We Could Have Had It All: Haruno Sakura

Or: unlocking Sakura's narrative potential.

January 10, 2020 at 9:00 am

Battle shounen manga and their anime adaptations often include a wide array of female characters — but very few actually leave a memorable impression. Sure, shounen stories are usually geared specifically towards boys in their teens — but that doesn’t mean that their female characters should be less well-written than their male counterparts. More often than not, the narrative reduces them to little more than exaggerated features (their boobs, it’s definitely their boobs), and their only personality trait is their interest in one of the main male characters.

Yet despite the layers of bullshit to wade through, it doesn’t mean that major series like Naruto, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Boku no Hero Academia don’t have the potential to do better. Looking at some of the most iconic women in the genre shows that with just a little more attention and some fleshing out, these female characters could rival their male counterparts.

Haruno Sakura, a pink-haired kunoichi with a red hot temper to match, falls exactly into that category. She’s a well-known cast member of Kishimoto’s classic manga series, Naruto and its anime adaptations. It’s hard to imagine the story existing without her. But of all the traits fans could recognize her for, Sakura’s most defining one is her all-consuming crush on Sasuke, her fellow ninja-in-training. Like, we are talking all-consuming — everything from her hairstyle to her friendships is in some way influenced by her efforts to become what she thinks his ideal girlfriend would be. The first half of the series is pretty much punctuated with her high-pitched shrieks every time he shows up on screen.

So, beyond sitting on the sidelines and cooing about her love for Sasuke, what else is there to Sakura?

Like any shounen story, a major theme throughout Naruto’s narrative is family and the power of friendship. Or, as Naruto himself more clearly puts it, “bonds.” Even with Sakura’s overwhelming crush on Sasuke, it’s easy to tell that beneath the surface of all that cooing, there’s something more. However, both Sasuke’s and Naruto’s narratives focus deeply on their relationships outside of the team, while in Sakura’s case, she watches from a distance, making absolutely no new friends (or enemies for that matter). Sasuke is constantly at odds with everyone who so much as looks at him wrong, and practically half the series details the angst surrounding his entire family history. Meanwhile, Kishimoto dedicates the rest of the story to Naruto making declarations of friendship to everyone he can find with a tragic past. And while he’s not necessarily angsting about being an orphan, the gaping holes that should be his mother and father nevertheless play major roles to his character development. And as for Sakura… Sakura is still just looking at Sasuke, hoping… dreaming.

But just because Sakura doesn’t make any new friends doesn’t mean she lacks old ones. We also have Yamanaka Ino: the Popular Blonde Girl with an Attitude. As kids, Ino defended Sakura from the school bullies and encouraged her to grow out of her shy girl shell, saying (almost romantically), “There is no meaning to a flower unless it blooms.” Unfortunately, their friendship devolves into a rivalry competing for Sasuke’s attention, because what else are girls good for? But Kishimoto nevertheless emphasizes that beneath their bickering, they will have each other’s backs even to the bitter end. The base of love and care from their childhood is as strong as it ever was. In fact, during the chuunin exams, it almost seems like their tournament fight is the beginning of their reconnection.

That said, it would be really nice if their relationship was touched upon again — like, at any point, ever. But the series never does, and if Boruto is anything to go by, it never will. In fact, once we hit the Shippuden era, any evidence of Sakura’s relationships outside of Team Seven completely disappear. Whatever rivalry or pieces of friendship she has with Ino are thrown to the wayside for — as all the girls say — Sasuke, Sasuke, Sasuke!

But if Kishimoto had focused more on Sakura’s friendships outside of Team Seven, we might have had a focus on Ino instead! Shippuden might have comprised of an arc rekindling their friendship outside of the men in their lives. Or perhaps we might have had something even as tender Sakura being by Ino’s side in Asuma’s death, just as Ino was by Sakura’s in their childhood. Sakura and Ino are meant to be foils of Naruto and Sasuke’s relationship, so why do we not see their arc come full circle? Were they given the same attention and care, we could have seen two beautiful blossoms bloom.

