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"Naruto Shippuden The Movie 2: Bonds (UK Edition)": That's MY Way Of The Ninja!

Naruto is a series I have an odd off-again, on-again relationship with. I’d been following it since just shortly before its massive push in America. A lot had happened in the story by that point, so right as a bunch of new fans were getting interested, my own interest was on the decline. I continue to check up on it every so often, but I’m not really taken with where the story has gone since the time skip which has become known as ‘Naruto Shippuden‘.

ImageIn some ways, this might make me the perfect audience for the spin-off movies. Released roughly one a year, the movies follow the tried and tested Japanese formula of taking elements of the current storyline in a kids show and creating an original story that spins off of them. Whilst this can lead to derivative villains and continuity plot-holes, on this occasion it allows the producers to dangle a particularly interesting carrot: a team up between Naruto and Sasuke, tying directly into the main character conflict of the entire series.

SPOILER WARNING: It is impossible to discuss the movie without revealing key plot points. So if you don’t want things spoiled for you, please stop here.

The promotion for the movie makes much of the idea that the plot involves a team of vengeance-seeking flying ninjas using aircraft technology to attack Naruto’s village, and that this attack leads Sasuke to team up with our hero to defend their birth place.

In actual fact, the plot isn’t nearly this clichéd. Things certainly do kick off with the enemy leading a bombing on Konoha, but this simply serves as the starting point of the real plot. For what they are, the flying ninjas are kind of cool with their chakra-powered flight packs, but it reminds me that Naruto can’t seem to keep technology consistent. (We went from security cameras and Naruto having a games console in his room to the idea that messages are delivered on foot). The flying ninjas and their steampunk aircraft carriers rather quickly become a minor annoyance, left to be dealt with by a quartet of regulars, seemingly to justify including them in the film too.

The real plot involves Naruto, Sakura and Hinata travelling with a doctor and his apprentice to deliver aid to another village the flying ninjas have attacked. Intentional parallels are made between Naruto and the doctor’s apprentice, Amaru, with the two butting heads over who has the better master and whether in such a turbulent world it’s more noble to be a warrior or a physician. This is furthered by the idea the doctor, Shinno, was formerly a ninja and is now on a path of redemption by acting as a travelling doctor. Indeed, Sasuke’s involvement in the plot is over his master Orochimaru dispatching him to hunt down Shinno for a special forbidden jutsu he once developed that could promise immortality.

This all seemed fairly pedestrian and telegraphed up until the film drops a fairly surprising twist. Upon arriving at the village Shinno is killed by an enemy ambush and the conflict looks clear for Amaru to find a way to continue his work and save the village. In actual fact, though, and in a much welcomed escape from a plot that seemed to be settling in Cliché County, Shinno is in fact the true villain of the movie. Everything has been set up by him, using the false identity of a doctor to travel freely in his ongoing quest for dark power and adopting the lonely Amaru purely to then break her to feed the despair-feasting demon he’d been cultivating.

ImageThis was one of the few times in fiction I’ve outright loathed a villain for their acts, though complicated by the fact that once revealed his new personality is oddly entertaining as he debases both Naruto and Amaru with analysis of how he’s always been one step ahead and has now achieved a power that makes them no threat to him. It stands out in particular for being the complete opposite from the loving, fatherly persona he portrayed prior.

This is also where both Naruto and Amaru shine. As the title implies, the key theme of the film is the bonds between people and how they’ve always been used by Naruto to draw strength from in protecting one another. So when faced with someone who would manipulate those bonds, especially with an orphan similar to himself, he takes it as an affront to his very way of life. Seeing him continue to try fruitlessly to injure the invulnerable Shinno is handled well as rather than become repetitive it stands as a testament to his resolve.

I’ve seen plenty of Japanese stories where an independent young woman is reduced to a weeping wreck whilst the men tie everything up. Whilst the reveal does shatter Amaru, she doesn’t become a complete mess. There’s a beautiful moment where Naruto prevents her from committing suicide whilst reassuring her that her own beliefs and desires are still valid, regardless of how the man she thought was her master has abused her.

Sadly, the film kind of loses this moment of zen when Sasuke finally reveals himself and stops Naruto’s one chance of victory so that he may complete his mission. It’s actually kind of embarrassing for our hero as Sasuke quickly finds a way to rob Shinno of his absorbed power, a trend which played a part in pushing me away from the main series. This is really one of the most complicated parts of the story, as at this point Sasuke wants little to nothing to do with his former friend. How exactly do you write a team up when one party is consistently going out of their way to ignore the other? The film manages this well enough as Shinno’s final gambit stands the chance of being a threat to the entire world, making it more an alliance of convenience. Of course there is at least one moment that dangles the carrot for fans hoping they’ll reconcile in the main story.

The film’s animation is a step up from that usually seen on the TV show. Fight scenes in particular benefit from the higher budget. Slightly less impressive is the integration of CGI elements into the 2D animation. This seems to be a consistent problem with 2D animated projects in recent years, with directors getting a bit too excited with the idea they can make an important element or set in CGI to add an extra pinch of ‘epic’ to its appearance. The problem is that very few of these uses are integrated well and so they take you out of the story rather than pulling you in.

ImageThe film is presented with the option of English dub or Japanese with English subtitles, both in 5.1 audio. Extras consist of a set of Japanese and English trailers for the film, a gallery of production art and the special opening which the main show used to promote the film, made of clips from it. There are also some trailers for other Naruto releases.

Naruto Shippuden The Movie 2: Bonds happily surprised me. With the main story having lost its main charm for me a long time ago, I expected I’d come away feeling generally underwhelmed. Instead, this was a powerful story that reaffirms the attraction of the protagonist. The core of the Naruto story has always been about facing life and forming bonds even in the face of terrible events and manipulative people, to find the good and prove it the rule rather than the exception. Familiarity with the main story is required to truly enjoy this film, but regardless it was a joy to watch. More of this standard, please.

Naruto Shippuden The Movie 2: Bonds UK Edition can be purchased on DVD or Blu-ray through Amazon.co.uk.

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