Coming off of a strong conclusion to an otherwise mediocre box set, most of the content of the 20th box set for the venerable Naruto Shippuden franchise continues the momentum established by the final two episodes of the previous set. Naruto needs to face his other, darker self in a battle within his mind, and then do it all over again with the ferocious Nine-Tailed Fox demon that resides inside him. However, surprise assistance from someone Naruto never would have fathomed might turn the tide.
Constituting episodes 245-257, this box set concludes the “Confining the Jinchuuriki Arc”. It adapts the manga version of the story arc quite well, expanding upon things the manga didn’t but also faithfully re-creating some of the spectacular battle sequences. Even more impressively, the pacing is strong by Naruto standards, the strongest since the Invasion of Pain Arc almost 80-odd episodes ago. It expands on the material where necessary, without dragging things out with stalling tactics and explanations to the point where you wonder if the characters will actually do something. The battles that happen are choreographed with a veteran’s touch; while not every animated moment lives up to the scale of what’s going on, there’s at least a unique twist to every battle.
And, perhaps most importantly of all, a good amount of intention is given to characterization and quieter moments, to prevent any sort of tedium from sinking in. This is perhaps most important with the introduction (and subsequent departure) of Kushina Uzumaki, Naruto’s mother. Although Kushina is long-dead, her chakra (think of it as Naruto‘s version of The Force) was sealed inside Naruto along with the Nine-Tailed Fox. When Naruto decides to face the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox to gain control over the demon’s exceptionally powerful chakra, his effort fails, until Kushina steps in and rescues him from the Nine-Tails’ smothering hatred. While the subsequent discussion between Kushina and Naruto has its cheesy moments (particularly over their shared verbal tics and Kushina’s long red hair), there is underlying emotion to the meeting that more than makes up for it. There is a longing and desperation in how Naruto and Kushina greet each other and hug each other, which shows how badly Naruto has wanted a parent and how much Kushina loves Naruto and is proud of how far he’s come. Kushina’s story shows something that Naruto rarely explores, a strong and relatable female character who struggles to overcome her own challenges. The flashbacks to her youth foreshadows how her son will turn out quite well (Kushina was quite the rabble-rouser much like how Naruto was), but it also shows a sentimental side that is unique to Kushina herself. And when Kushina launches her attack in support of Naruto in his effort to gain control over the Nine-Tails’ chakra, the show succeeds in pulling off a truly heartwarming, triumphant moment.
Kushina’s flashbacks to the day of Naruto’s birth also showcases tragedy not seen since The Invasion of Pain Arc. Much like the flashbacks to Nagato’s life, many of the events in Kushina’s flashback can make you question whether you are watching a shonen anime anymore. There is rampant death and a vicious impaling at the end, and there is a surreal, pastoral-like sequence of the rampage that is as emotionally resonant as it is horrifying. Minato and Kushina’s desperate attempts to prevent their village’s destruction, the heartbreak of Hiruzen (the late Third Hokage) and his worry over his wife Biwako (who falls soon after helping Kushina deliver Naruto), and the cruelty of Tobi (or Madara Uchiha) are played for pure drama unlike many flashbacks to the past. We are watching the destruction of a young, loving family, and it is sad to see the inevitable fate of Minato and Kushina as they sacrifice themselves to save their son and Konoha. We wish that there had been a way for Minato and Kushina to somehow survive, or that they could return to life at Naruto’s side, but that can’t occur. It’s surprisingly mature subject matter for a Shonen Jump manga to tackle, and it’s tackled well here.
There is also a satisfying, quick battle between the thought-dead Kisame and Might Guy that livens things up a little after a comparatively dour and intense opening to the set. The battle hits the notes necessary to be entertaining as it allows allows Guy to be goofy and awesome in a way only he can be, and ends on a memorable final note. Kisame’s past is also explored briefly as we see why he joined Akatsuki in the first place, and that adds a bit of a coda onto Kisame’s character as he finally exits the series.
But there is still more. Tobi/Madara still has business to take care of in the Hidden Rain Village. Konan, who defected from the Akatsuki at the end of the Invasion of Pain arc, aims to protect the bodies of her fallen friends but also join the upcoming Fourth Shinobi World War on Naruto’s side. Tobi/Madara can’t allow that to happen, obviously. But when he marches into the Hidden Rain like he owns the place, planning on not only defeating Konan but taking the jutsu he needs to win the war, Konan has several traps planned for him. A a rapid-fire battle full of twists and turns ensues, one which shows the full extent of Konan’s unique abilities and powers as she puts Tobi/Madara on his heels. Experienced fans can guess the victor of the battle, but the sheer amount of damage caused to both parties and the battle’s brutal, graphic ending may surprise.
Only at the end of the set does the show finally falter. The final episode of the set is a completely pointless, re-animated abridged retelling of the first few episodes of the original Naruto anime, complete with Toshio Masuda’s score re-emerging from the ether. It is not just filler, it is a flashback to something we’ve already seen and don’t need to see again, perhaps redone as an excuse to redo the visuals in higher, HD quality (and the action sequences are indeed done better than they were in the original show). However, seeing something that I have already seen abridged before feels pointless. I can only hope that this retelling does not last long into the next boxset and we get a proper filler arc, or the start of the Fourth Shinobi World War instead. There are far better ways to stall than to reshow moments that fans Naruto franchise are very familiar with.
