Naruto Unleashed Series 4:1 Review
We were left hanging rather cruelly in the midst of the titanic Naruto Vs. Gaara fight at the end of Series 3:2, so it seemed like an agonising wait for Naruto Unleashed Season 4:1 to hit UK stores. Starting in the thick of action, this set cannot maintain the constant high-action pace of the previous season but it does bring a moving end the Chuunin Exam arc and expands the story into new, exciting directions as Naruto and Sasuke are drawn into greater world matters and peril by the arrival of a new, sinister Shinobi presence.
So, without further ado: Season 4:1 starts at Episode 79, which picks up in the middle of Naruto and Gamabunta taking on the freaky Tanuki: Shukaku in a battle to save Sakura’s life and prevent the demon from advancing on Konoha. They concoct a plan where Gamabunta will constrain the Shukaku’s movements while Naruto beats Gaara out of his self-induced sleep-trance and thus break the spell that’s allowing Shukaku to manifest in his most powerful form. To do this, Naruto has to transform Gama into a form with claws that can keep hold of Shukaku’s sandy skin – and naturally our hero settles for the 9-tailed fox!
Most of the freneticisim and humour of this bout has played out by the start of Episode 79, as the fight reaches its final act and the stakes are all or nothing. What we are left with is a dramatic and iconic climax that is brilliantly woven parallel to the denoument of The 3rd Hokage’s fight with Orochimaru across both Episode 79 and Episode 80. All the major themes of courage under fire and the will to protect are driven home once again, but never have they been so stirring and poetic as which the conclusion of both these battles, and Naruto finally rises to an impossible challenge and acts with the kind of heart and valour befitting of the legendary hero that he so desperately wants to become – and it really does drive home how far Naruto’s character has progressed across the epic Chuunin Exam Arc.
And as one hero matures, another is brought to the end of his life as Sarutobi’s last stand is intercut into Naruto’s final attack on Gaara. The plotting of this 2nd concolusion is first rate and Hayao’s Date’s direction is perfectly pitched, starting with Oro’s younger strength warding off Sarutobi’s attempt to pull his soul into the belly of the Daeth God, complete with a montage revealing how far the Sound and Sand village’s forces have invaded and battered Konoha as Oro gloats of his success, only for the rather predictable but no less stirring switcharound to kick in as the 3rd Hokage reveals that Konoha was only stuck in stage two of a 3-stage process for dealing with an invading forces. Stage 2: Evacuate all women and children, Stage 3: No-holds-barred attack on all enemies of the village. Cut to a montage set to Toshio Masuda’s effective score and Sarutobi gets to impart one last lesson on life and strength to his former pupil as he completes the Death God ritual, sacrificing himself for a permanent, disabling injury on Orochimaru. It is the end of the greatest hero in the story to date, and it is developed beautifully.
Episode 81 starts with Oro having fled in defeat and immediately introduces a new antagonistic presence as Uchiha Itachi returns to the village decked in a mysterious black coat adorned with red clouds and partnered up with a large shark-man named Kisame in search of someone or something in Konoha. As is obligatory for the introduction of a new villain after the exit of an old one in a long running Shounen series, the greater threat has to be overstated by either expositionary hyping or a completely outrageous show of strength in battle. Kishimoto settles for both – kinda – when he has Oro reveal that he tried to groom Itachi much like he’s trying with Sasuke now, but Itachi was simply too powerful for him to handle, and in the practical demonstration we have a tantalising, but all too brief confrontation between Itachi and Kisame and the Konoho jounin team of Asuma, Kurenai, and Kakashi that makes up the entirety of Episode 82. Unfornately for Kakashi fans, it is he who becomes the sacrificial lamb to Itachi’s show of freakish strength, as a Sharingan vs Sharingan match shows the gulf in ability between a true-blood user of the bloodline ability and a mock imposter. At least Kakashi manages to ascertain that Itachi and Kisame belong to a small group of S-Class super-strength criminal nin that is calling itself Akatsuki, which a Jiraiya flashback informs us used to count Orochimaru as one of its members. It seems one of their main goals is to abduct the vessel holding the Kyuubi and harness its powers for some nefarious deed.
