It seems safe to say that the meme of the summer is Storming Area 51, a simple concept that’s universal enough to be adopted far and wide, malleable enough to lead to a variety of different macros and jokes, and still far-fetched enough to cater to the weird impulses of shitposters.
As far as I can tell, the two most popular types of Area 51 memes are about raid-planning and aliens. The latter is focused on the (alleged) extraterrestrials from Area 51 discovering human culture (“The aliens at Area 51 asking the scientists if they can try fettuccini alfredo”). But before the alien posts started, many event attendees were posting battle plans; overhead shots labeled with assorted groups not limited to furries, SEAL Team 6, Kyles (energy-drink-loving bros), Karens (suburban moms who would like to speak to the manager), LeBron, Juulers, hipsters, and most important, Naruto runners.
The richness contained within those two words, Naruto runners, is substantial. It is emblematic of internet culture’s close ties to subcultures traditionally seen as dorky, like anime fandom. Naruto Uzumaki is the eponymous protagonist of Naruto, a Japanese manga and anime series. He is a ninja, and he has an odd and distinctive running gait: He sprints with his arms locked straight and pointed back. This is “Naruto running.”
The creator of the viral Facebook event that caused Area 51 fever gave an interview to his local news station in Naruto garb, including a forehead protector. At the end of this clip, you can see him demonstrating Naruto running.
The term is so pervasive in Area 51 memes that at least one Air Force briefing has addressed the issue.
This is, technically, a real presentation given by a real member of the U.S. military, and it went extremely viral on Reddit when it was uploaded by a user named PerturbedPython. It currently sits at 127,000 upvotes. But while the presentation did occur, PerturbedPython repeatedly let people know that it was not a serious affair. “Not confidential. A joke brief. They do shit like this all the time to practice making briefs as there is a special format. Tired of explaining this,” reads one of their comments.
The Naruto run is clearly inefficient: Sprinters hoping to achieve maximum speed should drive their arms forward in coordination with their legs. There is no canonical explanation I could find for why Naruto runs how he does (the prevailing fan theory is: It looks cool), but if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say Naruto’s highly stylized running posture isn’t really about speed. It seems more tactical. Maybe locking one’s arms as Naruto does streamlines one’s physical profile and overall surface area, keeping the limbs close to the torso and making the runner more difficult to hit with a projectile. This is useful if one were to, for example, charge at a protected military base.
But the symbolism of the Naruto run doesn’t end there. In a series of Vines in 2016, Samuel Grubb chronicled the trials and tribulations of a gang of Naruto-running freshmen, either unable or unwilling to conform to social norms (i.e., not Naruto running). I am instantly reminded of the famous clip of a student brandishing a stick at his classmates, notifying them that he has “the power of God and anime on [his] side.” Put another way, the Naruto run is typically not the sort of move jocks bust out at recess.
Grubb also captured the confusion caused by seeing a horde of Naruto runners. It’s a disarming tactic that could shake the guards of Area 51 and give raiders the split-second advantage they need to gain the upper hand and see them aliens.
A person deploying the Naruto run is saying, “I’m fast, I’m tactical, I watch anime, and I know something you don’t.” What could be more threatening than that?