As part of the 2009 Shounen Jump anime tour – which also brought us the… uhh… “culinary” delights of Toriko – Studio Pierrot released a twenty-seven minute special – Naruto: The Cross Roads. Now, from experience I find that most shounen anime uses the same basic ingredients: one handful of mysterious antagonists, a good dollop of nefarious plotting, a pinch of teamwork and a generous sprinkling of fighting. Where these series differ is in their method of execution; get it right and you end up with a lip-smacking treat, but take a few wrong turns and you end up with a garbled stew complete with fish heads and purple wavy lines of DOOM. On the spectrum the gloopy grey gruel that is The Cross Roads falls somewhere in the middle; but unlike Oliver Twist, I’m not asking for more.
This particular anime tells a previously untold story set immediately after the Land of Waves arc from the main series. Hot on the heels of their previous mission, Team Seven has a new assignment: to locate Mr Genmai and return him to Konoha. However, since this is Naruto and nothing is ever simple, things quickly go awry when Kakashi splits off from his students only to become trapped within a spell. Meanwhile, an unknown trio of ninja attack the three genin and kidnap Sakura; now Naruto and Sasuke must put aside their sexual tensio- I mean, deep loathing for each other and combine their strengths to rescue their teammate.
Most of the twenty-odd minutes consists of various fights with little explanation of anything in between, which is all well and good when paired with a high-octane plot or dynamic narrative; sadly this isn’t the case. Though plenty of kunais whizz about the screen, the occasional exploding tag is about as exhilarating as it gets – and that’s hardly going to make anyone wet their pants with excitement. While not horrifically awful, the anime’s story feels thin, somewhat pointless and never really seems to get off the ground.
Luckily, not all is lost. For seasoned fans, the special ignites a sense of nostalgia and a reasonable dose of comedy bolsters the limp plot. Seeing Naruto break out his ‘Sexy Harem Jutsu’ and the ‘One Thousand Years of Death’ allows for an occasional smile – or in the latter’s case, wince. Unfortunately, while this rather crude humour may amuse many, non-Naruto fans will find little entertainment here.
As a first in the Naruto series, this special utilises a cel-shaded CG approach similar to that in Penguin no Mondai and Gokujou Mecha Mote Iinchou. I generally despise this style of animation when it comes to anime due to its hit and miss nature, and The Cross Roads does nothing to change my mind on this.
On the plus side, realistic movements such as Kakshi squatting down seem almost like live action footage, while details such as the zip on Naruto’s tracksuit swinging and the jiggly bounce action displayed during the ‘Sexy Justu’ brings an added believability to the visuals. Likewise, the higher number of frames per second gives the action scenes a more vivacious nature as each ninja speeds across the screen and every exploding tag detonates. Sadly wherever there’s a positive, a bloody great lumpy negative is never too far away. In this case, there are times where characters flop around the screen like unloved rag dolls, but the award for most horrendous aspect of this anime’s visuals goes to the dreadful lip-synching. Though not consistently out of time, often characters have a level of lip movement that a Thunderbird puppet would be ashamed of – that is if they don’t simply leave their mouths open as words fall out, while occasionally making an ‘ooo’ shape that looks like they’re performing fellatio on some invisible phantom. Against such smooth body motion, this clunky attempt to make the cast speak drags the overall effect of the animation down.
With Toshio Masuda’s score from the main series carrying over into this special, along with the same cast of voice actors, The Cross Road’s soundtrack remains at the usual standard expected from any incarnation of the Naruto franchise.
On a particular plus, the main series’ second opening theme, “Haruka Kanata” by Asian Kung Fu Generation, makes a welcome come back as the special’s ending. Not only does this add to the nostalgia of it all, but also provides ample opportunity for a bit of headbanging.
Since this special takes place early in the main series’ timeline, its cast’s personalities stay relatively simple; Naruto’s crude nature shines through as he continues to use his ‘silly’ techniques to abnormally great effect; Sakura remains as useless as ever – but since she spends most of the anime off screen or unconscious we don’t have to put up with her yelling ‘SASUKE!’ every five minutes; and as for the egotistical Uchiha boy, well he’s just as annoyingly emo as ever. The Cross Roads doesn’t attempt anything particularly ingenious to develop its central protagonists, so if looking for a deep insight into their souls then go read some SasuNaru fanfiction instead because you won’t find it here.
