I was 12 when I watched Naruto for the first time. If you’re an anime fan, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If not, chances are you have heard of this TV show. It is arguably the most popular anime franchise of our generation having millions of fans all over the world.
It follows the journey of a boy named Naruto as he works hard to become a powerful ninja and makes friends along the way.
I enjoyed the storyline and followed it for a few seasons but given that it now has over 400 episodes, I have fallen off the wagon.
However, years later, as I mull over which anime to watch this weekend while we are all in lockdown here in India, I am reminded of a character from Naruto.
It isn’t Naruto himself.
In fact, it’s not even one of the major characters in the story with the fancy superpowers.
It’s this guy…
Besides the unusual name, there is little that stands out about Rock Lee.
He isn’t especially handsome, nor is he exceptionally talented. And his ‘over the top’ gestures and eccentricities make you think he might be killed off in less than ten episodes just so his cooler, super powered friends can ‘avenge’ him. None of this happens, by the way.
When he is first introduced in the series, it is made very clear that Rock Lee is at a serious disadvantage. All of his classmates have the ability to use 3 types of Jutsu — Ninjustu, Genjutsu and Taijutsu. However, despite his honest attempts, Rock Lee is only able to use Taijutsu, thus becoming the laughing stock of all his classmates and the world at large.
For context, Rock Lee is somewhat like Batman (without the mansion, the money and the badass butler), having no superpowers whatsoever, surrounded by a super powered group who could kill him with the flick of a wrist if they felt like it.
Here is this lanky, bushy eyebrow’d kid, being told repeatedly by his teachers and peers that he won’t amount to anything because he isn’t naturally talented and the odds are stacked against him.
And yet, instead of becoming cynical, he hunkers down and works harder.
In fact, Lee seeks out a teacher, who in may ways, mirrors the same disadvantages he has to brave through, to become exceptionally proficient at using Taijutsu. Armed with a mentor that can bring out the best in him, he proceeds to work longer and harder than anyone else just to find a seat at the ‘table’.
He fights off feelings of depression every time someone jabs at his insecurities and keeps moving forward. He’s the ultimate underdog, tossed about by the unfortunate vicissitudes that life throws at him. All of this just makes his efforts to overcome the odds, infinitely more admirable.
Just because he’s a good kid who works hard does not mean that things go well for Rock Lee.
Throughout the series, we see him get mortally wounded, defeated multiple times at the hands of opponents who punctuate every hit with an insult about why he can never win.
It is easy, perhaps even justified for Rock Lee to fold and walk away which is what his stronger opponents do when things get rough.
Despite the drudgery of being the only guy in the room who has no tactical advantage, Rock Lee does the one thing that he can do.
He shows up.
He shows up in the best damn way that he can.
And he fights his heart out.
I’ve come to realize that in real life, so many of us are just like Rock Lee — painfully average, not especially memorable, surrounded by people who are more privileged, more talented, better looking and starting off having advantages that we can’t even begin to imagine, let alone acquire.
Very few of us have everything we need to succeed — there is no nine tailed fox within us waiting to be unleashed, no inborn genius skills that mark us as prodigies and most certainly none of that jazzy 360 degree penetrative field of vision to eliminate every little obstacle that we encounter.
All we have is our inherent imperfections and the ability to decide what we’re going to do with what we have.
Watching Rock Lee, I’ve also understood that this is more than enough.
I’ve begun to understand that the only real response to the inherent unfairness of the world is to double down on the only thing that we can control, and that is disciplined effort.
Be the person who never stops hustling, who never quits on that big dream.
Be that friendly tyke who keeps getting back up, mentally and physically, even after she/he gets knocked down and remains unflappable enough to still find the good in the world even after the idealism is beaten out of her/him.
Doesn’t matter what anyone else has to say about it.
Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine