Naruto

By | September 10, 2012

According to the covers, Naruto is “the world’s most popular manga”.  A serialized manga in Shonen Jump, bound volumes are released every few months, first in Japanese and then in English (and other languages); the English version of volume 63 will be published by Viz Media 2013 Nov 5.  Author Masashi Kishimoto has a team of assistants.

The Official Character Data Book provides not only profiles of the characters through Volume 43 but also profiles of the jutsu, bits of history (including a section titled “Shinobi Facts”), and a contextual dictionary.  Other than a brief, amusing bit about Kakashi’s face under the mask, the graphics are all recycled.  Japanese names are written surname followed by first name; the character profiles are ordered alphabetically by name… so when the character has a surname (and no title), that character’s profile is indexed by surname.  For example, Sakura (Haruno Sakura) and Kakashi (Hatake Kakashi) are indexed under ‘H’.  Further adding to the confusion (at least for English-speaking readers) is the ordering by title.  For example, Lady Tsunade is listed as ‘Hokage (Fifth, Tsunade)’ and Gaara is listed as ‘Kazekage (Fifth, Gaara)’.

Volumes 42 and 43 depict the epic battle between Sasuke (who’s been going over to the dark side) and his older brother Itachi.  In the aftermath, readers are told one version of the events leading up to the decimation of the Uchiha Clan.  Volume 43 in particular is literally and figuratively hefty – it’s fifty pages longer than the norm and lacks comic side kicks (other than Zetsu’s two-faced commentary).

Volume 44 restores comic relief (thankfully) with Naruto literally getting the amphibian beaten out of him by the toad sage and references to the Make-Out Guide.  Meanwhile Sasuke and his team Taka (hawk) moves to capture the eight-tailed biju – embodied in the body of a rhyming warrior with overtones of Muhammad Ali.

Volume 45 carries on the fight between Sasuke and Killer Bee (the eight-tailed biju) while Pain and other members of the Akatsuki take the fight to Konoha.  Killer Bee, sage toad delicacies, and Tales of a Gutsy Shinobi were definitely the highlights of this volume.

Volume 46 continues the fight in Konoha – not much humor in this volume but it’s clearly paving the way for the younger generation to take over.

Volume 47 offers Naruto combating Pain (Nagato) with interesting battle tactics to work around the incompatibility of toad sage merge and the nine-tails and the time limit on toad sage mode.  Another “I love you” reveal – though this one is a little more interesting, and another dialog with a dead character.  Overall a fairly engaging volume.

Volume 48: the first two-thirds complete the story arc with Pain / Nagato with a psychological rather than physical confrontation.  The ultimate resolution is a bit pat but it is satisfying – complete with tear and snot tracks on the faces of the young Konoha shinobi who idolize Naruto.  Fortunately the last third doesn’t wallow for long in this emotional high; Danzo and Madara quickly step in to change gears setting up events in the next couple of volumes.

Volume 49 has Sakura (and Ino) crying buckets – again.  Not an attractive look.  Offhand the prime time human female characters in Naruto fall into three categories: young and emotionally and physically weak with a boyish figure (for example Sakura, Karin, Hinata, and Ino); buxom tough outer / mushy interior (e.g. Lady Tsunade); and wizened elder.  The big reveal promised in this volume was underwhelming.

Volume 50: The highlights of this volume are Gaara and Killer Bee.  Gaara questions Sasuke with quiet dignity and compassion, but then performs his duties though allowing a tear of sorrow to escape – no wallowing in tragedy for Gaara.  Killer Bee acts with his usual swagger and aplomb.  (I assume that his name comes from Muhammad Ali’s catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”.  I wonder if Bee’s Lariat move comes from Ali’s rope-a-dope?)  On the downside we have more of the Madonna / whore syndrome with Karin and Sakura as the emotional, dopey virginal girls dealing with their unrequited love for the one-note Sasuke and Lord (?) Mizukage carrying on in the Lady Tsunade tradition of busty, bitchy, sexually mature woman.  I’d much rather have Mizukage commanding the stage than Sakura, but what’s with the bangs covering one eye?  Is it just a way to make sure that we can tell her apart from the other characters (a la Bleach)?

