Naruto is one of the most popular manga and anime series around. It features a young boy, Naruto, whose body actually contains the spirit of a fearsome nine-tailed fox that had been terrorizing his village some twelve years earlier. At that time, this nasty fox was captured and its spirit was sealed in the body of a baby boy (our Naruto).
Jump ahead twelve years and you've got the star of the story, now a mischievous and hyperactive young ninja with great aspirations. Both Naruto anime (animated television shows) and manga (the comic book series) go through episodes of high-flung adventures battling monsters, other ninjas and, last but not least, doing ninja exams.
Both the manga and anime series have spawned numerous fan sites and forums, with all manner of products available online (screen savers, online games, etc.) and for sale (apparel, DVDs, and more). But what lies behind this popular series is an interesting fact: the story of Naruto is based solidly on traditional Japanese culture.
Author and artist Masashi Kishimoto was born in Japan in 1974 and it is an area very rich in history. Kishimoto won Shonen Jump magazine's Hop Step Award for new manga artists with his manga Karakuri, but he didn't stop there. His first Naruto version was a story of fox spirits and the story grew. It fast became a most popular ninja manga, in fact one of the most popular in Japan.
What may have escaped some western Naruto fans is the interesting story of the fox. Fox myths abound in Japanese culture, dating back as far as the fifth century B.C. Stories portray foxes as intelligent beings possessing magical abilities which increase as they age and gain wisdom. One of their tricks is their ability to shape-shift and sometimes they take on the form of a human. Some tales have them tricking others by changing into human form while others describe them as friends or guardians or even wives.
A kitsune (the Japanese word for fox) can have up to nine tails, as did the evil fox in Naruto's past. And from the older stories, it seems that the more tails he has, the more powerful he is. Most folk tales state that a fox will grow more tails only after it's lived for one thousand years.
Interestingly, Japanese folklore originally portrayed the fox as having only good attributes, and their evil and mischievous traits came in with Chinese and Korean folk tales. Some consider the kitsune as a deity and they will make offerings to them. There are quite a few tales about kitsune, both good and evil, with foxes shape-shifting into human form (a skill they only acquire after the age of 100) and then covertly living as part of a family until finally being discovered (they often seem to have trouble hiding their tails when assuming human form!).
A common belief is that foxes will impersonate beautiful women. Early in Japan's history, it was thought that any woman alone, particularly at night, could actually be a fox. Other stories tell of fox spirits inhabiting humans: there is even a word, Kitsunetsuki, which means "the state of being possessed by a fox." It's been said that humans possessed by fox spirits tend to go mad and run naked through the streets, among other things.
However, our Naruto isn't evil or nasty. It's easy to see, though, how he gets away with so much mischief. A popular and adventurous story, it will be that way for generations to come.