Naruto Unleashed: Series 5 Part 2
There have been a couple of developments Naruto-wise since the last set was released that are worth noting before we get started. First, late last year Manga Entertainment announced that they had the follow-up series, Naruto Shippuden, and would begin releasing it this coming summer. That caused me to scratch my head for a minute, as there is fair bit of Naruto left to release, 8 boxsets in all including this one, and even if they released one a month, it would still be this autumn before Shippuden could begin. It turns out that the summer 2009 date was a little too optimistic, and in a recent interview, Manga Entertainment have clarified things and stated that there will be no Shippuden DVDs in the UK until 2010 at the earliest (you can get your fix on Crunchyroll while you wait). The second is the dreaded filler that keeps cropping up like a sword of Damocles in my Naruto reviews. Naruto seasons have 26 episodes apiece to them, except the final season that has 13, and Manga Entertainment have been releasing them in 13-episode half-season boxsets. The trouble is that the filler begins some 6 episodes into season 6. In the US, Viz took those six episodes, and released them as part of season 5, shifting some of season 5's episodes into season 4 in the process, so fans wishing to avoid the filler didn't need to buy any more boxsets. Manga Entertainment haven't done this, keeping to 13-episode boxsets all the way. If UK fans want to avoid the filler, they will still have to buy 6.1, and try and ignore the last seven episodes. It's one to file under petty annoyances.
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.
When last we left our heroes, matters had taken a turn for the worse. Sasuke became frustrated at his lack of progress when compared to Naruto, and the two came to blows before being separated by Kakashi. But before they could bury the hatchet, temptation arrived in the form of Orochimaru's minions. They offered Sasuke the quick path to power, a chance to avenge his family and kill his brother, simply by joining and learning from Orochimaru. Sasuke agreed, and in return they awakened the curse mark, and proceeded to take him to next level. It meant that he had to gestate in a coffin while they returned to Orochimaru. Of course Naruto doesn't abandon his friends so easily, and Tsunade authorises a mission to retrieve Sasuke. Newly promoted Chunin Shikamaru led Choji, Neji, Kiba and Naruto into the forest in pursuit of the four enemy ninja, but Choji and Neji fought two of the ninja to a standstill and fell behind, their condition unknown.
As we begin this volume, Shikamaru, Kiba and Naruto are closing in on the final two ninja, but they have no idea of Orochimaru's dark plan for Sasuke, and they don't realise that Kabuto has unleashed a terrifying adversary named Kimimaro to meet Sasuke halfway.
Season 5 concludes with 13 episodes.
118. The Vessel Arrives Too Late
119. Miscalculation: A New Enemy Appears!
120. Roar and Howl! The Ultimate Tag-Team!
121. To Each His Own Battle
122. Fakeout: Shikamaru's Comeback!
123. The Leaf's Handsome Devil!
124. The Beast Within
125. The Sand Shinobi: Allies of the Leaf
126. Showdown: Gaara vs. Kimimaro!
127. Vengeful Strike! The Bracken Dance!
128. A Cry On Deaf Ears
129. Brothers: Distance Among the Uchiha
130. Father and Son: The Broken Crest
You'll have to forgive me for the lack of my usual reviewer thoroughness. I've long since reached the point where credit sequences and episode previews are skipped over by reflex, and previous episode recaps are usually fast-forwarded through.
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.
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 at the end 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. In this volume though, sake gets translated in the dub as elixir, not alcohol. Apparently we must protect the kiddies, even in a show where a bunch of ninja are trying to kill each other. Translated subtitles are provided, as they should be, and they seem to be back to normal after the somewhat wayward transliterations of volume 5.1. Also sake is sake in the subtitles, just as it should be. The lack of a signs track is especially telling in this set, with a will in episode 129 a major part of the plot, but left untranslated on screen.
I wonder if they'll use the same menus when Shippuden starts. The trailers include Bleach, MAR, Naruto the Movies 1 & 2, and Strait Jacket. There is also an ad for the Mirror's Edge console game.
The battles keep getting bigger and bigger, the action more and more spectacular, and the story gets more and more enthralling. It's inevitable then that I say that Naruto 5:2 is the best yet. It also has my single most favourite episode so far, but more of that later. It's the second half of the Sasuke Retrieval arc, and for a moment it looked as if it would continue in the vein of the first half, with a series of one-on-one battles as the pursuers picked off Orochimaru's goons one by one, until only Naruto would be left to witness Sasuke's emergence from his gestational bucket. It turns out that it doesn't quite happen that way.
