The story of ninja Naruto and his friends has lasted a very long time—long enough to have two time skips. While the main characters started as kids not even in their teens, in Naruto Shippuden’s current arc, the little ninjas we once knew are around twenty years old and trying to find presents for their former classmate’s wedding.
Because Naruto is a story of growth, both emotionally and physically, the characters we remember from over ten years ago—both in reality and in Naruto’s story itself—have changed substantially. Let’s take a look at the main team from the beginning of the anime: Team 7.
[Warning: This article contains spoilers for Naruto up to the current episode]
Then: Naruto began as a troublemaker in the village of Konohagakure, drawing graffiti on the village’s monuments and knocking out his rival Sasuke Uchiha just so he could try to get a kiss with his crush Sakura. One of the reasons for his bad attitude was because the majority of the village shunned him for the Nine-Tailed Beast, Kurama, sealed inside of him that nearly destroyed Konohagakure many years prior to the story’s start. At this period in his life, Naruto was noisy, energetic, and determined to become Hokage—the leader of the village—and earn everyone’s respect. However, pretty much nobody took him seriously.
Now: At around twenty years old, Naruto has overcome many challenges and earned the respect of the entire village, becoming a hero. Despite once being a boy who played pranks and wouldn’t stop being loud all so he could get attention, now Naruto is so popular among the villagers that he literally gets surrounded by fangirls. Although he still has an energetic side, he is a much more down-to-earth person and takes his responsibilities as a ninja seriously.
What This Teaches Us: Patience, perseverance, and effort are the major themes that the main character of this story teaches readers. As he matures, Naruto learns that just yelling about wanting to become Hokage won’t get him anywhere—he has to work for it. Through hard work and patience, Naruto finally get what he wanted: the respect and love of the villagers. The results of one’s efforts do not come instantly. Instead, one must continue to strive for excellence, and only then will others recognize those efforts.
Then: We began our journey with Sakura when she was absolutely infatuated with Sasuke, mostly for the reason that he was the coolest guy in school and nothing else. She also considered Naruto a pest, looking down on him as a failure and never even giving him the time of day. Despite being at the top of her class at the ninja academy, she couldn’t fight in real combat. Wanting to be viewed in a good light by those around her, she often hid away her true feelings under the guise of “inner Sakura,” who would yell what she was really thinking inside her head.
Now: Sakura went through a great amount of growth in her youth. After spending time with Sasuke as part of his three-man cell, she came to know him as a person and accept him for who he was, including his many flaws. Working to save him from his own darkness for years, he finally accepts her in return. She came to realize her own weakness and the true strength of her teammate Naruto, which pushes her ahead to improve herself. She is now a force to be dealt with and verbalizes her feelings rather than holding them in like she once did.
What This Teaches Us: It’s not Sakura’s perseverance that is admirable, but instead her willingness to look inside a person and accept them for everything they are, good and bad—and that includes herself. Sakura began as a girl who judged others on their appearances, even holding herself to a high standard. Although her love for Sasuke was superficial at first, she began to learn more about him—his likes and dislikes, his dreams, and his darkness.
And, as a result, her superficial crush turned into true love, driving her to improve herself and become stronger in order to not only save him, but also to protect everything precious to her. With this strength, she was able to hold confidence in herself as well, not hesitating to say what she truly wanted to say, losing the need for her “inner Sakura” personality.
Then: Sasuke was a brooding young teen who had nothing on his mind but getting revenge on his brother Itachi for massacring their clan. Rather than caring about his teammates, he focused only on becoming stronger. As he spent time with Naruto, Sakura, and their teacher Kakashi, Sasuke felt himself starting to become accustomed to having a family again. Afraid of losing the will to get revenge, he throws away his life in his home village, betrays everyone he knows, and joins the enemy in order to become stronger. He then went on to sacrifice anything and everything to obtain his goals.
Now: Sasuke realizes the error of his ways and finally reconciles with Naruto, as well as Sakura, whose feelings he accepts. While he still has a bit of a standoffish personality, he is much more caring than he was during his youth. For the sake of the village and gathering information, Sasuke travels the land alone, but still cares about the people he left behind in Konoha.
What This Teaches Us: Let’s face it: Revenge is bad. Sasuke gave up everything in order to get revenge. Through his journey for vengeance, he learned that the target of his malice was in fact mistaken, making his years of seeking power a waste. Arguably, one of the reasons Sasuke was so hated by some fans during his teenaged years is because he was so foolish that it was almost painful to watch him—despite him being one of the most popular characters in the series’ early history. And, as a result of his journey of revenge, Sasuke has to atone for what he sacrificed along the way. Basically, he’s the “bad example” of the story that us as readers are supposed to avoid following.
It can also be said that he teaches us not to focus on just our own problems, but also pay attention to the feelings and thoughts of those around us. After all, only when Sasuke does this does he truly become happy.
Then: As a bonus, let’s look at Gaara. As a youth, Gaara was not just a loner—he was a ticking time bomb of madness. Not treated as a human by his own village despite his father being its leader, Gaara in return treated everyone around him as enemies, including his own brother and sister, Kankuro and Temari. To add to the mess, Gaara had the One-Tailed Beast sealed within himself, making him a dangerous weapon who would kill anyone who got in his way.
Now: Gaara found a friend in Naruto, a ninja who was also alone due to the monster inside of him—and thanks to him began to change for the better. He started to consider those around him important to him and took on the position of Kazekage, the leader of his village. As leader, he will sacrifice even his own life to protect his people, something young Gaara would have never thought to do. And, in return, Gaara has gained the love of his people—his siblings, subjects, and allies—the one thing he always wanted. In the latest episode of Naruto Shippuden, Gaara seriously thinks about what to get Naruto for his wedding. Not because Gaara is the Kazekage, but because Naruto is his best friend.
What This Teaches Us: With Gaara, the most important things that changed him were forgiveness, trust, and most importantly, friendship. Gaara had a pretty crappy childhood—he was mistreated by his father, betrayed by his caregiver, and his own siblings feared him. Gaara had reached a stage where he couldn’t believe in anyone and completely isolated himself. However, by coming into contact with Naruto, a child who was in a similar situation to him, he learned to forgive the very people that shunned him, and also apologize for his cruel actions and trust in his family once again.
Both Naruto and its sequel Naruto Shippuden can be viewed on Crunchyroll. Viz Media also streams and releases the series on home video and publishes the original manga by Masashi Kishimoto in North America.