Naruto Shippuden
Episode 396

by Amy McNulty,

The chunin exams have finally begun, although two episodes of preamble don't bode well for the number of episodes the exams themselves will take. Still, seeing as Naruto Shippūden isn't getting back to the main storyline anytime soon, the first episode of the actual exams is evidence this filler arc is headed in the right direction.

There are no battles in episode 396. Instead, the focus is on brain benders as the teams of genin are faced with written exams—with a twist. The chunin exams in the original series also involved a written exam, where the objective was to cheat your way to a good score with ninjutsu. Shikamaru is the proctor of this exam's first round. It's an excellent choice on the part of the producers, as it shows Shikamaru doing what he does best: out-thinking everybody else. The objective this time is decidedly more complex.

With only three questions on the exam that all but the dumbest ninja seem able to answer, the test is deceptively easy—but of course, there's more to it than that. Three-man cells are separated into three rooms, and they have to anticipate how their teammates are going to perform on the exam or they'll fail and be forced to wait at least another year for a chance to become chunin. At first, the rules seem needlessly complex, and it's a tad irritating to watch as so many people mull over them, but witnessing each team's diverse efforts to communicate with one another as their limited time ticks down helps build the appropriate amount of tension.

Some teams simply can't cut it, having no ninjutsu or cunning that will give them an advantage and resorting to things like trying to kick down doors and shouting over the other candidates in the hopes their teammates will hear them. Others, like telepathic Ino, have the perfect skills for communicating across distances, while brainier candidates like Sakura and Neji seem to at least have a better grasp of the rules as they consider their options. Watching what each team decides to do as Shikamaru and Temari comment dryly from a surveillance room is surprisingly enjoyable and peppered with just the right amount of humor.

It may not be the most action-oriented episode, but it's the best so far in this anime-original story and it at least offers something a little different than the usual fare. It's almost like Naruto meets Case Closed, minus the dead bodies and shrewd murder plots. The exact events that unfold are new, but they also call to mind the first stage of the last chunin exams, which is great for the nostalgic Naruto fan who's still choked up about the idea of the series ending. (Eventually. Seriously, the next episode preview reveals that this portion of the exam will continue for at least one more week.)

Rating: B

Naruto Shippuden is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Amy is a YA fantasy author who has loved anime for two decades.

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