One of the questions that apparently many Japanese are asked – at least if you go by the awesome pre-recorded Q&A session that ran before the Gold Coast Film Festival’s screening of Road to Ninja: Naruto the Movie and featured the voice actors for both Naruto (Junko Takeuchi) and Kakashi (Kazuhiko Inoue) – is why do foreigners like anime?
It’s an interesting question, in fact. Why do we like anime (well, those of us who are fans at least)? The answer is perhaps not as individual as you’d think. Sure, everyone’s got their own origin story. For me it was white lions racing across African plains to catchy tunes. What I learned watching that show and others like it was that there were worlds I never realised could exist. What I saw populating those worlds were characters that made me feel. And I think when it all boils down to it that’s what anime still does – makes us feel.
It seems odd to say that’s why we like anime. After all, don’t cartoons from our own culture make us feel? I’d argue that more often they make us laugh, but not a lot of the other stuff (after all, I was never worried Scooby was going to die; Kimba on the other hand…). So you could say that feeling is a weapon in anime, wielded with calculated accuracy, and when it comes to a long running series like Naruto you come for the ninjas but you stay for the ninja drama, though 500 episodes and 9 feature films, in fact.
If you’re somehow unfamiliar with this show, here’s a quick run-down: Naruto’s parents both die in a terrible war while he’s still a baby, and he is left orphaned with an evil, world-destroying monster magically residing inside him. As a consequence, he’s shunned and reviled, but does he let him get that down? No, because he loves and believes in people even when they don’t love and believe in him, and he wants to be recognised as someone worthy of existing. His main function is to be of value to others, to connect with people and to support and care, because he knows what not having those things feels like. He is, emotionally speaking, the very embodiment of a hero.
To watch the series from the beginning makes his growth along this hero’s journey obvious. Road to Ninja sensibly plays upon the more significant emotional keys in his psyche in a way that seems a little cliché’ but that can be fairly easily overlooked. Naruto and teammate and friend Sakura are transported by current series uber-villain to a slightly different reality, where Sakura’s childish complaints that her parents are stupid and annoying are suddenly irrelevant and where Naruto gets what he’s always wanted – a loving, and more importantly living, breathing family. The story continues fairly predictably – or should I say classically – from there. All their friends are disturbing and/or silly mirror reflections of themselves – Hinata is aggressive, Gai is depressed, Sasuke is a hound – and at first the benefits of this new alternate reality seem to outweigh the drawbacks.
But the strength in Naruto is its constancy and clarity of moral lesson. It’s not trying to revolutionise anything; it’s going to stick to what it knows and do that as well as it can. As the story progresses, Sakura walks for a little while in Naruto’s shoes and learns that having no-one to answer to isn’t as great as it sounded, and Naruto for his part learns that the losses he’s experienced in his life have defined him for good or ill (although it’s Naruto, so it’s mostly for good). Basically the two of them realise they’d actually prefer things to return to normal, even when normal sometimes sucks, so they hunt down the bad guy and a fairly epic battle ensues.
It’s a formula that works, and always has. For newcomers, this film probably won’t have the emotional resonance that it has for the fans, but that’s why Naruto’s formula works – the spectacular action is there to prop up any possible narrative weaknesses so that you’re pretty much entertained either way you look. Yes Road is like one big long Shippuden episode filler (outcomes are not expected to have any real impact on the main story or be referred to in any way after the closing credits), but the big screen, big resolution, big budget treatment is an exciting medium to see it happening in, and the rest as about as solid as you could expect.