Naruto Unleashed Series 1:1 Review
The year was 1999 when a budding young Manga writer by the name Masashi Kishimoto saw his series about a shadow ninja boy called Naruto get picked up by the most popular boy’s (Shounen) magazine in Japan: Shounen Jump. Since then Naruto has become a total phenomenon, each volume release sells in excess of one million copies and it is estimated that there are sixty-one million copies of the Naruto Manga in circulation. That’s a lot; in fact it’s enough to make Naruto the 5th biggest selling Shounen Manga of all time in Japan. In 2001 Naruto made the jump from page to screen when the anime pilot was aired at a prime-time slot on the TV Tokyo network. Just like the Manga it was a huge success, and to date there has been just under 200 episodes beamed into Japanese homes and three successful feature-length movies produced.
However, if Naruto’s success in Japan was a surprise, its popularity abroad was even more so. Although it couldn’t possibly match the viewing figures in Japan, the anime drew huge audiences online who were downloading episodes that had been translated and subtitled by fellow fans. Naruto’s popularity has snowballed since then, with hundreds of thousands of internet fans downloading each new weekly episode, making Naruto the most popular fansubbed anime of all time. Perhaps because of its success online and sheer length (the series will probably surpass three hundred episodes), it took a while for an American company to license the show for distribution in the West, but sure enough Viz stumped up the cash and aired the first two episodes in September 2005. Today, Naruto continues to be a surefire hit with audiences around the world, with it airing on Jetix daily in the UK.
The premise of Naruto is fairly straightforward: 12 years ago the Nine-tails Fox attacked the powerful ninja village named Konoha. A huge and fearsome demon, it is said that a mere swing of its tails was enough to crush a mountain, and confronted with such power, the ninjas of Konoha were facing certain doom. That is, until the leader of the village, the 4th Hokage sacrificed himself to seal the Fox in the belly of a newborn child. 12 yrs later and that child has grown up to be a loud and boisterous troublemaker who is loathed by the adults who can remember the Nine-tails incident, and although the laws of the village forbid the older villagers to talk about the incident, their bigoted attitudes have been unconsciously passed down to their children, making Naruto pretty much disliked by everyone in Konoha. To combat his feeling of isolation, Naruto makes a vow that he will become the Hokage one day and thus gain the acknowledgement and respect of the cold villagers. Along the road to become a ninja strong enough to become Hokage, Naruto has to contend with being placed in a three man team with smart-girl Sakura Haruno and the moody, talented young ninja Sasuke Uchiha – the only survivor of the Uchiha clan that was slaughtered one dark and distant night. Their teacher and protector is Kakashi Hatake, a man with a fearsome reputation and even more fearsome training regimes.
What’s so special about Naruto then? Well, on first glance of the introductory episodes of the series it may not seem more than your typical Shounen anime. For a start, the three main characters are very basic stereotypes in this genre; Naruto is the irrepressible idiot, Sakura the girl who has a crush on the coolest boy in school, and Sasuke the intense, talented one who Naruto naturally chooses as his eternal rival. This isn’t to say fun isn’t had with these characters, indeed the way every time Naruto somehow manages to pull off a typical “cool” moment only to get smacked right back down to Earth straight away is genuinely infectious, and Kishimoto’s creation of Sakura’s boisterous inner voice as a contrast to her outwardly polite and unassuming nature provides many comedy highlights, but these are gags that can only be used so many times before they get stale. Kishimoto knows this though, and he manages to move the characters on before any of their wackiness becomes overbearing, indeed in the first couple of story arcs, the humour in Naruto is its strongest point, something that is needed to counteract the extremely heavy handed melodrama that seeps into the story all too many times in the initial twenty episodes or so. The pilot episode is a classic case where any poignancy that Naruto’s lonely upbringing would have is destroyed by almost record breaking amounts of crying from the blonde Ninja and his academy tutor, Iruka-sensei.
