We now find ourselves on the fourteenth box set of the long running series Naruto Shippuden. This particular set covers episodes 167 through to 179, and it's something of a mixed bag. We begin with the conclusion of “The Invasion of Pain” arc, arguably the best so far in the Shippuden series.
Episode 166 at the end of box set 13 left us with a major cliffhanger. The normally shy and retiring Hinata heroically intervened in the battle with Pain in order to protect the incapacitated Naruto, during which she finally confessed her love for him; something which was already obvious to everyone apart from Naruto himself. Unfortunately, by the end of the episode it appeared that poor Hinata may have been killed by Pain and Naruto responds by unleashing his inner Fox demon, which of course usually spells trouble for anyone nearby. Ending the last box set in such a way has naturally led to a whole host of questions being left unanswered: Is Hinata really dead? How will Naurto respond? What can he do now? Will the Nine Tails finally overpower Naruto’s consciousness and wreak havoc on the leaf village?
The good news for fans is that yes, all these questions are answered. The emergence of the Nine Tails inevitably leads us into battle, but who will be victorious? Naruto and the Nine Tails or Pain? The battle itself does not disappoint; it is easily the highest level and most destructive fight to date in the Shippuden series. However, this does unfortunately lead to my first complaint: The standard of the animation. At times the artwork is more akin to something a proud parent might pin to a fridge door than something produced by a professional animation studio. I can’t quite figure out whether this is down to budget and time constraints, or simply due to a misguided attempt to make the battle scenes appear more dynamic. This is a real shame, given that it somewhat spoils what should be the highlight of the series to date.
Without wishing to give too much away, there is a touching bit of introspection and a major reveal to break up the battle that may well have any long term Naruto fan claiming "I'm fine, there's just something in my eye". The reveal itself is one that has been telegraphed in the series for some time, so I suspect many have seen it coming, but I won't spoil it just in case.
Once the fighting has concluded the episodes become much more contemplative and retrospective, delving into the long and troubled history leading to the current state of affairs. It's an interesting change of pace and a brave move to shift gears so suddenly but it works, and it works well. Then, a couple of oddly placed filler instalments aside, the arc is concluded nicely and we're left with more of the infamous Naruto filler episodes making up the rest of the set. If you're unfamiliar with Naruto filler then allow me to give you some idea of it's reputation: Here at UK Anime alone we've lost several reviewers' sanity to filler - to this day one still screams uncontrollably at the mention of the 'f' word. That said, these are some of the better filler episodes I've seen - for the most part they revisit Naruto's past and fill in some untold stories from more peaceful times. They also add in a bit of humour that has been somewhat absent from the main story recently.
Both language tracks are competent, though the original Japanese feels more nuanced and seems to delve a little deeper, while the English track tends to spell things out a little more and is the easier of the two to follow during the action.
It's almost a cliché at this point to suggest in a Naruto review that you will by now know whether or not you're interested in the series. However the Invasion of Pain arc, with all it's flashbacks and retrospection, probably represents the best opportunity in some time for a newcomer to begin watching the series without feeling too lost. To cut a long story short: whether you're a long term fan or newcomer there has never been a better time to watch Naruto.