Volume 53: This is the “awwww” volume: first Naruto fully integrates in the Waterfall of Truth and then, in dealing with Nine Tails (with mentoring by Killer Bee), Naruto meets his mother.  Thanks to a chakra-powered flashback Naruto (and us, the readers) learn more about Naruto’s parents as well as Madara’s role in their death and the near-destruction of Konohoa by Nine Tails.  Interestingly this volume ends not mid-battle but with Nine Tails dealt with and Kushina (and the rest of Minato’s) story told.  Also unusual is that this volume offers a female character who’s only slightly dopey as a girl, and not particularly sexualized a mature woman… but maybe that’s because we mainly see her just before and after giving birth dressed in a not particularly flattering maternity smock – ya know.  So we get to add a third type of female: matronly mother.  (I don’t count the grandmotherly types since there’s not much distinction between male and female.)

Volume 54: Is it just me or is the audible exposition of a fighting tactic’s name and particulars mid-execution superfluous?  I feel that it’s especially egregious when the tactic is deployed by a minor character who’s about to be killed off.  The Blue Beast of Konoha (along with Killer Bee) provides this volume’s levity – most notably Killer Bee’s rhyme about the power of blue sweat and “uber-brows”.  Given that the rhyme is in English, I have to wonder what about the original Japanese text – and I wonder if the other language translators create rhymes in their respective languages as well.  Speaking of translations, I wonder what words were used in Japanese for Madara’s comments to Konan (she of the explosive pieces of paper and the flashback hint of a more than platonic relationship with Yahiko aided and abetted by Nagato).  In English Madara says “…you’re just an ignorant little girl who knows nothing…” and “Do not mock my Uchiha ocular powers girlie!”.  And how was she mocking him?  In Japanese did she use dismissive honorifics?  I certainly didn’t get that interpretation from the English text.  And why doesn’t Konan rate a picture in the Characters section at the beginning of the volume?  Speaking of translations, I found the several instances of ‘Babble’ (along with a ‘Murmur’) at the restive Allied Shinobi Forces HQ to be amusing.  And a gender-confused giant armadillo?  Speaking of gender-confused (or gender-confusing), Deidara makes a reanimated comeback.  I don’t get the cadence of his speech: ending most sentences with “HMM!!” (or “HMM?!”) seems odd rather than arch in this context.

I could have done without the “vital S-ranked mission, ecological survey” plot line – or maybe I’m just too American to think that an adult and a maturing teen would so readily follow orders and accept the importance of their busywork without question.

Volume 55: The military leaders of the Allied Shinobi Forces (ironic name that in a Japanese manga given Japan’s role in the Axis fighting against the Allied forces in WWII) are seated around a map of their countries.  As is typical of Japanese manga set in an alternative universe, the geography encompassed is relatively small, and there is plenty of coastline – not so surprising when one considers that Japan is roughly the size of the Montana (and smaller than California).  I wonder if Mediterranean manga is similarly scoped.  (Relative to the conversation around the map, ‘gakure’ is a suffix meaning ‘the country of’ as in ‘Yugakure’ (‘the country of Yu’).  I’m not sure why that suffix was left untranslated.)

The frame at the top of page 52 depicts Kabuto slithering off to his hideout carrying his (female) captive coiled in one of his snake-head tail.  (Kabuto’s head is the snake’s tail and he slithers backwards??)  The captive’s position – upright with shoulders back, arms hanging down (hands not visible in the dangling coat sleeves), and head back horizontally – recalls Joan of Arc.  At least she’s not whimpering and whining about her fate.

Unspoken thought by one of the war neophytes: “No time to even mourn your comrade’s death.  So that’s war, huh?”.  Okay, so that’s a good observation – but not particularly applicable in most of real-world modern warfare which consists of long stretches of boredom with way too much time for contemplation.  Another pithy observation, this time by the puppet master Sasori: “The soul of the creator dwells within”.  Out of context that sounds like a Biblical quote, but in this world each creator is human (more or less) and each soul is independent.

On page 93 Naruto makes his “ooh, scary serious” expression – which means cute bee-stung lips (closed-mouthed)… when normally Naruto is drawn without lips.

