Since I started writing here I've been dreading the day I would have to write something about something I really couldn't care less about. I've gotten close on occasion but I've been lucky to get things that turn out to be fantastic or turn out to be so bad that they make for great article. The good times are over, welcome to my review of box 14 of Naruto: Shippuden, available to buy from today.
Now when I say I couldn't care less about it, I mean Naruto really doesn't register for me. It's something that exists and people keep watching it and it's not bad but it really shouldn't be taking up people's time when there's much better stuff they could be watching. Half the reason I write here is so that people can stop watching Naruto.
Nonetheless, I have a job to do and I will do that job. So, back to the format: story, artistry, translation and then DVD.
As you might imagine, I don't watch a whole lot of Naruto. I actually used to help fan sub it a few years back and I learnt then what I learnt now, there's not a lot of catching up to do. This is not a Gundam style situation where one missed episode means you'll never again understand what's going on.
As ever, if you don't want story spoilers then skip to artistry and I'll tell you right now, Naruto is long past the point where it had a story worth telling and this DVD set actually frames the reasons why very nicely.
The first problem is that this starts not just halfway through a storyline but halfway through a climactic battle. First thing we see is a half unsealed fox causing all sorts of havoc maybe for some reason. Pain's there looking on but seemingly not interacting, yet more and more tails are being broken out and…
For the uninitiated: when Naruto was a baby the Nine-tailed fox attacked his village. The only way to stop the fox was for the fourth Hokage (village big-wig and all around awesome ninja) to seal it into the baby Naruto. Naruto spends his time suppressing the fox and trying to become an all around awesome ninja so he can be the next Hokage even though he's a bit of a useless ninja. There's also a criminal ninja organisation called Akatsuki which Pain is a part of. He controls puppet versions of himself that go around being bad men.
That may have been a slightly slap dash explanation but it's got to be better than my flatmate's explanation of "oh, is that the one with the kid who turns into a fox?"
So, back to the story. Naruto keeps unsealing more and more of the fox despite the fact that Pain doesn't really seem to be fighting back and he's just about to fully unleash the beast when the fourth Hokage's spirit visits him and tells him to simmer down. He does, the fox is contained, and sage mode Naruto (because he didn't simmer down all the way) lays the smack down on the Pain-alike.
While that was happening he tracks the real Pain and – telling everybody he's got this – goes for a frank discussion about Pain's motivation for killing everybody. Pain seems surprisingly amenable to this discussion and promises to tell all.
At this point we have two completely unrelated episodes about a competition that happened when Naruto was 12. I actually thought I was watching flashback episodes explaining Pain's story at the time but then I realised that it was just two episodes of dicking about. The really amazing bit is that they have the gall to call it must-see TV and tell us we wouldn't want to miss it when we're halfway through the meaty wangsty bit of a storyline. If I had been watching this three years ago when it came out in Japan or six months ago when it came out in English, I would have been pissed.
(I'll take this moment to mention the jokey scenes after the credits that were played after scenes that should have been heart-rending and emotionally overwhelming)
So back to the actual story you wanted to watch and we discover that Pain, much like everybody else in the damned Ninja World is a poor little orphan and holds a grudge against the tribe that killed his parents (Naruto's tribe). Furthermore he seems to be the reincarnation of the original ninja and has wicked ninja powers because of the crazy eyes. He met a couple of friends and they trained with Naruto's old master (before Naruto needed a master) and learnt that it was important to try and bring peace to the world. Then one of his friends dies and he wigs out and becomes the world's greatest super villain.
Surely nothing could possibly bring him back but then Naruto reminds him that his old master (who Pain and his other selves shivved to death) had faith in Pain and then had faith in Naruto and that even if Pain has forgotten what matters, Naruto never will and Naruto will bring peace to Ninja World.
Did I mention Ninja World is constantly at war? It is.
You'd think there'd be more to it but apparently the writers had somewhere to be so Pain decides to use his last bit of energy to bring everybody back to life. Naruto goes home and he's a big damn hero for managing to resolve the situation with negotiation and everybody kindly forgives the fact that he let lose the fox and it destroyed everything.
This would be a nice place to tie up the storyline but we're only 10 episodes into the DVD collection (keeping in mind that two of those were pointless and ignoring the amount of them that were so much posturing and not fighting) so we get the start of a new storyline where we backtrack to a little before the original Naruto series started to see a young Naruto meeting his teacher from the first episode of Naruto. This then goes on to show him move onto his next teacher after he's graduated (which happens in the first episode of Naruto) and shows it all from the teachers' perspectives. Fleshing out the story if you will.
In this we see a child who everybody hates for no good reason (at least not one that he knows about and even then it's still them just being dicks) and you really do get to feel sorry for him. He wishes he was good and he tries real hard but he's the worst ninja in the class and everybody hates him.
The thing is that, while this story is a good one, we've pretty much already seen it in a little show called Naruto. It becomes a glorified set of clips episode (without mentioning the clips episode that is in there) which, while they serve to show a slightly different perspective on those original stories, can only be lazy. What it tells me is that this is a show that was probably good once upon a time but that time is not now. It's been milked dry and, while I'm sure there's good stuff still to be found in there, it's swimming in all this filler and padding that are just an excuse to fill airtime and sell toys.
That's another thing. I want to make this very clear, this show is for little kids. It's no Doraemon, but neither is it dark and gritty nor educated and esoteric. It's shonen pap for little boys. You might suggest that it's for a different culture and actually they love it over there but the fact is that the people who love it over there are well aware that it's for kids and they love it with that in mind. Still don't believe me? Look at the theme tune. See the karaoke on it? See the little characters over the words? That's furigana, a reading guide for little kids and foreigners who haven't learnt all their words yet.
