Road to Ninja: Naruto the Movie is the ninth theatrical film depicting the characters of the Naruto franchise. It’s hard to believe, considering the diminishing returns of the theatrical films since the beginning of the Shippuden films. The last two movies, The Lost Tower and Blood Prison, didn’t even earn back their budgets in Japan. Even though Blood Prison was a serious upgrade in the Naruto films in terms of story, characterization, and action, it was obviously not enough to attract those turned off by the formula that had plagued the films since their inception. For Road to Ninja, Studio Pierrot turned to the two men who had made Naruto famous in the first place: the Naruto TV anime director Hayato Date, and the original manga creator, Masashi Kishimoto, and had them conceptualize a new film in the franchise. Kishimoto turned in a scenario that takes place inbetween the “Confining the Jinchuuriki” and “Fourth Shinobi World War” arcs in the story, and Date personally directs the film from start to finish. The result is, without a doubt, the strongest film released in the Naruto franchise to date. However, it also gives longtime fans of the franchise, and fans of the Naruto character in particular, a sense of emotional catharsis that makes the film meaningful on a level yet undiscovered by films based on shonen franchises.
The story feels like a short, lost arc from the manga. The villain is one familiar to Naruto fans. Following the events of the “Confining the Jinchuuriki” arc, the Akatsuki have been dramatically reduced in number, but the legendary Madara Uchiha is preparing to launch his scheme for world domination. He and his surviving henchman, Zetsu, prepare to launch a test version of what Madara calls “The Infinite Tsukiyomi,” which traps its target in a world of the target’s dreams. In it, the target’s deepest desires come true in an environment that feels real. For his test, Madara aims his sights on Naruto Uzumaki, aiming to use the world’s own villain to capture the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox sealed inside Naruto.
Naruto, of course, is unaware of this at first. His primary concern at the start is that the Akatsuki members that should be dead are inexplicably still alive. Although the Akatsuki are beaten back, Naruto and his fellow Konoha ninja are mystified at the appearances of what should be dead ninja. As Tsunade, Shizune, and Kakashi try to get to the bottom of it, Naruto wanders around Konoha, frustrated over what is going on and finding no one he can talk to. He is still reeling from his brief meetings with his late mother and father (explaining how this happened would take a whole review on their own). His wanderings throughout Konoha constantly remind of how he has no one to come home to, even though this village is supposedly his home. And when Sakura complains to him about how buffoonish her parents are acting, Naruto’s attitude is simply “you should be glad you have parents at all.” The ensuing fight would have likely shattered Naruto and Sakura’s relationship permanently if Madara Uchiha didn’t appear to give them a common enemy.
Left with no choice, Madara traps Sakura in the same Infinite Tsukiyomi that he only intended for Naruto. While trying to track Madara down, Naruto and Sakura slowly realize the truth: this isn’t the same Konoha anymore. Their friends have vividly different personalities and in some cases different appearances. Sasuke Uchiha is still in the village, and bears none of the insanity and bloodthirst that he had in their last confrontation. Naruto is even being called a different name, “Menma,” and no one has any clue who Madara Uchiha is. After some amusing and highly awkward encounters with these bizarro versions of their friends, Sakura and Naruto realize that Sakura’s parents are dead: heroes that sacrificed themselves to save Konoha. But the final, greatest revelation is what hits Naruto the hardest: his parents, Minato Namikaze and Kushina Uzumaki, are still alive, and, unlike the rest of the village, seem remarkably unchanged.
The film is a slow burn. After the opening fight against the mysteriously revived Akatsuki, there is only one short, mostly comedic action sequence for the entire first hour. This is following in the footsteps of Blood Prison, which was a stronger film due to its refusal to pile on fight after fight, instead concentrating on the build-up. This concentration on characterization, atmosphere, and plot over battles and fandom-pandering made Blood Prison a surprisingly strong entry in the Naruto franchise (in spite of its glaring continuity errors). Road To Ninja‘s decision to follow in Blood Prison‘s narrative footsteps turns out to be the best decision the creators could have made.
