku Rabbit Hole. I hope you enjoyed your time here. If you did, that’s wonderful and I’d love it if you could share! If you disagreed with anything I’ve written here, then please let me know why down below, I’d love to hear you guys’ take on this!
Thanks again for joining me this week and, until next time, keep it weeby everyone!