Spoilers for Naruto, Naruto Shippuden, and Noelle’s arc in Black Clover
Shounen is a genre famous for its rigid tropes: underdog main characters (almost universally male) inspiringly fixated on reaching their goals, intense fight scenes, and themes of teamwork, the bonds of friendship, determination, and the power of hard work. Although the genre has received criticism for clinging so closely to established themes and tropes, its global popularity speaks for itself.
Although marketed toward boys, at least one third of Weekly Shonen Jump’s readers are now female. Despite this, Shonen Jump’s female characters remain over-sexualized, helpless, or useless beyond serving a role as the main character’s love interest. The manga and anime world has not yet caught up with the times by creating female characters that are both realistic and sympathetic to their real-world counterparts, and as prominent and important as their male costars. If one in three readers are female, why are female characters still relegated to the sidelines?
Perennial favorites Naruto and its sequel Naruto Shippuden by Kishimoto Masashi were among the first series to break this mold, including a cast of female characters with powerful skills and personalities who actually contributed to the plot. Naruto was originally published from 1999 to 2014 and, although by today’s standards its female representation is lacking, was truly ahead of its time. This may even have contributed to its international success, as it provided female fans with the opportunity to finally see themselves portrayed with attempted nuance and respect in a shounen manga.
Unfortunately, both Naruto series are full of women who are either strong, well-written characters without much screen time, or weaker characters who appear more frequently. Prominent among them is the most powerful woman for most of the series, Lady Tsunade.
At the end of Naruto, we’re introduced to Lady Tsunade, an absolute badass. She’s a powerful fighter, has a kickass female sidekick, and is well-respected enough to be next in line as the leader of Konoha. And then when she actually became the Hokage? Amazing.
But the more I watched, the more disappointed I became. I wasn’t disappointed with her character, but the way she was portrayed. It was undeniably a great and defining moment of character growth for Naruto when he stepped in front of Tsunade and stopped Kabuto’s blade with his hand, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed that Kishimoto chose to have the world’s most powerful female shinobi need to be saved by a boy—and one much younger than her, at that. Although this was also a turning point of growth for Tsunade’s own character, it seems like it could have been accomplished in a way that didn’t cast doubt on her ability, especially in her debut battle.
Even more damning is the fact that Tsunade uses her powers partially to preserve her youthful looks and add on a few bra sizes, even though it causes her discomfort. This idea trickles down into the way other female characters are depicted as well, such as Sakura and Ino’s obsession with growing their hair long to attract Sasuke.
The series even gave itself the opportunity to break free of this pattern when Sakura and Ino cut their hair off during the Chunin Exam, emphasizing that they valued their rivalry and self-improvement over their mutual romantic pursuit. This moment of growth is almost immediately ruined, however, when they return to bickering over Sasuke right after the battle.
Tsunade never becomes confident enough to show the world her true face, and this has an unfortunate real-world reflection in the way society attempts to brainwash women into believing that their only power lies in their beauty and sex appeal. If Tsunade had fought against this idea it would have been especially powerful, because not only was she a leader and a warrior, she also served the role of teacher.
In the timeskip between Naruto and Naruto Shippuden, everyone received massive power ups. Naruto has mastered Jiraiya’s signature jutsu, the Rasengan. Sasuke, under Orochimaru’s tutelage, develops the power to defeat 1,000 men single handedly. Sakura, one of the most frustratingly helpless female characters in the first series, inherited Tsunade’s medical jutsu skill and her immense physical strength after training with her.
While the male characters have entire story arcs devoted to their tutelage that were further embellished by the anime, including lengthy flashback filler arcs of their training, we only see a single flashback of Sakura’s time with Tsunade. This pattern was established early with Kurenai, the only jonin who is almost never seen with her team. Kakashi, Guy, and Asuma all have teaching moments and strong connections with their pupils that are clearly portrayed on screen, but Kurenai is away on maternity leave or otherwise absent for almost the entire series.
Even when Sakura finally gets her power-up moment and inherits Tsunade’s Strength of a Hundred Seal jutsu, it’s toward the end of the Fourth Great Ninja War, almost at the end of the series. While it’s undeniably a great scene and very empowering to see her step out from Naruto and Sasuke’s shadows, it’s telling that it took until 2014 for this to happen at all—and that when it did, it only amounted to ten minutes of screentime.
It’s storytelling choices like these that send a silent but powerful message to female viewers: you’re not as important as the men. You’ll always need someone to rescue you. You’re not as interesting and you’ll never be as powerful, because if you were, you’d receive the same amount of attention. Not only is this subtle message harmful to female watchers, it’s not a great message for men and boys to internalize either. It reinforces the omnipresent societal idea that women are inferior, their struggles and stories don’t matter, and that instead of being a partner on equal footing, they’ll always cause problems by needing to be taken care of or rescued.
And this is why Black Clover is so meaningful to me. It’s one of the more recent battle shounen, having premiered in 2015, and it seems like an extremely typical shounen anime at first glance. With an underdog male protagonist who passionately wants to achieve his goals, teams of magical elite fighters, and inspirational themes, it has even been accused of being a cheap Naruto knock-off. However, if you stick around a little longer (and don’t worry, the further you get into the series the less Asta will be busting your eardrums!), it becomes clear that it might have done the impossible. Finally, here is a shounen battle anime with female characters who work hard, are vital members of their teams, can take on and defeat male characters in a fight, and actually get a lot of screen time!
