Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
DVD Box Set 4
Having learned of a spy sent by the Akatsuki to keep tabs on Orochimaru, Tsunade has dispatched Team Kakashi to capture the mole and squeeze him until he leaks intel. Predictably, Orochimaru makes mincemeat of their plan. In the ensuing attack Naruto pushes himself too far and loses himself to Nine-Tails' evil chakra. Only the sustained efforts of his comrades pulls him back, and not without casualties. Under the cover of Nine-Tails' rampage, Saskue's replacement Sai makes a potentially traitorous move, one that allows Naruto, Sakura and Yamato to finally locate Orochimaru's lair. At last the rescue of Sasuke can begin, but troubling doubts remain. Just who is Sai, and what is his objective? And what if Sasuke doesn't want to be rescued?
When you're tasked with rebooting a series that nearly killed itself with filler, filler prevention has to be a high priority. Maybe it's a cruel, hard fact of logistics that the canon material will run out. Maybe, like death and taxes, filler is one of life's inevitabilities. But that doesn't mean that you can't struggle like hell to postpone it for as long as possible.
Looked at that way, Naruto Shippūden's battle to stay on the canon path almost seems kind of noble. If only its effect on the show's quality wasn't so negative. In its desperation to stretch Masashi Kishimoto's plot over as many episodes as it can, the show ends up slowing itself to a crawl that'd make a snail blush. Director Hayato Date breaks out every time-distending cinematic device known to man. If there's a chance to insert a shot of birds taking flight, or debris blowing ominously in the wind, or trees rustling in a breeze, he'll take it. Any pretext to pad out a conversation or a fight with unnecessary reaction shots (to Every. Person. In. The. Room) will do. Every shot is held for a few seconds too long, every pan is a degree too slow. No one speaks unless it is preceded or followed by a thoughtful silence. If an event is mentioned, by god it'll be shown too. And explained, at length. Armed with such a formidable array of time-wasting devices, is it really any surprise that the series can spend an entire episode on a bridge watching Naruto power up? It's Dragon Ball Z all over again.
Admittedly, the ponderous pace fits the serious tone of Shippūden, particularly here as it gathers itself for the long-delayed reunion of Naruto and Sasuke. Bristling with betrayals and studded with emotions like regret and remorse and frustration, with some fear and hate thrown in just for that extra fun factor, this is hardly the breezy entertainment of early Naruto. And the change in style and pace reflects that. The shift from the punky energy of composer Toshio Masuda to the grim chanting of Yasuharu Takanashi, the exchange of dynamic action and flashy editing for long shots and longer takes, the preference for lonely emptiness over colorful crowding: it all serves to emphasize the new graveness of Naruto and his life.
Which would be fine if that was as far as it went. Unfortunately, Date pushes the draggy new style to such extremes that it becomes a detriment to the very things it's supposed to be supporting. Scenes that should crackle with tension, that should land like Mohammed Ali uppercuts, are so bloated with portentous pans, so drunk on their own plodding importance, that they bore rather than thrill. Naruto and Orochimaru rearranging the landscape during a duel; Naruto discovering that three years has not changed Sasuke's self-destructive thirst for revenge. These are BIG scenes. So big that Shippūden actually started with the latter one. These are the scenes that the series' gravitas should most benefit. Yet they haven't even half the impact of, say, the relatively disposable Chunin Exam fight between Rock Lee and Gaara. And we won't even speak of the soporific havoc wreaked on the dark ninja plots, with their interminable explanations during which Naruto and company stand around jawing instead of busting jaws.
Half is better than nothing though. Unlike the Gaara kidnapping, which was both overextended and uninteresting, this arc actually matters, particularly if you're invested in either Naruto or Sasuke, or even Sakura. Remnants though they are, there's excitement to be found in Naruto's monstrous duel with Orochimaru, sadness in Sakura's feelings for Sasuke, tension in Naruto and Sasuke's reunion. Sai's evolution beyond his role as an antagonistic Sasuke replacement fails to similarly involve, but it does improve his standing and opens up intriguing possibilities for future development. The return, however momentary, of Date's adventurous showmanship plays its part in these emotional remnants—the nifty flourishes during Sasuke's grand entrance(s) and the inhuman sound effects and amorphous texture of Naruto-as-Nine-Tails are particularly memorable—but series' successes are more a result of Kishimoto's characters, and to a lesser extent his writing, besting Date's destructive filler-delaying tactics than of any kind of director/source symbiosis.
The importance of the characters in making Shippūden's butt-dragging slowness tolerable places a corresponding burden on the English cast. Luckily, they're up to the challenge. There are moments when characters' voices match the character designs for artificial inexpressiveness, and the preponderance of heavy pauses isn't always kind to the dialogue or the actors (neither benefits from having too much time to think about them). But the strengths nearly always outweigh the weaknesses. Maile Flanagan continues to wig out most excellently as Naruto, Steven Blum inhabits Orochimaru with hammy relish, and if Kate Higgins stumbles during some of Sakura's more intense scenes, it's a forgivable flaw in an otherwise satisfactory performance. True, the dub, with its conservative tendencies, is unlikely to knock anyone's socks off, but then again neither will Naruto Shippūden.
An interactive relationship chart for Orochimaru, Kabuto and Sasuke, along with a featurette on the voice talent made in the form of a quiz (my score: a dismal 60) are the set's two extras of note.
Much is made of "bonds" in these episodes. Emotionless Sai is trying to comprehend what they mean, Naruto and Sakura are trying to preserve theirs with Sasuke, Sasuke is trying to sever them, and everyone talks about them incessantly. For all that talk, though, it isn't the bonds between characters that redeems Shippūden; it's the bonds they've formed with us. Because of our fondness for the show's likeable little stereotypes, because of the maturation they underwent between Naruto and Shippūden and their development since, including here, we want to see what happens to them next. Even if it means grappling with the sluggard of a show that they're in. Naturally, having made that decision, it turns out that the next set will consist of filler. Bring on the taxes and death!
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B
+ A rare all-out fight, a reunion a hundred episodes in the making, and oodles of complications; Sai isn't as awful as he first seemed.
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