For those coming in late: Naruto is a hit Japanese comic series that quickly received an animated adaptation and then spread to international success. The series is set in an alternate world where special ninja villages provide the armed forces for their respective nations. In the peaceful Hidden Leaf village, 12-year-old orphan Naruto Uzumaki dreams of becoming the villager leader and achieving recognition. The story begins with him learning that the village shuns him due to his being the vessel for a powerful demon fox that attacked the village the day of his birth. As it was too powerful to destroy, the then-leader sealed the fox in the infant Naruto with his dying breath and hoped the villagers would acknowledge the child as a hero. Instead, the villagers used Naruto as a scapegoat for the pain and loss of that day. The story has thus focused on Naruto proving he is his own person as he sets out with a team of similar-aged rookies to begin serving as a ninja. Naruto and his friends quickly learn the ninja world is a bleak place with a kill-or-be-killed standard, and that some truly powerful ninja seek to use their abilities to achieve immortality and world domination. The story then took a three-year time skip during which Naruto departed the village to train under a legendary sage he had encountered. The story picks up with Naruto focused on finding the AWOL member of his team, Sasuke Uchiha, who has allied with one of the main antagonists over a personal vendetta.
Volume 4 of the second series picks up shortly after the initial arc. Having received a tip off from their previous foe about the whereabouts of Sasuke, Naruto and his team (original female member Sakura, replacement male member Sai and fill-in senior Yamato) head off to the rendezvous point to encounter said villain, the literally snake-like Orochimaru. Orochimaru wastes no time in angering Naruto, which sets him off to the point that the fox within is able to seize control of his body. This has been one of the story’s recurring conceits, and it makes sense to see it here, but I’m disappointed for a few reasons. For one, the whole purpose of Naruto’s training was to master this power within him, yet it’s made quickly apparent that he has learned little to nothing. He might be older, taller and slightly more restrained but there is an amazing lack of growth. This stands out because the concept of ‘time skip training’ is common in Japanese entertainment. One Piece, for example, recently used the same idea, and it was clear from brief hints that the cast had significantly improved and were in control of powers they had only rarely been able to tap into before.
Secondly, the tension is dissipated due to the fact that the first three or so episodes pretty much solely consist of Naruto slowly filling up with the fox’s power. It’s not the worst I’ve seen and there is clear improvement from the padding of the original series, but this is really drawn out stuff that quite often literally just involves long sequences of characters just standing still.
A minor concern is that the squeamish may want to avoid watching this. As the battle becomes ‘a battle between monsters,’ as one character puts it, we get some cleverly done but icky battle techniques. Top of these is Orochimaru’s ability to dislocate his jaw and vomit up a fresh body to replace his injured one. (I will admit all this provides some pretty cool visuals.) I love a subtle ‘evil’ that leaves room for interpretation, but having characters that have surrendered their physical humanity for powers they were never meant to have really raises the stakes.
Things pick up on the second disc, in which Naruto’s demonic power is downplayed in favour of analysing the character of Sai. An elite child soldier of the Hidden Leaf Village, Sai’s shtick is claiming to feel no emotions due to his strict training. This creates awkward interactions. Whilst we generally know and trust the rest of the protagonists, Sai is a blank canvas, and it’s suggested that he may have his own mission that runs completely counter to that of his team mates. ‘I have no emotions, I am just a tool’ is an archetype that appears often in anime, so it surprised me even more that by the end of this set I genuinely liked him. Sai undergoes some interesting and compelling character development across these episodes, with the added touch that you’re kept on your toes about how much truth there is to it. The other benefit to this is it allows a viewpoint for a character that has no real reason to want to protect/save Sasuke. The character’s parting was ultimately his own choice, so it’s only fair to have someone expecting Sasuke to be held to consequences for his actions.
A further interesting touch is Sai’s personal fighting style, which involves animating his ink drawings. Elements of CGI appear throughout all the episodes here (such as the long corridors of Orochimaru’s hideout) but their best use is in depicting Sai’s jutsus, which are convincing as ink sketches that have magically come to life.
Something of an oddity is that all the episodes retain the brief ‘This programme is brought to you by the following sponsors’ animation, only minus this actual content. On Japanese TV airings, these segments (consisting of animation you just saw in the cold opening and a little bit of extra preview footage) bookend the show, and these are often cut once licensed English DVDs are produced. Whilst it’s kind of neat to see them retained, they don’t really achieve anything. The same goes for the surprising appearance of the ‘See you next time’ card, a Japanese TV tradition which uses a piece of show art (often a screencap from the specific episode) to thank audiences for watching and asking them to do so again. Like the sponsor bits, these are nice to see for a sense of completeness but aren’t really essential, especially on a DVD where, short of killing the power, I will of course continue to watch.
One extra bit that does work quite well is the short animations that appear after the credits. These carry a more clear sense of humour as opposed to the current grim mood of the main story, and they discuss things like plot oddities or give a refresher on long-absent characters who are now returning. A particular favourite is the cast competing in a game show where the questions appear to be asking for the name of important villains, only instead to go for the names of minor henchmen who may not have been named on screen. These segments allow the cast to break the fourth wall a bit and have some real fun.
From the menus (which for some reason star Gaara, a character who doesn’t even appear in these episodes) it’s possible to Play All, select an individual episode and toggle between a choice of English audio or Japanese with English subtitles.
Extras consist of a production art gallery and some trailers. The production art is a nice extra, consisting of model sheets of characters appearing in this volume. The trailers cover the first Naruto Shippuden movie and a general Shippuden series trailer.
Naruto Shippuden Volume 4 is a tricky recommendation. Whilst I certainly can’t recommend it for those unfamiliar with the expansive story thus far, I think those already collecting the series will be satisfied. Pacing could be tighter, but by the end of the set a consistent, enjoyable and dramatic flow is achieved. Helping that is that Manga have been quick to assume the standard of 13 episode sets. If we were still in the days of single disc releases, disc 1 of this set would be a disappointing watch. But 13 episodes allows the good to outweigh the bad and presents good value for the money.