Review for Naruto Shippuden: Box Set 7 (2 Discs)
We've settled down to something approaching a regular schedule with Naruto, as we seem to be getting the boxsets on a seasonal basis. Naruto Shippuden Collection 7 will hit the streets as autumn draws to a close, and Collection 8 is set for the dying gasp of winter at the end of February. That pretty much matches a television schedule of one episode a week or thereabouts, which is fine when you're mired in the midst of filler. The thing is that we aren't in filler now. For the last couple of collections, Naruto Shippuden has been getting good, and it looks like with Collection 7, this is where it gets great again. When that happens, you wind up needing your next fix with alacrity.
15 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. He wants to be the strongest ninja of them all and be granted the title Hokage, leader of the Hidden Leaf village. In the first Naruto series, we followed him on his training as a ninja, tutored by Kakashi, and partnered with his ideal girl Sakura, and his archrival Sasuke. Of course Sakura was sweet on Sasuke, which didn't help, but slowly the three became firm friends.
The dark clouds of ambition tore that friendship apart though, but it wasn't Naruto's ambition. It was Sasuke's, sole survivor of the Uchiha clan, slaughtered by his brother Itachi. He grew up wanting revenge on Itachi, and wanting to gain in power and strength as quickly as possible. Sasuke gave into the temptation for easy power, offered by the renegade ninja Orochimaru, when Orochimaru infiltrated the village during the Chunin exams, and assassinated the Third Hokage. Sasuke left to join Orochimaru, and Naruto swore to get him back. For the last two and half years, Naruto has been in training with the sage Jiraiya, and he's now returned to the village, empowered and ready to rescue his friend. But Orochimaru and Sasuke haven't been resting easy either, while the Akatsuki group of renegade ninja, of whom Sasuke's brother Itachi is a member, have been accelerating their plans, and top of the list is obtaining the Nine-Tailed Fox Demon, the one that is currently sealed up in Naruto.
Manga Entertainment present the next 11 episodes of Naruto Shippuden spread across 2 discs.
78. The Judgement
79. Unfulfilled Scream
80. Last Words
81. Sad News
82. Team 10
Naruto's still hard at work, trying to develop a new jutsu that will hold him in good stead against the growing Akatsuki threat, as well as enable him to face Sasuke on a level playing field. He's trying to take the Rasengan one step further beyond the fourth Hokage, who created the jutsu. But Akatsuki have no patience for Naruto's timetable. Two of their number, Hidan and Kakuzu have come to the Land of Fire to find the Nine-tailed beast. When last we left the story, Asuma and Shikamaru's team had just confronted them, but were at a loss when faced with the fact that Hidan was immortal. It turns out that this is the least of his powers, and Kakuzu's abilities are yet to be revealed. It will take all of Shikamaru's wit and strategy to just survive against them, and it's only through sheer luck that the Akatsuki pair are called away before Shikamaru runs out of ideas. But even as they leave, the Akatsuki duo leave the Hidden Leaf Village a lethal, and devastating reminder of their power.
83. Target: Locked On
84. Kakuzu's Abilities
85. The Terrifying Secret
86. Shikamaru's Genius
87. When You Curse Someone, You Dig Your Own Grave
88. Wind Style: Rasen Shuriken
Shikamaru deals with his grief the only way he knows how, to go out again and complete his mission. This time, the old team reforms, and he has Ino and Choji at his side. The Fifth Hokage questions his judgement, wondering if he is acting out of a desire for revenge, but Shikamaru makes a potent point. Revenge or not, Hidan and Kakuzu are still out there, they still want Naruto, and they still need to be stopped. The Hokage's concerns are quelled when Kakashi joins the team, but Shikamaru will still need backup. Now that Naruto has worked out the final step in his training, the Hokage gives him 24 hours to master his new jutsu, before she assigns another team to back Shikamaru up.
Naruto Shippuden is now presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. What's more, the transfer is a native PAL one, clear and sharp throughout, with no issues regarding blended frames or ghosting. It seems that with this instalment of Shippuden episodes, the disc authors are beginning to rein in that problem with unsightly judder during pans and scrolls that afflicted the two previous volumes, significantly blighting the last. In volume 7 it only rears up its ugly head during episode 81, and the preview that follows episode 88. It's significantly less than before, and hopefully this will be the last that we see of it. Shippuden's animation, and its character designs are sharper and crisper than Naruto's. It's certainly more detailed than the first series, and the colours are a little more muted.
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. Yasuhara Takanashi takes over the music reins from Toshiro Masuda, and the result is if anything even less memorable than the music from the first series. But it works well enough in driving the action, and it doesn't get overbearing. Once again, I only 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.
The discs get static menus, with the episode chapter breaks in place. Each episode ends in a brief animated Naruto comedy skit, although in some of the skits in this collection, the subtitles are out of sync with the audio by a fraction.
