Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Uncut DVD Box Set 10
Orochimaru's rascally underlings have absconded with Sasuke, attempting to ferry him off to the Sound Village with Naruto and a team of crack Genin recruits hot on their tail. As Shikamaru, Kiba, and Rock Lee occupy Orochimaru's errand boys, Naruto trails after Sasuke, newly hatched from Orochimaru's superpower-granting coffin. While his comrades end their desperate battles with a little help from an unexpected quarter, Naruto tries to convince an obstinate Sasuke to return to his home village. Sasuke replies by wasting entire episodes exploring his dark, dank past before trying quite earnestly to kill Naruto off.
Imagine yourself as a blushing Shonen Jump bride. You've been courting Naruto for a Victorianly appropriate period, from the first clumsy overtures to the seductive whispers of untold fulfillment in the latest handful of story arcs. “The best is yet to come,” they breathe in your ear. “The rivalry between Naruto and Sasuke is about to explode,” they husk. In the ninth box set, when Sasuke leaves the village, the engagement is set. Things progress nicely, if predictably, through the preparations for the big day. Big, life-threatening fights revolving around long-term characters set the tone, and after much ceremonial hullabaloo the long-promised moment finally arrives. And there you are, the blushing bride, waiting to be swept away, only to have the show suffer a debilitating performance malfunction at the worst possible moment.
Which gives you a rough idea of how deflating a let-down the infuriating, clumsily-structured Naruto/Sasuke fight is. The set starts out quite well, riding high on the energy of the three-way battle that closed out the last set. Shikamaru's showdown is a clever battle of wits, Kiba's is a dirty, desperate struggle to live, and Rock Lee's is pure kung-fu bliss (complete with a healthy helping of drunken-boxing goodness). There's a lot in the first half that is genuinely exciting and even touching, however, it's all merely a prelude to the inevitable mano-a-mano with Sasuke, at which point the series promptly falls apart under the weight of its own ambitions.
An earnest but seriously ham-fisted desire to fashion something deep and serious from the climactic battle soon transforms what should have been an exhilarating whirl of action and high emotion into a patience-testing, time-distending showdown that recalls the worst excesses of Dragonball Z. The tedious speechifying alone (distilled: Naruto: “Come back with me.” Sasuke: “No!”) would be enough to slow the fight to an irritating crawl, but the series goes the extra step of using the fight to repeatedly bookend a series of long Sasuke-fleshing flashbacks. Sasuke has been in need of development, but couldn't they have done that before they built a ginormous climax around him? We didn't make it this far to be force-fed more bleak back-story, we came to watch Naruto and Sasuke beat the ninja stuffing out of each other.
After hours of frustrating stop-and-go (mostly stop) action, the series does salvage an episode-long fight from the mess, and even throws in a follow-up episode for good measure, giving the characters time to clean up all that ninja stuffing—but only after so many false starts, meandering flashbacks, and male-bonding interludes that it seems small recompense for all the hair we tore out getting there.
That isn't to disparage the execution of the fight. Though it does make one yearn for the clean choreography of Rock Lee's straightforward martial-arts, there's no denying the impressiveness of the Sasuke fight's visuals. Naruto clones explode from a lake like ninja-shaped surface-to-air missiles and glowing energy limbs ambush enemies from underground and cling to rock faces like neon prehensile tails. Pint-sized ninjas leap over water, bounce off cliffs, and fight atop floating logs. The animators put all the love they could into the fight, and it shows, in spite of the artistic details that are sacrificed in favor of fluid movement. If only they had put half as much effort into structuring the fight—though in a manner of speaking their decision to water it down did succeed: by the end of the fight it isn't Sasuke that you want to spank, it's the series' creators.
Toshio Masuda's guitar-metal-meets-traditional-music score hasn't substantially changed since the series' inception, but as Hayato Date's direction loses all subtlety going into the Sasuke fight, so too does his deployment of Masuda's score. It's still a blast to listen too, but here it is more a blunt instrument than an effective support. A new hard-rocking punk-pop opener heralds the coming of the Sasuke fight, while the new closer is an unremarkable ballad that represents one of the series' few outright opener/closer mistakes.
After this length of time, there's little new to be said about Viz's dub. The cast handles the heavy stuff with what grace they can muster, the adaptation is lively, and Brian Donovan's humorous handling of Rock Lee's Drunken Fist fight (far and away this set's highlight) is but the latest demonstration of the series' dead-on casting.
Some production art and storyboard-to-film comparisons are this box set's only extras of note.
As with any relationship gone sour, in hindsight the signs that all was not well with Naruto are obvious. The three battles that begin the volume end in cop-outs, the series consistently forgets that its leads are supposed to be tweens, and the fact that the conflicted, complicated Shikamaru snakes the set's most affecting moment out from under Naruto—despite all his angst-mongering—is merely the latest of many indications that Naruto's one-note personality is beginning to wear thin. This set does leave the series in an interesting place, but as any fan of the franchise knows, it will be a long, long time before anything comes of it: after the botched honeymoon comes an eighty-episode marriage to flabby filler.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B
+ Three opening showdowns featuring an eclectic mix of fighting styles and initially uncertain outcomes.
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