Naruto Shippuden
Episode 444

by Amy McNulty,

How would you rate episode 444 of
Naruto Shippūden ?

After a two-week break, Naruto Shippuden returns with the same middling mediocrity we've all come to expect. All things considered, episode 444 is among the better entries in the Jiraiya's Ninja Scrolls saga, but if you're sick to death of this tepid re-imagining, this week's installment isn't going to change your mind. Better-than-usual visuals and a few middle-of-the-road action sequences set this latest outing apart from the last few, but I'm not sure anything can salvage the current arc at this point.

After knocking out the village guards and fleeing the Hidden Leaf, Sasuke is approached by Kakashi, who pleads with him to reconsider his decision to train under Orochimaru. Predictably, Sasuke responds to his sensei's impassioned pleas by casting a powerful genjutsu and burning Kakashi to cinders. (Since this is an illusion, Kakashi only thinks this is what's happening.) I have a hard time believing that the famous Copy Ninja is weak enough to effortlessly be taken down by pre-Taka Sasuke, but this is the same version of the character that was instantly captured by the reanimated corpse of Hizashi Hyuga a couple months ago, so why not? Upon being transported to the Leaf's hospital, Kakashi briefs Minato and Sarutobi on his wayward pupil's plan, prompting the Fourth to issue a village-wide lockdown. (Why?) However, while making her rounds, Sakura overhears Kakashi's tale and assembles the remnants of the Hidden Leaf Twelve. In a rehash of the Sasuke Retrieval Arc, Naruto and Shikamaru decide to defy the lockdown and go after their friend. To avoid suspicion, the rest of the kids decide to stay behind.

Unbeknownst to our heroes, Danzo caught wind of their plan and is intent on making sure that his “gift” to Orochimaru is delivered at all costs. This prompts him to send four Foundation ANBU to intercept Naruto and Shikamaru before they can reach Sasuke. Their faces are obscured by animal masks, but Anko, Sai, and Yugao appear to be among this group's ranks. Just as Danzo's cronies begin their assault, Lee, Neji, and Tenten come to their friends' aid. This confrontation gives way to a couple of mildly entertaining skirmishes, but there's really nothing we haven't seen before. Naruto actually spends the bulk of this battle holding back a dagger that Anko(?) is attempting to plunge into his belly. At one point, Shikamaru even asks his spiky-haired comrade if he's okay. Was he actually expecting a reply? (“I'm great, thanks. If it's not too much trouble, you think you could save me from certain death?!”)

The parallels to the famous Sasuke Retrieval Arc are heavily apparent this week, quickly turning the episode into a game of spot-the-differences. First off, Sasuke has a far less believable reason for leaving the village. Apparently, having a Hank Hill-esque father is just as bad as everyone you care about being brutally murdered. Secondly, the featured players are older and more powerful than they were in the arc that's being rehashed, so it's strange that so many of them sit this adventure out. (Twelve-year-old Sakura stayed behind because she knew she was too weak to help, whereas this version of her is considerably stronger after training under Tsunade.)

This week's Naruto Shippūden serves as proof that absence does not always make the heart grow fonder. While I'm glad to be rid of the weekly reminders that we're watching a manuscript-within-a-dream, the story's core problems remain more prevalent than ever. Less than ten episodes of manga-inspired material were produced in 2015, and I can't shake the feeling that copious amounts of filler have become Naruto Shippuden's “new normal.”

Rating: C-

Naruto Shippūden is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

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

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