Okay, I could have done without Naruto sticking his fingers down his throat in an attempt to vomit chakra – too close to a bulimia primer.

A filler page at the beginning of Chapter 520 shows the result of Naruto’s first attempt at biju transformation: a cute (moe?) little nine-tailed fox (though the face looks more like cartoon mouse to me) with Naruto-style coiffure (a small explosion of hair between the ears).

One nice aspect of the biju bomb (biju rasengan) lessons is that it teaches the importance of ratios.

The cover shot for Chapter 521 (on page 123) is a markedly unattractive look: a gorilla hunch, knees wide apart and bent, one arm hanging down with knuckles almost at knee level, and blood dripping from his (Momochi Zabuza’s) crotch.

On page 129 we have women in battle (good).  Not so good is their trench warfare attire.  One woman warrior is wearing earrings and mascara, and in another frame we see a pair of earth-style shinobi wearing the same outfits (to scale) except the woman is wearing a mini-skirt and fishnet tights instead of pants.  (To be fair, in a subsequent frame the man appears to also be wearing fishnet tights.)

Nice touches in the dialog between Kakashi, reanimated gorilla-armed Zabuza, and girlie Haku.  Kakashi reassures Haku that he did indeed protect Zabuza and recalls Zabuza’s humanity.  Zabuza gets off a great couplet: “Remember… I am already dead!  [turn the page]  And I died human!”.

The two-page spread on pages 156 and 157 introduces readers to yet another group of reanimated warriors – something to be said for cremation.  Today over 99% of Japanese deceased are cremated.  However, in Japan the bones are not ground post-cremation.  Therefore either Kabuto is able to reanimate from cremated bones (not likely since DNA for the most part does not survive the meat of cremation) or the world of Naruto breaks with Japanese tradition and does not use cremation.  Anyway, the new warriors include another oddly proportioned dude with overly long arms accentuated by fingerless gloves up to mid-forearm.  Readers learn about the new warriors thanks to a dialog between Suigetsu and Jugo… but at this point in the story it seems kind of pointless to explain these characters and their weapons if they’re not going to be hanging around.  (One hopes that they won’t hang around as there’s already too many characters to track and because reanimated characters don’t exactly have staying power past the initial gimmick of reanimation.)

Volume 58: The short bursts of fighting interspersed with discussions of battlefield tactics appropriate for use against the revived Kage, Itachi, and Nagato make for interesting reading.  Though the revived Kage will likely be one-shot characters, because their history and love of country are reflected in the abilities and morals of their successors, the allied shinobi forces, the unveiling of their powers doesn’t seem gratuitous.  Similar to Naruto in an earlier volume, Gaara gets gets some closure thanks to a mid-battle conversation with with his revived father.  Thankfully there were no trite comic bits to detract from the young leaders’ learning moments – though I kept expecting Killer Bee and Itachi to break into a song such as “You’ve Got a Friend” to make the point to Naruto that he needs to delegate.

Volume 59: Kage (male and female) fighting together for a shared cause – and no Sasuke in sight.  A good volume.

Volume 61: Some battle, some flashbacks, and some psychotherapy – but no sappy mid-battle comic relief and no edge-of-your seat cliffhanger.  Naruto only appears as a visage – this volume is all about the Uchiha brothers and Kabuto.  Without older brother Itachi to leaven Sasuke’s one note anger, Sasuke is tiresome.  Jarring notes were Kabuto’s Gene Simmons’ like tongue and other facial quirks that were supposed to evoke a snake (or a dragon) but instead were a bit creepy.  Some of the battle scenes were confusing in their depiction of the action.  The depiction of the White Snake Sage as a cheezy old fortune teller (in snake form) – including an Auntie Mame style long cigarette holder dangling out of her (?) (snake) mouth was tacky.  Kabuto is supposedly invulnerable to Itachi and Sasuke’s ocular attacks because he’s shielded his eyes – but to me it looks like he’s still got vision… albeit through colored lids (I can’t tell exactly which color from the black and white manga).

