Like many of my generation, I discovered Naruto through the legendary slot of action and anime that made weebs of many a Cartoon Network viewer: Toonami. I immediately became a fan of the spellcasting, orange-clad loudmouth Naruto Uzumaki and his gang of frenemies, but what cemented the series as one of which I’d be a lifelong fan was a moment at the end of its second major arc after wrapping up the cast’s introduction and initial training. As a kid, I read the manga volumes as they were released alongside the anime and as an adult revisiting the manga, the end of the Land of Waves arc and the final moments of one of the first major antagonists of the series still brings tears to my eyes.
Momochi Zabuza is a ruthless killer from Kirigakure, the Village Hidden in Mist. Zabuza comes into conflict with Naruto, his friends, and his teacher in a conflict surrounding the building of a bridge for a small village in the Land of Waves. Naruto and his gang were hired to protect the bridge builders so the project could be completed, allowing a new trade route into the village to stimulate the economy and free it from the stranglehold of the mob boss, Gatô. Gatô keeps Zabuza on retainer, and thus mobilizes him and his partner Haku to kill Naruto’s squad and stop the bridge from being completed.
Zabuza is introduced as a demon. Both in his moniker, Demon of the Hidden Mist, and in his ruthlessness, the reader is made to understand that Zabuza thinks only of the kill. Kishimoto fleshes out his backstory with a macabre tale of being schooled in the shinobi way which culminates in Zabuza slaughtering over a hundred academy students as overkill for a graduation test. Even in design, Kishimoto hides most of his face, letting him express himself with his eyes and his sword, excepting one ghoulish moment in which his partner, Haku, nurses him back to health after a conflict with Naruto, his teacher, and his squadmates.
Throughout Naruto’s conflict with Zabuza and Haku, Naruto is told repeatedly that shinobi exist as tools for murder and espionage. There is no room for emotion or compassion. Yes, you must work as a team and support your squadmates even unto death, but do not think for a moment there will be time to cry as the mission must continue. However, Naruto is a shounen manga, where earnestness is rule #1. It’s no surprise the series would subvert these ideas, but Kishimoto executed that subversion in a way which left a lifelong impact on me.
After a long, bloody battle against Zabuza and Haku, Naruto’s squad mate and budding frenemy Sasuke is assumed dead, Haku has sacrificed his life to defend Zabuza from a fatal blow struck by Naruto’s teacher, and Zabuza couldn’t care less. Shinobi are tools and Haku was a splendid tool until his use wore out and he was broken for the sake of his master. Naruto wails and berates Zabuza for his heartlessness and the tragedy of Haku giving his life, skills, entire personhood for Zabuza’s sake until Zabuza silences him with a page-turn reveal that shakes me to this day.
The demon cried. In all his shounen earnestness, Naruto broke through the wall of violence and apathy and reached the human being within Zabuza’s core. It’s a storyline that didn’t begin with Naruto and certainly didn’t end with it, but all the buildup across over twenty chapters to this moment of stark contrast to the demon we’ve been taught to hate gets me everytime. The emotional payoff continues throughout Zabuza’s final moments after he turns on the mob boss that hires him and gives his life to kill Gatô and his goons.
Zabuza acknowledges Haku’s humanity and in doing so, confirms his own for the reader. Even in writing this, I tear up again! There’s a lot to love in the Land of Waves arc from Naruto’s developing rivalry with Sasuke to a story of economic survival for a small village in the face of capitalist malice. As a child watching Naruto on Toonami, Zabuza’s arc would be one of my earlier encounters with an antagonist’s morality being complicated in this way and humanized to the point of sympathy. Zabuza was a demon and yet I felt for him as he reached out to touch Haku’s face. It’s these tender moments of compassion in which a demon was brought to tears that will always be the moment that cemented Naruto as a series I will love forever, ridiculous ninja running and all.