Indeed, we first cut to Orochimaru's secret base, where the rogue Sannin is currently close to death, as the third Hokage's curse wreaks havoc on his body. It turns out that the real reason why he wants Sasuke is to extend his life at the expense of Sasuke's, but time beats him and he has to find another alterative. It seems that Sasuke's dodged a bullet there, but inevitably Orochimaru will turn to Sasuke again. Instead, Orochimaru's right hand man, the traitorous Kabuto unleashes a new menace for our heroes to face. Kimimaro is another lost ninja orphan who found Orochimaru, much as Haku found Zabuza back in Season 1, and he has been raised as a loyal self-sacrificing henchman ever since. He's also the toughest of Orochimaru's warriors and he's unleashed on Naruto's team to ensure Sasuke's safe delivery.
We also get what looks like a shortcut, as Naruto, Shikamaru and Kiba catch up to the fleeing ninja, and engage them directly in battle, foregoing the one-on-one prerequisites. Except Kimimaro arrives, takes Sasuke, and leaves the two minions to deal with the pursuers. It looks to be an all out battle, but circumstances lead to the groups being separated, and while Naruto chases after Kimimaro, the others have their own battles to face. Of all the supporting ninja cast, I think that Shikamaru ranks among my favourites. He's laid back and easygoing, but he's also a strategist and a thinker. Not for him the colourful jutsu and summoning of demons, he's sneaky, wily and considered. I enjoyed his battle with Tenten during the Chunin exams, and here he faces a flute wielding, ogre summoning female ninja, while he's only armed with just a few blades, a couple of bombs, and his smarts. It's one of the more entertaining of confrontations in the series. Of course this is intercut with Naruto's pursuit and eventual battle with Kimimaro, as well as Kiba's own confrontation with a two-headed ninja in a ravine. This last is a more straightforward ninja confrontation, with Kiba and his dog Akamaru teaming up to perform more canine ninja attacks, but their opponent is a more insidious foe, or rather two foes as becomes uncomfortably clear.
It looks for a while that Naruto has met his match with Kimimaro, a ninja that can fashion weapons from his own bones, and one who literally has nothing to lose. It's at this point that Sasuke finishes pupating, and emerges from his coffin-cocoon, only to flee towards Orochimaru's hideout, leaving Naruto to be totally outclassed by Kimimaro. Rescue comes in the nick of time from an unlikely source, and with it comes my favourite episode of the series so far. Rock Lee is back, but he's snuck out of hospital to do it, ignoring medical advice, quickly grabbing a bottle of medicine on his way out. Except it isn't medicine, it's Tsunade's favourite sake. Rock Lee isn't healed up, and he's not as fast as he was before, but he's still faster than the eye can see, and he attacks Kimimaro in his usual straightforward way, leaving Naruto to head after Sasuke. It isn't long before Lee's outclassed, prompting him to call for a time out to drink some medicine. Enter the natural master of Loopy Fist, as Lee channels Jackie Chan's drunken master. He's a bit more of an obnoxious drunk, but the animation really kicks up a notch in this episode, with some great inebriated kung-fu action. I'm just tickled by the reference to the Jackie Chan film as well.
The allies get even unlikelier after this, as it turns out that Tsunade has patched up some old grievances, and asked for the assistance of the Sand village. So it is when the Leaf ninja are on the back foot, facing defeat, (and lets face it, given all they have been through in the pursuit, they must be totally drained) that Gaara and his team reappear, only this time they are on the same side. It turns out that Gaara feels he owes a debt to Naruto, and he's looking to pay it back, and it's also a nice touch to see Gaara working side by side with Lee, after he came close to killing him during the Chunin exams. The effects get bigger and the action gets large at this point, as whole forests are demolished, and tidal waves of sand are wielded as weapons.
Meanwhile, the moment that we have all been waiting for has come to pass, and Naruto has finally caught up with Sasuke. Only we'll have to wait a little while longer yet, as Naruto has to truly comprehend how far Sasuke has fallen, how he has abandoned his past life, and how he may be irredeemable. I can almost forgive the Evil Laugh ™ they've given Sasuke as a short cut to his darker nature, given that the confrontation looks to be so promising. For the final episodes of this set though, it's just the preliminaries, as Naruto and Sasuke exchange a few blows of jutsu, before we get lengthy flashback sequences of Sasuke's childhood, relating how he looked up to his brother, craves his father's attention, as well as the events that led to his tragic orphaning. It also serves to demonstrate the most obvious of ironies, in that his pursuit of vengeance against his brother, his single-minded acquisition of power, has made Sasuke just like the very man he hates most. His betrayal and shunning of his friends is a sign of that, and instead of utilising some arcane ninja technique, I wish that Naruto would just hit him over the head with his own hypocrisy.
As I said, this is the best volume yet, in a series that has progressively been getting better and better. I doubt that will last, as the dreaded filler is almost here. But this volume has it all, action, great animation, character growth, and fast-paced entertainment. Even the flashbacks aren't as infuriating as before, as in many cases they aren't flashbacks to earlier episodes, but rather newly animated segments from the characters' pasts. If you've been following Naruto, then this volume is a no-brainer, buy and enjoy.