Review for Naruto Unleashed: Series 9 - The Final Episodes (3 Discs) (UK)
Three years and eight months ago, three innocuous looking review discs turned up on my doorstep, heralding the arrival of a new anime phenomenon in the UK. Yes, the orange kagouled ninja was here, although little did I know just how much of my time would be devoted to Naruto over the next 17 instalments. This is the 17th instalment, the final Naruto collection to be released in the UK, the conclusion of what seemed like an interminable arc of filler, and with it comes the realisation that I never have to set eyes on the perky little Genin ever again. Except that Naruto Shippuden makes its UK debut in June. I may just whimper a little. Or not, as this final delivery of filler has the opportunity to reenergize and re-enthuse, re-energise a franchise that has quite frankly been on the wane for the last 90 odd episodes, and by doing so, re-enthuse me about this get-up-and-go ninja character that was so appealing at the beginning. If this collection of 12 episodes manages to rediscover that appeal, then maybe there will be eager Naruto fans queuing around the block the day Naruto Shippuden is released, the way they did for Naruto back in 2006. Just to reiterate, this is the final instalment of Naruto, and yes, the 9th season is half-length, at just 12 episodes long. Don't be expecting a part 2 after this is over.
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.
We're in the filler zone, which means that the story is on hold until the manga catches up to the anime, and the episodes here don't advance the overall story or develop the characters. Sasuke has joined Orochimaru, and Naruto needs to complete his training before he can try to redeem him once more. None of that will happen until the filler is past. Each filler story will get a quick description and the listing of episodes.
There are the rogue ninja, the scary ones who everyone fears like Orochimaru and Zabuza, and then there are the ninja dropouts, the ones who can't cut is as ninja, but have enough ability to cause problems. One group of ninja dropouts have been lethal nuisances, using their abilities to steal and plunder, and ensuring that no witnesses are left behind. Criminals they may be, but perfect they certainly aren't and one of their number, Gantetsu has finally been caught. He's to be transported to the capital of the Land of Forests, and it's up to Naruto, Sakura and Rock Lee to beef up the already potent security. Police Captain Todoroki isn't too pleased at their presence, he would much rather guard the prisoner by himself, so that he can stick a blade in his back when no one else is looking. But while Todoroki's past is coming back to haunt him, it's becoming clear that Gantetsu isn't the murderous criminal that his reputation suggests.
209. The Enemy Ninja Dropouts
210. The Bewildering Forest
211. Memory of Flames
212. To Each His Own Path
Naruto is busy picking a rare bamboo shoot, the ideal ingredient for the perfect bowl of ramen, when he finds a man unconscious on a river bank. The man wakes up in hospital, with no memory of where he's from, who he is, but he does know how to save a child from a deadly fire using only a flute. Naruto accepts responsibility for him, names him Menma after that bamboo, and promises to help him recover his memory. But a strange man in a ninja village is a liability, especially when he can perform a jutsu like the one he used in the hospital, and uses once more when a strange ninja infiltrates the village and attacks Naruto. That jutsu is just like the ones used by the ninja of the Sound Village, Orochimaru's henchmen who infiltrated the village during the Chunin Test. It's back to the Land of Rice Paddies to seek out Menma's past with Tenten and Neji in tow. There is also a mission to find the attacker who infiltrated the village, but it soon turns out that Menma has good reason not to want his memories back.
213. Vanished Memories
214. Bringing Back Reality
215. A Past to be Erased
Kakashi's mission to the Village of Artisans, investigating rumours of an Ultimate Weapon is just the prelude for a whole lot of trouble. It's trouble that comes first to the Sand Village, where Gaara of all people is taking the next generation in hand to pass on his ninja skills. He, Temari and Kankuro are now instructors, but Gaara's reputation leaves him a little light on willing students. In fact, he only has one, a timid young girl named Matsuri. But before they can begin their training, trouble for Gaara comes in the form of the Four Celestials, four powerful ninja who want the Sand Village prodigy for their own purposes. They can't just ask him, they decide to persuade him by taking those that he holds dear. That's a short list when it comes to Gaara, but when they first target Matsuri, Gaara resolves to rescue her, and with Temari and Kankuro, he begins pursuit. The other Sand Village ninja aren't forthcoming when it comes to help, but for the ninja of the Hidden Leaf Village, it's a chance to pay back old debts following the ill-fated attempt to rescue Sasuke. So led by Shikamaru, the Leaf Genin rush off to help, among them Naruto, Sakura, Shino, Hinata, Neji, Kiba, Choji, Ino, and Rock Lee.
216. The Targeted Shukaku
217. Sand Alliance With The Leaf Shinobi
218. Sealed Sand: The Counterattack!
219. The Ultimate Weapon Reborn
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 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.
My God, this might be the last time we see these menu screens! The only extras you'll find are the trailers on disc 1, Naruto the Movie, and Naruto the Movie 2, the Bleach series and the Bleach movie, as well as Death Note. And once again, Manga haven't bothered to adequately chapter the episodes, with just a single stop in the middle of each. At least let us skip the credit sequences.
