Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
There, in the forest, quietly approaching Konoha Village...is it a bird, a plane? No, it's Naruto Uzumaki, newly returned from two years in training! Two years under the tutelage of legendary ninja Jiraiya have strengthened the mischievous young ninja, but he soon finds that his friends back home, specifically Sakura, haven't exactly been sitting on their butts either. As a test of his and Sakura's newfound abilities, the two ninja are told to face off against their old teacher Kakashi. The resultant melee proves beyond a doubt that both are ready to move on to bigger and better things. Elsewhere, two members of Akatsuki—the organization that once tried kidnapping Naruto—pay a visit to new Kazekage Gaara, with predictably violent results.
When plans for Naruto Shippūden were announced, Naruto fans the world over wept with joy. Or at least relief. The last leg of the first Naruto series was perhaps the most infamous stretch of filler ever, a soul-crushing procession of lame ninja missions that could not have been worse had it been designed specifically to kill the ardor of the devoted. The dismay of fans as the filler stretched ever further, first twenty then forty then eighty episodes, was devastating. The onset of Shippūden and its promise of canon goodness acted upon the disapponted as sight of a ship on starving castaways. That the ship turned out to be a chugging freighter rather than a sleek ocean liner hardly mattered.
Of course, once the prospect of spending money on DVDs rears its ugly head, it starts to matter rather more. As well it should. Naruto may have escaped the filler mire, but it did not do so unscathed. It comes out the other side moving in slow motion, as if afraid that a reasonable pace will chew through Masashi Kishimoto's manga too quickly, leaving it no recourse but to re-enter the mire. These four episodes include exactly one important event: the opening gambit in the Akatsuki's newest plan. The rest is an epic waste of a perfect chance for revivication as the series draws out a demonstration of Naruto and Sakura's newfound powers to excruciating lengths, dwells interminably on the pointless reflections of a variety of characters, and fiddles around with equally pointless flashbacks. It's certainly nice to see Gaara back in action and as bad as ever, but even his battle is less a thrill ride than a test of patience (and it's only beginning).
Shippūden also exited the mire with its sense of humor severely impacted, though that is less the fault of the mire than of the deadly serious turn that the series took previous to it. Regardless of ultimate cause though, the result is the same: a series with a neutered fun factor. After a few decent opening gags, the show exudes gloom. Even when it shoots for light, it somehow unerringly hits heavy. Coupled with the creeping pace, the absence of the show's trademark off-color humor renders these four episodes positively dreary. Compared to the mixture of belly-laughing silliness and ninja intensity Naruto sported at its peak, this is a poor showing, particularly for a series that purports to be a return to that peak.
Even the skills of director Hayato Date and his Studio Pierrot cohorts are dampened by the lumbering beast that the series seems to have become. Though their eye for cool is as instinctive as ever and their well-timed bursts of CG showboating and canny editing are in full evidence, none of that can work at full potential when the fights are so drawn out and tiresomely intercut that they lose all tension and forward motion. The visuals lack that spark, that energy that gives even budget-animated series a sense of quality. The show looks good, and Naruto's new threads are pretty neat, but it somehow feels cheaper, or at least lazier, than before.
One guy who isn't getting lazy is Yasuharu Takanashi. And no wonder; he was brought on to replace the estimable Toshio Masuda, so he didn't make the final slog. And perhaps as a result (but probably not) his odd but appropriate mix of baroque organs and straight-up guitar rock can stand tall even next to Masuda's excellent score. It is largely thanks to it (and, to an extent, Date and the remnants of his action timing) that the Gaara fight attains its handful of "hey, cool!" moments.
Another group of folks unfazed by the filler torture they just endured is the English cast. If anything they seem rejuvenated. The dub they turn out is enthusiastic, elastic and yet wholly accurate and remarkably respectful. Maile Flanagan deepens her register but otherwise keeps Naruto sounding spunky and good natured, and the rest of the cast, from bit parts like Konohamaru right up to Sasuke and Sakura, sounds great. They even do the series a service by playing things a little lighter and toning down the "Naruto, you've grown so manly!" garbage that mars the original dialogue.
This volume isn't a complete wash. At the very least it gets the ball moving again, returning to the machinations of the Akatsuki and pushing its characters up a couple of levels power-wise. And the Gaara fight does have its moments. Well, moment, really. And only at the end (the very end) of the volume. But still, it's no entertainment holocaust. It is, however, quite obviously aimed not at gaining a new audience but at pleasing its old one, the audience that feels a little thrill of vicarious pride when Naruto, Sakura or Gaara demonstrates (albeit slowly) just how awesome they've gotten in the interval between series. If that isn't you, save your money and your time.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B
+ Gaara fight can be cool; no miracle curry or bug-hunting missions.
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