Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, November 14, 2009
      ( 11/14/2009 08:22:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“HOW WOULD YOU FEEL IF EVERYONE TURNED THEIR BACKS ON YOU?” As a regular reader of Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto (I’m a few volumes behind, but don’t tell anyone!) manga, I’ve long been curious about the anime based on this popular ninja series. Caught a few episodes here and there on the Cartoon Network -- usually mid-story -- but it wasn’t until Viz announced its release of the teleseries’ first half of Season One as an “uncut” box set that I saw the opportunity to immerse myself in the anime from its beginnings. (Viz has released smaller uncut sets from the series in the past, but with 25 episodes going for what previously was the price of one-fourth of Season One, this is the better bargain.) Twenty-five episodes featuring our favorite “#1 Hyperactive Knucklehead Ninja”? Pass me the Ritalin -- I’ll sit and watch!

Volume One encompasses the first five books of Kishimoto’s manga, and contains three basic arcs. The first establishes our core cast: Uzumaki Naruto, an impulsive and mischievous would-be ninja who doesn’t know he has the spirit of a fox demon imprisoned within him; Sasuke, the most promising student in Naruto’s class; Sakura, the smart girl with a hidden temper and a thing for Sasuke; plus the trio’s two teachers, Iruka and Kakashi.

Of the two teachers, Iruka appears the more empathetic toward Naruto’s plight. Though the kid doesn’t know he has a nine-tailed demon inside him, all the adults in the Village of the Hidden Leaves do. “When the people reject someone’s very existence and look at that person,” Iruka says, “their eyes become cold. . .” It’s this outcast status which fuels our hero’s desire to become the Greatest Ninja Ever.

The second story arc revolves around a “Class C” mission that our threesome embark on under Kakashi’s watchful eye: the transportation of an elderly bridgemaker back to his village -- a mission that, of course, proves to be much more dangerous than anyone anticipated. This introduces the series’ first memorable antagonists: the rogue ninja Zabuza and his young and deadly companion Haku. The duo shares a multi-layered master/servant relationship that proves surprisingly poignant, even when we think that Haku has successfully managed to slay Sasuke.

Arc three concerns the opening rounds of the Chunen Exams, a series of test and competitions that all three students must pass as a part of their ninja training. The Exams, which take up the manga series through volume thirteen, only make it through the written tests by the end of Volume One, so one assumes that the rest of the first season is also devoted to this competition. In this set, we meet a variety of other would-be ninjas from neighboring villages, each with their own way of manipulating chakra, “the elemental life energy used to perform jutsu” in battle. The number of fresh faces tossed into the story mix at this point can be a bit daunting, though from the manga I already knew which figures would become more prominent in the series, so I just let it all flow over me.

The anime adaptation proves largely faithful to its source -- though a few comic scenes are extended to prolong the slapstick -- and the characters are believably voiced in both their English and Japanese versions. Maile Flanagan’s Naruto (yet another case of a middle-aged actress voicing a young boy in cartoon work) is the star here. She amusingly captures the boy’s pugnacious boastfulness along with his moments of comic distress and dismay. Punctuating each pronouncement with a “Be-LIEVE it!” which manages to sound both assertive and uncertain at the same time, she adds the necessary leavening to a character who could come across as just plain obnoxious if handled wrong. Great voice work.

As for the “uncut” aspect of this set: far as I can tell, the additions primarily consist of a few obscenities, Farrelly Bros.’ style bathroom humor and some gouts of blood. One of the early gags in both the manga and anime relates to Naruto’s ability to use his chakra to create a “sexy jutsu,” transforming into a naked full-breasted babe who creates instant arousal in his unprepared students. Per comic manga tradition, this excitement is visually depicted with large spurts of blood from the victim’s nose. We get to see this physiological syndrome more than once: the Japanese equivalent of Tex Avery’s horny Wolfie.

Viz’s DVD box packs a lot of discs in the set, but the bonuses are primarily limited to two brief sections comparing storyboards to finished scenes from Episodes One and 22, plus the usual promos for other Naruto and Shonen Jump product. Both Japanese and American versions are offered on the discs, and, as I’ve done with other Viz sets, I watched most of the episodes in English with the subtitles on, just so I could spot the difference between the Americanized dialog and the original. Caught one funny flub in the subtitles, too: wherein the gangster responsible for hiring the bridgemaker’s assassins says, “I hired rouge ninjas," which instantly brought up images of Naruto and friends having to fight an army of chakra-wielding drag queens.

Per tv anime standards, the movement on Naruto can be overly limited at times, though the chakra-riffic fight scenes are visually striking. If I still tend to favor the manga version of this series, it’s because I find Kishimoto’s art (abetted by his assistants, of course) so appealing in its black-and-white line work. Still, whenever I read any further books in the series, I just know I’m gonna have Maile Flanagan’s voice in the back of my mind, inserting the occasional “Be-LIEVE it!” into the word balloons whether it’s there or not. And I can understand the anime’s popular appeal: in either manga or cartoon format, the title lead and his story remain engaging.

Izumaki Naruto: Hero to Hyperactive Knuckleheads, everywhere . . .


# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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