Stick with the show though, and you will see why Naruto has become such a phenomenon in Japan. As mentioned before, the comedy is pretty much always on target, helping to alleviate and sometimes even underscore the moments of high drama. Most important of all though is the imagination of one Masashi Kishimoto. I know a lot has been said by Manga/Anime fans about the similarities Naruto shares to the likes of Dragonball Z, Hunter X Hunter, Rurouni Kenshin, Yu Yu Hakusho and various other Shounen series, but if the naysayers were honest with themselves they’d admit that just about every new series is heavily indebted to the ones that came before, and just about every series has been heavily influenced by Akira Toriyama’s epic Dragonball series (hell it practically is the blueprint for Shounen Manga/Anime today). Quibbles of originality aside though, so much of Naruto feels so fresh. One example is in its setting, rather than address the issues of guns and high-tech warfare, Naruto takes place in its own special parallel world where day-to-day technology is the same (fridges, TVs, phones etc), but transport and weaponry are good 100yrs or so behind, afterall you can’t have a Ninja show where every special attack is usurped by some punk character getting a gun out. Another tweaking of reality that works well is the Ninja theme, contrary to the established view of ninjas as assassins decked head-to-toe in black gear and working stealthily at night, Naruto just takes the basic ideology of Ninjutsu and creates a whole new, very extravagant world of flashy battles and animal summons – each making for some truly memorable confrontations.
Then we have the supporting cast of Naruto. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Naruto has one of the biggest and greatest casts of supporting characters of any Anime series going right now. Kakashi, Iruka, Gai, Rock Lee, Neji, Shikamaru, Chouji, Shino, Kiba, Ino, Hinata, Gamabunta, Jiraiya, Kabuto, Tsunade, Orochimaru, Gaara, Temari, Kankuro, Itachi, the list goes on and on. All these characters are given unique personalities, some are fun, some dangerous, some wry and some tragic, but all of them are interesting and are give decent character arcs as the series progresses. Having such a large cast of likeable supporting players has also been a major factor in Naruto’s continued popularity, you only have to visit one of the show’s numerous fansites to see hotly debated topics about which character would defeat whom if they ever had a confrontation. Add to this some tantalising plot points, like how was the Nine-tailed Fox sealed in Naruto in the first place? Why was he chosen by the 4th Hokage? Could they be father and son? (Even more appear as the series progresses) And you can see why Kishimoto has scores of hungry fanatics hanging on every word of each new Manga chapter (and subsequently Anime episode) he writes.
The 13 episodes in this first boxset release from Manga can be categorised into two distinct arcs: The Intro Arc, of which episodes 1 through 5 comprise; then you have the start of the Wave Country Arc which begins with episode 6 and continues for the remainder of the episodes in this set. The Intro Arc is pretty self-explanatory; the pilot has Naruto learning about the Nine-tailed Fox sealed within him and also the forbidden Mass Shadow Clone Technique that becomes his staple method of attack throughout the series. After graduating from the Ninja Academy he is placed into a three man team with the object of his affections, Sakura Haruno and the object of her affections, not to mention his eternal rival; Sasuke Uchiha. The introduction of these characters and the relationships that exist within them is all handled very light-heartedly, with one of the comedy highlights in this set coming when Naruto and Sasuke inadvertently end up sharing their “first kiss”. Once the team is formed they are assigned to the man who will train them to become professional ninjas: Kakashi Hatake. Kakashi is the shining light of these early episodes, he’s the sort of character that you simply cannot fail to fall in love with right away. He has the best character design and is given all the best lines (most of them sarcastic), particularly in his excuses for constantly turning up late for every meeting. Once they meet Kakashi he puts them through rigorous training where each member of the team has to try and grab one of two bells that he’s holding. A simple test that ends up putting them through hell as Kakashi uses all the different ninja techniques (thus teaching the viewer what these are) and even the occasional ass poke! Naturally it’s Naruto who ends up the brunt of most of these attacks.
Things get more serious in the Wave Country Arc when the team are assigned a C-rank mission to act as bodyguards for a bridge-builder named Tazuna who is returning home to the Wave country. Ordinarily this would be a straightforward mission, but Tazuna has lied about the severity of the threat to his life in order to be billed for the cheaper C-rank job. It turns out that the people who have been hired to kill Tazuna are two extremely deadly ninjas named Zabuza and Haku. The Wave Country Arc is the first proper story arc of Naruto, here we see for the first time villainous characters and see proper Ninja battles in the form of the two confrontations the team has with Zabuza and his partner/student Haku. As such, it sets the tone for all the battles to follow; none more so than the first confrontation between Kakashi and Zabuza, which shows that, unlike Dragonball where characters are assigned power levels so you know X is stronger than Y; in Naruto a superior ninja can be taken out by an inferior opponent if he is outwitted, which naturally makes for more thrilling encounters. Action aside, the nine episodes of the Wave Country arc that are in this set remain focused on Tazuna’s family and how they’ve been affected by the village’s increasing destitution, so it’s mostly a grim, dramatic affair, with Naruto vowing to save the day and prove that heroes can exist in this land. Although the main characters are given much to do here, there’s a great little diversion in Kakashi teaching his students how to walk up trees by moulding chakra in their feet. Sakura gets the knack straight away, but Naruto and Sasuke find the task much more difficult - leading to some amusing moments of rivalry between the two.
