Naruto Unleashed: Series 4 Part 1
Where would we be without the cliffhanger? Modern entertainment relies more than ever on this particular plot device, and the idea of a neat, conclusive ending seems to be a thing of the past. The mantra in entertainment is to always leave them wanting more. And to be fair it works. "Who Shot J.R?" became a phenomenon bigger than the show that originated it, people were asking the question who had never even seen Dallas, and it pushed the show's popularity into the stratosphere. Even in this Internet driven, spoilerific age, you can't discount the power of a good cliffhanger, as the climax of the most recent series of Doctor Who demonstrated. Similarly, Naruto thrives on its cliffhangers, leaving storylines hanging over season hiatuses, keeping up the momentum of fan interest. Last year, we would have been waiting six months to find out what happened next, something that would have been intolerable given the poised situation at the end of the third series. Fortunately this year, Manga Entertainment have put the pedal to the metal for Naruto, and the pace of releases has sped up considerably. I won't even have to sue them for hair loss.
12 years previously, the Hidden Leaf village was plagued by the Nine-Tailed fox demon. The Fourth Hokage ninja sacrificed his life to defeat the menace, and sealed up the spirit in the body of a newborn child. That orphan grew up as Naruto Uzumaki, a mischievous prankster with great ambition. Not only does he want to be a ninja, but he also wants to be the strongest ninja of them all and be granted the title Hokage. He has more than a little competition, the Hidden Leaf village is a community of ninja, and Naruto had great difficulty just passing his entrance exams to qualify as a lowly Genin. Even when he did manage to get his certification, he was assigned to undergo training by the demanding Kakashi, partnered with his rival Sasuke and Sakura, the girl on whom he has a crush. What makes things difficult is that few see him as Naruto, instead of the dreadful fox demon that was sealed inside him.
It was a trap! Under the cover of the Chunin exam, Orochimaru's Sound Ninjas, and the ninjas from the Sand Village put into motion their nefarious plan to destroy the Hidden Leaf Village. Now, while the village is in disarray, the defenders move into action to keep the attackers busy long enough for the non-combatants to evacuate. The Third Hokage is locked in mortal combat with Orochimaru, and while Sasuke is overwhelmed by the curse mark, Sakura is held in a grip of sand, and Naruto faces off against Gaara, in a battle from which there can be no backing down.
The first thirteen episodes of the fourth season are presented here across three discs.
79. Beyond the Limit of Darkness and Light
80. The Third Hokage, Forever…
81. Return of the Morning Mist
82. Eye to Eye: Sharingan vs. Sharingan!
83. Jiraiya: Naruto's Potential Disaster
84. Roar Chidori! Brother vs. Brother!
85. Hate Among The Uchihas: The Last of the Clan!
86. A New Training Begins: I Will Be Strong
87. Keep On Training: Pop Goes The Water Balloon!
88. Focal Point: The Mark of the Leaf
89. An Impossible Choice: The Pain Within Tsunade's Heart
90. Unforgivable! A Total Lack of Respect!
91. Inheritance! The Necklace Of Death!
Naruto gets a 4:3 regular transfer that is clear and sharp throughout. There are some minor compression artefacts that are only really noticeable during freeze frame. As you would expect from such a long running animation, it's best not to tire the animators out too early. Naruto is certainly less sophisticated than most anime released today, the character designs are simpler, and backgrounds not excessively defined. Yet in terms of quality, the animation is very effective, and certainly goes a step beyond older long running shows like Dragonball Z or Sailor Moon.
The DD 2.0 English and Japanese stereo is more than adequate in recreating the original experience, and given a little Prologic magic does offer a pleasant ambience and some discrete action. A new season offers some new theme tunes, and as always they are memorable and suit the story well, while the incidental music is a little more generic, but definitely gives Naruto its own musical identity. I sampled the English dub and found it acceptable if unspectacular. It certainly isn't the worst I have heard, but some of the actors don't seem particularly suited to the characters. Translated subtitles are provided, as they should be.
Alas there are a couple of glitches this time around. 50:20 into disc 2, the Japanese soundtrack drops out for a beat, while at 11:23 into disc 3, there is a brief audio-visual glitch on both soundtracks.
No variation in menus yet. The trailers include Origin, Buso Renkin, Death Note, Bleach, Naruto, Naruto the Movie, Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and Ghost In The Shell: Solid State Society.
You have to hand it to Naruto, 90 episodes in and I'm still interested. It's still your standard shonen action show, tournaments, combat and plenty of believing in one's dreams and self-improvement, all par for the course. Yet Naruto has an indefinable something that keeps me coming back for more. It's pretty impressive given that its edgier stable-mate Bleach has started to wane in my estimation after just 20 episodes. The cliffhangers are all resolved pretty quickly this time around, as the Chunin Exam arc concludes over the first two episodes of the set. But the show doesn't rest on its laurels at all, as it jumps straight into another story arc that promises to be even more exciting and high stakes than the previous one.