Luckily for Naruto, Jiraiya has already moved him out of the village and in Episode 83 they embark on a journey to find the 3rd Sannin: Tsunade and convince her to become Konoha’s 5th Hokage. This is the first of many Naruto/Jiraiya centric episodes that contains the usual comedic banter you expect from these two natural-born idiots. The “Search for Tsunade” arc is very brief in comparison to the Chuunin Exam Arc, but it’s a lot of fun! There is some enlightening exposition when Jiraiya reveals that Naruto isn’t his first pupil, he in fact taught the 4th Hokage when he was Naruto’s age and Naruto reminds him a lot of his former prodigious student. There’s also some bittersweet development for Team 7, bitter in the sense that Sasuke’s feelings of inadequacy after witnessing Naruto’s growth against Gaara while he was disabled, start to cloud his judgement and resentment starts to bloom, and sweet when Sakura learns that it was in fact Naruto who saved her life and not her idol Sasuke, in a rare moment of admiration from her towards Naruto.
In Episode 84 Itachi and Kisame catch up to Naruto alone in a hotel room and Sasuke arrives in pursuit of his older brother in a very dramatic and cruel confrontation that sheds light on Sasuke’s tragic past and lays the foundations for the direction of his story arc from this moment on. The accompanying flashback tells the story of the Uchiha massacre at the hands of Itachi from the perspective of a very young Sasuke, and even though certain elements of the backstories of Orochimaru and Zabuza have been quite dark and mature in their themes, the Uchiha flashback represents a new level of evil and violence for the series as Itachi tortures is younger brother with visions of the massacre before fleeing the village. It’s a bold new direction for the series and effectively fleshes out the dark side of Saskue’s pysche that now comes to the fore in Episode 85 when he rushes headstrong into a one-on-one confrontation against Itachi and demonstrates intense new levels of hatred and aggression. Jiraiya arrives and allows the fight to take place assuming it is a rightsof passage moment for the young Uchiha, but this is the most one-sided, hopeless defeat any of the Konoha Genin have suffered to date. Itachi mercilessly beats Sasuke to a pulp, breaking limbs, ribs, and using his main Genjutsu technique to make Sasuke relive the massacre of his parents over and over again, leaving him physically and emotionally shattered. It’s easily the lowest ebb for the character and will redefine Sasuke’s personality from here on out, but for now he is left in a coma that provides Naruto with further motivation to locate the medical specialist Tsunade.
The skirmish with Akatsuki over, Episodes 86 – 88 follow Jiraiya and Naruto on the road to finding Tsunade and more importantly the introduction and training of a powerful Ninjutsu technique for Naruto to make his new signature move. These episodes hark back to the technical expository style of the opening episodes and demonstrate Kishimoto’s knack for imparing “real world” science into these fantastical Ninja techniques. The training is a 3-stage process and provides much entertainment with Naruto figuring out each stage and the bond between master and pupil is at times touchingly close to father and son. In the final episodes in this set it is Oro who catches up to Tsunade first and offers her a devilish proposal that exploits the tragedies of her past. We are introduced to Tsunade in a rather tormented state of mind and her personality is more forceful and cynical than normal – which means we have another broken character for Naruto to inspire and heal!
The story in Season 4:1 has traversed numerous genres, jumping from rousing to bittersweet drama, to action thriller and action comedy, and back to character drama in just thirteen episodes – all very successfully. Not many shows will give you that!
PresentationThe episodes in this volume of Naruto: Unleashed are presented on DVD to the exact same standards of A/V as in the previous boxsets, so to avoid repeating myself I will simply quote the Video and Audio sections of my previous reviews:
”Presented in Naruto’s original broadcast ratio of 4:3; the episodes in this set all look great. Naruto is a very bright, colourful anime, which is handled well by a transfer that exhibits bold, vibrant colours that are free from noise and any bleeding. Likewise, brightness and contrast levels are never less than impressive, while detail levels are as high as you can expect from a show that first aired in 2002. Look a little closer at the image though and you can spot the occasional recurring video artefact, things like cross colouration in some of the line work, dot crawl in some of the finer areas, very faint edge enhancement, and some very fine mosquito noise. There’s also the usual NTSC – PAL interlacing foibles as well, but the negatives should be almost unnoticeable on an average home cinema display.”
”Ok, firstly we have the DD2.0 soundtrack, the format that Naruto was originally recorded in. It’s an excellent track, dialogue is loud, clear and whenever any high screaming kicks in, it’s dealt with crisply with no audible tear. Likewise the sound effects and thumping bass provide a rich and involving companion to the dialogue.”
Optional English subtitles are provided with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.