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Naruto Unleashed, vol. 1
A region 2 DVD review by CNash
 

Naruto is the teen animé phenomenon of this century. It started in 1999 as a manga in the popular Shonen Jump monthly anthology magazine, and became that magazine's most popular serial, eclipsing even Yu-Gi-Oh!. Inevitably made into an animé serial in 2002, it exploded onto the mainstream animé scene and became even more popular in the western world. Now, Manga Entertainment in the UK is releasing both the English-dubbed and original Japanese versions in one collection, completely unedited from the original US TV broadcasts. Volume 1 goes on sale on the 21st of August, and is a three-disc set comprising the first thirteen episodes of the series.

In my review for Robotech, I mentioned that animé that has been targeted at teenagers is often edited to comply with US television "standards and practices" – i.e. no nudity or sexual suggestiveness and no explicit violence or language. Of all the animé localisation companies currently at work in America, none are more reviled than 4Kids, who infamously "butchered" the popular animé One Piece. A collective sigh of relief was heard throught the animé community – who had assumed that, given the nature of the series, 4Kids would snap it up – when it was announced that Viz Media, the producers of Shonen Jump, would be handling localisation and dubbing work themselves. With a long history of good localisation work under their belt – Ranma 1/2, She, The Ultimate Weapon, Fullmetal Alchemist – it would seem that fans have nothing to worry about.

That said, edits were made to the original Japanese edition of the series, and mostly along the lines mentioned above – limited violence, language, nudity etc. The episodes of Naruto currently showing on the Jetix channel in the UK follows the US TV edits, but includes further edits of its own. So Viz and Manga's decision to release an uncut version of the series could be construed as either a cynical marketing ploy designed to milk DVD sales out of obsessed young fans eager for uncut action, or an attempt to get English dubbers back on animé fans' "good side", as it were. All too often, American localisation firms create an edited TV edition and ignore fans' calls for unedited DVD releases.

Whatever the motive, Naruto is now here on Region 2 DVD. I suppose the burning question is: does it live up to the hype and popularity? Well, it all depends on your point of view. I must admit that I myself was dismissive of the series when I first heard about it, seeing it as little more than a kids' animé series along the lines of Dragon Ball Z. But like so many things, if you're willing to sit down and give it a chance, you might be surprised.

The series' protagonist is the titular Naruto Uzumaki, a twelve-year-old boy. When he was born, his village was under attack by a nine-tailed demon fox – to save the village, the elite ninja warriors sealed the spirit of the fox inside of the newborn Naruto. Having grown up with no family, and always mistrusted by the people of his village due to his connection to the demon, Naruto has become somewhat of an outcast amongst his own people – and he doesn't know why. This leads him to become a mischeivous troublemaker of a trainee ninja, who doesn't take his studies seriously and is always bottom of his class. It is only when he is told the truth about his past by the duplicitous ninja Mizaki that Naruto begins to understand his true potential and start trying to do his very best. Along with his friends Sasuke and Sakura, Naruto strives to find recognition and acceptance, and aims to be the greatest ninja warrior in the village.

The main focus of the series is on characterisation. Like Pokémon, there is a moral lesson running through each of the episodes, even when the plot and setting of Naruto is applied to it. Themes include acceptance of outsiders, loneliness, discrimination and loyalty to others, including teamwork and friendship even when you don't get along with your teammates at first. As a series, the intention is often to be dramatic, but it also manages a healthy dose of comedy – often of the slapstick variety – and humour through dialogue and situation. The first thirteen episodes contained on this disc (half of the current run that's airing on Jetix at the moment) set up the characters and situations of the rest of the series, looking mosty at Naruto and his friends' ninja studies. In general, it works: the viewer can, depending on his or her taste, see the series as an action-driven fantasy, or look closer to see the deeper meanings and themes behind each of the episodes.

Viz's English dub is good, but not exceptional. It suffers from a common problem with animé dubbing – the Speed Racer-esque lip-synching difficulty that leads the dub voice actors to speaking many lines very fast, or adding unnatural pregnant pauses into sentences that should flow more smoothly. A qualm I had at with the dub at first was Naruto's voice, which is simply irritating – it's whiny and overexcited, which at first I didn't think would fit the character. However, switching over to the Japanese language track for a few minutes, I could hear that Naruto's Japanese voice used almost the same inflection. Kudos, of course, to Viz, for finding an English voice that was similar to the Japanese one, but I still stand by my opinion.

Naruto's animation is clean and sharp, but then I wouldn't expect anything less from a modern series. Characters are drawn well, with a variety of interesting designs on the traditional "ninja" theme. A technique that's often used is to have the characters' facial features become exaggerated in moments of emotion; although typical of many animé, it does serve to emphasise the fantasy of this animé's world, as opposed to the realistic animation of, say, Otogi Zoshi. A technique that's used for Sakura, Naruto's female friend, is to draw her "inner feelings" as black-and-white line drawings with exaggerated proportions; it's often played for laughs and seems to work well. Finally, the background buildings of the village – especially the main council building – are drawn and coloured in a style that's reminiscent of Studio Ghibli's award-winning art style.

You may call it what you want – you can say it's juvenile, derivative, unoriginal – but the fact remains that Naruto wouldn't be as popular as it is if it wasn't in some way good. And in the end, no matter what age you are, it's still good entertainment. Even though the storyline and themes may cater more to a younger audience, there's nothing stopping adult animé watchers from just kicking back and enjoying it.

sound and vision

Framed in the original 4:3, the transfer is a good one, with a clear, clean picture and soliod colour reproduction. None of the usual telltale signs of an NTSC to PAL transfer are evident, suggesting a possible PAL master for a change.

Dolby 2.0 stereo, surround 5.1 and DTS tracks are available for the original Japanese and the English dub. The stereo tracks are louder than you'd usually expect for Dolby 2.0, and the English voices are louder and clearer than the Japanese. The DTS track is very loud and a little shrill at times. Both this and the 5.1 track are mainly front and centre, with no evidence of a proper remix.

The subtitles present a considerably simplified version of the Japanese dialogue, but are clear and easily read.

summary

Manga is marketing Naruto as a big seller, and so has packaged the DVD exceptionally well – with a special slip case and storyboards booklet included with the discs. The special features on the discs themselves are more run-of-the-mill. Firstly, there's a short feature called From Animé to Manga, which appears to showcase part of an isolated scene and then overlays it with an effect that makes it look like a printed manga. This isn't convincing at all, and I can't honestly see the point of it. There's the usual textless opening and ending, plus trailers for Karas, Heat Guy J, Robotech and Naruto itself (albeit the TV trailer from Jetix). 

Naruto Unleashed,
Vol. 1

Japan 2002
325 mins
director
Hayato Date
starring
Junko Takeuchi
Chie Nakamura
Noriaki Sugiyama

DVD details
region 2
video
4:3
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
DTS surround 5.1
languages
Japanese
English
subtitles
English
extras
From Animé to Manga featurette
Textless opening and ending
Trailers
distributor
Manga
release date
21 August 2006
review posted
20 August 2006

See all of CNash's reviews