We speak with the voice of Naruto about the 20 year legacy of Naruto Uzumaki!
Naruto's journey has touched and inspired the lives of millions across the world. To celebrate the anime's 20th anniversary, we're speaking with notable fans and professionals about Naruto, their ninja ways and what arcs they like the most!
Naruto is one of those long-running anime series that always sits in the back of my mind. While I'm not always thinking about it, as soon as I see that spunky ninja on a kid’s T-shirt, I feel a comfortable wave of nostalgia hit me. Naruto's endless iconic nature has younger generations embracing the character I’ve known since 2002. This is a sentiment that I share with Naruto’s voice actress, Maile Flanagan, who has had the unique opportunity of portraying someone who literally grows up over the course of the story. While talking with Flanagan, she discussed how animated characters tend to stay the same age throughout their runtime. Naruto, however, has gone from being a boisterous child to an adult with a family of his own — and Flanagan’s been there the entire time! We spoke with Flanagan about how Naruto has impacted us, the fans and how he’s impacted her after all of these years.
A note on spoilers: If you haven't seen the whole Naruto series yet, this interview does contain major plot points. Watch from the first episode of Naruto starting RIGHT HERE if you'd like to catch up or rewatch!
Note: The interview has been edited for clarity.
Briana Lawrence: What's it been like playing a character who has literally grown up over the course of 20 years?
Maile Flanagan: What's extraordinary is that cartoon characters don't always, or often, hardly ever grow up. As an actor, it's so great to be able to play those different mindsets, ages and emotions that go along with it. The 20 year thing is kind of mind-blowing. We used to joke about it, Elizabeth McGlynn and I. I was like "Will we do this in 20 years?" Then it's like...we are. [laughs] [McGlynn] is not directing [Naruto] anymore. She directs a lot of stuff, but not [Naruto anymore]. The other directors, Susie and Ryan, hats off to them, because I think of Suzy is newer, and I've been working with her forever. And then I think Ryan is newer and he's been at the studio 10 years now. There was no sense of time with Naruto.
I imagined too...when you think you might do something for 20 years, we think the character is still going to be a child because that's usually what happens with animation. But Naruto actually gets to be an adult later.
Flanagan: And I love that. And I love the time skip too. I love that they jumped, you know.
I love that we get to see the same character with like a different perspective. He's older now with his own family. That actually leads to my second question, which is, since Naruto is an adult in BORUTO were there any adjustments that you had to make when portraying him compared to the way you portrayed him when he was a child?
Flanagan: Well, I try and be a little more stern. A little more emotionally stern, I guess. A little more emotionally grounded. The first several episodes of BORUTO, not gonna lie, there was a lot of me lecturing. I was like, "Is this how it is?" Then that stopped and it got to be very adventuresome, fun and interesting. I got to do some fighting again, which was fantastic. And some really emotional stuff.
Is the fighting part any different now that it's like Naruto is a grown man or is it kind of similar to how it was when he was younger?
Flanagan: Honestly, I haven't done that many fights as a grown man. [laughs] Because I'm not a grown man. [laughs] I haven't done as many fights as Naruto in the BORUTO series as I did in Naruto. At the heart of it when you're really battling, it's sort of the same. Like in Shippuden, not as a little kid. I mean, it got pretty intense at the end of Naruto Shippuden.
Yeah, just a bit just a little bit stressful. [laughs] Has Naruto taught you anything that you've taken to heart in your everyday life, either the character himself or the series in general?
Flanagan: Wow. To me, those are two very different questions. The character himself, "to never give up" is certainly inspirational. I think it means a lot to people. I do appearances and conventions, and the guy who was helping me out this last week said, "Okay, I counted four grown men that cried." To your point, I think it's taught me to never give up. I say it so much that maybe it's subliminal.
The series as a whole, that's a whole different deal. I was in the van coming back from a convention last night and I said, "Well, never in my wildest dreams did I think, 'My future is gonna be riding in a van to San Jose airport because I'm talking about being like a Japanese ninja.'" [laughs] What did it teach me? I don't know, anything's possible?
That's actually a good lesson.
Flanagan: I think it is a good lesson.
Anything is possible. I don't think anyone foresees they would do a character and be with that character for so long. And that this is a big part of their life now.
Flanagan: It's a huge part. Also, my brother, who by the way never has watched the show I don't think once over 700 episodes. But he's in Italy for a vacation and said "Naruto in Italia." He was just walking down the street in some little Italian town and there was somebody selling T-shirts and one was Naruto. You never think something's gonna be so worldwide.
