Naruto Unleashed: Series 5 Part 1
If there has been a staple of the anime scene in the UK over the past few years, it's been Naruto. I first encountered the bright orange ninja back in the summer of 2006, and as certain as the coming of the seasons, Manga Entertainment have been releasing boxset upon boxset of shinobi shenanigans. It comes as a certain comfort, that cities may fall and oceans may rise, but there will be another instalment on shop shelves every few months. But of late, something has changed in the world of Naruto, the releases have sped up, and we almost have more Naruto than we know what to do with. It all boils down to filler, the point where the anime creators run out of original material to adapt and start making stuff up to fill the schedule, none of it as good as the actual manga. In Japan, when the Naruto filler got too much to bear, and when there was finally sufficient new manga to adapt, the studio drew a discrete line under the show, and Naruto was reinvented as Naruto: Shippuden, moving the story ahead in time and adhering once more to the original manga storyline. We've almost come to that point in the anime where filler starts to dominate, and it's all downhill from there. But next summer, Manga Entertainment aim to begin releasing the follow up Naruto: Shippuden in the UK. That means that there are some eighty episodes of original series filler to get through first, and season 6 of Naruto is where it begins in earnest. Prepare for a Naruto deluge over the next eight or so months, and take pleasure in anticipating where the shark gets jumped. As if the mission to unmask Kakashi in the previous volume wasn't bad enough, I've read worrying Internet rumours about Tony the Tiger. But first, we have a major storyline climax to navigate, probably the high point of the series, and that moment that all fans have been waiting for. Just like the X-Files, Season 5 is probably as good as Naruto is going to get, so savour it.
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.
So where were we? Training, Zabuza… Chunin exam done with… 3rd Hokage croaked… Orochimaru temporarily defeated… Jiraiya taking Naruto under his wing, teaching him the Rasengan while looking for Tsunade to be the 5th Hokage… Akatsuki (including Itachi brother of Sasuke Uchiha) want Naruto for nefarious purposes… fateful reunion between brothers, Sasuke shook up and hospitalised. Ah, the mission to the Land of Tea! That's where we were. When last we left our heroes, they had reunited and were re-establishing the Hidden Leaf Village's reputation by taking on a tough mission to help an underdog win a race. That dispensed with, it's down to the real meat of the disc, as Sasuke faces his Anakin Skywalker moment, when his desire to gain revenge over his hated brother leads him to turn on his friends. It's the moment that Orochimaru has been waiting for, as his ideal disciple will choose to come to him. But it isn't something that Naruto will allow, and he swears to Sakura that he will get Sasuke back to the Hidden Leaf Village or die trying. Watch, as former firm friends become bitter foes…
The first thirteen episodes of the fifth season are presented here across three discs.
105. A Fierce Battle Of Rolling Thunder!
106. The Last Leg - A Final Act Of Desperation
107. The Battle Begins: Naruto Versus Sasuke
108. Bitter Rivals And Broken Bonds
109. An Invitation From The Sound
110. Formation! The Sasuke Retrieval Squad!
111. Sound vs. Leaf
112. Squad Mutiny: Everything Falls Apart!
113. Full Throttle Power! Choji Ablaze!
114. Goodbye, Old Friends! I'll Always Believe in You!
115. Your Opponent Is Me!
116. 360 Degrees of Vision: The Byakugan's Blind Spot
117. Losing Is Not An Option
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. 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. There are some flashbacks in this set to the first episodes, and it's interesting to see that the characters have actually grown and developed in appearance since then, instead of remaining static locked in designs.
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. More new themes for the first half of season 5, 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, but some inconsistency crops up. What would have been 'Rasengan' in season 4 now becomes 'Spiral Chakra Sphere' in Season 5, and for this set, Naruto's dialogue gets liberally garnished with 'Believe It!' I get the feeling that the subtitlers get sacked at the end of each volume.
Again with the menus! The trailers include Death Note, Bleach, MAR, Naruto the Movie, and Strait Jacket. There is also an ad for the Mirror's Edge console game.
