Naruto is one of the most popular manga and anime series around. It features a young boy, Naruto, whose body actually contains the spirit of a fearsome nine-tailed fox that had been terrorizing his village some twelve years earlier. At that time, this nasty fox was captured and its spirit was sealed in the body of a baby boy (our Naruto).
Jump ahead twelve years and you've got the star of the story, now a mischievous and hyperactive young ninja with great aspirations. Both Naruto anime (animated television shows) and manga (the comic book series) go through episodes of high-flung adventures battling monsters, other ninjas and, last but not least, doing ninja exams.
Both the manga and anime series have spawned numerous fan sites and forums, with all manner of products available online (screen savers, online games, etc.) and for sale (apparel, DVDs, and more). Kishimoto won Shonen Jump magazine's Hop Step Award for new manga artists with his manga Karakuri, but he didn't stop there. His first Naruto version was a story of fox spirits and the story grew. It fast became a most popular ninja manga, in fact one of the most popular in Japan.
What may have escaped some western Naruto fans is the interesting story of the fox. Fox myths abound in Japanese culture, dating back as far as the fifth century B.C. Stories portray foxes as intelligent beings possessing magical abilities which increase as they age and gain wisdom. Some tales have them tricking others by changing into human form while others describe them as friends or guardians or even wives.
A kitsune (the Japanese word for fox) can have up to nine tails, as did the evil fox in Naruto's past. Most folk tales state that a fox will grow more tails only after it's lived for one thousand years.
Interestingly, Japanese folklore originally portrayed the fox as having only good attributes, and their evil and mischievous traits came in with Chinese and Korean folk tales. There are quite a few tales about kitsune, both good and evil, with foxes shape-shifting into human form (a skill they only acquire after the age of 100) and then covertly living as part of a family until finally being discovered (they often seem to have trouble hiding their tails when assuming human form!).
A common belief is that foxes will impersonate beautiful women. Other stories tell of fox spirits inhabiting humans: there is even a word, Kitsunetsuki, which means "the state of being possessed by a fox."