Nearly all episodes of the set have “newsong” by Tacica as its opening theme, which also was featured in the entirety of Set 19. Just as I expected, the whimsical visuals that accompany “newsong” do not mesh well with the darker edges of the storytelling being shown. Only in the slightly goofier Kisame-versus-Might Guy battle does the opening feel even the slightest bit appropriate. Which is sad as it is a truly enjoyable folk-rock tune. Strong pop-punk closer “By My Side” by Hemenway accompanies nearly the entire set as well, and my comments about the uniquely-crafted visuals and the audio remain the same from Set 19 where the song made its debut.
The final episode of the set changes the opening and ending themes. The opening, “Assault Rock” by The Cro-Magnons, is one of the worst openings that I have seen for Naruto yet, if not the worst. The audio is a grating piece of noisy garage-punk that feels carelessly slapped together with a raspy, aggravating lead vocal. It is nearly impossible to listen to and the uninspired, low-budget visuals do not make up for it. The new closing song, “Cascade” by Unlimits, is a melodic piece of girl-pop-punk that feels far more appropriate for the anime at this juncture, and has visuals that oddly give off the feel of a second opening sequence of the sort that the series should have had at this point.
Yasuharu Takanashi’s score remains a strong point. A lot of old themes are reused in Kisame versus Might Guy and Konan versus Tobi but there is a sense of finality to how they are used, as if the anime is saying goodbye to these themes and is giving them one final run. New songs dominate Naruto’s struggle with the Nine-Tails and Kushina’s flashbacks and they begin reappearing as we creep towards the war, which hints at these tunes being dominant going forward. Yasuharu Takanashi even shows a bit of experimentation by making Kushina’s theme minimalist and ambient, with a gorgeous solo piano recreation of this theme concluding Naruto and Kushina’s interactions. Most of the new tracks are orchestrated and strings-dominated, hinting at a bigger budget being procured for these numbers, and the heavy metal guitar that Naruto is famous for is mostly supporting. Only in a couple of old themes cropping up in the battle between Kisame and Might Guy does the guitar take the lead at all. Meanwhile, Toshio Masuda’s old score for Naruto re-emerges for the final episode of the set. It feels just as cheap and limp as it did when it backed the original version of the events told in this episode, with only the hardcore-punk number “Need To Be Strong” giving it any oomph at all. Lazy implementation of the rest of Masuda’s old tracks do not help.
The Japanese and English dubs are both at the top of their games in these episodes. Like last time, I will be putting the emphasis on Mary Elizabeth McGlynn’s English dub. Now that the show is firmly out of filler doldrums, every performance, minor or major, is performed with intensity and meaning. Killer B’s terrible rapping is hilariously scripted and performed in both English and Japanese, and Naruto’s happiness and heartbreak in his interactions with Kushina are performed with surprising intimacy by Junko Takeuchi and Maile Flanagan. There is even a small surprise for dub-watchers at the end of the set with Julianne Buescher coming back out of the blue to reprise Anko Mitarashi (although Laura Bailey retains credit for the part even though it is clearly not her). This was the right call considering that Bailey voices both Kushina Uzumaki and teenage ninja Kurotsuchi in this set along with a variety of extras, and her doing another major part would have been a bit much.
Speaking of Laura Bailey’s Kushina Uzumaki, her interpretation of her will likely prove to be the deciding factor in whether you prefer the sub or the dub. Her approach is wildly different from Emi Shinohara’s. Shinohara absolutely aces any moment where Kushina is being utilized for comedy or is being hot-blooded. Conversely, Bailey’s softer, smoother voice brings Kushina to stark life in dramatic sequences, which becomes absolutely pivotal towards the end of Kushina’s flashback. Bailey’s performance as Kushina in her character’s final moments must be heard by amateur voice actors wanting to practice a death scene, as Bailey manages to summon a staggering amount of heartfelt emotion and physical and psychological pain as Kushina says goodbye to her baby boy. Perhaps not surprisingly to those who have read my review of Road to Ninja, I find myself recommending the dub over the sub largely due to the strengths of Baily’s performance.
Extras in this set are a bit more substantial than usual. There are omake done in the superdeformed format that seem to advertise the Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals comedic spinoff anime, which are included at the end of some episodes and can also be viewed separately on the set. The included storybards on the DVD, unfortunately, prove to be just as big of a struggle to understand as they were on the previous set. There is also a small art gallery of Tobi and some summoned creatures, and the usual clean opening and ending sequences. As always the English credits are viewable on a separate, silent two-minute scroll, and in addition to the issue of the voice credit for Anko the failure to credit Matthew Mercer in the roles vacated by Troy Baker continues.
Overall this set is a microcosm of the best Naruto has to offer, while the final episode shows some of what can make the anime so frustrating. However, one bad apple does not ruin the rest of what is a hugely important and intense set of episodes. This is a collection that sets up a conclusive final battle and ties up plenty of narrative loose ends while giving the titular main character a chance to interact with one of the best characters Masashi Kishimoto has conceived in Kushina Uzumaki. Ultimately, this set is a must-have for Naruto fans that will give any fan of shonen anime a plenty of intense entertainment.The thread view count is 56