Review of Naruto Unleashed: Series 2 Part 1 (3 Discs)
We really have to wait for these Naruto sets, and it has been over six months since the last instalment of ninja mayhem. I can barely remember how that volume had ended. For once it isn`t the fault of the UK distribution company dithering on the release, instead we have to wait for the US releases before region 2 can follow suit. I guess the Americans don`t want their audience importing from the UK, although why they would want to is beyond me. Anyway, Naruto volume 3, or rather 2:1 is upon us, the first half of the second series, and it is presented once again over three discs. I only received the check discs, but I assume that the final packaging will continue on from the previous sets, and have a couple of goodies inside.
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.
In volume 2, Naruto and his friends were triumphant in their first mission, but getting back home they didn`t find much time to relax, as the Chunin exams began. The trainee Genin of all the hidden ninja villages gathered at the Hidden Leaf Village to take part in the tests to see who would move up to the next level of ninja. Despite their young age, all the rookies of Naruto`s village were put forward as potential candidates. Naruto and his friends were expecting a tough challenge, but they weren`t ready for a written exam. Now at the start of this third volume, the second exam is about to commence, and this one will be deadly.
The first thirteen episodes of the second season are presented here across three discs, and the Chunin exams get serious in the Forest Of Death.
27. The Chunin Exam Stage 2: The Forest Of Death
28. Eat Or Be Eaten! Panic In The Forest!
29. Naruto`s Counterattack! Never Give In!
30. The Sharingan Revived! Dragon Flame Jutsu!
31. Bushy Brow`s Pledge! Undying Love and Protection!
32. Sakura Blossoms!
33. Battle Formation. Ino-Shika-Cho!
34. Akamaru Trembles! Gaara`s Cruel Strength
35. The Scroll`s Secret. No Peeking Allowed!
36. Clone Versus Clone. Mine Are Better Than Yours!
37. Surviving the Cut. The Rookie Nine Together Again!
38. Narrowing The Field. Sudden Death Elimination
39. Bushy Brow`s Jealousy. Lions Barrage Unleashed!
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. Having said all that, the action quotient certainly goes up for season 2, and flashbacks, and freeze frames are fewer in number.
Manga Entertainment presents these episodes with their usual array of soundtrack options, DD 2.0, DD 5.1 and DTS English and Japanese. 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.
Manga put their foot in it again for yet another 2007 anime release. What makes it worse is that the first two volumes of Naruto have translated subtitles. At this point you`re probably wearying of another rant about dubtitles, but as long as this keeps happening, I`ll keep ranting. Dubtitles refer to subtitles that follow the English dub, rather than translating the original Japanese dialogue. You may be wondering what the big deal is, as surely the English dub is a translation of the Japanese?
Not exactly, as the English dub has to fit the lip movements of the characters as well as flowing naturally. Compromises have to be made, and word choices aren`t always exact. Add to that the fact that American ADR studios often localise popular anime with colloquialisms and US idiom that have no direct Japanese equivalents. At worst profanity is added where profanity didn`t exist previously, and the story may even be changed. With Naruto, where a lot of characters speak in inner monologue, that gives dub artists free rein with what dialogue they insert. Not all dubs are that different, and there are rare instances of dubs that are good translations of the original track, but they are the exception rather than the rule. More often than not, when you watch a dubtitle track with the Japanese dialogue, even someone who doesn`t know a word of Japanese will notice something off.
Naruto`s dub is far enough removed from the Japanese dialogue that the dubtitles are absolutely horrendous. Put aside the colloquialisms and the idioms, and the constancy of US Naruto`s catchphrase of `Believe It!` like punctuation (although main gist of the story remains intact). This is one of those instances where you`ll hear Japanese dialogue and there won`t be a subtitle caption, or a caption appears when no one is speaking. Even when the captions and dialogue do coincide, the captions are timed for the English track, and aren`t in exact sync with the Japanese. Of course on-screen Japanese text goes by untranslated.
In an ideal world, every anime would be released with both dubtitles and subtitles, to cater for the hard of hearing, and for fans of the original language. But given the choice, just as in kung fu movies, the translated subtitles should take priority. After all, most UK fans speak English and don`t need it translated. This 3rd volume of Naruto may as well be an English only release.
On the three check discs I received, I could only find trailers, although a new promo for some Atari games looked interesting, including a Naruto beat `em up.
The previous two volumes ended the episodes with translation of the end credits, which also listed the English dub cast. This has been dropped for this release, so you`d better brush up on your kanji.