Volume 5:1 is upon is, and with it the moment that many fans have been waiting for, Sasuke versus Naruto as the moody Sasuke, bent on revenge against his brother and jealous of Naruto's progress in the ninja arts, finally falls to the dark side. It's funny how all character falls from grace are described in terms of George Lucas' space epic, especially when Anakin Skywalker's fall as revealed in the movie was so dull. It's more about the phrase entering the Zeitgeist rather than the films actually being worthy of comparison. When Sasuke finally starts down the dark path (see, there it is again), we've had about a hundred episodes of character build up, the moody and isolated young boy has grown up into a moody and isolated young man, driven by a need to avenge his family and kill his brother. For a while, it looked as if the companionship of Naruto, Sakura and Kakashi would have been enough to sway him from this, as they forged a promising team. But the conclusion of the Chunin arc showed Sasuke how far ahead of him Naruto had gotten in his development as a ninja, and frustration and jealousy started to affect their friendship.
Running into his brother Itachi during Naruto's search for Tsunade cemented the fact that he was woefully unprepared to take on his brother, and insinuated that by pursuing his training with Kakashi, he had become distracted. Once again being outclassed by Naruto during the Mission to the Land Of Tea arc only underlined his failings. So like anyone else hell-bent on vengeance, Sasuke succumbs to temptation to take the fast route to strength and power, and accepts Orochimaru's offer of training him in the dark ninja arts. It didn't hurt that Orochimaru had given him a love bite that left him infected with the curse. Incidentally, the Land Of Tea arc highlights the biggest problem with filler, that absolutely nothing must happen in the overall storyline. Before the mission, Sasuke was laid up in hospital, recovering from his encounter with Itachi, stewing about his inadequacies. At the end of the Land Of Tea arc Sasuke is back in hospital, once more stewing about his inadequacies.
After quickly dispensing with the conclusion of the story cliffhanging from the previous boxset, we get straight to the main event, Naruto versus Sasuke, or so we think. We get a brief glimpse of Chidori versus Rasengan before Kakashi breaks up the bout. With both fighters sent to neutral corners, it looks as if all will be forgiven, especially as Naruto isn't the kind to hold a grudge. But Sasuke is, and Orochimaru has anticipated this and sent his recruiting agents. So before the two friends can kiss and make up, Sasuke gets offered the quick road to the sort of power he needs to defeat Itachi, and he departs the village in the dead of night. Sasuke may not have any malice to his friends, but that doesn't hold for the four Sound Ninja that are now accompanying him. It quickly turns out that there are levels to the curse that afflicts Sasuke, and he's only at level one. To succeed in his training, he'll have to level up, which involves a potentially fatal jutsu and spending the following 20 odd episodes sealed up inside a barrel, from which he will no doubt emerge like a ninja butterfly.
The pursuit begins, and with a lack of Jonin in the village, it will have to be Genin who complete the mission. The Chunin exam had one success and that was master strategist Shikamaru. He's recruited his friend Choji, hand to hand specialist Neji Hyuga, tracker Kiba and his dog Akamaru, and of course Naruto to retrieve Sasuke. But they are pursuing the freakiest ninja we have yet encountered, one has six arms and spins webs like a spider, and another has two heads. The odds are even, five Leaf Ninja versus four Sound Ninja, as well as Sasuke who's currently gestating. The Sound Ninja only need to get Sasuke to safety, while Naruto and his friends have to defeat the ninja and retrieve Sasuke. So in this disc we have the Sound Ninja sacrifice one of their number to delay the pursuers, and one of the pursuers staying behind to fight the decoy. The trouble is that all of the Sound Ninja are marked by Orochimaru's curse, and have been taken to level two.
In the space of these thirteen episodes, we have several confrontations, as well as two knockdown drag out fights to the death. First Choji faces Jirobo, a ninja that can manipulate the very earth to trap his enemies, and drain their chakra. Then close combat specialist Neji, with his all-seeing Byakugan ability faces spider-guy Kidamaru. And the remaining Leaf Ninja continue the pursuit, not even knowing if Sasuke will agree to return if they catch up to him.
This is Naruto at its best, with plenty of action, earth-shaking ninja abilities, and imaginative fights. There are also a goodly amount of flashbacks, emotional weight to all of the character stories, and a vicarious thrill when the good guys lay a weighty ninja move on the bad guys. I'm really too old to be cheering a diminutive carrot haired brat in an orange jumpsuit, but I just don't care. If you're a Naruto fan, then you need this boxset.