Mind you, this time I didn't skip the credits at all, at least not the opening theme, Yura Yura by Hearts Grow. The characters are drawn with a cool and edgy feel, and there is a white silhouette rotoscoped action sequence with Naruto training and fighting against Rock Lee and Neji. Here take a look, and yes, I know it's backwards.
If only the animation in the show had been like this. Well, it would be a lot shorter, as the animators would have died of exhaustion by the thirtieth episode, but it would also have been more fun.
I can't believe it's done and dusted. We've fairly zipped through the filler, and Manga have somehow managed to release all 84 episodes in the space of a single year. We're all set up now for Shippuden, and contrary to my cynical expectations, these final dozen episodes do indeed leave us on a high, poised with anticipation for what will happen next. It also begs the question, that if the creators of the filler had these twelve episodes in their arsenal, why did they give us the comparative dross of the earlier 72? For the conclusion of Naruto, we get three stories that are well told, interesting, entertaining, and above all don't insult the intelligence. They may not add to the larger story, but they don't detract from it either, and they are stories that are worthy of the characters and the journeys that they are on.
Cast your mind back to episode 135, when the Chunin exam debacle had ended, when the fifth Hokage had been appointed, and when Sasuke had fallen to the dark side and signed up with Orochimaru, to acquire the power he needed to avenge his family against his brother Itachi, and when Jiraiya promised to teach Naruto all he needed to know about ninja-ing, and then promptly buggered off. We had to wait until more manga story had been accomplished, and rather than put the series on hiatus for a few years, the anime producers decided to fill the space with stories of their own devising. We began with a couple of red herring stories. Naruto would hear a rumour about Sasuke and Orochimaru, and rush off to investigate, only to find something completely different. That quickly became tiresome but didn't last too long, Unfortunately what replaced it was even worse, a succession of stories where Naruto would help a guest character learn about him/herself and improve as a person, and at the end of the story Naruto would wave goodbye and set off down the road, like a Littlest Ninja Hobo. These were interspersed with the comedy episodes about which the less said the better. The problem was that the quality, aside from a couple of bright spots, declined constantly and considerably to the point where if I never saw Naruto again, it would be too soon.
The first story in this collection appears to begin in that same vein though, with Naruto protecting a prisoner being transferred, and meeting a police captain in Todoroki who appears to need his help, obnoxious and arrogant though he is. But this story turns out to be a subtle (for Naruto) reminder of the Sasuke arc. Like Sasuke, Todoroki has lost his family, and like Sasuke, he gets the opportunity for revenge. The Ninja Dropouts were responsible for the deaths of his family, and now that Gantetsu has been captured, and Todoroki put in charge of his transfer, the temptation is there, constantly taunting him, the same way that Orochimaru seduced Sasuke with promises of power and skill. Naruto isn't here to befriend Todoroki, or improve his life by setting his usual example, but this does give Naruto the chance to succeed with Todoroki, where he failed with Sasuke.
There's more character insight in the next story, when an amnesiac washes up outside the Hidden Leaf Village, and Naruto befriends him. This story is not so subtle with the references, as it involves another visit to the Land of Rice Paddies, and the Sound Village. But once again, Naruto isn't the prime mover of events here. This story was set in motion in the prologue of the first episode, and Naruto's role is secondary at best. He befriends Menma, gives him his trust, and helps him on the road to recovering his memories. But the path that Menma is taking was set in stone from the beginning, and nothing that Naruto can do can affect it. But it does mean that Naruto has to face up to potential betrayal and loss, more character growth in one filler story, than all the rest put together.
Finally is the peach of the series, the return of Gaara and the ninjas of the Sand Village. During the rescue Sasuke arc, Gaara and his friends came to the aid of the Hidden Leaf Genin when they needed it the most, and now that one of the Sand Village students has been kidnapped, it's a chance for the Hidden Leaf ninjas to return the favour. So for the last story of the collection, and of the series, we get to see all of the ninja in action, there's some character growth too for Ino and Gaara among others, and we exit the Naruto series on a high, when Jiraiya finally shows up to teach Naruto what he needs to stand up to Orochimaru and Akatsuki.
I'll say it again, if the standard of the Naruto filler had been this high for the duration, you would have heard a whole lot less whinging from me for the last five and bit volumes. As it is, I am well and truly primed for the arrival of Naruto Shippuden now, and June can't come fast enough. I had thought that only the final episode of series 9 would be essential, that you could skip all the other filler episodes and go straight back to the story proper as this instalment came to a close. But in fact this whole ninth series is up to the standards of the Naruto manga storyline, and if you have been waiting patiently for Naruto Shippuden ever since volume 6:1 of Naruto, then do yourself a favour and get series 9 as well, as this is actually where Naruto gets good again.