Reviewby Theron Martin,
Naruto Season 3 Box Set 1
Frustrated by his recent inability to deal with his brother and fearful that Naruto may be passing him by, Sasuke challenges Naruto to a “serious” one-on-one duel. When he can gain no satisfaction from that, the lure of Orochimaru, and the promise of power he sends through the quartet of personal bodyguards he sends to fetch Sasuke, proves too great a temptation, even if it means leaving a heartbroken Sakura behind. Lady Tsunade orders the recently-promoted Shikamaru to assemble a team of Gennin to track Sasuke down and retrieve him, a team that quickly includes Naruto, Neji, Choji, and Kiba. They wind up needing all of their cunning and fighting power, for the quartet of Sound Ninja escorting Sasuke are none to be trifled with; all of them have their own strength-enhancing curse marks, after all. Worse yet is the reinforcement Orochimaru dispatches to help them, but Lady Tsunade has her own back-up planned and dispatched, too, as well as an assistor who wasn't planned. Ultimately, though, Naruto is the only one with a chance to stop Sasuke, and in an epic battle in Final Valley the two former friends have their ultimate showdown.
What Viz Media calls Season 3 Box Set vol. 1 is actually just Box Sets 9 and 10 from their 2008 releases repackaged into a single box set; even the Extras, minus the booklet but including the Sneak Previews for the next volumes, remain intact. Thus, if you own the box sets from the last round of releases then you will find no value in picking up this one beyond possibly condensed shelf space. For those just getting around to collecting the series, though, this is the best deal to date on this content.
The first Naruto series hit its peak with the Gaara/Naruto fight and the resolution of the Assault in the Hidden Leaf Village arc in episodes 78-80, but this stretch of episodes, spanning 107-135, may be the second-best period in the series despite its flaws. Nowhere in the series is the drama heavier or stronger than in the scenes leading up to and involving Sasuke's departure from the Hidden Leaf Village at the front of this run, the Naruto/Sasuke battle which dominates the end of the run is one of the series' most intense fights (albeit an overblown one), and the aftermath in episode 135 has some of the series' most poignant and genuinely emotional content. This run also fills in all of the gaps in Sasuke's long-absent backstory and includes some nicely strategic battles, such as Neji's battle with the six-armed Kidomaru and Shikamaru's duel with the demon flute player Tayuya; it is always neat to see shonen battles depend on brainpower at least as much as brawn. The writing also does a nice job of setting up well-matched opponents, such as giving the Kiba/Akamaru team a rival team to fight and setting up the brute force battle between Choji and Jiboro.
Unfortunately, this run also suffers from most of the major flaws of the franchise, too. Most evident here is the gross overuse of lengthy flashbacks, both to earlier scenes in this set and to new background scenes. Granted, some of these are necessary to establish firm character motivations for key characters, but not every character needs a full episode (or more) of background-building, and certainly not in the middle of a battle every single time and with the same sappy recorder tune every single time. Some of these flashbacks are just flat-out tedious and even the most dedicated fans are likely to groan upon seeing nearly half of a ten episode block chewed up by these flashbacks at one point. The series has shown signs of trying much, much too hard to make its non-star characters sympathetic ever since about the midpoint of the Chunin exams, and this may be the worst run of episodes in that respect. Even Sasuke's absolutely crucial background scenes beat certain points into the ground.
The plot structure is also unfailingly formulaic and wholly predictable: when a team of five ninjas is sent out to pursue a team of four ninjas plus a “guest,” naturally the pursuit will eventually devolve into a series of one-on-one battles lasting 2-3 episodes each which are carried out as stalling actions to allow the remainder to continue (“you go on, I've got this” may be the most overused line both in these episodes and the series in general), and naturally the final battle will come down to the title character and his biggest rival. The one spark of inspiration here is the addition of the unexpected reinforcements, who certainly make things interesting on their arrival and reaffirm that yes, people can change, giving the good guys a badly-needed break in battles that looked too harrowing for their health. On the downside, the transition from fighting out single battles to their conclusion before moving on to alternating between multiple simultaneous battles, which happens after the second battle of the chase sequence, waters down the timing and tension of the individual battles. Don't expect much for kunoichi action, either, as Lady Tsunade only appears in healer and leadership roles, Sakura only appears in new footage at the beginning and end of the set (albeit in functions of major importance), and none of the other female Gennin have more than tiny bits of screen time; some don't appear at all except in flashbacks. The only one who actually gets any action is one of the unexpected reinforcements.
The artistic quality of Naruto has always fluctuated a bit and does so sharply through this run. In some places the artistry seems to be trading off refinement and quality control for more elaborate and fluid action, and indeed some of the combat scenes have brief spurts of complicated action, including a greatly improved version of the “flurry of blows” effect so commonly seen in Dragon Ball and its successors. The battles and “moving through terrain” scenes also make a more concerted effort than in most shonen series to give a 3D feels to the setting and animation, although the character/background integration in such scenes is sometimes too loose. To compensate for the animation focus on feature scenes, the series heavily recycles previous footage, thus allowing it to avoid extensive use of panning shots.
The musical score through this section depends almost entirely on its stock pieces, to the point of overusing its more sorrowful melodies. At times these themes can still be quite effective at emphasizing the poignancy, spirit, or thrill of a scene, but like with the artistry, their effectiveness is inconsistent. Neither the opener nor the closers used through this run stand out.
The English dub for Naruto has always been more solid that many fans give it credit for, so for the most part whether it or the original Japanese dub is better is a matter of personal preference. The emotional appeals in English lack nothing here compared to Japanese performances, especially Kate Higgins' appeals to Sasuke and Naruto as Sakura, and some performances show true quality work; Steve Blum's Orochimaru positively seethes with the rotten sliminess inherent in the character. One might quibble a bit about the curious inflection Yuri Lowenthal's Sasuke uses when voicing Naruto's name, and he certainly struggles in the flashback scenes to make Sasuke sound younger, but those are hardly big enough problems to merit grading down the dub. The English script takes some liberties but rarely strays far.
The 29 episodes in the release are spread across six disks with a distribution of 4-5 episodes per disk, with Extras included on the third and sixth disks (i.e. the last disks of the original releases). Those Extras include production art, previews of the next set of disks, and sketch-to-screen transition specials for two select episodes. The interior case design, with all of the disks on hinged flaps, leaves a lot to be desired.
For all its time-wasting design and structure, the drama factor in Naruto can occasionally click with impressive impact, and it does so on a couple of occasions here. While the events of this set leave little room for frivolity, it does have a bit of fun with Rock Lee, so it is not entirely devoid of humor. Some of the battles can impress, putting the overall quality balance on the plus side. Employ the fast forward button to zip through the more wearying aspects of some flashbacks and this can be an enjoyable set.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B
+ Some strong drama, strategic battles, long-awaited face-off doesn't disappoint.
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