Reviewby Carlo Santos,
DVD Box Set 13
Naruto Uzumaki is striving to be a great ninja, but he's also a wanted man—wanted by the Akatsuki organization, who seek to control the powerful spirit lurking inside him. The Akatsuki's latest strategy involves sending out Pain, a collective of six villains whose shared mind and multiple techniques make them near-invincible. But Naruto is also studying a new skill: Sage Jutsu, the signature technique of his late mentor Jiraiya. However, while Naruto is away training on a distant mountain, the six Pains launch their attack on his hometown, the Hidden Leaf Village! Now, it's up to the other shinobi of the Hidden Leaf to fend off Pain while others try to contact Naruto. Having gained the ability to activate "Sage Mode," Naruto now has the power to defeat the agents of Pain. But by entering the battle, he may also be playing right into the enemy's hands...
In this set of thirteen Naruto Shippūden episodes, the hero finds himself honing a brand-new ability and putting it to use. Meanwhile, the villains are on the move, with six deadly warriors leading the way. And it all comes to a head in Naruto's hometown, meaning that everything he holds dear—places, people, and memories—will be at stake. This is a story arc with a very clear sense of purpose, charging towards the inevitable goal where Naruto and Pain meet on the battlefield. So why, then, does it feel like it's taking so long to get there? Why does this plot take so many detours when there's really only one thing fans want to see?
The first few episodes center on Naruto's training, explaining the "ninja physics" of Sage Jutsu and why it will take him to the next level. But already, distractions start to emerge: the events of this story arc can't even be set in motion until Naruto and company solve a puzzle left behind by Jiraiya. Once Naruto does start his training, it then turns out that this is not the most exciting story material—the trick to Sage Jutsu involves sitting still, which is hardly exciting to watch. Granted, seeing Naruto fail to sit still is pretty funny, but otherwise, the only real action takes place with minor subplots (so that's what Sasuke's been up to!) that have little relevance to the main story.
Thankfully, the assault on the Hidden Leaf Village occurs within the first disc of this set, promising that there is a major battle coming up and Naruto won't be just sitting and meditating his way through an entire arc. With ninja society being as complicated as it is, however, this also means a intermediate phase where practically everyone but Naruto steps into the fight. On the plus side, this results in some great highlights—Kakashi's duel against Pain is the most memorable, with its panoply of jutsu styles and a hard-hitting, emotional finale. Just as thrilling is seeing village leader Tsunade serve as the anchor of the entire operation, taking care of healing, scouting, and administration. However, there are other sub-stories that could have been cut out: for example, an entire episode is devoted to bratty young Konohamaru, who basically delivers one awesome move and then is never seen again. And how many times do we have to see squads of no-name ninjas being cut down by the various Pains?
Eventually, this overly-padded mess does come to an end: Naruto finally shows up for battle, just as the Hidden Leaf Village meets a terrible fate. It's hard to imagine a time that anyone would think, "Less plot, more action," but this is it—the buildup of the last several episodes finally pays off as elite villains come face to face with an elite ninja. Naruto's Sage Mode lives up to all the hype, and as a bonus, the last two episodes also contain some great drama: Naruto's intense philosophical argument with Pain, and a gripping, heart-wrenching episode as Hinata steps in to protect Naruto out of love.
The last few episodes also succeed due to great visual presentation. Naruto and his opponents' fighting maneuvers are a feast for both the eyes and mind, as speed and power are coupled with clever tactics. How does a ninja fight using a technique that requires him to sit still? How can multiple villains with shared minds be defeated individually? The many creative answers are all in here. But the series' visual highlights aren't just limited to the choreography of the main characters in battle (which would also include Kakashi, by the way). When Naruto goes to Mount Myoboku to train, he enters a technicolor world of talking toads and wild landscapes—basically an excuse for the animation staff to go all out. Of course, trying to illustrate the complex layout of a ninja village is its own artistic challenge; one of the striking images left behind by this story arc is the amount of collateral damage caused by Pain. By the time Naruto arrives, though, the backgrounds end up being simplified to the dreaded "rocky barren landscape" (but for a very good reason). It may seem like a cheap trick, but it also helps place the focus squarely on the characters.
With outlandish ninja moves and a clash of wills taking center stage, background music is often left as an afterthought—and indeed, the churning electric guitars and power drumming during fights is as generic as they come. The early and middle episodes, where the action isn't as frenzied, at least shows some variety with traditional instruments and melodies sometimes setting the tone. The only times the music really steps up to capture the intensity of a scene is during Kakashi's and Hinata's big starring moments—and those only last a few of minutes each. Energetic, hummable theme songs round out each episode, although sometimes their cheery nature belies the serious content within.
Considering that the episode count is now in the hundreds, it should be no surprise that the voice actors on the English dub have become true veterans in their roles. Aside from a couple of shaky minor-character performances, everyone sounds confident and consistent in bringing out their character's voice. The dub script also remains a fairly accurate adaptation—over thirteen episodes, there are just a couple of lines where the meaning is significantly changed (and one other where the line is not spoken at all). Even so, these changes have minimal impact on the overall story.
Good things come to those who wait, and the episodes in this portion of Naruto Shippūden are proof of that. Naruto heads off to train, while his hometown is attacked by Pain, yet the marquee matchup between these two big names doesn't happen until the undercard fighters have had their time in the ring. Some of the minor battles are worth their while—most notably Kakashi's showdown—but otherwise, this story arc is held back from greatness because of too many little distractions. Creative tactics and flashy battle moves make Naruto and Pain's battle a memorable one, but getting there is more of a struggle than it should be.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : C
+ Builds up to a stunning, must-see battle in the later episodes, with purposeful storytelling and dramatic highlights along the way.
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