So the stories here are decent enough but they start halfway through an arc, don't finish the second arc which they start, and interrupt the deep character building moments with sexy commando style bumf, which is funny when the show's at that point but not at the point where everybody you love is dead.
I mentioned that I used to fan sub Naruto: Shippuden. When you fan sub you spend a lot of time looking at still frames so you notice if the artwork is any good. It's actually pretty hilarious if you do live action stuff because people are constantly pulling stupid faces. I never had a problem with Naruto's artwork.
So you can imagine my surprise when I see the fox all out and being smashy and the animation looks horrendous.
When you've been around anime long enough you'll know that there's three types of animation that a show can get away with using:
1) Static animation. You use this when people are talking and nothing's really happening. You can pretty much get away with panning across a still image and nobody will care.
2) Regular animation. This is for your normal scenes where somebody's actually doing something. The quality of the artwork should still be decent. Most shows will stop here because the next bit is dangerous territory.
3) Quick animation. Shit's hit the fan, there's an all out brawl, everything's going everywhere. You'll have very broad strokes going on and the animation is going to get juddery. Think of the O-ren under the bed scenes in Kill Bill and you're there. This last one is done because it takes forever to animate an organic action sequence with clean animation and because it looks frenzied and adds to the feeling of shit going down.
The point I'm trying to make here is that the animation in the opening episodes was not the third kind as described above. In fact, later on we see the third kind and it looks awesome. In the first couple of episodes, for whatever reason, there's just some straight up sloppy animation. No shading, boring lines everywhere, terrible detailing. Now, it does pick up and there's some pretty decent bits later on. Very little by way of works of art, but more than enough to keep you watching.
Actually, I'd like to take a moment to mention the outfits that everybody wears in this show. It's terrible. I can see what they were going for by fusing military garb and traditional ninja clothing but it ends up looking ridiculous. The body warmers that everybody wears can't possibly be helpful when trying to be a ninja and the sandal boots with the tyre-track tread look to be the worst of every possible world. That's the thing that annoyed me most about the whole affair.
Outside of that, I'd like to commend the show for random metal guitar used to punctuate tense scenes. I like to imagine there's a session guitarist locked away in a studio watching ninja walking through forests and just noodling away as his heart desires. It sounds like a wonderful existence.
You know what? The dub's not bad. Sure all the kids sound like they've been smoking for 30 years, Naruto appears to have two different voices depending on the situation he's in and I could actually recognise some of the voices from Naruto: Abridged, but there was mostly competent dubbing going on. That and it turns out that Kakashi really isn't David Bowie, he's Batman. Seriously, I don't know what English speaking VAs' obsession is with gravely voices but they really need to cut that out.
Actually, I'd say that the original Japanese dub is just as bad as the English one for giving characters inappropriate voices. There are bits where I'll see people talking and at no point does their voice match their appearance, either overall or with the emotion being expressed in the animation. So kudos to the dub, you're no worse than the original.
As for the translations themselves, they're pretty solid but there are some odd bits that annoyed me. The translators fall into some of the standard traps (nobody speaking in English would ever say "let's do 'that'" and not expect to get slapped by everybody in earshot) and then there are some straight up odd decision like translating where the Japanese version says "Iruka Teacher" to an English sub and dub which say "Iruka Sensei". I can understand why a translator would do that, but it loses all meaning unless you're reading the sub. On the other hand, calling the old master "pervy sage" is a nice touch which a lot of translators would have gone either too hard or too soft with.
So I would like to congratulate the localisation team on a job well done except that:
1) The sponsor segments are left in. As you probably well know, after the credits there's a few seconds of thanking the sponsors onto a still frame from the forthcoming episode. This is kept in but without any sponsors or voice over, so there's just a still frame with a segment of the theme tune for no apparent reason. It didn't need to be there, so stop being there.
2) There's a chunk of subs missing. There's a section while the council are deciding who should be the interim/new Hokage and suddenly the subs disappear apart from a translation of an on screen sign. That's just straight up shoddy.
Oh, and there's no romaji karaoke or translation of the theme tunes. When will somebody let me sing along with on elf these theme tunes?
One of these days I'm going to be complimentary in the translation section. I can't wait.
So this is something you should've watched 3 years ago. And it's a big ol' series so unless you find yourself heavily unemployed I can't imagine you'll much want to sit down and watch the whole thing again. Sure, you might want to keep the episode of the 4th Hokage dream sequence at hand because it's an important moment (handled terribly but never mind that) but otherwise, what have Manga done to make you need this on your shelf.
The answer is not a lot. In fact, they've done a few things that should put you off.
I mentioned that the DVD starts halfway through an arc and finished halfway through another. This wasn't a decision by the people that make the show. The original airing season finished at Naruto saving the day and started at telling the back story, it was a clean break. The problem is that the DVD is broken into 15 episodes when the original seasons were around 20 episodes so you can't help but end up with bizarre breaks. The only explanation I can think of is that whoever came up with the DVD release schedule decided to insert artificial cliffhangers to force you to buy all of the box sets.
As for special features, there are none. The audio is English or Japanese, the subs are Japanese. You can play through all (and you'll have to watch the OP and ED every time despite the fact that they never change) and you can choose which episode you want to watch. The bonus features include ten black and white line art character sheets and a trailers section which is actually just one trailer (for a Naruto film).
The main menu isn't even animated.
So there we have it. An important section of a reasonably decent anime, available for you to buy as of today. Who should buy this? People who have bought the previous set; you're committed now so live with it. Really though, those people already knew they were going to buy this. As for everybody else, this is not for new starters and the DVD adds nothing to the experience other than locking you in to buying more. It's not bad, but it isn't good either, it's just Naruto. So since it will at least appeal to the fans...
I need to work out how to write shorter reviews. While I consider that, I'm off to see what else is on.