Yes, you read the title right. You're no doubt wondering why the first volume of the Naruto manga we have reviewed is volume 28. Well, it may be the 28th volume, but it's also the first volume of the series' second part.
Anyone who has been reading, or indeed watching, Naruto will know who the characters are, but if not... Naruto is a ninja from the hidden village of Konoha, he's impetuous and unconventional and has struggled to fit in for his whole life. Sealed within his body is the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox, a terrible legacy that gives him great untapped power but makes him feared and loathed by others. Over time his has proved his worth and gained friends, including Sakura, a female ninja with superb control over her powers, and Sasuke a moody but brilliant ninja who's quest for power has lead him down a dangerous path.
When we rejoin the series at the start of this volume nearly three years have passed. Naruto has been training one on one with the legendary (but pervy) ninja Jiraiya and finally returns to Konoha older, stronger and maybe even a bit wiser. He doesn't have much time to rest in his hometown though. Shortly after arriving he is reunited with Sakura, who has been training as a medical ninja under the village's leader Tsunade, and their former teacher Kakashi. Together they re-form their three-man cell, and it's not long before they have their first mission. The deadly ninjas of the mysterious Akatsuki organisation are on the move, and their target is Gaara of the Sand. Like Naruto, Gaara hosts a monstrous demon that gives him awesome power, and capturing that demon is their true goal. When the Akatsuki ninjas Sasori and Deidara launch an audacious attack on the Hidden Village of the Sand, Naruto, Sakura and Kakashi are dispatched to support the Sand ninja against their mutual enemy. However,
with enemies strong enough to challenge Gaara and the Sand's best ninjas, Naruto and Sakura will have to demonstrate some serious skills if they are to stand any chance. Just how much have they improved? And with Naruto an Akatsuki target as well, is he biting off more than he can chew?
Naruto has done the Dragon Ball thing and relaunched itself with an older, more experienced and more powerful cast. However, whereas Dragon Ball gave itself a complete overhaul in its second incarnation by adding sci-fi elements and toning down the comedy, Naruto continues with the familiar direction and style it took over the last 27 volumes. There are still comedy elements, there is still plenty of action and the excellent story continues from the first part. So what's different? Well, the character designs for one. Kishimoto has pulled off that most difficult of tasks by managing to convincingly age his main characters. The time gap in the story has seen Naruto and Sakura go from 12 years old to 15, and the artwork - which is fantastic as always - certainly ensures they look realistically older. Their dialogue and character design has an extra air of maturity and confidence that really makes the story feel like it's moved on.
This volume signals the start of a new story
arc that will no doubt eventually see Naruto face members of Akatsuki in combat,
but at the moment things are just getting going. It's already been
established that Akatsuki ninja are very powerful, so the majority of this
volume focuses on how much stronger and more skilled Naruto and Sakura have
become. Their skills are showcased throughout and it's superb to finally
see Sakura doing something pro-active after 27 volumes of being the weak link.
Whereas before Naruto and Sasuke would do all the fighting, this time we find
that not only is Sakura a prodigiously talented medical ninja, but she's also
hard as nails too!
Although there is no change in the series direction and style, there is a subtle change of tone. In the first part of the story there was a strong 'coming of age' element, with a focus on learning through experience and honing the characters' morals and beliefs through their interactions with others. In this second part it seems that the characters have come of age, they're no longer being developed by the story, instead the story develops around them. The story arc that begins in this volume sees the scope of the series increase to encompass other nations and brings a wider range of characters to the fore. However, the stars of the show are very much Naruto and Sakura, and they grab your interest as they've been revitalised by the development they have been given.
But the problem is that whilst Naruto and Sakura have changed a lot, the adult characters don't seem to have. Kakashi is pretty much the same as he was before, as is Iruka and Tsunade. They've not even changed their outfits in the three years since we last saw them, unlike most of the younger characters. It's a minor thing I know, but it's odd that they seem to have been standing still. Other than that though it's superb, the pacing is great, the art is brilliant and distinctive you can feel a great story arc building. There isn't a huge amount of action in this volume, but the big fight that happens after Deidara infiltrates the Sand Village is absolutely superb. Kishimoto is brilliant at holding back the action until it's necessary, never giving too much away about a character's power until the big showdown. It keeps the pace up and ensures that the story doesn't devolve into a string of fight scenes, and this volume is a great example of how well it can be done. Aside from a minor niggle Naruto vol 28 is a superb new dawn for what has always been one of the finest action titles available. Trust me, you really, really want to read this.
The usual adverts and 'read right to left' notice grace the back of the book, and there's the 'story so far', character pictures and author's comment at the start. However, there's also two 'World of Masashi Kishimoto' comments pages where Kishimoto talks about video games, the results of a character popularity poll and a profile of one of Kishimoto's assistants (the ninth one, how many people work on this manga?). Best of all though is a fold-out colour insert inside the main cover, which could be removed and used as a small poster. Decent stuff, but not spectacular.