While Naruto is the main character of the show, and the story follows his trials and tribulations as he pursues his dreams to become Hokage, much of the narrative focus of the show revolves around his teammate Sasuke. When he began his training with Kakashi all those episodes ago, he ominously announced that he was looking to become a ninja because he had someone to kill. It quickly became apparent that he was the last of his clan, possessor of the Sharingan Eye ninja talent, and as such wound up as the focus of much outside interest, not least that of Orochimaru. He placed a curse mark on Sasuke to awaken his darker nature, and pursued him as part of his greater plan to attack the Hidden Leaf Village.
In this set of episodes we finally learn just what has been driving Sasuke so powerfully, as we meet the object of his vengeance, renegade ninja and his estranged brother Itachi. Itachi was a prodigy, developing and excelling at his skills at an early age, and of course Sasuke idolised him. But there was a dark side to Itachi propelling him onward, and when Sasuke came home from school one day to find his entire clan slaughtered, with Itachi standing over the bodies of their parents, he swore revenge from that moment on. Itachi left him alive as he simply wasn't worth killing, and Sasuke vowed to make him regret that, but now in this volume Itachi returns and Sasuke has his opportunity. It turns out that Orochimaru had left a rogue ninja organisation called Akatsuki, the Seven Ninja Swordsmen of the Mist, a group looking for world domination, and it's this group to which Itachi now belongs. In the aftermath of the battle, he and his ally Kisame Hoshigaki enter the Hidden Leaf Village looking for ultimate power. That ultimate power resides in Naruto Uzumaki, the power of the Nine Tailed Demon Fox, and immediately the stakes are raised for our young orange clad hero.
Naruto at this point is continuing his training with Jiraiya, the pervy sage who taught him how to summon the giant toad, and Jiraiya aware of Akatsuki is trying to keep Naruto out of harm's way long enough to train him up. But first Kakashi gets in the way of Itachi, and then Sasuke has his long awaited confrontation with his hated brother. Itachi though has developed his skills with the Sharingan to the point where he can leave his opponents in a world of torment, and Kakashi and Sasuke wind up seriously injured. Jiraiya and Naruto are given the mission of finding Tsunade, the third of the legendary Sannin, after Orochimaru and Jiraiya, as she has the skills to heal Kakashi and Sasuke. There is also another, spoilerific reason why they seek her, but that is outside the purview of this review. While Jiraiya teaches Naruto a new technique, which previously only he and the fourth Hokage had mastered, he explains about Tsunade's strength and ability, and why she should be respected and feared. However, Tsunade has her own demons to face after a double tragedy in her personal life. She has apparently renounced her calling, and spends her time getting drunk, gambling, and avoiding irate creditors. When they finally meet, Naruto isn't impressed with what he sees, while Tsunade is strongly reminded of those she once cared about and lost, who like Naruto had once dreamed of being Hokage.
At the same time, Orochimaru, who barely escaped the confrontation with the Third Hokage with his life, is now nursing his wounds. He can't heal them himself, and his powers have essentially been sealed away. The only person skilled enough to heal him, and let him continue his nefarious plans is Tsunade. You'd think that she wouldn't be willing, but he offers to resurrect her lost loved one with a forbidden jutsu, leaving her torn and tormented.
You'd think that this volume would be hard-pressed to keep up the pace and energy following the Chunin Exam arc, and you'd be right. But I enjoyed this volume even more, as putting aside the constant combat and tournament action, it gets back to characters, story and comedy. All of the characters, Sasuke, Orochimaru, Tsunade and Jiraiya get copious character development here, most of all Sasuke as we finally get to see the horrific events that have been driving him this far. The show also ups the stakes, as we meet series villains who make the Chunin villains seem like amateurs. Itachi and his comrade are in a whole different level, they put Kakashi out for the count, and given all the skills that Sasuke has developed and displayed so far, he's dealt with, with embarrassing ease. The implication is made that Orochimaru left this group because they were too nasty, even for him, and rather than just the one opponent, it's a group of seven, similarly levelled-up ninja. Tsunade is going to play a great part in the episodes yet to come, although I can't tell you why in this review, so a lot of focus is given to her. She's a fifty-year-old veteran ninja, a contemporary of Orochimaru and Jiraiya, who uses her abilities to maintain a young appearance, running from her past, hiding from it in drink and foolhardy gambling. But when first Orochimaru, and then Jiraiya and Naruto show up, she's reminded of that past, and left with a choice of what it means for her. She's a fun and interesting character who looks to be wonderfully abrasive when it comes to Naruto.
The seriousness of the Chunin Exam arc got a little overwhelming there at the end, so it's a relief to see some of Naruto's light-heartedness return. Naruto and Jiraiya's journey to find Tsunade is an opportunity for laughs, as Naruto is desperate to learn a Hokage level skill, while Jiraiya is intent on womanising, drinking and partying his way to where Tsunade is hiding.
I find Naruto to be at its best when it balances the light and the dark as it does here, and with the story getting even more interesting and ominous, this is probably as good as the show has ever been. The package is marred by a couple of glitches (hopefully confined to my review discs), but the episodes are great entertainment, and for Naruto, refreshingly free of filler and flashbacks. Excellent stuff!