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Review: “Naruto Shippuden” Set 23 – The Allure of Power

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Naruto Shippuden 23

Naruto Shippuden 23Naruto Shippuden‘s quality has been slipping for the last couple of DVD volumes, but the series aims to pick it up in a big way in this set. The fan-favorite original arc “Power” is included on here in full. Does it add the urgency and power that has been missing from Shippuden for the last 20 or so episodes?

In short, yes, in a big way. However, we have to get through some standard episodes first. They continue the pattern of Naruto Shippuden since the start of the Fourth Shinobi World War: meandering pacing and an overall lack of progress in the war despite lots of activity. Undead shinobi attack, extra unnamed ninja die, undead shinobi gets sealed away via intervention of a canonical character. Stilted, choppy animation throughout. Rinse and repeat.

There are a few variations of this formula. One episode ends with uncertainty; another has a fairly in-depth conversation over what it is like to be dead and why anyone would willingly serve evil to avoid dying again. But for the most part, it is the same thing over and over and over again, and a lack of dynamism in the animation only serves as a coating of droning monotony. Perhaps the worst episode of all is a flashback-heavy episode centering around Tsunade, which does absolutely nothing to expand her character beyond what we already know. There is one cute scene where Tsunade pretends to be a little girl to fool some bill collectors, but other than that, it is rehashing a theme that has been drummed into our heads by previous episodes in the franchise. Yes, Tsunade mourns the deaths of her lover and brother, and yes, she had trust issues until Naruto helped her overcome them. We don’t need to see this for the fifteenth time.

Naruto Shippuden 23Before the tedium can completely take over, however, the six-episode “Power” arc kicks into gear and gets everything going with a bang.

Toshiyuki Tsuru (working under the pseudonym Yasuaki Kurotsu) has storyboarded and animated some of the best episodes in the Naruto franchise from the beginning. His work in episodes 17 and 19 back in the original Naruto anime gave the Haku & Zabuza arc a dramatic, tense conclusion. He has also done work in Shippuden, though his last episode was in the Hinata-centric episode 166. Now, over a hundred episodes later, he gets six episodes all to himself. Tsuru crafts an original story about Kabuto testing out his ability to revive the dead, and gets to have Hidan show up and cause serious chaos as well after being left out of the story for so long.

It is evident that this story takes place well before the Shinobi World War arc we’re currently in. I’d as go far to say that it takes place right after the Five Kage Summit arc considering how Kabuto here isn’t anywhere near as morphed as he is during the current arc. The arc also tackles a subject that neither the manga or anime have really taken a look at: the raw cost of what happens to these villages caught in the crossfire of all of these ninja battles.

Naruto Shippuden 23The new characters introduced here are all refugees of a village destroyed during one of these battles: two thirty-somethings (Dokku and Shiseru) trying to take care of some orphaned kids and rebuild their lives. This establishes an emotional poignancy that the movies, and sometimes even the manga/anime, seems to lack. We don’t see enough of the ordinary civilian who has to live in a world like this, where they can be wiped out at any time due to ninja skirmishes and attempts to subvert the laws of nature, life, and death. What would happen to the ordinary person in a world like this, where a cataclysm could happen at any moment? While “Power” is not exactly subtle, showcasing this side of the world is still quite welcome, especially when focusing on at the children, who all show signs of post-traumatic stress and different ways of coping with what they’ve lost. Perhaps the most evocative is the trauma of little girl Miina, who becomes mute due to her trauma, only for her to regain her voice due to a nightmare of her whole village exploding and erupting in flames.

This ties into the central theme: how far will you go to achieve power? What is the price? How much power can one person wield? Kabuto embodies this theme as the central villain of this arc. His already-tenuous grip on sanity has become looser due to the influence of Orochimaru’s DNA, and it quickly becomes evident he will stop at nothing to achieve ultimate power. Reviving the dead gives him delusions of grandeur, and he has no issues whatsoever about making innocent people suffer (or, indeed, die) in order to get the power he desires. Naturally, the power he wants is the Tailed Beast inside of Naruto, and his goal is to draw out Naruto’s chakra to create a clone of the Nine-Tailed Fox that he can unleash at will upon his targets. When he does manage to entrap Naruto, he laughs with glee as the clone forms and immediately starts a rampage against both the Leaf ninja and the commoners in the way. He has been reduced to only being about power, craving more and more of it. Whatever his original intentions were, they mean virtually nothing compared to the allure of power itself.

There is some predictability in the ending. While it does some beautifully animated foreshadowing of Naruto’s future control over the Nine-Tailed Fox’s chakra, the arc feels bound by the need to have a happy ending. The decision to swerve, at the very last second, from an evocative, meaningful ending to a “Naruto saves everyone” ending robs the arc of its considerable power up until that point. The journey to this ending, however, showcases a depth that Naruto doesn’t often reach. I wish the anime-original material would strive for this type of storytelling instead of being content to run in place or rehash concepts we have seen played out several times, and better, already.