As for Sakura’s parents, we see a little bit about them in filler episodes and movies, but otherwise not a whole lot. The little the narrative does show about them is tumultuous at best. Still, arguing with her parents about keeping tidy hardly compares to the complex issues that both Naruto and Sasuke work through in the second part of the series. If the narrative revealed more about Sakura’s family life, some similarly complex problems might have come to light. While Sasuke struggles with the loss of his family, and Naruto works through having never had any at all, we might have seen Sakura grapple with the struggles of an active family life. In fact, if Kishimoto kept Sakura as his parallel for Tsunade, the third legendary Sannin, we could have seen the struggles of family inheritance, expectations, and legacy (except Naruto stole that later, but who’s keeping track?).

Just as every battle shounen has their stories about the power of friendship, they also have their crazy, over-the-top powers. From the very beginning of the series, multiple characters note that Sakura’s best skill is in genjutsu, not… taijutsu. Databooks that were later released as an accompaniment to the series list statistics for each character’s individual skill sets, with Sakura’s genjutsu stats nearly rivaling Kakashi, her teacher. Her genjutsu stats also frequently beat out the strongest member of their team, Sasuke. But for some strange reason, we only ever see her using taijutsu, never once exhibiting her talent for genjutsu in those over-the-top exhibits of power that we expect from a battle series. So… how come we never see her actually use these skills?

I’ll tell you why: because Sakura is in no way allowed to overshadow Sasuke. At some point, Kishimoto decided to add genjutsu to the list of incredible powers associated with the the Uchiha family’s magic eye, the sharingan, which thus prevents Sakura from ever getting a turn in the spotlight. In fact, he shoves her so far away from center stage, he decides that this ill-tempered teen with the sharpest tongue in the universe ought to be… a healer? Sure, Kishimoto. Great decision there. Maybe just stick to her punching stuff, okay? But given the opportunity to pursue her very clearly noted talent in genjutsu, Sakura might stand as equals with Sasuke, if not surpass him entirely. We as readers might have seen a Sakura casting illusions left and right. We might have seen a compelling training arc with another woman in the series, the genjutsu jounin Kurenai. We might have even seen Sakura standing toe-to-toe with the king of genjutsu himself, Itachi.

The final ingredient to any good shounen story is the mega power-up in the battle against the big bad at the end of the story. The crescendo of the plot finally rises to its peak, and all the pieces fall into place. For Naruto, he and Kurama gain the abilities to merge either into what Naruto aptly dubs “Nine-Tails Mode,” or what is essentially a giant fox mech. Sasuke’s recovered from his surgery and he now possesses the eternal mangekyou, an upgraded version of the family eyeball. Not only is he sporting a new look there, but he’s also able to fully form the family ghost mech, Susano’o. Of course, they also get their new animal summons, no longer relying upon the summons their predecessors, Orochimaru and Jiraiya.

As for Sakura, she gets her One Thousand Healings Mark, which is admittedly a pretty cool look, but unfortunately, she’s still stuck in the standard uniform of literally every other soldier on the battlefield; no makeovers allowed. Her animal summon does not change like her teammates, and of course, there is absolutely no cool and glowy mech to speak of. Not only that, but Kishimoto once again shoves her out of the spotlight and into her healer role. Don’t get me wrong —  Sakura has some pretty badass moments as a healer, and lands one good punch to Kaguya, but it’s nothing compared to the lengths Kishimoto allows Sasuke and Naruto to go.

If Kishimoto paid equal attention to each character of Team Seven and their predecessors, Sakura (and coincidentally, Tsunade) would have been just as powerful as Naruto and Sasuke. Had she been allowed to use her genjutsu skills, we might have seen the peak of those abilities put into play. Had Kishimoto given her a developed arc with her relationships, and especially with her family, we might have seen a Sakura with inherited power from her family (and if the fan theories had gotten their way, that power would be the first hokage’s special jutsu, Mokuton). If we were given everything that we absolutely know Sakura deserves, we could have had a Sakura that goes beyond silly, middle-school crushes and her classic Sakura-Smash. We might have had a Sakura that stood side by side with Naruto and Sasuke, toe to toe with Kaguya herself. But for now, we remain much like our early Sakura, hoping and dreaming for something that seems nearly impossible.

Ali Blecman

When searching for Ali, look no further than the nearest pile of frogs, where she is somewhere in the center. Current status: awaiting rescue by hot vampire singles in her area. In the meantime, she's usually doodling funny faces on the back of a frog or writing her thoughts out in the dirt.