Road to Ninja isn’t as openly grim as Blood Prison, but it is every bit as bittersweet and emotional, if not more so. Naruto’s facial expressions and body language as he tries to interact with his parents, who are so close to the real thing he wants to believe in them, show his feelings more than words could ever say. Sakura’s increasing despair over having no parents also turns out to require few words to show, after her initial joy after not having her parents embarrassing her or forcing her to abide by seemingly silly edicts. This new reality is explored for an entire hour. At first it is Sakura who wants to stay and Naruto who wants to go. Sakura is celebrated as a child of heroes, with children begging her for her autograph in the street, while Naruto is treated as just an ordinary ninja, much like Sakura is treated in reality. By the end, their attitudes are believably inverted, with Sakura wanting to leave and Naruto strongly tempted to stay. Sakura realizes that her “friends” in this reality, including Sasuke, don’t really care about her at all. Naruto finds out that celebrating birthdays, dinners, and simply having conversations with his parents (along with the photo album of his joyful, wonderful alternate life), makes it so very tempting to stay lost in the dreamworld. Sakura, realizing the joy and happiness of Naruto’s interactions with Minato and Kushina, even contemplates staying so Naruto can be happy even though she is miserable without her family and friends.
Then the action part of the film kicks in full-throttle with the final forty minutes. Madara has manipulated a mysterious villain who is surprisingly similar to him in terms of motivations to go after Konoha. The resulting atrocities are worse than what Konoha suffered in reality, beginning a fight for survival and to keep the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox from being brought under Madara’s sway. A turning point arises when Naruto realizes, in one crucial moment, what makes this reality’s version of his parents different from his real parents. Remembering his visions of the real Minato and Kushina, he decides, once and for all, to return home and stop Madara once and for all. The result is one of the most spectacular battles in Naruto from technical and storytelling perspectives, with multiple twists and turns that managed to catch me off guard even if some the twists involving Madara’s schemes are sadly predictable. But that is a mild gripe for what proves to be a effective final act in general.
Since Road to Ninja: Naruto the Movie is firmly set in between arcs, anyone who’s read the manga or watched the anime past episode 255 knows the inevitable end result. However, the film fits in naturally after episode 255, serving as a coda to the “Confining the Jinchuuriki” arc. It also works as a prequel to the “Fourth Shinobi World War” arc, explaining certain behaviors expressed by Naruto and Sakura. However, because of its heavy backing in continuity, the film’s effectiveness is directly proportional to how much of the anime or manga you’ve watched/read, and how emotionally invested you are in Naruto’s character. If you don’t care about Naruto at all, much of what happens to Naruto will fail to resonate. The re-animated flashbacks to Minato and Kushina’s actions while they were trying to save the village and protect Naruto on the night of his birth will either irritate you (they take up a lot of time) or prove to illustrate the core difference between Naruto’s real parents and the ones he has in the Infinite Tsukiyomi dreamworld. If you are a long-time fan of the franchise, you will be rewarded. It helps that there are no plot holes or continuity errors to speak of, as there have been in many of the previous films.
The animation is not as stellar as many of the previous films in the franchise, with some off-model moments early-on and inside the exploration of the altered Konoha, but the final forty minutes are animated exceptionally well outside of some clearly-CGIed giant gears. It’s not flashy, but it gets the job done, and Hayato Date manages to show he has a good touch for handling a theatrical film with some creative camera angles and getting the most of his budget. The result is a film that doesn’t live up to Studio Ghibli or even some of the richer-animated films in Naruto‘s history (like Ninja Clash in the Land of Snow), but it gets the job done.
The music is once again handled by Yasuharu Takanashi and his sequel to Musashi Project, yaiba. Many of the themes from the TV series are reused here (a surprising first for the Naruto films in the Shippuden era), but they are brought to life with symphonic arrangements that make them hit with more force. The Zakk Wylde-esque guitar riffs are almost entirely absent other than the semi-silly battle in the center of the film and in the conclusion of the final fight, but they work well in both instances. Linking these tracks together is a main theme Takanashi composed specifically for the film, one that turns out to be quite beautiful no matter what arrangement (violin solo, acoustic guitar, piano, and so on) is used. Topping it off is a stellar action track near the end based solely out of traditional Japanese instruments (taiko drums, shamisen, and shakuhachi are the dominant instruments utilized) that is every bit as ferocious as any metal riff Takanashi could have composed in its place. Overall, Takanashi proves his mettle here with the expanded budget he was given, with a memorable score that stands out on its own just as well as it is used in the film.
