Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, April 12, 2008
      ( 4/12/2008 07:12:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"ALWAYS RAMBUNCTIOUS!" It speaks to the series' immense popularity that Masashi Kishimoto's Naruto is currently the one manga series available in the children's book section of my local Wal-Mart Superstore. Though the chain megalo-mart has experimented with manga paperbacks in the past (as with a much publicized deal a few years back with Tokyopop), the nine-tailed fox boy is the only one you see these days on most Wal-Mart book racks. The teen-rated books move, too. Watching the shelves at Wally World over the past three months, Viz's recent "Naruto Blitz" has seen some decent buyer action.

Picked up the first volume in the series' new arc recently, Volume 28, "Homecoming," which is set two years after the first series concluded. Our hero Uzumaki Naruto is returning to the village of Konahagakure after extensive training under Lord Jiraiya. Though grown significantly taller, he still retains his foxlike face and boisterous manner, not to mention his love or ramen noodles. Jiraiya has brought our boy back to work with his old Master Kakashi, since the former is going undercover to check up on the latest threat to the Village, a mysterious group called the Akatsuki.

Much of the new volume is devoted to playing catch-up with series' regulars. We learn, for instance, that the once weak-link girlie teammate Sakura has become a formidable ninja healer under the tutelage of the newest Hokage, the impressively breasted Lady Tsunade. Former Naruto rival, Gaara of the Desert, has become a village protector and is the first to fend off an attack by the Akatsuki. Of all the young characters, he is the one to which Naruto feels the closest kinship. Where our hero has a nine-tailed fox demon residing within him, Gaara's body is home to a one-tailed monstrosity. "We're carrying monsters inside our bodies," Naruto notes. "And that's what they want! Our monsters!"

Significantly absent from the new volume, though, is Naruto & Sakura's former teammate Sasuke, who remains in the clutches of the wicked ninja Orochimaru. Sasuke doesn't make an appearance in "Homecoming" - though we get a hand-wringing moment where Naruto & Sakura worry about him - but he still remains a major story presence.

Elsewhere, Kishimoto provides the usual bewildering blend of backroom alliances and double dealings: not as much fun as the bizarre chakra battles that provide the series' big action moments, but I suppose they're necessary. This book out, Gaara battles a nefarious ninja named Deidara who sends out clay creatures as weapons. "True art is revolutionary, incendiary," the gloating villain proclaims just before letting loose an explosive clay bird. The resulting fight scenes are both dynamic and engagingly outlandish: entertaining action comics, in other words, that at times resemble a warped marriage between Steve Ditko and Moebius.

But the heart of the series remains our title protagonist. Though less childishly egocentric than the boy we first saw in the series - his concern for others is more upfront and consistent - he still retains enough of his core impulsivity and competitiveness to keep him an appealingly fallible figure to his readers. As a hero, he is enough of a goof to hold onto his sizable fan base.

Still, as a sign of just how much our young man - and this series - has grown, Mishimoto provides us with a revealing moment in the book's first chapter. Entering the village, Naruto comes upon some a younger would-be ninja who demonstrates his mastery of what used to our hero's sole trick: the creation of a buxom "ninja centerfold" doppelganger. "I'm not a kid anymore," Naruto responds to this display. "You gotta work on other jutsu, too!" Early in the series, Mishimoto would've followed this creation with a comic panel depicting some nearby horny witness ejaculating blood from his nose, but he avoids that gag this time. Mishimoto and his assistants are too busy working on their own storytelling jutsu to fall back on the same ol' jokes.
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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