long-running manga and anime series about ninja-in-training and self-proclaimed
knucklehead Naruto Uzumaki, ranks among the most popular franchises of the 21st
century. Tens of millions of books have been sold worldwide, and the two
television series ran for over 400 episodes. In addition, there have been eight
theatrical films, more than 40 video games and a raft of license products. Go
to any anime con and you’ll see kids dressed as Naruto everywhere you turn.
The ninth feature, Naruto
the Movie: Road to Ninja, which opens in a limited North American
theatrical release Friday (via Eleven Arts and ViZ Entertainment), is more dynamic and packs more of an emotional punch
than the previous films.
Returning to the Hidden Leaf Village after skirmishing with
the evil ninjas of the Akatsuki clan, Naruto confronts
a subtler foe: loneliness. While his teammates’ parents praise their work and
talk about submitting the forms for promotions in the ninja ranks, Naruto walks
into his apartment and gives the traditional Japanese greeting, Tadaima (“I’m back home”)–to the food
wrappers and dirty laundry lying on the floor. At the same time, his friend
Sakura is quarreling with her parents, whom she feels are over-protective.
Later, he and Sakura encounter the arch-villain Madara, the
leader of the Akatsuki, in the Village park. Using a supernatural technique,
Madara sends them to an alternate reality. This version of the Hidden Leaf
Village looks the same, but everything is different. Their friends’ personalities
have done 180 degree revolutions: Sai, who summons magical beasts into
existence by sketching them, can’t draw a straight line; Shino, who fights with
clouds of insects, runs around with a bug sprayer.
But some differences are more profound. Here, Sakura is an
orphan: Her parents were heroes who died saving the Village, just as Naruto’s
did in the real world. Naruto is initially delighted to find he has parents in
this world. He basks in their attention, and gets a glimpse of what a warmer, happier
childhood would have been like. But this couple is cautious, concerned with
keeping themselves and their son safe, even if means allowing others to be
harmed. Naruto knows he’s the son of heroes who sacrificed their lives to
protect the Village from a demon so terrible, it seemed like a divine
punishment. Sakura realizes she misses her mother and father, and can’t live up
to her reputation as the daughter of the saviors of this Village.
Together, they challenge Madara and his minions in the abandoned
cavern that served as the Training Cave. Madara’s aim in this world is the same
as in the real one: He covets the staggering power of the nine-tailed fox demon
sealed within Naruto’s body. For a brief moment, Naruto and the demon must work
together to defeat Madara’s pawn and an equally redoubtable version of the
fox-demon. The no-holds-barred battle is well-staged and exciting. Naruto
triumphs by drawing on the example of his parents and teachers who were willing
to lay down their lives for the greater good, just as Hiccup draws strength
from the memory of his father Stoick the Vast in How to Train Your Dragon 2.
In an interview, Naruto’s creator, manga artist Masahi
Kishimoto, told me, “Perfect heroes are cool, but no one can really
empathize or identify with them. Naruto often makes blunders, and he has
weaknesses. Naruto feels inferior to his peers, but he hates to be a loser.
Although he doesn’t think about it too much, he knows he hates to lose and we
all know what that feels like. I think
readers see themselves in Naruto and that’s what appeals to them: They can
empathize with him and his weaknesses.”
Naruto series owes much of its popularity to its entertaining combination
of a come-from-behind hero, magical “ninja” techniques, over-the-top fights,
slapstick brawls and friendship. While The
Road to Ninja incorporates these well-known and well-loved elements, it
stresses the lonelier, more serious side of the main character. If Naruto were
just a knuckleheaded prankster, audiences would quickly tire of him. Because he
has the strength to overcome his weaknesses and achieve his goals, he can be
truly heroic, as well as comic, a combination that’s made him one of the most
popular animated characters of our era.