Naruto Uzumaki is a lot like your classic adolescent fantasy protagonist, but the trappings are ninja-related rather than the stuff of sorcery and knight errantry. Growing up as an orphan, he is rash on the outside and sensitive on the inside. Even though fans know his creation story quite well, it will be revisited in detail and perhaps even altered when the junior ninja finds himself whisked into an alternate world in Hayato Date’s Road to Ninja: Naruto the Movie (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.
Uzumaki’s father and mother bravely sacrificed their lives defending Konohagakure from the rampaging Nine-Tailed Demon Fox. Even though his parents are immortalized on the village’s Rushmore-like monument, Naruto is often shunned because they were forced to mystically seal the demon within him. Naruto is usually a pretty plucky kid, but he is going through a rough patch, making the absence of his family particularly acute. In contrast, his crush-rival Sakura Haruno is feeling especially embarrassed of her intrusive, ultra-square parents.
However, before you can “alternate Star Trek universe,” the malevolent Tobi traps them in the Tsukuyomi world, based largely on their deepest subconscious desires. Much to their surprise, Haruno is now the celebrated orphan of the village heroes, while Uzumaki’s parents are alive and well. Instead of martyrs, they are workaday ninjas and loving parents (who insist on calling him Memna rather than Naruto). Everything looks the same, but most of their friends have reversed their primary character traits. In a way, this makes Road an easy series entry point, since most of the backstory no longer applies.
The Naruto franchise is classified as Shōnen manga, which usually means a lot of fighting. Road is no exception, but its themes of sacrifice and parental love give it more Capra-esque sentiment than you might expect. Since it was plotted out by series creator Masashi Kishimoto, you know it is legit. It is a rather self-contained story arc, but it arguably offers fans greater character development. Frustratingly though, like many anime features, the big showdown relies on a lot of flash-and-dazzle spectacle that largely becomes a blur of fireballs and fix-demons. It would be more effective to bring things down to a more personal level, like Mel Gibson and Gary Busey duking it out on Danny Glover’s front lawn.
Under Kishimoto’s watchful eye, Date and company maintain the franchise’s quality control. In fact, there are some great images of Konohagakure and its environs, evoking Edo-era Japan and Tolkien-like fantasyscapes in equal measure. There is more heart to Road than you usually find in well established warhorse properties, which might be why it is the Japanese box-office’s top performing Naruto feature thus far. Nevertheless, it requires a predisposition to teenaged ninjas and all the angst and combat they face. Solidly executed but probably not crossing over from the fan zone, Road to Ninja: Naruto the Movie screens this coming Sunday (8/31) and Monday (Labor Day, 9/1) in New York at the Village East. For a complete list of cities and dates, check the Eleven Arts website here.