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"Naruto": Ballad of the Emo

After spanning multiple volumes, it’s finally time for the Chunin Exam to come to an end. Unfortunately, it didn’t end happily, as it gave way to an attack on the Village Hidden in the Leaves and a great sacrifice. Rectifying that sacrifice becomes the priority of Naruto Volume 7.

Previously, the Sand and Sound Villages teamed up to ambush the Leaf Village. Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke were ordered to keep away from Gaara, but the situation grew out of control when Shukaku, the Demon of the Sand, began to take over Gaara’s fragile mind, eventually turning into a giant monster capable of leveling the entire forest. Sasuke tried his best, but his Chidori had minimal effect on the crazed ninja, leaving him paralyzed. With Sakura captured, that left Naruto to take on Gaara all alone, but luckily he managed to summon up the chakra from the Nine-Tailed Fox, summoning Gamabunta, the Chief Toad. Meanwhile, the Third Hokage, Sarutobi, faced off against Orochimaru in a battle of high-level jutsu, but Orochimaru’s deadly Reanimation Jutsu, which revives the First and Second Hokage under the villain’s control, was just too much, forcing Sarutobi to call upon the Reaper Death Seal Jutsu, but the old man is just not strong enough to pull out Orochimaru’s soul.

We pick up Volume 8 right at the end of the attack, as Naruto manages to knock Shukaku back into the seal inside Gaara, leaving both fighters weary and Gaara wondering how the hell Naruto became so strong. This part of the battle ends in a great way, as the similarities between Naruto and Gaara become the most apparent, as we see Gaara actually afraid of Naruto because of his determination to save the others, something Gaara has never encountered. And after the high-energy battle last episode, it’s nice that this was a more character-focused end. Meanwhile, having given up on sealing Orochimaru’s entire soul, Sarutobi settles on only sealing Oro’s arms and eventually passes away. When this happens, the obvious reaction is one of relief, as the scene of Sarutobi being stabbed while trying to seal Orochimaru’s soul away had gone on long enough. However, it says a lot about the power of the show when Sarutobi’s funeral immediately brings sadness and makes one wish the character hadn’t died after all. Sarutobi really was a powerful character.

After that, it’s time to shift gears and move on to some smaller arcs. Jiraiya and Naruto hit the road in search of the Fifth Hokage, but are almost immediately intercepted by the arrival of two members of the secret organization Akatsuki, one of the Seven Swordsman of the Mist known as Kisame, and Sasuke’s older brother Itachi Uchiha. This set of episodes is quite the refresher, as it’s nice and short while packing a lot of bang. Asuma and Kurenai get to show off some of their attacks, while Jiraiya, Guy, and Kakashi all get to showcase some of their jutsu or fighting styles, but the real stars are Itachi and Kisame. Itachi immediately makes an impact thanks to his cool demeanor and odd stylings (Purple fingernails? Really?) but his true impact comes from the use of the Sharingan. So far, we’ve seen it predict moves and copy techniques, but the debut of the Tsukuyomi adds a whole other dimension to the mystical technique, and one that doesn’t get old fast. Not to be outdone, Kisame has some great one-liners and his Shark Skin sword is just all kinds of awesomeness. These two are just what the show ordered after the Destruction of Konoha arc, and they deliver in spades.

After that, it’s time to find the Fifth Hokage, whom Jiraiya hopes will be his former comrade Tsunade, while Naruto begins training in a special jutsu developed by the Fourth Hokage himself. The technique itself is, in essence, your typical energy ball attack, but the way it’s created is rather unique, so thankfully we get training that’s something other than “concentrate chakra into your palm” that other energy blast-type jutsu would create. The various water balloon exercises actually seem rather unique and offer a refreshing change of pace in terms of training. It gets a bit old, though, during certain points, as Naruto spends two episodes essentially doing the same thing while staying at the same town. It makes one wonder why Naruto and Jiraiya would spend so much time in one place, but it does give rise to some good jokes and some nice male bonding between master and pupil.

ImageThen the gang meets up with Tsunade and almost immediately are in trouble again, as Orochimaru’s back and wants the former Sannin, who’s an expert in medical jutsu, to heal his useless arms. Tsunade is quite the impactful character, with her forceful personality and monstrous strength, she immediately sets herself on a whole other level from the other ninja in the show, especially the kunoichi. Unfortunately, because of this being a Shonen Jump show, things do drag along, with the biggest problem being Tsunade dwelling far, far too much on her past, as her laments get repeated ad nasuem as soon as they’re introduced. Still, despite that, Tsunade is still a great character, one that isn’t the clear-cut good guy one would expect, and she has great chemistry with Naruto, Jiraiya, and her aid Shizune.

The introduction of the Akatsuki brings a new visual punch to the series, offering some new backgrounds and color palettes to spice the show up, enhancing the visuals a lot. Tsukuyomi, rendered in an inverted red and black color scheme, just adds to the awesome visuals, giving Sasuke’s flashback that much more tragedy behind it, and making the scene quite chilling, especially for little kids watching. The new backgrounds add some flavor, which is enhanced further by the quaint Tanzaku Town, setting for the Tsunade arc, punctuated by a cool-looking castle. As the main fight for that arc hasn’t begun, the animation gets to settle down a bit, and while there’s no noticeable drop in quality, there’s nothing in this arc that really needs the series’ awesome animation anyway. Oh yea, and the Rasengan just looks really, really awesome in CG, much cooler than it would have ever looked in 2D if the series was made in the 90′s. We also get full use of the new opening and ending themes, both of which are very striking visually, though the opening will get better next volume when all the visual updates occur.

ImageNow, I’ve always been a big fan of Malie Flanningan as Naruto, but she just shines in this episode, as the kid’s fear of Kisame and anger at his own weakness is just spot-on during these episodes. Jiraiya’s dub voice is always made of pure win, as is Steven Blum’s Orochimaru, so its no surprise they nail their lines rather easily. As for the new characters, Kisame and Itachi are perfectly voiced, though at this point it seems like Crispin Freeman plays a quarter of the characters on the show, though Itachi’s his biggest by far. Tsunade sounds a little rough in the early goings, but Shizune works right from the getgo. As for the Japanese cast, they all excel like normal, especially Junko Takenuchi’s Naruto, though that may just be my love for the character talking. In terms of music, I’ll always love this show’s soundtrack, and “Go!!!” is far and away my favorite opening in the entire series. “Over and Over” is a pretty decent ending theme saved by its addictive chorus, though it can’t topple “Viva Rock.”

As with all the Uncut sets, the main extra is a storyboard booklet included in every copy, this time for “Eye to Eye: Sharingan vs. Sharingan!” As I’ve said before, I love these storyboard booklets, as they offer a great look behind the scenes of the show while allowing you to physically look at the boards instead of squinting at the TV screen uncomfortably. All of the on-disc extras are on Disc 3, and they include the usual storyboard-to-screen segment, English credits, trailers for Death Note, The Prince of Tennis, and Bleach, a sneak preview of Volume 8, and a special promo reel for Buso Renkin. The Special Edition, like the previous two volumes, comes with a small figure of one of the various summons, this time around it’s Gamakichi. Unfortunately, this figure still isn’t worth the $70 price tag, so if you don’t want to spend the extra money, feel free to get the Standard Edition.

Overall, Naruto continues to get better and better, and if you’ve enjoyed the series so far, this collection of episodes will be just as fun to watch. Naruto’s well on his way to greatness.

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