The theme that plays in the end of the film is “Well Then, See You Tomorrow” by Asian Kung-Fu Generation, known to Naruto fans as the performers of “Haruka Kanata”, the second opening of the original Naruto anime. It’s been over ten years since “Haruka Kanata” and Asian Kung-Fu Generation’s sound has changed and matured, but the song works well when the events of the film come to an end. Unfortunately, any translation for the song’s lyrics must be found on the Internet.
The Japanese and English dubs both go all-out here in terms of performances. Junko Takeuchi and Maile Flanagan are at the top of their game for Naruto, especially during his most vulnerable and emotional moments. Kate Higgins and Chie Nakamura also perform strongly as Sakura, showing equal versatility in comedy and drama. Both Japanese and English actors also also sound like they’re having an absolute ball playing the bizarro versions of their characters. Dave Wittenberg in particular is a delight as bizarro Kakashi in the English dub, as Kakashi essentially has Might Guy’s personality, and Wittenberg goes as far as to do a amusing imitation of Skip Stellrecht’s Might Guy voice. The English dub script, led by Seth Walthier, faithfully adapts the Japanese original as always.
The clearest comparisons between the dubs are with Minato Namikaze (Toshiyuki Morikawa and Tony Oliver) and Kushina Uzumaki (Emi Shinohara and Laura Bailey). Minato sounds significantly softer-spoken in English due to Oliver’s younger, gentler take on the character, lacking Morikawa’s sense of authority. However, Oliver’s approach works much better when Minato is simply being a father to Naruto, whether lecturing, engaging in simple conversation, or trying to comfort his son. At the same time, Morikawa’s determination in the flashbacks to the night of Naruto’s birth is determined and forceful. It’s difficult to say which take on Minato is superior, but if you prefer Minato as a father, you’ll prefer Oliver’s interpretation, but if you prefer Minato as the leader of the village, Morikawa will win out.
Kushina Uzumaki will be discussed in more detail in the review of Naruto Shippuden Box Set 20, but the differences between Emi Shinohara and Laura Bailey are stark. Shinohara aces Kushina’s comedic moments, able to shriek in a hot-blooded way that few other voice actors could pull off without destroying their vocal chords in the process (as Jessica Calvello did while recording Excel Saga). However, Bailey’s interpretation of Kushina proves much, much more powerful in Kushina’s human and emotional moments, particularly her monologue to Naruto in the flashback sequence. Kushina’s love for her son is powerfully portrayed in Bailey’s hands in a way that Shinohara is never able to equal. Every moment Kushina cries, every moment she teases or lectures her son, even the moment where she laughs over a destroyed birthday cake, Laura Bailey turns Kushina Uzumaki into a human being, with all of the flaws and virtues visible. Her performance deserves more accolades than it gets, and her impressive performance makes the English dub the superior watch in my eyes. Attentive listeners will also hear Steven Jay Blum as Sakura’s goofy father in the English dub, though his character is nowhere close to being as important as the English credits (thankfully in the film itself and not tossed onto a separate video like with the TV series) imply.
Extras for the movie are thin: simply some Japanese trailers for the film when it was announced and some trailers for upcoming VIZ Media releases. It would have been nice to have a audio commentary for the English dub to hear about the actors having to portray their characters in a vastly different light, or to go in-depth on Tony Oliver and Laura Bailey’s interpretations of Naruto’s parents.
In the end, your enjoyment of the film is solely based on how much you care for the Naruto franchise and its titular character. In a lot of ways, this film is a love letter to the fans, right down to pulling an image directly from the manga. Naruto’s conflicted feelings will only mean anything to you if you care about his character. However, if you have lapsed from the Naruto franchise or are critical of its main character, the struggles presented here will not matter much to you. If you have stuck with the franchise this long, this is the best film in all of Naruto, and manages to be something you may never have thought a shonen anime film could be: