I was visiting with my brother a few nights ago, and the topic of conversation turned to the anime/manga series Naruto. It’s a series that I followed for a while, but grew tired of after a series of rather asinine plot developments. My brother, on the other hand, has stuck with it because, in his own words, “I’ve come this far, might as well see how it ends.”
Naruto is a series that started out with a lot of potential. The premise, in a nutshell, boiled down to Harry Potter with ninjas instead of wizards. It followed a group of three young ninjas-in-training, the titular Naruto, his rival Sasuke and the brainy Sakura, as their normal schooling and training is disrupted by outside forces that have designs on their home village, a conspiracy headed by a group of powerful ninja exiles, most notably the evil, snake-like Orochimaru.
It wasn’t perfect, but it had a neat setup, some cool fights, and some interesting characters. But the series quickly began to fall apart when it shifted directions and took the character of Sasuke in a new direction.
Sasuke starts out very strong in the series; he’s well-established as a foil for the protagonist, Naruto. Both are young men with tremendous natural talent and gifts that give them a leg up on the competition, and both are orphans.
Naruto is loud, brash, optimistic almost to a fault and shunned by much of his community due to his background (long story short, Naruto has a powerful demon sealed inside of him, and people somehow view this as his fault), and has a reputation as something of a spaz and a screw-up.
Sasuke, on the other hand, is staid, quiet, confident and is viewed as something of a golden child by their community.
The two characters also have very different motivations. Naruto wants to eventually become the leader of his ninja village and earn the respect and love he’s always craved, but Sasuke is single-mindedly focused on one thing; revenge against his older brother, who slaughtered Sasuke’s entire family when Sasuke was a young boy.
The problem comes near the end of the first half of the series, when Sasuke, frustrated that he seems to have reached a plateau in terms of his power and skills, sees Naruto continually becoming stronger and surpassing him. He can’t see how he can possibly become strong enough to kill his brother at the rate he’s going, and so he makes a deal with the devil, accepting an offer by Orochimaru to become his apprentice and gain power from Orochimaru’s forbidden skills.
Everybody else knows this is a bad idea, since Orochimaru’s ultimate goal is to groom Sasuke to become powerful so he can possess Sasuke’s body and become even more powerful himself, but Sasuke seems convinced that he can get what he needs from Orochimaru and turn on him when the time is right (spoiler: he does).
A team of ninjas, including Naruto, try to catch up with Sasuke and stop him from leaving, but ultimately fail. Sasuke and Naruto fight, and Sasuke narrowly defeats Naruto, but does not kill him, and leaves to join Orochimaru. So far, so good; we have a basically good character who, faced with temptation, fails to resist, and begins to walk down a dark path.
The problem, then, is that the entire series begins to revolve around Sasuke in one way or another, to the point where his drama completely eclipses the main plot of the series. Naruto and Sakura (and whoever’s working with them at the time) become obsessed with finding Sasuke and convincing him to come home.
Meanwhile, Sasuke continues down his dark road, betraying friends and allies in his quest for greater power. He eventually does kill his brother, but in the process, learns that the massacre of his family was a hit sanctioned by military officials in the ninja village because his entire family was involved in planning a coup d’etat.
Rather than focus on hunting down the individuals responsible for this, or bringing his knowledge to the attention of the village and vindicating his family’s name, Sasuke decides the best course of action is to wipe out his entire village in retribution for his family’s deaths.
The problem with this is that, even though Sasuke is now attempting to commit genocide, none of his former friends or teachers are willing to turn their backs on him. And later, when Sasuke changes his mind (for extremely contrived reasons) and decides that his family would want him to protect the ninja village, nobody shuns him, refuses him, or tries to kill him for all the murder and attempted genocide he’s committed up to this point. He doesn’t even acknowledge that he was wrong, and nobody demands that he do so.
It’s unclear whether the manga author, Masashi Kishimoto, was trying to have Sasuke fall from grace and then redeem himself, or whether he was trying to have Sasuke continue his descent and become irredeemably evil and chickened out at the last minute, but what he ended up doing was trying for both approaches and failing at both.
At this point, Sasuke has done too much evil to be redeemed in the audience’s eyes; there comes a point at which a character can’t be forgiven for their sins, and Sasuke passed that point about fifty exits back.
Discussing this with my brother got me thinking; Kishimoto isn’t alone in this shortcoming. Many, many storytellers have tried and failed to do a “fall from grace” story well. George Lucas ruined the very successful story of Darth Vader’s fall and redemption with his Star Wars prequels, giving Anakin Skywalker no compelling reason to fall to the dark side and betray his fellow Jedi.
Several comic book superheroes have been subjected to bad falls from grace, including (but by no means limited to) Mary Marvel, Hal Jordan (Green Lantern), Cassandra Cain (Batgirl), Nightwing, Superboy Prime, Jason Todd (Robin/Red Hood), Magneto, Scarlet Witch, Hank Pym, Wolverine and the Invisible Woman. Even several video games have attempted this type of story arc and managed to screw it up.
So what is it about the fall from grace makes it so difficult to write and so easy to get wrong? From what I’ve seen, usually it’s a question of poor motivation for the character to fall in the first place; the inciting incident for the character’s fall simply doesn’t provide a believable motivation for them starting down a dark road that leads to them betraying friends, allies, and people who trusted them.
The whole point of a fall from grace, the entire reason the trope is compelling, is that we see somebody who is a good, moral person start down a slippery slope that leads to them becoming evil, for reasons that, in the beginning, seemed completely good or at least totally justified. If they fall for reasons that aren’t good enough, then it completely undercuts the greatness and morality of the character that made us like them in the first place.
One need look no further than the character from whom we get the term “fall from grace”– the Biblical figure of Lucifer. First among God’s angels, the best, brightest, most intelligent of all God’s creations, Lucifer begins to feel that it’s unfair that God created angels only to serve, that they can never aspire to anything better.
This feeling of injustice prompts Lucifer to instigate a war against his creator, which he loses, and he is literally cast down into Hell, where he is consigned to an existence of undermining God’s creation by tempting mortals and leading them down a dark path.
Were Lucifer not so good and bright to begin with, and were his reasons for rebelling not understandable and compelling on some level, that story would not have stayed with us for so long. This story, in all its subsequent permutations, warns us that even the most promising and good people, the very best humanity has to offer, can be tempted to do the wrong thing for the right reasons.
When we see characters start down a dark path for reasons that are inadequate or trite, those stories cease being cautionary tales about the best of intentions, and become awkward warnings about being stupid or overreacting. And that’s simply not what the audience signed on for.