After a year of near crippling filler episodes the original incarnation of Naruto signs off in a halfway decent manner in this final volume.
The volume starts with a four episode arc that sees Naruto,
Sakura & Rock Lee acting as escort for a criminal called Gantetsu, a failed
ninja who is accused of turning to a life of crime. They're expected to
fight off any rescue attempts by Gantetsu's allies, but police escort Todoroki
is not happy about their presence. Todoroki seems to have some kind of
grudge against Gantetsu and wants the ninjas out of the way seemingly to get his
revenge, but what has happened in the past between them, and is Gantetsu as
dangerous as they have been led to believe? On his return from a mission
Naruto finds a young man with amnesia at the foot of a cliff and takes him back
to Konoha for treatment. The young man, whom Naruto calls Menma, recovers
from his injuries but still has few memories so Naruto, Ten Ten and
Neji accompany him to the Land of Rice Fields to unlock the secrets of his past.
However, Menma soon realises that some things are best left buried, and a
conflict between a local village and a marauding group of bandits forces him to
make a terrible choice. Meanwhile in the Village of Sand Gaara has taken
on training the next generation of Sand ninja, but such is his fearsome
reputation that only one aspiring ninja, a girl called Matsuri, is willing to
train under him. However, danger lurks on the horizon in the form of four
ninja from Takumi Village who want to use the chakra of the one-tailed beast
bound within Gaara to create an ultimate weapon. Knowing he would not
willingly comply with their plans they kidnap Matsuri to lure him out, leaving
Temari and Kankuro to support Gaara in his rescue effort. However, even
with three of he strongest Sand ninjas on the case there is still no guarantee
that they can win, so the Fifth Hokage decides it's time to pay the Sand back
for the support they gave in the hunt for Sasuke. Gaara & co have a fight
on their hands, but support in the form of a powerful force of leaf ninja is not
The majority of the last 70-odd episodes of Naruto have quite frankly been crap, so it's good to get a few episodes on this final disc that come close to the Naruto of old. The three stories here vary in quality somewhat but the final story, which re-introduces the Sand ninja Gaara, Kankuro and Temari, is much better than most of the filler arcs and makes a decent closer for the series. Many of the last seventy episodes have revolved around either following up tenuous leads on Sasuke, helping someone better themselves or plain arsing around, but there have been a handful that push the envelope by giving background to some of the series' supporting cast. The final
story of this series falls into the latter category, bulking out the series by showing how Gaara works to gain acceptance from his fellow Sand ninja and how closer ties between the Sand and Leaf were forged. The villains in this volume generally prove to be interesting opponents for our heroes, and there are some surprisingly effective drama in each of the three story arcs.
The idea of the failed ninja is quite an interesting
one, with ninjas who failed their exams using their skills to become
very effective criminals. It's one of the more believable ideas
from the latter half of the series, which considering we've had to put
up with magical curries and ninja postmen in the last few volumes isn't
exactly a difficult achievement. It's interesting this time round
that each of the stories relatively subtly point back to Sasuke.
Todoriki's quest for revenge, Menma's dark past he is trying to escape
from and the hunt for an ally kidnapped by four powerful enemies all
echo things that have happened to our favourite emo ninja. For
Naruto it means he has a chance to succeed where once he failed, a
chance to save others from the darkness that consumed Sasuke.
Interestingly it doesn't always go his way, which leads to some more
soul searching and self-analysis.
It must be said though that whilst these episodes are the best we have seen for a long while there are still some things that let them down. The animation is once again below the standard we saw in the earlier half of the series and some of the enemies are a bit pants. Whilst there are some nice ideas, story-wise the episodes in this volume largely retread old ground and the original character design lacks the invention and quality we are used to in the manga. The drama is generally handled well but there are a few mawkish moments, generally involving Naruto but other characters are guilty too. There are some good action scenes though, particularly in the
final story arc, and it's great to see the Konoha ninja demonstrating their skills in support of the Sand ninja rather than the other way round.
After what has often seemed a painful decline from its former heights it's good to see that Naruto still has something left in the tank. Naruto Unleashed Series 9 is not in the same league as the original manga storyline, but considering some of the things we have had to put up with over the last few volumes it's a refreshing surprise to get something of a final flourish. It may be a re-hash of earlier (better) storylines, it may still be poorly animated, but for once I found myself wanting Naruto Shippuden to come because I wanted to see more, rather than just because I wanted the pain of 70 episodes of filler to end. It will be interesting to know how many people have carried on buying the series up to this point, but those who have at least finally have something that boasts action and drama approaching the quality of the earlier series. It's mercifully free of the abysmal comedy episodes that have punctured the last few volumes, so for that alone I am eternally grateful. Roll on Shippuden and the return of the manga storyline!
Again just a clutch of trailers. Pretty uninspiring.