Naruto Unleashed: Boxset 01 provides much of what I consider the best and worst of Naruto, sometimes the melodrama is a little cloying, but the overriding impression of these episodes is high thanks to many great character moments and inspired comedy set pieces. The best thing about this set is that things only get better and better from here, and by the time the Wave Country Arc has finished, Naruto will have evolved into one of craziest and simply joyous Shounen Anime shows that you could hope to see.
PresentationManga UK are releasing Naruto in boxsets containing 3 discs that cover 13 episodes in total. They also state boldly on the box that these episodes are the full, uncut originals. The reason for this is because Jetix, who broadcast Naruto in the UK daily at 7:30pm, have provided the most ridiculous level of censorship to the show. They have completely butchered each episode, often cutting out most if not all the action scenes and even going so far as removing bits of dialogue if a character refers to one of the ninja weapons, like a shuriken.
Presented in Naruto’s original broadcast ratio of 4:3; the episodes in this set all look great. Naruto is a very bright, colourful anime, which is handled well by a transfer that exhibits bold, vibrant colours that are free from noise and any bleeding. Likewise, brightness and contrast levels are never less than impressive, while detail levels are as high as you can expect from a show that first aired in 2002. Look a little closer at the image though and you can spot the occasional recurring video artefact, things like cross colouration in some of the linework, dot crawl in some of the finer areas, very faint edge enhancement, and some very fine mosquito noise. There’s also the usual NTSC – PAL interlacing foibles as well, but the negatives should be almost unnoticeable on an average home cinema display.
Manga U.K have provided a myriad of audio options for Naruto fans, with no less than six audio tracks on each disc in the set. They are: Japanese/English DD2.0, Japanese/English DD5.1, and Japanese/English DTS. Flicking between the Japanese and English tracks of each audio format, it’s clear that they both represent the same auditory experience, so I will simply refer to each audio format as a singular audio track that covers both the original Japanese and English dub. Ok, firstly we have the DD2.0 soundtrack, the format that Naruto was originally recorded in. It’s an excellent track, dialogue is loud, clear and whenever any high screaming kicks in, it’s dealt with crisply with no audible tear. Likewise the sound effects and thumping bass provide a rich and involving companion to the dialogue.
The DD5.1 and DTS tracks have been specially remixed by Manga, so this is the only DVD release of Naruto where you’ll see supposedly discrete 5.1 surround sound. In practice, both tracks are just a much louder reproduction of the DD2.0 tracks; with the ambient sounds that are relegated to the rear channels being boosted up to almost match the dialogue and soundtrack that fills the front soundstage. That isn’t to say these are bad tracks though, indeed just like the DD2.0 tracks they reproduce the soundtrack and action effects with plenty of punch, and the dialogue is always crisp and audible throughout even the busiest of scenes. While the DD5.1 tracks match sound quality of the DD2.0, the DTS manages to improve the bass and make it just a little bit tighter than the other formats.
Listening to the English dub of Naruto I have to say I was pretty impressed with the voice acting. Almost every actor’s voice suits the characters well and it’s clear that large effort has been put in by some to recreate the sound and style of their Japanese counterpart. The only real negative is Dave Wittenberg’s performance as Kakashi, which is extremely languid and devoid of the wryness that is a fundamental part of Kakashi’s character.
Optional English subtitles are provided, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall. About the subtitle translation; when Naruto was originally licensed in the West, much was said by fans about how the names of the various ninja techniques and styles would be handled, would they keep the original names or go with an English translation. Well, there’s a definite feel that the translations are very much a work in progress in this set. At first the ninja techniques are anglicised, so Kage Bunshin no Jutsu is named Shadow Split when a literal translation would be Shadow Clone Technique. However, as the series progresses the subtitles become much closer to literal translations and using the original Japanese names of jutsu. Ironically, when it comes to the names of the ninja techniques, the English dub remains much more faithful to the original Japanese than the subtitle translation!