Yeah, Naruto is definitely global. That had to be kind of like fun to have your brother who's never watched a show not be able to escape the show. Like in Italy. [laughs]
Flanagan: I wish I had said that. [laughs]
Like, you can't escape. It's everywhere. [laughs]
Flanagan: He never watches it. But of course, my family says like, "Can you sign something and mail it to my boss's kids?" And I'm like, "Can you watch an episode?" [laughs] I'm kidding.
My mom doesn't watch anime at all, but she's very, "I'm so happy that you're doing this. But I have no idea what this is." [laughs]
Flanagan: Full disclosure, I don't watch anime. I watch Naruto when it's on. I don't have a lot of time for it. I wasn't an anime fan. I didn't know anything about anime till Naruto. Now I know a lot about it and I don't tend to watch it. My friend, Mary Ramos, who's a music supervisor on very big things. Like all of Quentin Tarantino's movies and stuff. One time I asked her to go with me to see my friend's daughter who is a rapper, really good. And I said, "Hey, you want to come with us and go see my friend's daughter?" And she's like, "Busman's holiday. " And like, "What does that mean?" She said, "When you're a bus driver, you don't take a bus on holiday." [laughs] I'm like, "Oh, you have to listen to music, you don't go see music." She's like, "I'll see a play." So for me also, it's a different experience when I watch anything, to be honest.
Yeah, that's a very good point. I don't even think of that. What are some of the moments in Naruto that you find yourself coming back to? Are there certain episodes or moments that stand out for you?
Flanagan: Of course, there are so many. I'll start with the first fight with Sasuke. I have to revisit that constantly for flashbacks. The Chunin Exams has a special place in my heart. The fight with Gaara on the sand I thought was amazing. I think we did a good job and I thought Liam O'Brien who played Gaara did an exceptional job. And we don't record together. So I really am very aware of what he did in that episode, which was fantastic. The introduction of Sai. Just a freak, weird and crazy. Ben Diskin did it perfectly, like you know, golden boy Ben Diskin. And then I like the Pain arc. I have said this often at conventions, but when Naruto gets to see his parents again. Around that season, I had lost my mother shortly before I recorded when he talked to his mother. It was very hard to record that episode. I had been with her and came back to LA. Then around that time, I had to record those episodes. That was so moving. The episode I think turned out really great. It's raw and real. I'm gonna tell you something: we never phone it in on Naruto.
You can feel stuff like that too when you're watching. You can feel it when it's hitting the actor.
Flanagan: Even if it's just us using whatever skills we have or tricks, we definitely feel it. I think that's what resonates. I think that's why there's so much longevity, and why it's so popular.
That's a good point. Because I feel like sometimes we will watch something and it really hit me and I'm not sure why. It's because the actor also feels it. So you can feel their passion from it too, along with what's happening in the story.
Flanagan: Right. I will tell you that in the past, anime was sort of the stepchild of animation. People had a lot of assumptions about it. I will say, from some things that I know, it was rushed. It was done quickly. It wasn't always translated as well as it could have been. Then they would hire people to do it, sometimes they weren't even actors. I just want to say that Naruto took its time and polished the writing and made sure there were great actors. We made sure the translations kind of worked. We're still working in the booth when we talk. We still change the words a little to make it sound more natural [in BORUTO].
Yeah, when BORUTO started I was like "Oh, it's just like more Naruto." I know it's technically BORUTO, but in my head, it's like "Naruto Part 3." That's how I like to think of it.
Flanagan: It is a little bit, yeah. Except for me. I don't talk as much and I don't work as much. [laughs]
Is there a moment where you looked at Naruto and went, "Oh, yeah, this is gonna be an iconic anime series?"
No. [laughs] So that's the answer, it was a giant surprise. I guess we've already like talked about the surprising fact.
Flanagan: It is surprising. It's more surprising every day. Suzy, who is one of the directors, went to Disneyland a month or two ago and texts me, "Oh my god, there are so many Naruto shirts on the kids there." For instance, this past weekend, the guy that was assisting us is a school teacher. He's like, you would not believe the amount of kids...because he has 150 kids a year because of what he teaches. He's like, "Oh my god, it's huge." I can't believe it's huge, because I go to things and suddenly, people are waiting in line for hours just to talk to me. That's just bananas.
And you never get used to it?
Flanagan: I don't think so. No.
That's kind of nice that you'll never get used to any of it. You'll always appreciate the people who are really into the show.
Flanagan: What was really a revelation to me was, I did SacAnime, then I went to Vegas for a convention, then a little small one. There are people that came up to me in Vegas, and they're like, "I couldn't get anywhere near you because there were so many people!" Our panels were packed. It's kind of crazy since the pandemic. It's much more intense and so many more people, so many more generations of people, like three generations.
