Review of Naruto (Uncut): Series 1 Vol. 1 Box Set (3 Discs)
We`ve come to that point again, the cusp when anime is poised to hit the mainstream and stay there. As anime fans around the world know, the medium is a versatile and varied one that allows for an infinite number of stories to be told, and would be perfect for primetime television thank you very much. While the rest of the world goes, `but they`re cartoons, for kids, by the way we liked Spirited Away, kind of like Disney but not.` If you have been reading the majority of my reviews of late, then you would know that I am of the former persuasion, although I am also painfully aware that as long as the `cartoons are for kids` mindset remains, then anime will remain a minority interest, really only troubling the mainstream when the Daily Mail and their ilk need to fill a few column inches. This time last year I was raving about Paranoia Agent, the Satoshi Kon masterpiece that was heralded by the national press as the next big thing. Press interest rapidly faded after the first volume was released, and when the BBFC saw fit to censor the third volume, the whole `next big thing`, critically acclaimed though it was, was rapidly forgotten. Truth be told, Paranoia Agent was probably too esoteric a title to make a lasting impact on the mainstream, and that is a major problem with many of the titles available. Even something as jaw-droppingly awesome as Ghost In The Shell is really only going to appeal to a limited audience. What anime needs is an entertaining story, with universal appeal and engaging characters. Which is where Naruto comes in.
This is where I would say that Naruto stands poised to take over the world, if it hadn`t already done so. This charming anime debuted in 2002, and is already pushing past 200 episodes, where the average title would be considered successful if it makes 26. It has millions of fans globally, is shown on television throughout the world as well as making for significant `Internet traffic`, and it now, finally hits the UK and it hits it running. Television is finally paying attention to anime once more, beyond the Saturday morning `toon, with Film4 screening some Ghibli movies, ITV4 showing Ghost In The Shell, Rapture having a regular slot which has seen Full Metal Alchemist, Mezzo DSA and Wolf`s Rain broadcast, and now the kids` channel Jetix has started airing Naruto from the beginning.
Unfortunately, every silver lining has a cloud. It`s all down to what is considered suitable viewing for children, and that is fundamentally different in the UK as opposed to Japan. Perhaps you remember Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? No. Ah, maybe you recall Teenage Mutant `Hero` Turtles? This American product was heavily altered when first broadcast in the UK, because Ninjas were considered bad, a.k.a. not good for children. Gone were scenes of excessive violence, gone were scenes depicting the use of weapons, and what we got was considerably sanitised. There is no rat sensei in Naruto, no carapace-toting reptiles, but there are plenty of ninjas, the show is all about ninjas. But, kids mustn`t be shown excessive violence, certainly no blood, nothing even vaguely sexual, no scenes of smoking, and as mentioned previously Jetix is a kids` channel (It doesn`t stop these channels from flogging tons of soul destroying junk food and plastic tat in between the programmes). The sanitised Naruto that is being broadcast on Jetix has had hardcore anime fans gnashing their teeth and preparing Internet petitions; while the more sanguine are just shrugging their shoulders and glad that there is at least some anime on television to attract new viewers. After all Naruto was similarly edited when broadcast in the US. It`s just a shame that there is no slot that caters for young adults, as there was when I was a stripling. Naruto`s ideal audience would be aged 11 or 12, and the sort of slot that housed Aeon Flux on BBC2 once upon a time would be ideal for this show. But all is not lost, for Manga Entertainment are bringing out the uncut episodes of Naruto on DVD, so you can enjoy them as they were meant to be seen. You can inflict upon your children the evils that are blood and violence, Sexy no Jutsu, and the sight of an old man smoking his pipe. You can do it on a budget too, for with a series like this, releasing the show on 4 episode discs would strain shelves and bank accounts alike. Manga are instead presenting the show in a wallet friendly format of 13 episode volumes, the first of which is reviewed here.
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 has great difficulty just passing his entrance exams to qualify as a lowly Genin. Even when he does manage to get his certification, he has 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. The first thirteen episodes of the long running series are presented here across three discs.
1. Uzumaki Naruto Arrives!!
2. I Am Konohamaru
3. Rivals! Sasuke and Sakura
4. The Trial! Survival Training
5. Failure? Kakashi`s Conclusion
6. Important Mission! Heading to the Country of the Wave
7. The Assassin of the Mist
8. Decision Sworn on Pain
9. Sharingan Kakashi
10. The Forest of Chakra
11. The Country that had a Hero
12. Decisive Battle on the Bridge! Zabuza Returns!!
13. Haku`s Secret Technique: Demonic Mirrors of Ice Crystal
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.
Manga Entertainment presents these episodes with their usual array of soundtrack options, DD 2.0, DD 5.1 and DTS English and Japanese, along with a translated English subtitle track. The surrounds do succeed in broadening the experience in terms of ambience and effects, but they are still upmixes of the original stereo, rather than newly created mixes for this disc. The theme tunes are excellent, and suit the story well, while the incidental music is a little more generic. 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. There`s a slightly awkward layer change in the third volume.
All three discs get the usual animated menus treatment, and Play All options for the episodes, but extra goodies are confined to discs 2 and 3.
Disc 2 has trailers for Karas, Robotech, Heat Guy J as well as the Jetix TV trailer for Naruto.
Disc 3 has textless opening and closing sequences, as well as a 5-minute slideshow of images titled Naruto: From Manga To Anime. Oddly, there isn`t any imagery from the manga here, and it looks more like the sequences you get in the middle of shows where adverts are usually placed.
Incidentally, the opening and closing credits have been translated, combined with the English language cast, and added to a separate scroll at the end of each episode. These are joined by the episode previews.