Naruto Shippuden 23The six episodes of “Power” have dramatically improved animation compared to all of the episodes on this disc, and superior animation to Tsuru’s previous Shippuden episodes. There is a truly theatrical quality to the animation here, that makes me wonder if this arc was originally intended to be the Naruto movie of 2012 before they got Masashi Kishimoto’s direct involvement and made Road to Ninja instead. Only some poorly CGIed giant snakes and a few slips in the fourth episode betrays the animation as being lower than theatrical-level. The original character designs by Tsuru also have a unique, creative look to them that stand out far more than typical original character designs in Naruto. They feel a bit more contemporary, harking back to the early days of the Naruto saga before it became dominated by Japanese folklore as its primary inspiration. In general, this whole arc is a testament to Toshiyuki Tsuru and his ability as an animator, writer, and designer, permanently establishing him as one of the greatest talents to work on Naruto.

Yasuharu Takanashi’s work remains as consistently fitting as it has been, and also continues to be used as it always has been in the filler material: as a blunt instrument. A lot of themes dating from the Hidan & Kakuzu arc wind up getting revived for a lot of the filler material before “Power.” Surprisingly, “Power” doesn’t have a lot of new music from Takanashi debuting, save for a couple of new, orchestrated pieces used in the final battle. However, “Power” does use Takanashi’s score with significant more effectiveness compared to the main series. Perhaps the most impressive parts are when “Power” decides to not use music at all. Tsuru seems to have more affinity for silence than Date, and the silence that plays in many conversations gives events in the arc a stark, haunting feel. This also allows for Takanashi’s music to be used for maximum impact, as opposed to a crutch like in far too many of Shippuden’s episodes.

Naruto Shippuden 23Both “Moshimo” and “MOTHER” return from the end of the previous set, remaining generic but fitting. After “Power” concludes, the last episode on the disc gets a new ending, “Sayanara Memory” by girl-pop group 7!! (pronounced seven-oops). Having previously done an energetic opening for Shippuden (the ninth, “Lovers”), 7!! brings a similar burst of sugary guitar-pop to the proceedings, which evoke the same Naruto-loneliness-and-I-must-save-Sasuke themes that have been done to death in this series’ openings and endings at this point. I really, really would like if the animators could show more creativity in both the themes and animation, because this is starting to getting monotonous.

The English dub’s inherent flaw has always been Mary Elizabeth McGlynn drawing from too small of a voice pool, but this dramatically improves in this set. The Fourth Shinobi World War arc manages to give more characters unique voices instead of asking Laura Bailey or Derek Stephen Prince to voice yet another one-shot character. Debi Mae West, for the first time, gets to voice a young Tsunade, which was fairly cool to hear. McGlynn’s familiar smoky voice does get used for filler character Maki, which leads to a serious sense of deja vu as her distinctive voice is already being used for two prominent characters, but at least it’s only for one-episode. The dub also steps up for “Power,” with the dramatic surprise of Ashley Johnson (aka Gwen Tennyson in most Ben 10 series and Ellie in The Last of Us) playing heroine Shiseru. Johnson’s inexperience with dubbing does show with a couple of stumbles here and there, but she provides Shiseru with a fitting, forceful tone that plays a bit against the character types she is most famous for. The failure to credit Matthew Mercer for voicing Yamato (instead continuing to credit Troy Baker, who has abandoned the role for a little over a year at this point) remains an annoyance, however.

Naruto Shippuden 23The Japanese dub also continues its exemplary track record, with Hiroto Torihata perhaps providing the standout performance of the new characters as “Power”-exclusive Dokku. The Japanese dub has had no problems firing on all cylinders, and during the “Power” arc, I believe the actors have put on some of their strongest work thus far. If you prefer to watch the original version, you will be well-served in doing so.

Extras are slightly more substantial than usual. We get some storyboards and character designs for the “Power” arc in addition to the clean opener and closers. It seems VIZ has finally taken steps to fix the problem with the mono audio on the clean opening and closing themes, as “Sayonara Memory” finally gets stereo audio for the clean version. “Moshimo” and “MOTHER” continue to be mono, however. The only other nitpick I have is that I wish VIZ could have packaged all of the “Power” episodes on one disc, instead of having the first episode of the arc conclude the first DVD and putting the rest on the second. “Power” does feel like a movie broken up into chunks, and it would have been nice to not change discs in order to continue the story.

Thanks to the sheer theatrical grandeur of the “Power” arc, this is the best collection of Naruto Shippuden episodes to come by in a while. Anyone who considers themselves a fan of animation should check this collection out for the sheer amount of eye candy present in “Power”, and those who are looking for a little more depth in shonen action series should enjoy this set as well. Overall, this marks a fine return to form for this veteran anime series, and hopefully Tsuru’s imagination will inspire the rest of the animators and writers to strive for better with their own material.

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