Yes, there are multiple generations now because fans come in at BORUTO or come in at Shippuuden or come in at Naruto. We're all kind of like, coming together. My nephew just had a kid so I'm assuming when the kid gets older, he's gonna come in at BORUTO like how I came in at Naruto. It's very interesting that anime is generational. It's like, I can pass this down to like the next generation. It's the same characters I was crying about like in my college dorm room 20 years down the line. [laughs]
Flanagan: The other thing is, when you compare it to live action if you watch an old episode of let's say West Wing. You know, it's dated. I mean, except for the Golden Girls. I can watch that all day long, right?
Golden Girls is untouchable. [laughs]
Flanagan: But every once in a while, there'll be some stuff that just throws you into...but not with Naruto, because it's just all made up.
Are there any favorite moments you have about Naruto in regard to the fandom that surrounds the series and the character?
Flanagan: I've told this story many times, but here goes: I went to New Zealand for a convention and I was sitting at a table. I looked across for me and there was this guy just staring at me like, just intensely staring at me. He looked kinda like Jason Momoa. I mean, he was this big New Zealand guy. Long hair, just imposing, not in a bad way. But he just had his eyes on me. I thought, "Is he going to eat me?" Because he started moving forward, and there was nobody around. I was like, "Do I need security? Is there security here?" He walked up and he said to me, "I made this for you." He had handcrafted a traditional Kiwi necklace out of bones. He had also made a thatched pouch that it came in, and a poem that he had written. He was welcoming me to his country.
Oh, my god, wow.
Flanagan: I'm sure I teared up. It was just so thoughtful. He really had a purpose, I think he was waiting till I was free. But that was great.
Oh my gosh, that's a really nice touching story.
Flanagan: Another one is: I was in Dublin at a convention many years ago. I had a pretty long line. The convention paid me to go over there, but I wasn't charging for stuff. So the line was very, very long. At the end of the line, I noticed this group of people who were signing in sign language. I could see two kids that were twins, identical twins, then two girls, and then another guy. Then the mom. [The boys] were teenagers. They were at the end of the line, they waited. I was like why? I wonder why they waited. Like they wanted the end of the line. They came up and the mother said to me, "These are my two sons," beautiful, identical twin boys. She was signing to them and she said they are hearing impaired.
First, we had a great discussion with the kids, they were like 19, and their girlfriends. I signed some stuff, talked back and forth with the mother translating. Then they went away and the mother doubled back and said to me, "My boys have a disease where they're going blind and deaf. And they watched Naruto to remember what color is." The parents lived in the country, not in Dublin, like a couple of hours away, and they built this studio thing in the backyard. The boys were artists, and they were painting murals of Naruto on the side and inside the building and all inside the building to help them remember color.
I'm still crying. I had to duck under the table.
I'm getting teary-eyed about that. That's really sweet
Flanagan: I mean, there are lots of stories, you have no idea.
I can only imagine. Oh my god, that sort of thing sticks with you. Wow. Thank you for sharing that with me. That's amazing.
NARUTO LIGHTNING ROUND!
Favorite character (without saying Naruto!)
Flanagan: Oh, come on, the show's not called "Sasuke."
Ok, fine, which Naruto, older or younger?
Flanagan: All of them.
You're making my job so hard. [laughs] Okay, besides Naruto?
I've cosplayed as Choji, I love Choji so much. Favorite Villain?
Flanagan: Orochimaru or Itachi.
If you can live in any village, which would it be?
Flanagan: Duh, Hidden Leaf.
If you could specialize in one jutsu, which would it be?
Flanagan: Shadow Clone Jutsu.
Which Naruto moment made you cry the most?
Flanagan: Well, I told you that one. It was very emotional. You know, this is a one-off, but when Lady Chiyo died. I don't know why it really hit me. It's not even a major arc. That was super emotional for me.
Which Naruto moment made you cheer the most?
Flanagan: One of them is when he learned the Rasengan. Because the others take place over arcs that are hard to compartmentalize. But I will say when he actually learned to master the Rasengan was a moment.
Stay tuned for the next installment of "My Favorite Naruto Arc" as we speak with the manga's English translator, Mari Morimoto, about their favorite arc: the Fourth Great Ninja War!
Briana Lawrence is the Senior EN Features Editor here at Crunchyroll. When she’s not writing she’s taking care of her three butthead cats and playing Hades for the 100th time. You can check out her writings and her book series over at her website and give her a shout-over on Twitter.