Volumes of Naruto don't seem to come along as often as they used to, but the last couple of volumes have truly been worth waiting for. Is this one the same?
Naruto and Sakura rushed to the scene of Sasuke's battle with
Itachi at the end of the last volume, but arrived to find no trace of them.
Distraught at missing another opportunity to capture their former friend, both
Naruto and Sakura are desperate to find new leads but the trail is cold and they
have other responsibilities to contend with. Konoha has been called upon
to provide aid to a small hidden village who guard a forbidden jutsu of immense
destructive power, and Naruto & co are the closest to it. The jutsu is
coveted by a mysterious group of bandits and with only the young trainee ninja
Hotaru, her guardian Tonbei and the skilled but enigmatic mist ninja Utakata,
support is much needed to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.
However, the bandits may not be their only problem. Utakata is a missing
nin, an escapee from the Hidden Mist Village whom the Mist's elite ANBU ninja
are actively hunting, and his loyalties are questionable at best. Hotaru
idolises him, but what dark secrets is he hiding? And can he be relied on
to protect Hotaru if fighting the bandits means revealing his location to his
pursuers? Meanwhile Sasuke is facing a crisis of his own, the mysterious
Madara has revealed the truth behind Itachi's slaughter of the Uchiha clan,
explaining his motivations in the hope of recruiting Sasuke and his followers
into Akatsuki. Itachi wasn't acting on his own, he was under orders from
Konoha's elders. The Uchiha planned a coup and their actions would have
torn the village apart, so Itachi was sent on a special mission to crush the
insurgency. Sasuke is torn by the revelations and teeters on a knife edge,
his brother sacrificed everything for the sake of the village, but will he
follow his brother's wishes and protect Konoha or will the truth turn him
against it? If he joins Akatsuki his first mission will be to take down
the Eight Tails jinchuuriki Killer Bee, but can he trust Madara and does he have
the power to capture a jinchuuriki so soon after fighting his brother?
Some pretty monumental stuff happened in the last volume, with the conclusion of Sasuke's long awaited battle with his brother Itachi, Jiraiya's defeat at the hands of the supposed Akatsuki leader Pain and the appearance of the true mastermind behind the Akatsuki - the legendary ninja Madara Uchiha. All of the players in Akatsuki have been revealed, but the biggest impact from a story point of view is Sasuke's defeat of his brother. His entire character has been built around his thirst for revenge against his brother, so what happens
once he has it? Madara has recognised that Sasuke is at his most pliable, he no longer has a goal to drive him and his defeat of his brother has left him in emotional turmoil. Madara has intervened at the perfect time, and his revelations give Sasuke a brand new - and extremely hazardous - purpose which could have far reaching implications for the story as a whole.
Meanwhile Naruto doesn't have much time to rest on his
laurels, being sent on another mission immediately after narrowly missing Sasuke
in the aftermath of his battle. The side quest Naruto and Sakura are sent
on is, to be fair, another filler arc, and suffers from some relatively generic
characters and a predictable plot, but it's actually quite entertaining and fits
in well with the overall story. One thing that can generally be said for
the side stories in Naruto Shippuden is that they are usually well
integrated into the main storyline. Unlike Bleach, which has recently
decided to throw unrelated side stories in with a complete disregard for
continuity, Naruto's side arcs generally have a bearing on what's going
on in the main story or expand on minor points from the manga to give things a
little more depth. Although the main story of the forbidden jutsu
and ninja who are trying to obtain it is pretty average, the main drive of this
arc is the relationship between Hotaru and Utakata and the surprising link he
shares with Naruto. The story has a bittersweet quality to it which almost
makes up for the daftness of Utakata's bubble techniques, but its only real
problem is the fact it delays Naruto's return to Konoha and the shocking news he
is about to receive.
This volume is really a turning point for both of the series' lead characters. Sasuke has achieved his goal and is at a loss as to what to do next, whilst Naruto has to face the loss of his mentor and father figure. For Naruto, who has been an orphan since he was a baby, the pain of loss is something new to him and he doesn't now how to deal with it. Potentially it could send him down a similar dark route to Sasuke, leaving him burning with a desire for vengeance, but we don't really get to see which way he turns in this volume due to the
distraction of the side story. It's a shame, as the contrast between Sasuke and Naruto's turning points and the simultaneous refocus of their respective stories should have been concurrent, but as it is the two re separated and lose some of their combined impact.
Nonetheless this is another strong volume of the series and one that sees the story shift into a new phase. The main plotline reached huge turning points in the last volume and with this one it moves forward both in scope and narrative, refocusing strongly on both of the central characters as they struggle to overcome their own individual crises. The central filler story about Hotaru and Utakata is weaker than the main plot but still entertaining, and is well integrated into the main story arc. Like the main story it is character driven with a strong emotional core, and with Sasuke's storyline getting pretty verbose at the start of the volume it makes for a welcome action-packed break. It's also worth noting that there's a good balance of drama and action and with all of the Akatsuki revealed alongside the last of the jinchuuriki, all of the cards are on the table for an explosive battle in future volumes. Naruto Shippuden Part 12 proves that the series continues to be consistent and interesting at a time when other long-running series are foundering (Bleach, I'm looking at you...), it remains one of the best action series of its type available in the UK and on this evidence it is well worth sticking with.
You know the drill, trailers, galleries and occasional comedy extra segments at the end of the episodes. Same as always.