Volume 62: This volume starts with Itachi cleaning up after Kabuto and doing yet another reveal to Sasuke… not that it seems to greatly cool Sasuke’s quest for vengeance.  The reveal does serve to propel Sasuke into a quest for knowledge (his word) of self – really more of a quest for meaning.  Then, after a battle segue to Madara and the five Kage, we shift to Toby’s mission to instill world peace by removing all individual meaning.  Should we take this as an interpretation of the inherent philosophical conflict between cerebral Christian religions that seek oneness with an omni-God by releasing our beliefs in the reality of individual, corporeal beings and the literal, evangelical Christian religions that are looking for a new Messiah to lead them to triumph in a final battle over the forces of evil whereupon the chosen will enter heaven?  Or should we remember that this manga is by Japanese and was designed to appeal to Japanese boys – hence Killer Bee’s addendum to Naruto’s thoughtful refutation of Toby’s oneness vision: “Dreams, dreams, lots o’ dreams abound.  I dream of grown women’s boobs, so round.  When dreams are fulfilled, that’s where truth is found.”  Then we have the obligatory stop in battle in order to deduce and explain powers followed by the buildup to the “big” reveal in the next volume.

Volume 63: What do you do when facing your opponent/s on the battlefield?  Why, pause for a flashback, of course.  It’s another case of unrequited love at the Ninja Academy highlighting pervasive gender issues not only there but in many real-world military institutions – Tailhook anyone?  Engineers, pilots, ninjas… no need to have gender-specific variants and yet in the ninja world of Naruto the girls are tracked into the helper roles and only fight other girls in the individual tests.  Of course the ninja heroes of Naruto are those who excel at direct confrontation (samurai-style) – as opposed to the ninja of Usagi Yojimbo who prefer to operate in stealth; Danzo’s black ops team was closer to the typical ninja but other than Itachi they were never portrayed as heroes.  The final flashback does have a neat tie-in to Naruto’s origin story.  I have to wonder if Madara’s driving philosophy makes more sense in the original Japanese; in the translation it’s too dense and long-winded in contrast to the direct confrontations of the battles – and yet it’ll be interesting to see where Kishimoto takes this in the subsequent volumes.

Volume 64: The opening battle scenes bring to mind the Beck lyrics “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me.” and the band Motley Crüe.  The scene with Ino’s father imparting his last words to her kind of loses something in translation – blossoming into a beautiful purple bush clover flower just sounds funny in English… especially considering that most kids and teens reading the series know diddle squat about older traditions around the language of flowers.  Further most associate ‘clover’ with four-leaf clover (and Lucky Charms cereal) and perhaps with (visually, not by name) with the various types of low-to-the-ground oxalis; in contrast a purple bush clover is a bush 5′ in diameter when in bloom smothering its neighbors.  As usual, the battle scenes are full of action… but it’s a bit hard to make out what actually happening.  The shift of scene near the end of this volume to Sasuke and Ochimaru was a little disconcerting – a clunky setup for the next volume.

Volume 65: This volume is about Sasuke trying to reconcile what he’s been told by Itchy and Scratchy Itachi and Madara.  Traveling in Orochimaru’s equivalent of the way-back machine, we all get treated to the history of the formation of Konoha and the shinobi.  Thoughtful observations on the traumas of war, the challenges of nation-building, and the styles of leadership are wiped out with the hackneyed, supremely offensive reintegration of Karin – even before Sasuke says the simple “I’m sorry, Karin…” she’s fawning over him.  Ewwwh.  There’s also the questionable bit about the peace in Konoha: “Shinobi children got to know about learning and playing instead of battle… …and started living long enough to even know the taste of alcohol.”  What a goal to strive for – or maybe deeper meaning was lost in translation?

Volume 68: Skipping a volume or two makes following the characters a bit tough – but at a macro level the story is unchanging: somebody bad with even greater power arises but is overcome by the force that is Naruto with the obligatory flashback scenes, words of wisdom (“Grasshopper…”), and confusing battles.  There’s very little comic relief in this volume… but there’s also not much real action.  Then we have Mizukage stating “As a woman, I mustn’t get a late start on battle like I have with matrimony…  Let’s go all!!”  Say what?  Did meaning get mangled in translation?  Or is Masashi Kishimoto having a misogynist moment?  Marriage and motherhood hasn’t been much of a topic in Naruto so this comment really came out of right field.


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