It's hard to deny that Naruto has become one of the world's most popular anime franchises. Heck, all you really have to do is hit an anime convention and see how many cosplay characters you can pick out of the crowd. The masterpiece created by Masashi Kishimoto has more volumes of manga than you can shake a stick at and an anime with over 200 episodes. You just know going into a DVD release that you need to be vested for the long haul and thankfully VIZ's uncut collections capitalize on that.
While you can find DVDs of Naruto edited for the younger American audience the original Japanese version is by far the better of the two. After all, would you want to watch some watered down shadow or one that packs more of a punch? Punch it is!
The first Uncut Naruto release came out last summer and now, roughly a year later, we're finally sinking our teeth into the third installment. If you haven't seen the show yet though you're going to want a little rundown as far as whose who and what's going on. This is a series with a lot of characters, a rich world, and subplots galore so it's easy to get lost if you don't start from the beginning.
Naruto tells a tale filled with mysticism, ninja jutsu, and the coming of age of a group of young shinobi. Twelve years ago a great nine-tail demon fox tore across the land and devastated the world with its fearsome power. Thanks to the skill of a particular Hokage (ninja village leader) the demon was sealed and the world was safe. Where the demon was sealed however, was probably not the most ideal of locations. Naruto (a newborn at the time) became the host for the fox demon's soul though ironically he has no clue about it.
Now that Naruto is twelve years old he's well on his way towards becoming a full-fledged ninja in the Hidden Leaf Village. He has reached a point in his training where he no longer works alone; instead he teams up with a pair of fellow youths. Sasuke and Sakura work along side of Naruto (whether they want to or not) as they study under the tutelage or Kakashi.
Up to this point we have seen the education of Kakashi's Team 7 and they have even taken on some missions that were beyond their abilities. In the previous volume they finished off Zabuza and his crony and defended the bridge-maker's village. The second volume also saw the beginning of the Chunin Exam, which is basically a young ninja's test to become a higher rank.
This multi-tiered examination began with a written test that was designed to weed out the undesirables with a test of their information gathering skills. Naturally Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura passed but so did 25 other teams. As the volume drew to a close the second part of the Chunin Exam was about to begin and that's where things pick up with this third uncut release.
From what I have read in the manga the Forest of Death storyline was easily one of my favorites. I'm pleased to say that the anime captured most everything I appreciated about this part of Naruto's story and the introduction of Orochimaru was just as glorious as it could have been. At any rate, the second exam is quite simple. Each team is given a Heaven Scroll or Earth Scroll. The goal is to get a scroll of the other type to complete a pair and bring them to a tower in the center of the forest. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, considering that there are basically no rules and people are going to die in pursuit of the scrolls it's no surprise that they call this place the Forest of Death.
After a short time in the forest Kakashi's kids come across a bizarre person who is as snake-like as you could possibly be. She confronts Sasuke and Sakura and leaves them paralyzed by fear. Meanwhile Naruto finds himself in a bit of a jam as he has been swallowed and slowly digested by a giant snake. Both struggles are quite interesting but it's the battle between Sasuke and the snake lady that proves to be the most interesting.
As it turns out snake lady isn't a lady at all. It's actually a masterful and feared ninja named Orochimaru who has come to the forest to check out Sasuke and the Uchiha bloodline. He virtually destroys Sasuke and Sakura but Naruto jumps in to save the day once he's freed from the snake. Some of the Fox Demon's chakra begins to release inside Naruto and his strength increases exponentially. Unfortunately Orochimaru crafts a quick seal and puts a lid on Naruto's inner source of power. This leaves Sasuke to fight alone and the new villain proves to be too much for his youthful techniques.
The most interesting development to come from this arc that influents the rest of the show is Orochimaru's branding of Sasuke. The evil ninja bites Uchiha on the neck and leaves a cursed mark that amplifies his chakra. It nearly kills Sasuke but gives him power beyond comprehension which is what he has been looking for all along. Queue up some more battles throughout the rest of this volume and you have an action packed affair with plenty of eye candy.
The nice thing about this storyline is that we finally get to see what some of the other Chunin examinees are hiding under their sleeves. Rock Lee comes back to fight the Sound Village students, Ino and company chimes in, and we get a glimpse at Garaa's fearsome technique. There are many workings behind the scenes and there are various side stories surrounding Orochimaru's visit to the Hidden Leaf Village. With the third wave of the Chunin Exam beginning as this volume ends there is plenty to look forward to.
It may be a show designed with kids in mind (see Dragon Ball Z) and the recap at the beginning sucks away the run time but I have to say that Naruto is an addicting show. The stories are fantastic, the characters are interesting, and the world filled with ninja villages is ripe with imagination. It's easy to see why this has become one of the biggest franchises in anime because frankly, it's one of the best.
Originally airing in 2002 Naruto is presented with a 1.33:1 fullframe aspect ratio and features a vibrant transfer. The characters absolutely pop from just about every frame with a bright palette and a pleasing art style. With the recent production date the show doesn't have a lot of visible flaws though it's hard to deny that there are some here and there.
A slight amount of grain blankets areas of the feature where colors are shaded or murkier than most. Some bits of compression where identifiable as well. Apart from these minor borderline nitpicky gripes there really was nothing to complain about. This is a solid looking show that is presented well on DVD.
The audio presentation for Naruto comes in the form of two 2.0 stereo tracks. The English dubbing offers up some irritating voices and an experience that one might call overacting. The Japanese language track was much better with easily acceptable vocals and equivalent quality in sound. With the limitations of a stereo track it's no surprise that there is little to no directionality. It wasn't bad by any stretch of the imagination but a 5.1 offering would have gone a long way. Still, this collection is problem free; it just doesn't go out of its way to impress.
Like the previous uncut collections the third installment brings a decent pile of supplemental features to the table. Again we have a printed booklet with the storyboard sequences from an episode in this set. This type of material is always appreciated but it would be nice if there was some referential text included to bring it all together. Otherwise all that you'll find on the DVDs are some production art, another storyboard sequence (this one compared to the episode), and some previews.
Naruto is just one of those series that has lasting appeal with all audiences. It's rare that something is as widely accepted, but the action, humor, and heartfelt storytelling are perfect reasons for its success. The second leg of the Chunin Exam arc is as fantastic as I was expecting it to be with the introduction of Orochimaru, the cursing of Sasuke, and the revealing of other ninja techniques. Character development hits a high note with this volume and the fighting speaks for itself. My only real complaint is that the twelfth episode is mainly a recap, otherwise this set exemplifies why Naruto is so damn popular.