Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Aug 4th 2008
DVD - Uncut DVD Box Set 9
Recovering from the wounds received during his last mission, Sasuke broods over Naruto's explosive growth. The combination of Naruto's accelerated learning curve and the attention that Sasuke's brother pays to the spunky Hokage-wannabe proves too much for Sasuke's wounded pride, and he challenges Naruto to a duel. embittered as his quest for revenge seemingly slips further and further from his grasp, Sasuke is courted by Orochimaru, whose interest in the boy is decidedly unhealthy. Sakura makes a desperate bid to stop him from joining the psychopathic ninja outcast, but fails—Sasuke leaves the village accompanied by four of Orochimaru's twisted subordinates. Newly-minted Chunin Shikamaru whips Naruto, Chouji, Neji, and Kiba into something resembling a unit and sets out in pursuit of their wayward comrade, a pursuit that quickly becomes the fight of their short lives.
Peel back the layers of hype and counter-hype from the Naruto juggernaut and you'll find a series that is fun, often cool, and goes down like the addictive junk food it is. This set opens the series' darkest story arc—a culminating rivalry swimming in enough angst to drown a dozen teenagers—but never forgets that the series' heart lies not in emotional agonizing but in ninjas beating the snot out of each other.
Like any good shounen series, Naruto knows that an emotional foundation is essential in building good action set-pieces—its major story arcs have always excelled at combining affect and action—but this is far and away the most brooding story arc to date. Sasuke's decision to leave the Leaf Village is preceded by much agonizing over his powerlessness and lashing out at Nar>uto, Sakura's appeal to his better instincts is among the series' most blatant (and successful) emotional manipulations, and even Nar>uto—usually a bastion of optimistic energy—is allowed an unusually subtle display of emotion while sacrificing himself on the altar of his crush on Sakura. Every fight is intercut with the memories and motivations of its primary participants, and original author Masashi Kishimoto isn't above raising the emotional stakes of a fight to borderline silliness. Of course, how much you enjoy it all will depend heavily on your tolerance for twelve-year-olds acting like God's gift to badasses and your ability to suppress the desire to spank Sasuke like the whiny little brat he is.
Then the pursuit begins, fists and faces meet, and suddenly how sympathetic you are towards the characters matters a lot less. New combat techniques are broken out, characters power-up, and foul-mouthed baddies get the thrashings they richly deserve. In short, it's everything you expect from an action arc. The fight structure is repetitive to a fault—a series of competing power-ups followed by an elegiac coda—but follows a winning formula: the villains are vile, the heroes sympathetic, and the stakes high. Budget-saving flashbacks pad each episode and chop the ninja showdowns into jagged bursts of action, but Director Hayato Date puts the money saved into rock-em sock-em payoffs whose impact belies his television budget, making up for any lapses in fluidity with timing, well-placed CGI, and an instinctive eye for combat cool. Chouji, in addition to being a visual inspiration to every kid who ever wore their underwear on their head, proves a surprisingly capable action lead, as does Neji. As diverting as their fights are, however, it's seeing Shikamaru's growth into his role as leader that keeps the arc gliding smoothly to the simultaneous triple-showdown that is set to consume volume ten.
Effective as the interplay between Kishimoto's simple yet punk-cool character designs and Studio Pierrot's unusually smooth animation is, the series' most outstanding single trait is without doubt its soundtrack. Toshio Masuda is perhaps anime's most underrated composer, an artist whose brilliance lies in his very invisibility. Masuda melts into his series, equally capable of insanely catchy pop (Mahoromatic), delicate nostalgia (Ai Yori Aoshi), and soul-searing brilliance (Mushi-Shi). For Naruto he concocts a blend of power-chord guitars, eerie organs, and traditional drums, chants and flutes (often all at once) that is uncanny in its appropriateness to Kishimoto's mix of the fantastic, historic and blatantly anachronistic. Without Masuda's blazing main theme, no fight would ever reach the goosebump-raising heights that they occasionally do.
The length of time the folks a Viz have been working on this title really shows. By this point in the series the performances are nearly perfect. Everyone has gotten the hang of grunting, yelling and wigging out—all of which constitute a sizeable portion of this volume's dialogue. They shout out their moves with conviction, curse their enemies like they mean it, and slip into their characters like old gloves. The English script is a thing of beauty, a finely honed dance of fidelity and dialogue-facilitating re-writes. Those worried that the English cast will struggle under the weight of this installment's plentiful angst needn't continue adding to the wrinkles on their foreheads—the emoting is handled largely by the Nar>uto/Sasuke/Sakura trio, all of whom carry their scenes with ease. Even the heavy bits handed to supporting players like Choji and Neji work fine. The dub's only shortcoming is in its difficulty in equaling the voices of incomparable Japanese talent like Kujira and Houchu Ohtsuka.
After nine releases, Viz' treatment of the series will be familiar. This is the hardcore fan's edition of the series: dual languages, uncut episodes, untouched opening and endings, a booklet with the storyboards for the entirety of episode 110. It clocks in at fourteen episodes and features storyboard to video comparisons and a gallery of production art on the third disc. The only let-down is a lack of a clean version of the new ending and the accompanying chance to appreciate Date's infallible eye for the various flavors of pop-punk.
Formulaic as it is, and even with the constantly-intruding flashbacks and questionably affecting angst, this ninth installment flies by, driven by a chain of life-or-death battles and the emergence of Shikamaru as an unlikely hero. This isn't Naruto at its best—that would be the conclusion of the Chunin exams—but that doesn't mean there isn't a good time to be had. Believe it.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Ninjas beating the crap out of each other.
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