Review for Naruto: Rock Lee and His Ninja Pals Collection 1
Naruto has ended, or at least the final volume of manga has been released to the world. The story is done and dusted, or so you might think. When a series becomes as popular as this, every inclination exists to turn it into a franchise, to keep milking the cash cow. The Naruto Shippuden series has a good while to run yet before it catches up to the manga, but we’ve already had the Boruto movie focusing on the son of the title character, and there are all sorts of epilogue stories and spin-offs in the works.
But the franchising machine actually began four years ago with this spin-off, the comedy show Rock Lee & His Ninja Pals, featuring the eponymous, ridiculous, and obvious Bruce Lee homage. You can’t blame them actually, as continuing the ninja Harry Potter metaphor that introduced us to Naruto, the 4th Ninja War has taken us into Deathly Hallows territory. The original Naruto series was a broad affair, offering action, drama, and comedy in equal measure. There were a whole lot of goofy antics as young Naruto and his friends embarked upon their training as shinobi, but as the story got darker, the humour drained away. Even now in Naruto Shippuden, the odd moments of comedy are relegated to filler, and that filler which flashes back to the original Naruto. So as Shippuden got deathly serious, a reminder of just how silly the show could be was long overdue, and that is where Rock Lee & His Ninja Pals comes in. The characters have gone through the South-Parkification required to give them oversized heads on tiny bodies, and comedy ensues from the outset.
Incidentally, we’re one up on the US here. Region 1 hasn’t seen a home video release of Rock Lee as yet, although Viz has dubbed and streamed the show. It’s actually taken Madman Entertainment in Australia to release the show on DVD, and Manga Entertainment are taking advantage of their masters to release the show in the UK.
Rock Lee is an unlikely ninja. He doesn’t actually have any ninja skills; he can’t use an innate well of chakra to pull off mystical, even magical feats of ninjutsu. All he has is his exceptional hand-to-hand combat skills which he has trained up to near mythical levels. No scratch that, all he has is a bull-headed refusal to submit, an innate stubbornness that has been inspired by his equally bull-headed Sensei Might Guy. Now that’s either tenacity that will raise Rock Lee to the heights of the Hidden Leaf Village, or it’s more likely stupidity that will get him and his teammates Neji and Tenten into a whole heap of trouble. And that’s even before Naruto joins in.
26 episodes of Naruto: Rock Lee and His Ninja Friends are presented here across 4 DVD discs from Manga Entertainment.
1. Rock Lee is a Ninja that Can’t Use Ninjutsu / Rock Lee’s Rival is Naruto
2. Love is a Part of the Springtime of Youth / Love Makes Both Sides Crazy
3. A Competition with the Genius Ninja Neji / Tenten’s Must Win Battle
4. Guy Sensei Didn’t Do It / Guy Sensei’s Rival is Kakashi Sensei
5. I’m Going to Teach Konohamaru Kempo / I Save My Lucky Undies for Physicals
6. The Leaf Village Sports Meet / Cavalry Battles are Part of the Thrill of Youth
7. Orochimaru is a B-Type Scorpio / Love Letters are the Ultimate Trap
8. Even Hokages Wear Out / Orochimaru is Persistent
9. Hinata is Neji’s Cousin / Hinata’s Weak Point is Naruto
10. Teamwork Symbolises Youth / The Culprit is Among Us!
11. A Field Trip to the Old Capitol! / Girls’ Rooms and Candy Boxes
12. The No-Ninjutsu Lifestyle / I Want to Share an Umbrella With Sakura
13. Student vs. Master! Rock Lee vs. Might Guy! / I Will Surpass Guy Sensei!
14. I Want My Popularity Back! / Death!
15. The Pool’s Finally Open! / The Super Happy Orochi-Pool Park!
16. The Warring Chef Triad / Time to Tone Down Guy-Sensei!
17. Road to Guy! The Amazing True Story of the Leaf Village Film Festival
18. Boom! The Shinobi Fireworks Show! / Bang! Tenten’s Acting Weird!
19. Summer means Seashell Styles! / Watermelon Wars!
20. I Want to be Friends with Gaara! / The Rock Lee Imposter Strikes!
21. A Hot Night for a Chilling Tale / The Hokage Tears Aren’t for Decoration
22. Always Do Your Homework at the Last Minute! / Class 3-Lee! We Are Team Guy!
23. Naruto is Lee and Lee is Naruto! / I Dream of Walking With the Nine-Tails!
24. I’m Sai’s New Agent! / Win Lady Tsunade’s Heart!
25. Gaara’s First Crush! / A Gift From Orochimaru!
26. The Green Flame, Dodge Lee / The Yes-Man Says No
Rock Lee gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic NTSC transfer, progressively encoded on these discs. The image is clear and sharp, with no visible issues with compression or similar artefacts. The animation is smooth and untroubled. It’s a comedy spin-off, so the animation is a suitable parody of the Naruto Shippuden show, with the characters indeed getting the South Park treatment, short of stature, with excessively large heads and exaggerated features. It all works perfectly fine to get the gag and punchline nature of the comedy across.
I had a problem with disc 2, freezing and juddering at 4:19 into episode 12, and wound up watching that half episode on Crunchyroll. The check disc had a physical defect in the playing surface, so it’s probably not a universal issue. Nevertheless, keep an eye out for dented discs.
