Content Warning: Queerphobia, transphobia, grooming
Spoilers for Orochimaru’s arc in Naruto and Boruto
A mad scientist with a flair for the dramatic, Orochimaru has flaunted a noticeable gender ambiguity since their debut in the Naruto manga in 2000. From their first appearance disguised as a young woman to their dangly earrings and lilting English dub performance, Orochimaru carries many of the unfortunate hallmarks of a queer-coded antagonist, one whose most terrifying power includes the ability to inhabit the bodies of others in a bid for eternal life. Their portrayal, already mired in queerphobia, is complicated by the franchise’s later decision to portray Orochimaru as a character with a non-binary gender identity, the first canonically LGBTQ+ character in the franchise.
Orochimaru’s long-time gender ambiguity and vague but ever-present queerness were finally addressed in episode 67 of Boruto: Naruto Next Generations in 2018. In a scene between Orochimaru and their son, Mitsuki, who was conceived and gestated through artificial means, the boy asks if Orochimaru is his mother or his father. This question prompted the series’ first explicit reference to a non-binary gender identity (though certainly there have been other characters who were intentionally gender-ambiguous, like Haku from the Land of Waves arc), and by extension, the first reference to LGBTQ+ identity. Though this scene ran in the manga in 2016, the anime’s rendition in 2018 attracted more attention, as it is widely viewed as a tipping point for Orochimaru’s vague gender identity, a concrete acknowledgement of the genderqueerness that we’ve watched in action for years.
Orochimaru answers Mitsuki with a surprisingly poignant explanation of genderfluidity and non-binary identity: “There have been times when I was a man, and times, a woman, as well as something not of this world.” With this admission of an experience of gender outside of the binary, the scene was quickly labelled by fans and news outlets alike as Orochimaru’s coming out. And, if viewers were left with any lingering uncertainty behind the meaning of their words, the official English Boruto twitter account posted screencaps of the scene shortly after the episode aired and declared Orochimaru to be “a gender fluid ICON.”
On LGBTQ+ news site PinkNews, Josh Jackson wrote about how Boruto’s discussion of gender identity placed it in good company with a growing list of shows featuring non-binary characters and expanding the scope of available queer and trans representation. He cites positive fan reactions, many of whom express absolute joy to see an explicitly queer character finally emerge from the Naruto universe. Some acknowledgement of LGBTQ+ identity by Naruto is long overdue, it feels, as for years the series has generated debate and rabid fan speculation surrounding the potentially queer nature of the relationship between protagonists Naruto and Sasuke.
But mingled with this joy and praise for the show, there is also considerable discomfort and unease. My discomfort, as a transgender and non-binary person, stems from my inability to forget how the franchise has portrayed Orochimaru thus far. Having a character come out explicitly years after their introduction is all well and good (and a big Mazel Tov from me, Orochimaru!), but I’m left to wonder what it says about the writing team’s view of sexual and gender diversity that their first and only canonically LGBTQ+ character is an antagonist with a reputation for murder, kidnapping, imprisonment, manipulation, human experimentation, and deception.
Since they first graced my TV screen, Orochimaru has always given me undeniable queer-coded villain vibes. They are introduced to us disguised as a woman, and one they had just murdered and stolen the body of, no less. Once they shed their female skin, however, Orochimaru remains dressed in the same presumably feminine clothes – presumably women’s clothes – unhindered by gender roles or social faux paus and free to embody femininity or masculinity interchangeably.
Queer villain tropes draw on homophobic and patriarchal notions of acceptable masculinity – (that is, a masculinity that is firmly in opposition of femininity -) in order to signify a character’s morality by how closely they align with their assigned gender role. A villain like Orochimaru, whose gender is in question the moment they are introduced and who possesses typically feminine traits like a delicate voice, a pretty face, a proclivity for jewelry, and considerable flamboyance, has these effeminate traits and a distinct lack of traditional manliness precisely in order to signify their lack of morality.
And a lack of morality doesn’t begin to describe Orochimaru. Upon their introduction, Orochimaru’s primary goal is to lure a twelve-year-old Uchiha Sasuke Uchiha away from his village with the promise of power. This is no innocent offer to train him, however, as Orochimaru actually intends to steal Sasuke’s body for the power and youth it possesses and physically inhabit it as their next vessel. They exploit Sasuke’s anger, his considerable trauma, and his vulnerability in order to draw him away from his community, to live and train with Orochimaru instead, to be raised and groomed into their perfect new vessel.
The way thatin which Orochimaru speaks about Sasuke and his body is sickening, and this is in large part because it echoes the homophobic notion of queer men as predatory towards young boys. In Naruto chapter 50, Orochimaru fawns over Sasuke, particularly his body, his power, and the potential it holds, commenting, that “Hhis face and his body are very beautiful. He could be the perfect vessel… to succeed me.”
Sasuke is not the first young boy that Orochimaru has manipulated, nor is he the last. This is a well-defined pattern of behaviour for Orochimaru, and a plot point that the writers seem hell-bent on revisiting again and again. Other characters share similar experiences, like Orochimaru’s right hand-man Kabuto or one of his many teenage test subjects. They are sought out and targeted by Orochimaru for their unique powers and abilities and approached in moments of vulnerability, usually as young and lonely children.
This carries over into the new generation in Boruto, where Orochimaru has (seemingly) retired from attempting to destroy the Hidden Leaf Village into a quiet life of unethical science and raising a family. True to their snake-like nature, however, Orochimaru still consistently deceives and manipulates their own child for their ultimate gain.
Of course, everyone loves a villain, and not all queer characters have to be the good guys; (in fact, that would be boring.); However, but it is telling that the Naruto franchise’s only LGBTQ+ character is an antagonist, especially and one whose’s harmful actions have lacked the nuanced rationalization of other “evil” characters in the series. Perhaps Orochimaru has too deep a history of immorality and violence to ever be a truly sympathetic antagonist or a rehabilitated villain. I believe this is certainly true as long as the franchise continues to gloss over the character’s roots, and reckon with the homophobia and transphobia inherent in their conception.
So, where does this leave us? For me, it’s with a bad taste in my mouth. LGBTQ+ representation, specifically non-binary representation, of which there is so little of, is undoubtably a cause for celebration. But the decision to confirm take Orochimaru as’s character in a genderqueer direction after all their years of unsympathetic villainy, predation, and homophobic stereotyping raises a big red flag. Orochimaru has been written and depicted throughout the series in a way that reaffirms dominant views of gender and sexual diversity as inherently morally corrupt, dangerous, predatory, monstrous, and criminal. The choice to make this particular character the first and only LGBTQ+ character in Naruto is no mere coincidence. Instead, it is a reflection of how queerness and transness are viewed by the cisgender, heterosexual dominant culture. And, knowingly or not, it infiltrates the art and media we consume.