Reviewby Carlo Santos,
DVD Set 16
The Hidden Leaf Village, home to ninja hero Naruto Uzumaki, continues to rebuild after a devastating battle. A new Hokage has been appointed to lead them: Danzo, whose strict surveillance tactics are unsettling to say the least. Even worse, Danzo has issued a formal decree to execute Sasuke, Naruto's one-time friend who has long since turned against the village. However, Naruto still hopes to save Sasuke and bring him home. Meanwhile, the Five Kage (leaders) of the ninja nations have gathered to discuss what to do about the Akatsuki organization, who are still a threat to society. Their meeting takes a deadly turn when Sasuke himself—operating under orders from Akatsuki leader Madara Uchiha—launches a direct attack on the Five Kage! Can this ninja alliance hold their own against Sasuke and his band of rogues? And how will Naruto respond?
Praise the Lord Hokage, filler episodes are over! Well, almost over—this set of Naruto Shippuden DVDs runs through four more one-and-done adventures from the past. At least they make some effort to be original: a ghost story unexpectedly becomes a spy thriller, a gag-comedy situation between Sasuke and Naruto turns out stupid yet entertaining, a sneaky rescue mission emphasizes brains over brute force, and only the last filler episode really falls into the standard "protect this person and fight these bandits" template.
Make no mistake, though—the real substance of Naruto is to be found in the next nine episodes. However, getting to the exciting part takes some patience. From bland, nearly-plotless material, we now go to other extreme where there's almost too much story to tell. The rise of Danzo and his chilling effect on the Hidden Leaf Village is one subplot among many; the series also has to explain why the ninjas of the Hidden Cloud are getting involved in the Hidden Leaf's affairs. (It's all Sasuke and the Akatsuki's fault, of course.) Then there's Naruto's personal story arc as he still clings to the hope of rescuing Sasuke, and political tensions as the ninja nations' leaders prepare for the Summit. In short, the next few episodes after the filler seem to move so slowly because of all the ground they have to cover.
Still, there are some bright spots amidst this exposition. Naruto's argument with the Hidden Cloud ninja, where he stubbornly stands up for Sasuke even to the point of humiliation, is a poignantly heroic moment. And when Sakura catches wind of Naruto's intentions, she takes center stage in another tearjerker scene. The emotional pull of comrades looking out for each other always beats simple hot-blooded tales of revenge.
However, hot-blooded revenge does make its way into the story arc eventually—Sasuke and company, who have spent entirely too long zipping through the woods, finally get some real action as they invade the Five Kage Summit. The last few episodes are ninja warfare at its best, with the five nations' best fighters each showing off flashy, innovative modes of attack. Topping them all, though, is Sasuke himself, whose techniques go past "cool" or "awe-inspiring" and enter the realm of downright frightening. The only problem is that, with so many fighters involved, it gets too chaotic trying to keep up with everyone. In a clever reversal, though, there is no heroic finale to end the fight—instead, we get a chilling scene where Madara announces his evil master plan.
With the transition from filler back to a proper story arc, animation quality is all over place in these episodes. On the low end of the scale are the small-fry missions, where blandly designed characters and brief hand-to-hand combat sequences are the order of the day. (At least Naruto and Sasuke's gag-comedy escapade tries to experiment with the art style.) Then there are the mid-level dialogue and travel scenes, where the main characters and backgrounds are drawn in better detail, but flapping mouths and minimal action serve as a convenient time-saving crutch. The real eye candy doesn't come until the later episodes, where Sasuke's faction takes on the Five Kage. These scenes feature colorfully dressed characters, all-out elemental attacks, and special effects galore—and that's even before Sasuke unleashes his personal doomsday weapon. The only letdown during this battle is the dull backdrop: a rocky basement and a utilitarian meeting hall.
The contrast between filler episodes and main storyline is even more pronounced in the soundtrack, as the music suddenly shifts from repetitive pop fluff to much darker tones. In the later episodes, low strings and ominous choral voices dominate, reminding us how serious Sasuke and Madara are about their nefarious goals. But the soundtrack isn't entirely doom-and-gloom—scenes of friendship are scored in a lighter, more poignant manner, while battles are accompanied (as usual) by heavy drumming and rock guitars.
Because of the story development in these episodes, the voice actors have to cover a wide range of emotions—a challenge that is successfully met in the English dub. Vocal performances are consistent and confident throughout each episode, whether the script involves personal introspection, screaming out a battle cry, or making a comedic outburst. Even the rapping ninja Killer Bee, who makes a brief appearance, strikes the right balance between being a rhyming jokester and a serious-minded warrior. Aside from the language options, though, these DVDs are sparse on bonus content—some storyboard sketches and production art, along with clean opening and ending clips, are all that's offered in the way of extras.
After a regrettable run of filler episodes, Naruto Shippuden acquits itself nicely in this volume, returning to the main storyline and delivering both plot and action. Yes, there are still some inconsequential adventures in this set, but it's a manageable number—and what follows next is a satisfying chunk of story. Various ninja factions are on the move, our hero and his nemesis set out on brand-new quests, and it all culminates in a multi-episode melee involving some of the top fighters in the ninja world. And if this is only the start of the next great Naruto adventure, just imagine what could happen next.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ The main storyline gets moving again, with devious motives and multiple subplots leading up to a thrilling, no-holds-barred battle.
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