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Naruto’s World of "Jutsu"

Rayna Denison sneaks into the background of ninja anime

Naruto

There’s a lots of genre mixing in martial arts anime, but there is growing interest in Japanese-style martial arts action stories – in anime like Nabari no O, Kenichi the Mightiest Disciple and even in Shonen Jump-derived anime from Bleach to ninja-epic Naruto.  And that’s not even counting classics of the genre like Dragon Ball, Crying Freeman and Kamui: The Lone Ninja (a live action adaptation of which was recently released in the UK by Manga Entertainment).

What is it about Japanese martial arts that these shows celebrate? In the case of Naruto, and now the second series, Naruto Shippuden, it is the “mysterious” art of ninjutsu that comes in for exploration and explosion. Like kung fu in China, Japan’s ninjutsu has been shrouded and obscured by lore and myth. Twentieth century sources, regarded by some historians as doubtful, have claimed that historical ninja, or shinobi (commonly translated as “stealers in”), were members of clans who were spies hired to infiltrate enemy clans for espionage or assassination purposes. So far, so Naruto. However, the truth about ninja is not easy to locate. The clandestine nature of ninja clans has led to a continual disinformation campaign around how ninja clans operated, with what skills and when. Supposedly a part of Japanese military history by the Sengoku era (Warring States period, 1467-1603), and a range of “histories” of the ninja suggest that, responsible or not, ninja tended to get the blame when rumours and fires were started, and when people died unexpectedly, but were more likely to be behind enemy lines amassing information about tactics and plans than they were to be killing high profile samurai.

Naruto Blood Prison

Ninja have also been connected to Japanese folklore deities like the tengu, a long-nosed god of mischief with martial arts prowess. Ninjutsu, or ninja skills, also stretched to things like disguise, flight and the ability to be invisible. Logically, therefore, it would seem that most ninja just found ways to be inconspicuous. But the legends have proven so powerful that ninja have now taken hold of the global imagination, and they have consequently transformed into everything from black-clad assassins from James Bond movies to teenage mutant turtle heroes. Likewise, in Naruto Shippuden, we see the transformation of the eponymous hero, Naruto, as he amasses ever-increasing amounts of chakra-laced powers, including a wind-based “Rasengan” bomb and the ninja throwing star-style attack called “Rasen-shuriken”.  In an even more fantastical power-set, Naruto attains “Sage Mode” which allows him to summon toad-god Gamabunta as a mystical fighting partner. Naruto’s world, therefore, may be the most complicated celebration of the ninja ever seen on screen.

While the television series of Naruto Shippuden focuses on the training Naruto undertakes to achieve these fantastical ninjutsu, the films act more as celebrations of these new jutsu powers. Over the course of the five Naruto Shippuden films being packaged together in a Christmas-ready bundle by Manga Entertainment, we see Naruto perpetually raising his ninjutsu game to fight ever-more diabolical villains. In Naruto Shippuden: The Movie, the first in the series, Naruto uses his long-standing shadow clones and the Rasengan technique to take down dragon-monster Moryo, though perhaps his most effective weapons are his perseverance and self-belief. By the time Naruto reaches Blood Prison, the fifth of the films, he starts to draw in natural energies to boost his chakra, thereby attaining “Sage Mode,” which fans of Shippuden will know comes complete with a new design of eyes that somewhat incongruously involves Naruto wearing orange eye-shadow. It also allows our hero to up his heroic ante, bringing the enormous Gamabunta to his side, an inherited technique from his ninja-master Jiraiya. While these changes are somewhat unsurprising in the world of Shōnen Jump, where each new story arc demands a “power up” to feed into new video games and keep action fans interested, it is the way Naruto Shippuden utilises Japanese myths and legends in creating its ninjutsu that may be most interesting to fans.

Naruto Blood Prison

Caught between two poles – the rules of the Naruto ninja universe, and the myths, legends and imagery available from Japanese culture – the Naruto Shippuden film series makes complex choices about where and what to borrow. Take, for example, the modern 3D CGI navy that sits of the Hidden Leaf Village’s shore in the second film, Bonds; or, the military gun batteries facing off against each other in the third film, The Will of Fire. These modern imports into the otherwise pastoral landscapes of Naruto sit ill-at-ease alongside discussions of chakra and ninja stealth-attacks, suggesting that, at times, Naruto’s ninja clans are far more like the samurai of old than spies.

Nevertheless, Naruto’s quests tend to fantasy adventures sympathetic to the romance of the ninja way. Each film presents a new inflection on the formula of the fantasy adventure ninja narrative popularised by the Naruto franchise. In the first film, Naruto acts as a bodyguard for a spoiled shrine miko, a female seer who foretells the deaths of those around her. In the second film, Bonds, Naruto re-teams briefly with friend-antagonist Sasuke to tackle the return of the Sky ninja clan; and in the third, The Will of Fire, Naruto endeavours to save his teacher Kakashi from a mysteriously androgynous villain. Things shift genre in the fourth film, The Lost Tower, with Naruto transplanted to the past to fight an evil puppet-master ninja. The final film though brings the starkest difference in tone, with Blood Prison seeing Naruto wrongly accused of breaking the ninja code and sent to a prison where there is more going on that it first appears.

These are all well-made films, with some beautiful animation, particularly the use of fish-eye lens perspectives that regularly distort the look of main characters, and the sometimes strange attempts to import 3-dimensional elements into Naruto’s 2-dimensional world. The films often start with action sequences that throw you into the middle of the narrative, and their pacing is lively and invigorating, thanks to the melange of Buddhist, Shinto, Heian-era wizardry and other cultural borrowings. Most obviously, the idea of chakra usage drives the film series (and the show around them), which means that the message of Naruto Shippuden’s films is often about self-control and self-knowledge, despite the chaotic action. This may help to explain why the out-of-control villains of the film series transform so often, and in Bonds, The Will of Fire and Blood Prison this leads to some of the most inventive body transformation sequences seen on screen in many years.

While the focus may not be on traditional ninjutsu in Naruto Shippuden, even as they are most romantically imagined, these films are still about trying to forge connections between today’s genres and Japan’s ninja past. This is largely achieved through the amalgamation of Naruto’s growing jutsu prowess and the increasingly fantastical nature of the villains he faces, with the 2-d Naruto standing for traditional culture in a world increasingly invaded by 3-d technological or magical nightmares. In Naruto Shippuden, then, it is the celebration of another newly invented ninja tradition and 2-d anime aesthetics that save the day.

The Naruto Shippuden Movie Pentalogy set is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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