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Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Nov 2nd 2006
The second phase of the chûnin exam is over, and Naruto and Co. have barely managed to pass. Unfortunately, too many applicants made it through the second round, so a little culling is in order. And so a preliminary examination for the final stage of the chûnin exam begins. That Naruto will live is a given, but can the manga survive... a tournament?
These three volumes cover the entirety of the preliminaries for the final stage of the chûnin exam, which stands as the first occurrence of that dread staple of the fighting manga: the tournament. Tournaments in shounen stories are virtually synonymous with time-wasting exercises in mindless martial-arts showboating. But Naruto is finely-tuned shounen entertainment, and manga-ka Masashi Kishimoto is a clever craftsman who knows exactly how to keep his audience involved.
This is a tournament story arc, and as such, certain traditions must be observed. The pairings are designed to maximize both the interest and the surprise. Revealing who fights who would be unfair to those who don't already know the pairings (both of you) since guessing who will face off with who is half the fun of a tournament, but suffice to say many of the pairings are both quite interesting and quite unexpected. The fights are often interrupted by long-winded (and sometimes redundant) explanations of strategies and special techniques, and by flashbacks designed to explicate the combatants' motivations. The fights themselves are long, involved, and chock full of dramatic turnarounds. In others' hands, this formula has resulted in many a waste of readers' time, but Kishimoto knows exactly how to keep the action relevant and—most importantly—exciting. Of the fights, some are perfunctory, like Choji's, Tenten's, and Kankuro's, but Sakura's is the only one that lacks tension and purpose. Sasuke's fight is pure action, but his handicap and the effects of Orochimaru's curse-mark keep the tension high. All the other fights showcase important character traits, growth, and relationships. On display are: Shino's peculiar blend of mercy and ruthlessness, Shikamaru's strategic capabilities, and Hinata's determination to change. Naruto's fight is far and away the most fun, and hinges on him exploiting his pluck, invention, and gastrointestinal tract. However, the real star of this arc is Rock Lee. Lee's fight lasts over half a volume on its own, and the end result firmly demonstrates just how much was on the line in the tournament. It is Lee who almost single-handedly rescues this arc from being tossed into the "entertaining but disposable" bin. Important aspects of relationships also come to light during some of the fights, most notably the depth of the connection between Lee and his mentor, and a brutal demonstration of the ugly familial relations in the Hyuuga clan. Fans may be upset that the ongoing plot comes to a standstill in these volumes (other than dealing with Sasuke's curse-mark, it consists solely of Orochimaru lurking), and the arc also segues into the other bane of shounen tales everywhere—the training episodes, but to throw these volumes out as disposable would be a great disservice to the amount of character-building that is squeezed into the fight-after-fight structure.
Kishimoto's ninja-punk visual sensibilities serve the story well, allowing it to shift between cool, goofy, and menacing with ease. Distinctive clothing, hair, faces and personalities make it a snap to tell characters apart, and even the goofiest looking character (that'd be Lee) can become damn cool when the action starts. And action is where this title excels. The fights are staged with a clear eye for geography, movement and the human form, and are bursting with so much visual energy that not even the flashbacks and tedious explanations can dampen them. Kishimoto also has impeccable visual timing; he knows exactly when to emphasize a plot point or key moment in a fight with a 2/3 or 3/4 page spread, such as a close-up of Naruto's eyes or a chilling glimpse of Gaara's crazed, exposed face. The artwork is sometimes a little too crowded with detail, and his reliance on multiple small frames sometimes gives the fights a claustrophobic feel that doesn't suit their dynamic nature. He also uses a film-strip of reaction shots to punctuate key moments in fights so often that it soon becomes tedious (I counted 21 of them in three volumes).
Viz' presentation of Naruto is of their standard Shonen Jump quality. Binding, paper and print quality are all good, but not outstanding, and the Japanese sound effects are all completely replaced with English sound effects. Other than the "talk-back" sections at the end of each chapter, there are no extras included in these volumes.
Naruto enters its inevitable tournament section, but it's far from being dead space. Sure, the plot makes all the progress of a road-killed slug on a summer freeway, but there're enough little character moments and bone-crunching action to keep things moving throughout its (relatively) short three volume run. At the beginning of volume 10 Kishimoto claims that he hopes his readers never get bored while reading Naruto. He can rest assured; he has yet to fail on that front.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B+
+ Great fights, surprisingly emotional.
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