Naruto, the famous anime of the blonde ninja boy, was my first manga and anime that I perused as a kid. Over 10 years ago, I read Volume 4 of the manga, which to date is my favorite volume of the original series. The reason: the tragic story of Zabuza and Haku, two lone wolf ninjas who inspired the titular protagonist to protect those precious to him.

At first glance, Zabuza and Haku couldn’t be more different. Zabuza was a tall, lithe man who showed no qualms killing opponents in cold blood. Haku on the other hand was a slender, effeminate young man who, despite Zabuza’s training, showed hesitation when it came to killing. They were two vastly different individuals who found solace with each other.

They also helped Naruto formulate his own “nindo”, his personal “way of the ninja”, after they gave their lives in sacrifice.

Naruto meets Haku in his non-combat outfit after resting in the nearby woods after a training bout. Haku comes upon Naruto asleep, and instead of killing him to remove a threat, Haku showcases his kind nature and merely wakes Naruto up. The two quickly bond, and Haku opts to pass on his core belief to the blonde ninja boy.

“Do you have somebody precious in your life? When a person has something precious that they want to protect, that’s when they can truly become strong.”

Fun fact: Haku’s full name is Haku Yuki, which literally translates to “White Snow”. When read with the family name first as is done in Japan, Yuki Haku, this boy’s name is “Snow White”.

The next chance Haku has to discuss this with Naruto is with their subsequent battle on the unfinished bridge created by Tazuna, the bridge-builder whom Naruto’s team was assigned to protect. Haku combats both Naruto and his comrade Sasuke, and seemingly kills Sasuke. Although Naruto becomes utterly enraged and comes close to killing Haku in his fury, he stops once he recognizes him from their forest encounter. Haku relates his life story to Naruto in full, revealing that after society forced him to become a loner due to his feared special abilities, he had nobody to care for him or a purpose for living. This changed completely when Zabuza met him.

Naruto finally realizes that when Haku first spoke about “precious persons”, Zabuza was his. And this takes its most tragic form when Haku gladly leaps in front of his teammate to take a deadly attack, sacrificing his life for Zabuza.

Haku dies with a smile on his face, content that with his ultimate sacrifice, Zabuza will win. Meanwhile, another tragedy unfolds on the bridge, hammering home the simple truth that no person, ninja or otherwise, can truly kill off their emotions.

In the Naruto universe, in order to carry out missions successfully as a ninja, the general rule is that one must suppress their emotions completely. This proves to be a difficult thing to do, especially for genin (beginner ninjas) such as Sakura, Naruto’s teammate. When Sasuke is believed to have fallen in battle against Haku, Sakura recounts this humanly impossible standard in tears to Tazuna.

“A ninja must not show any emotion in any situation. A ninja must put the mission first and must have a heart that will allow him to not cry.”

As Tazuna puts it somberly, this way of living is too cruel to bear. How can a human kill off their emotions completely, when we are made of both logical and emotional reasoning?

Not long afterward, this message is reiterated when Gato, the corrupt businessman who hired Zabuza to assassinate Tazuna, shows up. Gato recklessly announces that he’s had enough of Zabuza, and brought scores of non-ninja thugs to kill him. At this point, Zabuza concedes defeat to Kakashi, Naruto’s team leader, and makes it clear that he won’t go after Tazuna anymore. But for Naruto, the fight is far from over.

Gato walks up to Haku’s corpse and kicks his face, desecrating him in front of Zabuza. Naruto first screams at Gato, then turns his anger on Zabuza for refusing to do anything. When Zabuza offers up a scathingly dismissive remark that he has no sorrow for Haku’s loss when the boy can’t serve as his tool anymore, Naruto gives him a brutally emotional speech.

To his shock, Naruto brings the so-called “Demon of the Hidden Mist” to tears, and Zabuza finally admits that the world’s “way of the ninja” is humanly impossible.

“Yes, little punk, it’s as you say, after all. Shinobi are human too. Maybe it’s impossible to become an emotional tool.”

With that, Zabuza tells Naruto to give him his kunai knife, to which Naruto obliges. After catching the knife in his mouth, Zabuza goes on one final rampage, dashing through the mob of armed mercenaries to kill Gato; the “Demon” simultaneously punishes the rat for betraying him and making a mockery of his partner.

Unfortunately, Zabuza succumbs to his wounds, and collapses. At his behest, he has Kakashi carry him to Haku’s body so that he can look at his face one last time. Thus commences one of the most tragically beautiful scenes in the entire Naruto series.

A fun Japanese linguistics fact: when speaking to/referring to others, it’s common to add a suffix to the person’s name to denote the relationship. “-san” is the most common, used to refer to somebody as Mr./Ms. Here, Zabuza uses the suffix “-yo”, which the manga translated as “dear”. This is a clever way to show that Zabuza always did care for Haku.

No matter how many times I watch Zabuza’s death scene, the tears keep welling up in my eyes. Everything about it was perfectly designed to make you weep. More than anything else, the implied supernatural aspect of the setting. How was it able to snow in summer? And the fact that one of the snowflakes melted on Haku’s eye, making it look like he was really crying…combined with the rays of golden light pouring over them…ouch, my heart.

Their sacrifices for each other, along with Haku’s message of becoming strong through protecting those precious to you, carried over into Naruto’s own Ninja path. His sheer determination to protect those precious to him, which would eventually become his whole entire village, enabled him to overcome some extremely powerful villains. And through him, other characters learned the power of Haku’s message and adopted it into their own lives.

Masashi Kishimoto, the creator of Naruto, saw fit to bring Zabuza and Haku back in one of the last arcs of the 2nd series.

Thanks to this chance encounter, Kakashi was able to tell them both that thanks to them, Naruto formulated a unique path. He was also able to tell Haku that contrary to what he believed, Zabuza never saw him as a mere tool.

Years will pass, but no amount of time will erase the poignance of their story.