I only received the check discs, but the final boxset should also have a storyboards booklet enclosed.
That J.K Rowling has a lot to answer for. Of course, the gifted orphan who has to overcome a dark past to claim his legacy is an archetype much older than the boy wizard would lead us to believe (Think Luke Skywalker). Yet it`s the advent of Harry Potter in recent years that has led to a definite upsurge in similar entertainment creations. Creators have once again realised that children aren`t afraid of a little darkness in their stories and instead embrace it, the sensibilities of OFCOM not withstanding. We have already seen one such anime in the UK, with Full Metal Alchemist relating the tale of two orphaned brothers with precocious talent in alchemy uncovering a dark past and facing terrifying foes. Naruto has been described as a ninja Harry Potter, and the description is certainly apt. He shares many of the same traits as the bespectacled one, he`s orphaned, victim of a curse since he was a baby, yet he could be the most talented ninja of his generation, if he gets over a tendency to pull pranks and instead channels his energies into studying. Oh yes, he also goes to ninja school along with many other kids of his age, to learn the many arts of concealment, fighting and trickery that seem suspiciously like magic. His own special skill is the ability to change his form into that of a naked girl, to waylay any unsuspecting red-blooded male. He`s even got his own Dumbledore/Yoda in the form of the third Hokage, though he aspires to the position himself.
But it is an old archetype, and the show`s success depends on the execution rather than a familiar looking story. Judging by these thirteen episodes, Naruto is very promising indeed. It develops an interesting premise, that of hidden ninja communities, and adds a decent amount of back story and dimension. It`s set in an alternate world of sorts, where powerful nations harbour hidden villages that stand aloof and independent, and whose ninjas offer services to all for a price. The Hidden Leaf village is one such community, and Naruto was raised knowing nothing else. He has a tragic past, he`s an orphan and he`s stigmatised by the curse of the Fox Demon, yet he strives to overcome that and be recognised for himself. It`s his determination to succeed that finally qualifies him as an entry-level ninja, but it`s then that his education truly begins. We get to see something of the school and the other students, but the focus quickly switches to his little group. He`s partnered with archrival Sasuke, who has his own reasons for becoming a ninja. The two are constantly bickering but manage to form a formidable team. With them is Sakura. Naruto has a crush on Sakura, who barely realises he exists. Sakura on the other hand is smitten with Sasuke, who barely realises she exists. Their tutor is Kakashi, a high level ninja who is renowned for washing out his students, but for once sees promise in these three.
This early in the series, it`s apparent that Naruto will encompass two types of episodes, the stand alone tales which are heavier on the narrative and serve to move the story along, as well as the fight episodes, where several episodes are devoted to a battle between our heroes and the latest utterly formidable opponent they may be facing. Depending on your mileage you may enjoy both types, or find one or the other tedious. I`m not so much of a fan of long drawn out character battles, especially as here they employ the excessive use of flashbacks to keep people up to date with what is happening. It`s understandable that you don`t want your animators` fingers to bleed through overwork, and it`s even enjoyable on a one episode per week basis, but watching 13 episodes in a row can make the device feel utterly tiresome. But this is just one part of Naruto, and the quirky and charming characters, an intriguing story, and sense of humour that makes for a very general audience appeal, together make up for it.
We start off with a set of episodes that introduce the characters, and we get to know Naruto and his background early on. Naturally he succeeds at passing his exams, it wouldn`t be much of a story if he failed, but we also get to see his special skill of Sexy no Jutsu, putting male authorities figures off guard by transforming into a naked girl (discretely covered by a wreath of clouds). His determination to pass leads him to learns something more useful, his shadow clone ability, but the second episode is even more comedy oriented, with Naruto meeting the Hokage`s grandson Konohamaru, and in turn teaching him his Sexy no Jutsu skill. It`s the sort of episode that will probably suffer more than most at the censors` hands, and seeing it in all its glory makes for great entertainment. There`s also a moral message, as Naruto finally meets someone in the same predicament as he is. The community has shunned Naruto for his association with the demon fox, and no one sees him for who he truly is. The same goes for Konohamaru, who is seen as the grandson of the Hokage before anything else, which has led him to continually attack his grandfather in an attempt to usurp his position, a hard task for a four year old. The next three episodes relate Naruto`s first days at Ninja College where he meets his teacher, the other members of his group, and begins his training in earnest.
The rest of the episodes are devoted to Naruto`s first mission, as his group are assigned as bodyguards to a bridge builder from the Country Of Waves. It seems that they may be in over their heads when it becomes apparent that the engineer is the target of high-level rogue ninjas, but they agree to assist him regardless. Naruto and his friends get thrown into the deep end as they face the formidable Zabuza, yet the more they learn about the Country Of Waves, the more they are determined to help.
With its life messages about being true to oneself, overcoming adversity, strength in teamwork, and fighting for what one believes in, Naruto is firmly aimed at young viewers. But its sense of humour, entertaining characters, deeper narrative and slight dark edge firmly broadens that appeal to a more general audience. Add to that a dose of mysticism and magic, and you can`t really go wrong. With that sort of broad appeal, it certainly deserves to do well in this country. It may not be the pinnacle of what anime has to offer but it has something to offer for everyone. Committed anime fans will have already invested in this boxset, but those who come to the show on the back of the Jetix broadcasts should be aware that this is the show as it is meant to be seen, and in this version weapons actually do draw blood. Who would want to convince a child otherwise? UK anime has another gateway drug. And a ninja in a bright orange jumpsuit, who would have guessed?