Season 1 of Naruto showed a lot of promise. It had a strong foundation, quite aptly called the ninja Harry Potter, which saw young students learning the arts of concealment and combat in competing ninja academies, who could then sell the services of their graduating students. Naruto`s adventures began when he became a Genin, the lowest rung of the ninja ladder, and began his training in earnest. His was a baptism of fire, as his first mission tested both his team, and their sensei to their limits. Returning to the Hidden Leaf Village, they moved to the next stage of their training, the Chunin exams, which they have to pass to attain the next level of ninja-hood.
The first season was also a little hit and miss in terms of format, where plot dense episodes with plenty of exposition would alternate with extended fight sequences that lasted over several episodes in length, and which would be replete with inner monologue and flashback sequences. It was a disjointed approach that for me felt like intense bursts of entertainment broken up by long periods of tedium. The first half of the second season has a far more cohesive approach to story telling, which is much more rewarding and interesting to watch. Instead of separating out the various aspects of Naruto, we now get everything together, exposition, comedy, action and drama. It`s a better approach to writing that improves on what has come before.
If Naruto is Harry Potter, then the Chunin exams are The Goblet of Fire. That`s an observation I made about the latter half of the previous release, and the comparison is even more apt here, with the second exam taking up the majority of the episodes. While the first exam was surprising in that a written test was actually the highlight of the previous release, the second exam turns out to be a practical application of ninja know-how, which is ideally suited for the format. Incidentally, the action in this second series is much more frenetic and brilliantly animated, certainly the highlight of many of the episodes. The second test pits the teams against each other, but just like the Goblet Of Fire, there is much more going on behind the scenes than simple student and school rivalry. Some of the students taking part aren`t exactly as they seem, and a major ninja villain has taken an interest in some of the students taking part. Orochimaru is a ninja with snake like powers, who leaves a curse on Sasuke halfway through that affects him from there on (I can hear J.K. Rowling`s lawyers litigating as I type).
What improves this second season of Naruto in my opinion is that the action is much more efficient and condensed. While the whole 2nd exam storyline takes up eleven episodes, it never gets tedious as it is split into sub-adventures, as the heroes and villains advance on their quest. We get a couple of episodes with Naruto`s team, then the focus shifts to other teams that are competing, and no fight sequence lasts more than two episodes. There is very little philosophising and internal debate raging to break up the action sequences, and as such they are faster and more efficient. They are more fun to watch too. With all the various ninjas taking part in the test, there`s no limit to the imagination shown in the animation, with each warrior having his or her own specific ninja style.
For a show called Naruto, he isn`t really the focus of this second season, although he does progress in his own way, typically oblivious to what is going on around him. As I have come to expect in this show, he faces adversity and comes out stronger for it, but his character arc is most prominent only in the early episodes. This set of episodes concentrates more on Sasuke, and his is actually a more interesting character at this point. We get some idea of why he is so committed to being a ninja and testing himself. Orochimaru`s interest in him adds another dimension of mystery to the character, and following Sasuke`s arc through these episodes is a strong reason to watch. Similarly, Sakura gets some considerable development in these episodes; indeed the moment that I have been waiting 32 episodes for has finally arrived. Sakura stops watching and criticising, and finally gets to kick some butt for herself. We also learn how her friendship with Ino fell apart, and in these episodes the two begin to heal that rift.
In terms of character development, and in terms of intricate storylines, this second season of Naruto is a league beyond the first. These thirteen episodes are much more entertaining and certainly more satisfying. It`s the sort of anime that is designed to appeal to a broad audience, and when it gets it right, as Naruto does here, then it becomes one of those releases that any anime fan shouldn`t be without. But…
Manga Entertainment`s year of flawed releases continues with yet another dubtitled release. So far, 2007 has seen only one new title from them with translated subtitles, Tactics. Everything else, even those mid-run series that began with translated subtitles are now coming with dubtitles of varying quality. What is particularly irksome is that their Region 1 counterparts are correctly subtitled. Even those discs released by Manga in the US have them. They go to the extra expense of creating new dubtitle tracks for the UK market. I`m actually dreading the UK release of the flagship Ghost In The Shell: Solid State Society movie, in case it gets a similar treatment. If you love Naruto, and you only watch it in English, and have no intention of ever doing otherwise, then buying this set is a no-brainer, it`s highly recommended. But, if you are even curious about the Japanese track, then stop right there! This dubtitled release is practically useless. You`d be better off importing the Region 1 release from Viz. Just make sure you purchase the uncut half season set, and not the individual edited releases.