You have the choice between DD 2.0 English and Japanese stereo, and just like the Shippuden releases, there’s just the sole translated subtitle track, no signs. That’s a shame as there is a fair degree of on-screen text that needs translating, and if you’re watching the dub, you miss out. It looks as if Madman Entertainment merely lifted the subtitles off Crunchyroll, down to replicating the same font. There’s the odd typo and format error when there should be an accent in a word, the subtitles are a little low on the screen, and they aren’t overscan friendly if you’re still using a CRT TV. In this case, the Japanese audio is preferable, not only for the text translations, but there is a continuity of cast between Shippuden and Rock Lee. That isn’t the case with the English dub, although it’s a little more agreeable in terms of voice actor performance and translation than the usual comedy dub. Rock Lee’s theme songs certainly evoke the comedic mood, while the incidental music is just what you’d expect to hear from a ninja sitcom, if expectations were indeed appropriate for something as esoteric as that.
The discs present their content with static menus and jacket pictures, and judging by the menu style (episode numbers and not names), these look to be the Madman Entertainment discs repurposed for Manga Entertainment.
The sole extras are on disc 4, which comprise the textless credits (1 opening, and 5 closings with four versions of the second closing), as well as the usual trailers for Naruto Shippuden and the first Shippuden movie.
Well the bottom line is that Rock Lee and His Ninja Pals is an anime comedy, and it made me laugh, and on several occasions at that. That’s the basic endorsement any comedy needs, and if that’s what you’re looking for, then you can buy in comparative confidence, safe in the knowledge that it appealed to my juvenile sense of humour. Rock Lee isn’t the funniest anime ever though, and while I did laugh, it’d only be at the big punchlines, maybe once or twice in each half episode. It also goes for the low hanging fruit, it’s not deep, sophisticated or particularly stylish. But if you like toilet humour, bad puns, and the Manzai comedy style that you often find in shows like these, then Rock Lee is just the thing to put a smile on your face at the end of a wearying workday.
The Manzai comedy routine typical of Japan itself mirrors Western comedy double acts such as Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, where an enthusiastic idiot does something idiotic, only to be violently pummelled by the straight-man, who also delivers an exasperated punchline. In Manzai, it’s taken to the next level, with the idiocy increasing, along with the violence, usually delivered by a large paper fan. It’s more than a double act in Rock Lee, where it’s pretty much everyone else being an idiot, and a few of the female characters, such as Tenten, Sakura, and Tsunade delivering the beat downs.
Each episode is split into two stories, although on more than one occasion the stories are linked. The focus at first is on Team Guy, led by Might Guy and comprising the hero Rock Lee, Neji Hyuga, and Tenten. It’s all about the unlikeliest of ninja, Rock Lee, the ninja without any ninja skills, and his all-out desire to become a ninja regardless. The initial joke is to see him try and replicate ninja skills using the talents he does have. Copying Naruto’s ero-jutsu simply comes down to Rock Lee wearing a bikini, the most un-alluring image possible. Trying to develop a new skill, he comes up with Swan-lake jutsu, which involves wearing a tutu with a swan’s neck and head jutting from the front like a beaked codpiece. There’s also the fart-Rasengan, which I’ll leave down to your imaginations. Poor Neji, who other than an obsessive protectiveness to his cousin Hinata, tries to be the straight-man, but winds up being pulled into Lee’s schemes, which for some reason always has the long-haired ninja winding up cross-dressing. It’s left to Tenten to constantly lose her rag and try and beat some sense into her teammates. None of this is helped by their leader and mentor, Might Guy being even more enthusiastically idiotic than Lee himself.
Gradually, the rest of the characters are added into the mix, Naruto, the ninja that Lee sees as a rival, and someone to aspire to, Sakura, the girl of Lee’s dreams, and another reason to rival Naruto, Shikamaru’s team, Hinata’s team, the little ninja Konohamaru, and so on, all bringing their particular comedic anarchy into the mix. One of the best additions into the ongoing story is Orochimaru, who with his un-able assistant Kabuto are sort of a Pinky and the Brain pair, although in this case more Pinky and Pinky, plotting regularly to bring down Rock Lee and his team, in ever increasingly daft ways. In one story Orochimaru summons his giant snake Manda, and sets the snake up with his mouth open in a swimming park, pretending to be a waterslide, hoping to tempt Rock Lee into taking a dip on a hot summer day. You can even play “Where’s Wally” in each episode, as the animators try and sneak Yamato in, somewhere in the background.
Silly comedy has been missing for quite a while now from the main Naruto series, and it’s nice to get the pure stuff to enjoy in the form of the Rock Lee spin-off. Naturally it works best when you know the characters from the main show, but most of its humour is base enough, the puns bad enough, the fart-gags odious enough to elicit laughs from anyone. Actually given that Rock Lee and his mentor Might Guy are practically the comic relief in the main show; you can never take the two seriously, no matter how desperate or dramatic the situation is, it makes sense that Rock Lee would be the perfect candidate for a comedy spin-off. And Rock Lee is a show that made me laugh out loud. Not a smirk, not a knowing chuckle, but actually belly-laughs. There aren’t as many of them as in say, Kill Me Baby, but once or twice in every half episode, I laugh out loud. That’s more than in some so-called anime comedy.