The extras are on disc 2, 15 line art images in a Production Art Gallery, and trailers for the first Naruto Shippuden movie and the Naruto Shippuden series.
You'll also find 5 minutes worth of original Japanese commercials for the series. The 3 minutes of commercials for the 4:3 Naruto Shippuden play fine, but the 2 minutes for the anamorphic episodes are played at the wrong speed, with the audio and images slowed down. None of the commercials have translated subtitles.
Shonen anime shows just run and run and run. Once you have your basic set up, a young, usually male protagonist levelling up his way through adversity, following an epic quest, with convoluted storylines and extensive casts, as well as series specific jargon to help divide audiences into fan clans, then the anime creators will do their best to extend a usually endless manga series even more. It's usual to see such shows reach three figures in numbers of episodes, canon material is stretched, buffered with filler, flashbacks and side stories. This is really the lowest common denominator of the anime medium, it's the entry point for many a fan, the Saturday morning 'toon that children grow up with. A lot of it is mediocre, the animation is done on the cheap, the storylines are repetitive, and the actors can phone in their performances. But once in a while, one of these shows delivers something special. For a relatively brief period of time, the animators up their game, the writers find a groove, the actors get inspired by the material and it all coincides with a high point in the manga storyline. That happens in volume 7 of Naruto Shippuden, a run of 11 episodes that for me is the best that this show has yet delivered.
Spoilers lie ahead!
The irony is that it wouldn't have been half as good, were it not for a stretch of filler episodes that bridged the previous two volumes. The story where Naruto took a break from his training to go and investigate a case of grave robbing, that introduced him to kindred spirit Sora, also had the advantage of exploring one of the minor characters in the Hidden Leaf Village, giving this character a richer back-story and defining the personality in better detail too. That character dies in the start of this collection, and because of that stretch of filler, we are now much more deeply invested in what has happened and how it affects everyone else.
It also quickly becomes clear that the story that unfolds in this collection of episodes is Shikamaru's. Naruto and his friends stay strictly in the background while he works on levelling up his ninja skills. Shikamaru is a contemporary of Naruto, a young ninja whose supreme skills lie in analysis and strategy, and this has pushed him up the ninja ranks quicker than his peers. When the tragedy that occurs in the second episode on this collection powerfully affects him, he has to come to terms with loss, sacrifice and survivor's guilt. His ability to strategise failed him when he needed it the most, at least that is what he believes, and that shapes what follows after.
If there is still a weakness in Naruto Shippuden at this point, it's the need to stretch things out, so following the confrontation with Kakuzu and Hidan, a whole episode is devoted to a death scene, which again wouldn't have been half as effective were it not for that filler stretch that further acquainted us with the expiring character. Then follows two episodes of dealing with the aftermath, which I thought was beginning to stretch tenuously thin at the end of episode 81, as the news began to spread around the Hidden Leaf Village. But then comes episode 82, the funeral, and what may just be, for me at any rate, the best Naruto episode yet. The animation style changes, the characters appear more mature, the writing is at its sharpest, and the story here is utterly compelling. It's a reflective 20-odd minutes that serves as a character examination of Shikamaru, exploring how he is facing his grief and his loss. He can't bear to attend the funeral, so he wanders the streets, avoiding his friends, his family, his grief, until his father forces him to confront his feelings across a Shogi board. The end of the episode sees the original team of Shikamaru, Choji and Ino reunited and heading out once more to face Hidan and Kakuzu. Their motives may be suspect, an ultimately self-destructive need for vengeance.
The final six episodes of this collection are devoted to the rematch, as Shikamaru's team, with the assistance of Kakashi hunt down and confront Hidan and Kakuzu again, this time armed with the strength of the analysis and strategies that Shikamaru has been able to prepare over the last few days. Of all the various ninja characters that make up the cast of Naruto, Shikamaru is my favourite, not least for that laconic slacker style that sees him only grudgingly face his challenges. But he is also a grand strategiser, his battles are more of the mind than they are of massive explosion of chi, and he has a countermove for every move that his opponents come up with. There may be a tad more standing around talking when he fights than with the other characters, but I always find his action sequences compelling and thoughtful. The battle of wits and brawn between his team and the Akatsuki pair shows this trait at its finest, and his final confrontation with the slayer of the character previously alluded to is the best vicarious thrill that this series has yet delivered. These aren't little kid ninja anymore.
Getting back to the main storyline, this is also where Naruto's extensive, off-screen training begins to bear fruit, and he shows up at the end as Shikamaru's back-up, armed with an atomic bomb of a jutsu, which as he says is only half of what he yet hopes to achieve. It looks as if the orange kagouled one will take centre stage in subsequent episodes and it's about time.
The best of Naruto Shippuden so far justifies the investment that fans show in this series, with a gripping story arc, animated with, for a long running shonen series, some strong production values. With Bleach also hitting a high point this autumn, this is more of a shonen Indian summer for fans of the genre. Hopefully Naruto will be able to keep up the standards for the next instalment.