Naruto features a vast cast of uniquely-designed characters, many of which boast some of the strangest and most colorful abilities in anime. Some can see through walls, others have access to The Force, and a select few host tens of thousands of bugs inside their bodies. With this much imaginative variety, selecting a protagonist from the cast is quite daunting; while each character can provide the audience with a wildly fun perspective, there can only be one (1) main character.
To help the audience relate with the protagonist, franchise creator Masashi Kishimoto selects the one character with the most disadvantaged backstory — an underdog in every sense of the word who has to claw his way to the top. From his child to teen years, this character dedicates blood and sweat to prove that he not only can keep up with his ninja comrades, but can even surpass them.
For this reason, Naruto features Rock Lee as its lead. With his sheer dedication and willpower, Lee shows that anyone can–
(Oh, it’s not Rock Lee? Then who’s the protag? I mean, there’s Tenten…)
Ahem. In Naruto, Naruto is the main character. As a reincarnated son of a godly alien from the moon, Naruto shows that anyone — no matter how disadvantaged they may be — can become one of the best and most celebrated ninjas around. So long as you have a nine-tailed demon fox jammed into your stomach right after birth (along with the Uzumaki bloodline to help you regulate that fox’s chakra, and various other helpful things like your dad being a master at sealing), you can save the world and be truly beloved. By the end of 72 manga volumes and 500 anime episodes, girls and boys and Sausage-kun will be unable to resist your alpha aura.
But really, Rock Lee could’ve been a hell of a protagonist for Naruto. Don’t get me wrong; Naruto as a lead brought major success to the franchise. But for a moment, let’s entertain why Lee and his truly-underdog story makes him worthy of main character status.
Rock Lee the Muggle
In the wizarding universe of Harry Potter, Muggles are people who can’t do magic. Rock Lee is the Naruto universe’s Muggle; from birth, he displays nearly no ability to perform ninjutsu and genjutsu — both of which require some sort of external chakra manipulation. Because of that, he endures bullying and isolation in his younger years. The anime’s flashbacks suggest that he is the only one in his Ninja Academy to have such a disability, which drives home how lonely he must’ve felt.
Many of us relate with this. Many of us have faced bullying in some form in school and on the internet, or have been excluded from social activities. And, many times, these experiences have centered on one of our negative physical/social features or on something that we lack. Double-chins, awkward social graces, the lack of money in one’s bank account or lack of ranking points in Overwatch — these and more bring sadness to our lives.
Defying the odds
We wouldn’t blame Lee for giving up and living life while wallowing in self-pity; except, Lee doesn’t do that. Knowing that he can’t improve his ninjutsu and genjutsu, he doubles and then triples-down on taijutsu, which is the third of the jutsus and the only one to not require external use of chakra. With the help of his very own Mr. Miyagi in the form of Guy-sensei, Lee trains for hours everyday to maximize his physical strength, endurance, and inner chakra control. This dedication actually brings results, with Lee becoming strong enough to go toe-to-toe with some of Naruto‘s toughest villains.
How inspiring! Lee’s journey writes itself like a self-help book. Surely, we can do the same! We can exercise to fit into our sexy jeans, practice enunciation to sound convincing at board meetings, and work to earn money for that Hatsune Miku figurine. Ranked Bronze in Overwatch? No worries; you can grind until you reach Silver. Or maybe refocus yourself on a game you’re actually good at like Super Mario Sunshine. Are you Tom Cruise’s height but wish you were taller? That’s alright; you can become so famous and desirable an actor that you can force your movie directors to avoid filming your feet (and the box you’re standing on).
The hero’s journey
While both Lee and Naruto push hard to become better and more accepted, Lee’s story represents the normal person’s life journey. Naruto eventually receives help from dozens of people, and from his lineage and good genetics — and from Saint Kishimoto himself. Lee, on the other hand, only has his mentor Guy-sensei — the one person who believes in him and sticks by his side through thick and thin. This is more realistic and relatable because most of us will only have one or two true supporters throughout our lives (sad, I know).
Of course, Naruto still makes a fantastic protagonist from a power fantasy standpoint. Anime and manga are escapist mediums; many people love them because they put the audience into the shoes of someone super special. Who wants to be weak when they can be blessed by the gods? Who wants to be normal when they can fantasize being born in a gold-infused diaper, with lasers firing from their eyes? Who wants to be a bland dark-haired nerd when they can be a bland dark-haired nerd surrounded by a harem of love interests?
Indeed, Rock Lee might not be well-endowed enough if you’re looking to jizz as you live vicariously through an epic anime protag. And that’s perfectly fine. But, you have to admit, it can sometimes be pretty cool — and even inspiring — to follow the story of an Unchosen One.