Who are the Naraku? Why were they created in the first place?
"You'd best keep the Yatagarasu's teachings in mind. The crows that bring death have already flown off by the time their feathers hit the ground." - Oboro
If you want to talk about one of the hottest animal themes in anime right now, it has to be crows. Thanks to the popularity of Haikyuu!!'s Karasuno High School team, anime crows have become famous for both their strength and their cuteness. However, there's another group of crows that's looking to take some share of the Shonen Jump spotlight in a villainous way, and they have become a recurring threat in a long-running series known for its comedy. I'm talking about none other than the Tenshouin Naraku, an elite assassination group that has caused trouble for the heroes of Gintama and whose members represent the final enemies of the series. It seems appropriate since crows are really crafty creatures that are often looked down upon.
The Naraku have been involved in the background behind the major events of Gintama. They are employed by the Tendoshu, a shady government that runs Japan after aliens conquered it. The Naraku are made up of castaways who have nowhere else to go, and therefore end up being trained to become professional killers. They were founded by a man named Utsuro, who is an alien being infused with a power source that makes him immortal. The group is currently led by one of Utsuro's soldiers, Oboro. Oboro and other Naraku members made their debuts in the Courtesan of a Nation/Ikkoku Keisei arc, and it was revealed that they played a huge part in the past of the main character, Gintoki Sakata. They would re-appear in the Shogun Assassination arc, Farewell Shinsengumi arc and Rakuyou arc (manga-only, at the moment) as it is shown that they are trying to troll the good guys hard, turning them into the worst kind of jokes.
Symbolism of crows in anime
The boys from Haikyuu!! know just what it means to have crow spirit!
There have been a whole bunch of studies about crows in general. It's been said that crows are as smart as human beings and apes, being able to think and rationalize in similar ways. Crows are so smart, in fact, that they can match cards that look similar to each other with ease. However, people seem to always either underestimate them or threaten them. Crows are also renowned as signs of death, as often depicted in Japanese folklore. This was played out in Naruto as Itachi Uchiha had a crow theme that made his illusion abilities a serious threat.
When you think about Haikyuu!!, the theme is about crows refining their techniques to get back to the top. Karasuno High was once a good volleyball team, but fell off the map. It isn't until Shoyo Hinata and Tobio Kageyama, two freakishly talented freshmen, come aboard that their fortunes begin to turn around. They still get underestimated from time to time, but the team's persistence and resourcefulness pays off even if they lose. In Gintama, the Naraku are about getting to the top as well. They apply whatever knowledge they learned from their experiences and use it to reach the "heavens" and preach its will.
The many villains of the Gintama universe
Comparison: Utsuro (left) and Yatagarasu (right)
For a long while, Gintama's primary villain was thought to be Shinsuke Takasugi. Episode 150 of the anime teased a final battle between Gintoki and Takasugi as both were former war comrades and trained under the same teacher. Takasugi is a man who craves nothing but destruction; he blames Japan for taking away his teacher. Takasugi even calls himself a beast that only wants to kill. However, he has given way to the likes of Utsuro. Utsuro may even be considered a god by some after his extremely epic debut. He strongly symbolizes the Yatagarasu, a legendary Japanese three-legged crow god that provides guidance to all that worship him.
Although I'm a Takasugi fan because of his desire to destroy everything, Utsuro and Oboro look to be better villains. They are both cold, calculating, and the potential for there to be humor involving them is little-to-none. For a while, even though Gintama is considered a satirical comedy first and foremost, there seemed to be nothing funny about Takasugi. However, he slowly becomes part of a gag involving the popular Japanese milk drink, Yakult. Takasugi also becomes more humanized during the Shogun Assassination arc, as his fight with Gintoki mirrored Naruto vs. Sasuke to a certain degree.
Comparison: Takasugi vs. Gintoki (left) and Sasuke vs. Naruto (right)
The Naraku are perfect villains for the endgame because of the need to bring about the right kind of change without resorting to extreme ideologies, which is a huge theme in Gintama. The heroes want to change the world without unnecessary deaths, while the Naraku will kill anyone if it helps them create the world they desire. Gintama has always been about people learning to live with one another. Many of Gintama's characters aren't exactly close, seeing as how they are all constantly bickering about small things. But they do end up in mutual agreements over certain issues. Even Takasugi during his villainous days had a few close colleagues in his militia group, the Kiheitai, who were all wacky and unique to a fault.
Hideaki Sorachi, the author of Gintama, once said in an interview that he believes people wear multiple layers of skin to survive. He also said that everyone's a loser in some way and that those who've been successful in life put on a mask to achieve it. If you think about the nature of Gintama, every character has messed up several times. The recent serious arcs highlight this as you see the guilt surrounding Gintoki and Takasugi regarding their master's death. The Farewell Shinsengumi arc revealed the tragic nature of the complex relationship between two of its recent popular characters, Sasaki Isaburo and Nobume Imai. The Rakuyou arc (which is probably going to be animated someday) shows the shaky bonds between the heroine Kagura and her family in the setting that fractured their relationships, their home planet.
In those arcs, the Naraku have deemed all of the mentioned characters to be losers deserving of being eaten by the crows of death. Crows don't think of themselves as losers. They work to adapt to whatever people do and plan accordingly. In some ways, they might make as better people than humans themselves because they are rational. Crows try much harder than humans do, which makes them the perfect antithesis to Gintama's portrayal of Japanese life after a period of war. Crows change easily where people can't. While we do make an effort, we struggle to find our way without help.
Watch out! You just made Oboro mad...
In a world where crows are now considered smart, sexy, and dangerous, please don't underestimate their effect on us. Like the title and theme of one of its most intense episodes showing the power of the Naraku, "Karma," they may come back to hit you in the face and leave you with questions that peck you to death.
This article was brought to you by mangatherapy, the blogger behind Manga Therapy.