Reviewby Casey Brienza, Apr 25th 2009
The Akatsuki have only two tailed beasts left to collect before they can begin the execution of their master plan, and our heroes are beginning to step up their game in response. Jiraiya heads out to the Hidden Rain Village on a top-secret mission to discover the secret of Pain's awesome ninja powers. Little does the Pervy Sage suspect, however, that success may mean confronting past choices—and making the ultimate sacrifice. Meanwhile, Sasuke's gets his much wished for final showdown with big brother Itachi…only to learn, too late, that things were never what he believed them to be. The truth may turn him forever against Konoha and its shinobi. So now if Naruto wants to avenge Jiraiya and get his best friend back, he will need to learn Sage Jutsu—from the Toads!
Let's start with the obvious, shall we? Naruto is a hit in North America. If you did not already know that, then you don't follow the English-translated manga scene or read The New York Times, where various volumes of the series have been dominating the bestselling manga list since its inception. American publisher Viz Media, of course, knows full well that it has landed on dead center onto the back of a cash cow of unprecedented proportions in the world of U.S. manga publishing. The publisher also knows that such hits are by their very nature ephemeral, and they fully intend to ride for every last ounce of its worth.
So forget about the now standard quarterly schedule of four volumes per year. Try four volumes per month on for size. Indeed, four volumes released in a single month is exactly what Viz Media did in February and March of 2009. April, by comparison, boasted “only” three new volumes, 42 through 44, and now the English-language release of Naruto is virtually caught up to the new installments still being produced regularly by Masashi Kishimoto for the pages of the Japanese edition of Weekly Shounen Jump. Whew! What a ride. And it is this latest swath of Naruto, volumes 42, 43, and 44, being reviewed here. Taken together, they represent an excellent representative sample of the shinobi story that has taken the world by storm.
Volume 42 begins with the tragic conclusion of Jiraiya's deadly showdown with the many faces of Pain. This key member of the Akatsuki, as it turns out, was the Pervy Sage's onetime pupil, a war orphan from the Land of Rain. Taking him on now is terribly painful—in more ways than one—and even his Sage Jutsu, learned at the slimy webbed feet of talking toads, may not be enough to save him. Fortunately, he reaches a breakthrough in the end, and although nobody is going to be happy with the outcome, at least it was not all for naught.
The rest of this book focuses upon Sasuke's long anticipated final encounter with his murderous elder brother Itachi. Their battle—and its aftermath—is truly epic, and the entirety of the deliciously oversized volume 43 is devoted to it. Although both demonstrate magnificent ninja skills, their duel is more a battle of the mind, and the toll it takes on Sasuke is quite striking. In the process, he learns a lot about the history of the Uchiha clan that changes everything he has believed about his brother since the man murdered his own family. He also learns that there is a connection between the Akatsuki and the Uchiha clan's legendary leader Madara. In fact, as it turns out, Madara is still alive, and he may, just may, have a connection to the appearance of the Nine-Tailed Fox that led to the birth of Naruto himself. Bracket that question for future installments.
After the rollercoaster ride of Big, Important Battles, volume 44 is perhaps a bit of a breather. Most of it revolves around the Konoha ninjas taking stock after what they have learned about Pain from Jiraiya. Naruto, for his part, is taken back to the proverbial Toad Land in order to learn Sage Jutsu. Which, by the way, if he cannot master, will turn him into a toad himself! Cue the lowbrow laughs. Meanwhile, a much changed Sasuke has decided to join the Akatsuki for real, and he and his three new compatriots are taking on a bizarrely hip-talking Eight Tails. (Overweight Bob Marley, anyone?) By the way, the prose adaptation here is either brilliant…or brilliantly infuriating, depending upon your point of view.
As always,Naruto's artwork is distinctive and pleasingly detailed. Kishimoto has maintained a signature style over the past decade—no small feat—while refining layouts and character designs in subtle ways. Of course, a veritable army of assistants, even ones who are devoted to the harmonizing all of their efforts as these people clearly are, means that there are noticeable inconsistencies even within single panels, as different artists ink different characters. Tsunade, for example, has been looking particularly thick-lined and clumsy lately.
All in all, this manga series continues to be great mainstream entertainment. And with plenty of action, mystery, character development, bishounen angst, comedy, and tragedy there is something for virtually everyone. No wonder everyone seems to be reading Naruto these days!
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A-
+ A pleasingly digestible mixture of action and mystery, humor and tragedy.
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