Mereoleona Vermillion, temporary captain of the Crimson Lions, serves as a great example of how Black Clover treats its female characters. As the most powerful woman in the series, occupying a prominent leadership role and acting as a mentor to the younger characters, she’s comparable to Tsunade.
While Tsunade’s importance was communicated through her title but not her actions, Mereoleona’s role in the story backs up her importance instead of simply relying on her status. She takes over leadership of the Crimson Lions from her temporarily incapacitated brother, leads them through an intense training regimen in mana-filled volcanoes to strengthen their power, and eventually defeats the overpowered foe Raia the Disloyal without breaking a sweat.
We are not simply told that Mereoleona is powerful and a valued character—we actually get to see it and come to that conclusion for ourselves. Rather than just telling us she’s important, this anime shows it.
Mereoleona also offers a rarely-seen depiction of a strong female character who is comfortable with her choices, and these details add depth to what initially comes across as a stereotypical warrior woman. She has no romantic interests or children and doesn’t regret either of those things; she’s clearly very happy to live a solitary, almost monk-like existence in the forest. Smoking and drinking are never on the agenda and her intimate connection with nature is one of the biggest reasons for her almost inexhaustible supply of mana.
In contrast, Tsunade is strongly affected by post-traumatic stress disorder and subsequent alcoholism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this as a character feature, except that specifically debilitating trauma is notably absent from male characters in the series who experienced similar levels of trauma. Additionally, instead of being a vehicle for greater character development, it mostly serves the purpose of preventing her from fighting – and in a fight-oriented show like Naruto, that translates to less screen time as well, while also reinforcing stereotypically sidelined female roles. It winds up seeming less like Tsunade is simply affected by the weight of what she’s been through and more like an indictment of her, the only traumatized character who couldn’t handle it and not-so-coincidentally, the only woman.
Although the real struggles of women are extremely important to represent, it’s also incredibly refreshing to see a powerful woman in anime who is not strongly influenced by her relationships and simply knows who she is and what she wants. Not only that, the fact that Mereoleona is portrayed in a non-sexualized manner reinforces her power in such an affirming way. Mereoleona’s character is a much-needed reminder that women don’t have to be blatantly sexually attractive to be strong, powerful, and have an impact on the story.
In addition to being a powerful female character in her own right, Mereoleona also uplifts other female characters in her role as a mentor. One of my favorite scenes in the series is the moment shared between Mereoleona and Noelle in a hot spring after training in the volcanoes. Noelle is struggling to understand how to use her immense power and is still recovering not only from years of constant verbal and emotional abuse from her older siblings, but also the loss of her mother, Acier Silva, whom she never even got to meet.
Mereoleona, who fought alongside Acier, has some insight on how to deal with this situation, and we get to see the softer, gentler side of this fierce and powerful woman. She is the first one to ever tell Noelle about her mother in detail and shares that she had great respect for her as a fighter and as a person. Although she does bluntly tell Noelle she has a long way to go to catch up with her mother’s fighting skills, Mereoleona ultimately shows Noelle that she has total faith in her abilities. She places her fist on the younger woman’s forehead and tells her that her strength will one day surpass her mother.
I won’t lie – I teared up at that scene. It was the first time I saw two powerful women in an anime share an intimate student/teacher moment, and it was truly impactful. It reminded me of something that could have happened between Naruto and Jiraiya, and what I wish we could have seen between Sakura and Tsunade or even Hinata and Kurenai.
Moments like this provide the audience with a greater understanding of and connection to a character, and it’s unfortunate and telling that they almost exclusively happen with male characters. In that moment, we saw Mereoleona and Noelle not as love interests for the main character, not as sex objects, not as helpless damsels, not even as fierce but one-dimensional warriors, but as fully articulated people. They were simply two women sharing a powerful moment completely unrelated to any of the men in the story.
That’s what makes Black Clover an unexpectedly ground-breaking show. Instead of portraying its female characters as walking airheaded stereotypes or cautious depictions of an archetypal “strong woman,” it simply treats them as people.
Black Clover has truly raised the bar for depictions of female leaders in shounen anime, and of female characters in general, as these solid portrayals are not just limited to women in leadership positions. Almost every single woman—Captain Charlotte, Mimosa, Charmy, Vanessa, Captain Dorothy, and even Fana, among others—is strong enough to win a fight against most of the boys; self-contained enough that even when they have questionably strong crushes, it doesn’t impair their judgement in moments of crisis; and well-rounded enough that they operate outside the needs and desires of the male characters.
Shounen anime has strong, inspirational messages of teamwork, personal excellence, and never giving up, and it’s exciting to see this become even more accessible to its many female fans. Despite the criticism I have of Naruto and Naruto Shippuden, they still remain two of my absolute favorite anime and have given me many valuable lessons that continue to shape my life. Especially when compared to the female representation in contemporary shounen anime like One Piece, it’s clear that despite often falling short, Naruto made valuable advancements in portraying its female characters with fairness and respect. I’m happy to see that Black Clover has picked up where they left off and is helping propel the genre to a new level.
Representation in media matters. Not only does everyone deserve to see themself portrayed in a thoughtful, inspiring way, it’s time for those who have always seen themselves on screen to receive more insight into the lives, thoughts, and struggles of those who remain more marginalized in our world.