While the Hidden Leaf fostered some of the biggest villains in Naruto, many vital characters were left with unused potential to be evil. With tragic backstories and immense power, the line between hero and villain is often thin and blurred. Here are five Hidden Leaf shinobi who nearly succumbed to villainy, but managed to resist the dark side.
Forced into becoming the Nine-Tails’ jinchūriki at his birth, Naruto never knew his parents who sacrificed their life to save him and the Hidden Leaf. Despite also saving the Hidden Leaf by becoming a jinchūriki, the villagers view Naruto as the monster who nearly destroyed it. Given their animosity and cruelty, Naruto is forced to grow up as an orphan stuck in a lonely and hostile environment. The villagers’ hateful eyes and the negative interactions with his peers makes Naruto resentful of his situation and those who look down on him. However, the disdain he must overcome motivates him to earn the love and respect of those around him instead of seeking revenge, like many would in his situation.
Not only does Naruto suffer the tragic childhood many villains endure, but he also possesses the immense power villains desperately seek. This is evident in how the Akatsuki relentlessly targets Naruto for his Nine-Tails’ chakra. While this overwhelming power could’ve easily gone to Naruto’s head, he actively chooses to use it for good time and time again. When the One-Tails’ jinchūriki was running rampant, he even admits he could’ve easily been in Gaara’s position because of their similar upbringing and jinchūriki power.
He was also in a dark, lonely place and was only rescued from it by his friends, ultimately convincing Gaara to change his mentality as well. Naruto selflessly seeks to improve so he can be strong enough to protect his comrades and loved ones. With a clear goal in mind to become the Hokage and earn the villagers’ admiration, Naruto never waivers in his resolve to be a force for good.
After losing both his parents at a young age, Kakashi was an orphan and child soldier in the Third Great Ninja War. He became a chunin at only six years old and was promoted to jōnin at 12. Kakashi inherited his extraordinary abilities from his father and developed them quickly, making him an invaluable asset to the Hidden Leaf’s war efforts. Given his father’s death, Kakashi displayed sociopathic behavior by placing the mission above his teammates’ lives — no matter what. However, his priorities drastically change after witnessing the deaths of Obito and Rin, which gives him long-lasting PTSD and nightmares.
Given his alarming mental state, Minato assigned Kakashi to the Anbu Black Ops when he was only 13. Despite being the lone child in the elite task force, the older members complain about Kakashi’s unusually ruthless tactics. As he follows the path toward bloodlust and killing to avenge his deceased loved ones, he doesn’t mentally start to recover from his dark past until he’s assigned to lead Team 7. Initially against leading a group of young shinobi and believing he’d be a bad mentor, Naruto‘s Kakashi ironically finds himself being one of the most decorated and celebrated instructors in anime.
As the nephew of Hiashi Hyūga, the leader of the Hyūga clan, Neji was born into a life of servitude. He and his father, Hizashi, belonged to the clan’s branch house and were considered lesser than the main house. When Neji was only four, his uncle placed their custom curse seal on Neji’s forehead and he’s told he lives to protect Lady Hinata. Neji’s father also has a curse seal, which is used to inflict pain and enforce obedience. When Hiashi killed the head ninja of the Hidden Cloud after they tried to kidnap Hinata, the Cloud insisted on his execution in return or else they’d start a war with the Hidden Leaf. Since Hiashi and Hizashi were identical twins, Neji’s father volunteered to die in his brother’s place to avoid war.
Between his father’s unjust execution and the curse of servitude permanently marked on his forehead, Neji fostered a consuming hatred for the Hyūga main house he was meant to protect. As a young shinobi, he takes his pain out on his cousin, Hinata, during the Chūnin Exams when they are forced to battle one-on-one. Despite Hinata being the clan’s princess and heiress, Neji proves he’s much stronger and more capable as he plans to surpass all Hyūgas. His ruthless behavior and venomous words paint him in a villainous light when he’s introduced in Naruto, convincing fans he was obsessed with power and susceptible to the dark side — similar to Sasuke.
However, when he fights Naruto later in the exams, Neji learns their family circumstances aren’t Hinata’s fault — he can make his own life choices. Despite Neji believing he couldn’t fight his destiny and the “Hyūga clan’s heritage of hatred,” he finally overcomes his resentment and accepts his clan after talking to his uncle and learning the truth about their past. This allows Neji’s adolescent hatred for Hinata to transform into love and loyalty to the very end, where he ultimately sacrifices his life for her own.
When Anko was a young genin in Naruto, she was on a team led by Orochimaru. He quickly took an interest in her, passing down several of his jutsu and his knowledge about immortality. While Anko initially looked up to him, he later uses her as a test subject by unwillingly placing his Cursed Seal of Heaven on her. Of his ten subjects, Anko’s the only one who survives the mark and she refuses to work with him afterward. Since Orochimaru considered her invaluable and didn’t want to kill her, he rewrites her memories to believe he abandoned her instead.
Anko inherits multiple techniques from Orochimaru that make their connection apparent, like the Hidden Shadow Snake Hands where several snakes replace her arms. She can also sense when he’s near because her permanent curse mark begins to pain her. Given Anko’s history and deep ties to Orochimaru, many Naruto fans wonder how she was able to resist him. Fortunately for the Hidden Leaf, she resents him for how he exploited her and never turns against the village like he did. Instead, as his former student, she believes it’s her personal responsibility to protect the Hidden Leaf from his evil deeds.
When Sai is first introduced to Team 7, he purposely antagonizes them by insulting Sasuke, Naruto, and Sakura at different times. His confrontational behavior surprised many fans who thought a villain was suddenly added to Team Kakashi. Sai joined the team with no memories or sense of self-identity, only being given the name “Sai” for the purpose of joining. His emotionless behavior reflects a sociopath who has complete and utter disregard for those around him, while his lack of tact makes it even more difficult for him to get along with his teammates who assume he’s being rude on purpose.
Sai’s behavior makes him seem like Naruto‘s next villain, but his mysterious past makes him even more suspicious. Orphaned at a young age, Sai is recruited into Danzō’s Root program where he was specifically conditioned to have no personality or personal relationships. During his time there, he became close to a boy named Shin who he considered an older brother.
In Root’s ruthless training, they’re told to kill one another to destroy their emotions once and for all, but Shin dies of an illness and Sai gets credit for his death. Sai carries around a self-made picture book of him and Shin with his impeccable art skills, which also translate into his unique jutsu. While Danzō wanted to exploit Sai’s power to kill Sasuke, Sai becomes more defiant of the Root organization and its goals. Luckily, he learns about the importance of friendship and trust from his team which helps him build new memories, relationships, and a personal identity.