Naruto Shippuden
Episode 451

by Amy McNulty,

How would you rate episode 451 of
Naruto Shippūden ?

As far as filler material goes, Jiraiya's Ninja Scrolls set the bar pretty low thanks to hackneyed narratives, wildly inconsistent artwork and animation, and instances of characters saying and doing things that don't mesh with their established personalities. Anything that came after was bound to be better by comparison. Fortunately, the first episode of Itachi's Story isn't just good by filler standards, it's also a solid piece of Naruto storytelling.

After putting the main story on the backburner for half a year, the producers decide to throw us a bone and show us what's happening in the “real” world. With the exception of Team 7 and a handful of reanimated corpses, every living being on the planet has been enveloped by the Infinite Tsukuyomi. In an attempt to lighten the mood, the audience is given brief glimpses into the respective dream worlds of the show's most prominent supporting players. Unlike the other dream worlds we've explored in recent months, many of these were actually featured in the manga. They're funny, creative, and make for some of the highlights of the episode. Lee defeating Naruto and Neji in one fell swoop, Kiba becoming Hokage, and Sai and Sasuke competing for Ino's affections are some of the best moments. Unlike Tenten's and Karin's dream worlds, the worlds showcased in this installment were perfectly suited to each character's personality. If only filler material could have been based on these glimpses instead.

Thanks to the barrier created by Sasuke's Susano'o, Team 7 remains unaffected by the Infinite Tsukuyomi. When Sasuke points out that this technique draws its power from moonlight, the group decides to wait until the night fades to launch their counterattack. For some reason, this prompts Sasuke to flash back to the time he received his older brother's memories, creating a segue to our latest trip to the past.

In what's become the norm, the segments based in the current timeline function as glorified bookends for the anime-original content. Episode 451 continues hot off the heels of events that took place six months ago, as if the audience is going to be invested in the progression of the story despite the long hiatus. In some respects, a return to the manga's plotline is unnecessary right now. If we're going to get more material that has no real bearing on the plot, no one would have batted an eye if they just threw us into Itachi's Story without the awkward segue. Instead, we get another small piece of a giant continuity puzzle we're supposed to keep fresh in our minds over the course of many months.

Itachi's Story opens during the closing days of the Third Great Shinobi War. As a battalion of Hidden Leaf ninja take on a large group of Hidden Stone shinobi, a young Uchiha Itachi watches from a safe distance. Once the bloodbath is over, Itachi attempts to provide aid to a wounded Stone shinobi, only to have the man try to kill him. Itachi reacts immediately, coldly taking out the man who he had just shown kindness to with one blow. His father Fugaku (who's gotten a lot of screen time lately) explains that wars are built around “strangers killing each other meaninglessly,” causing Itachi to question the value of human life. He continues to ponder the subjects of life and death after encountering Orochimaru at a post-war memorial service for the fallen. According to the snake-like villain, life has no meaning unless it's eternal. Taking Orochimaru's words to heart, Itachi throws himself off a cliff with the possible intent of killing himself. However, after hearing the caw of a nearby crow, the young boy comes to his senses and digs his kunai into the side of the cliff in order to slow the speed at which he's falling.

The cliff-falling sequence is fluidly animated and very well choreographed. The staff was clearly determined to start this mini-series off right, and visually, this scene was almost feature film-caliber. Last week's episode also benefited from an animation bump, but it lacked any semblance of substance. Now that we have a story that we can become emotionally invested in, the above-average visuals and extra-fluid movement are being put to good use.

Several months later, Itachi's mother Mikoto gives birth to Sasuke. Upon seeing how elated his parents are by the birth of his brother, Itachi appears to envy Sasuke for his innocence and ignorance of the shinobi world's true nature. Despite being ostracized by his peers, Itachi maintains a pleasant demeanor at home and quickly takes to the role of dutiful big brother. The episode ends with Itachi cradling Sasuke in his arms and feeling an ominous wind blow through the village as Uchiha Obito prepares to release the Nine Tails, thus setting the events of the series into motion.

Even as a child, Itachi demonstrates he has an analytical mind not easily swayed by emotions. That isn't to say he's not empathetic—in fact, he seems to have a kind heart. However, he's mature beyond his years, and knowing he's been this way his whole life helps explain why he eventually carries out the Leaf's request to slaughter his entire clan.

It may be that I'm suffering from an acute case of Ninja Scrolls fatigue, but I found the first chapter of Itachi's Story to be genuinely enjoyable. Although the brief return to the current timeline is superfluous, it was nice to check in with Team 7 after months of being stuck with their dream world contemporaries. So far, Itachi's Story has accomplished what all anime-original content should set out to do: expertly utilize existing characters and settings to expand the parent series' mythology.

Rating: B+

Naruto Shippūden is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

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

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