The supporting cast introduced in this special leaves no impression at all and are just as dull as Sakura’s desperate crush on her emo teammate. This trio of stock bad guys start out as “mysterious”, and remain just as much of an enigma twenty minutes later when the credits roll. Not only do these unknown shinobi encourage little curiosity about their identities and motives, but two of them in particular are such a waste of pixels that they don’t even receive names.
I’ve done worse things with half an hour of my life than watching The Cross Roads, for example enduring Mars of Destruction, or printing out images of anime girls with their breasts out to taunt my gay friend with. Naruto fans with a bit of time of their hands may as well give it a watch, but in the end this special merely fades away into the same bucket of inane gunk as the main series’ various filler arcs.
Anime in 200 Words: Naruto: The Cross Roads
Premise: Naruto: The Cross Roads shows a mission that takes place very early in squad 7’s time together. The squad goes out to save a filler character and have to fight shinobi who are stronger than they are.
Required Viewing: Make it past the Zabuza saga in Naruto. If you don’t, you’ll have no idea what Sasuke is talking about.
Spoiler: After the credits, there is a scene that shows Sasuke as a member of a group that he is not involved with in Naruto. It’s really confusing to someone who hasn’t started Shippuden yet.
Art: This is computer animated. Everything looks fine, but some scenes give off a Vocaloid vibe. In particular, Sasuke’s simple designs combined with digital movements reminded me of Miku, and it’s an odd connection to make.
Characters: Sasuke and Naruto are still in the anger-fueled stage of their rivalry, Sakura is a damsel in distress, and Kakashi is sadly absent for most of the OVA.
Overall: Entertaining, but it doesn’t really add much to the overall story of Naruto. This is about as bland as it gets; not good enough to inspire, nor bad enough to scar.
Any fan of Naruto knows that OVAs from this series are a prospect to be dreaded. Fart jokes, terrible plots, and lazy scriptwriting tend to be the norm. So when I realized that I had missed this OVA when it was first released, well let's say that I was less than elated. After having finished Naruto: The Cross Roads, I found myself pleasantly surprised; this episode isn't great and one could argue that it isn't even good, but it beats the other OVA offerings from this series by miles.
Story: The story for this OVA is anything but unique, especially for those fans familiar with the earlier episodes of Naruto. Following the Land of Waves story arc, Naruto and company find themselves sent on what should be a fairly straightforward mission to find the father of a young child who went missing in a forest. And, like every mission that Naruto is involved in, it all goes terribly wrong as a set of rogue ninjas attack the group. Added to this are the requisite opportunities for the emo kid and the obnoxious kid to bond and work together to achieve their goal. There is also an interesting tie-in to the big baddie of the first Naruto series, so the story doesn't go completely to waste.
That's pretty much all you'll get for story. The remainder of this episode is a series of battles between Naruto's team and the rogue ninjas with the predictable result. It's tough for me to criticize this OVA for borrowing so heavily from the early Naruto episodes because I get the impression that such a similarity was intentional. From the story's path to Naruto's use of his (in)famous Harem Jutsu and One Thousand Years of Death Technique, nostalgia-building seemed to be one of the two primary goals here. In my bloody-nosed opinion, this series can never use Naruto's Sexy Jutsu too often.
Also, after the end credits, there is a foreshadowing to a plot point in Naruto Shippuden that could be termed a spoiler so fair warning to anyone who haven't seen the first 100ish episodes of Naruto Shippuden.
Animation: The animation was likely the second major goal. This OVA experiments with Cell-Shading in place of the traditional system of Naruto and the result is hugely hit-and-miss. The action scenes appear far more frenetic and colorful than the norm. Scenery and character models are also much improved with Kakashi benefiting the most from this change in animation as his movements and model are a huge upgrade. Seeing his hair move in response to his physical momentum really struck me and got me wondering why I had become so accustomed to the perfectly static nature of most anime hair. Another positive was the fantastic character models for the three enemy ninjas.
Unfortunately, the limitations of this animation style were pretty glaring. At times some of the characters (especially Naruto for some reason) move around as if they are puppets or astronauts on the Moon. The motions just appear unrealistic and really draw away from the immersion at times. Also, the lip syncing is terrible and might just be the worst I've ever seen. Not only was it decided that there was no need for the characters to move their mouths at the same time as the spoken dialog occurred, but the characters exhibit an odd reluctance to use their lips, consistently talking with a wide open mouth that opens and closes with every word, rather than forming letter sounds. On the bright side, if Pac-Man ever gets an anime, he'll have no problem with his trademark speaking style with this animation.
I'm probably giving this episode a higher animation score than it deserves because I appreciate that the creators were experimenting with something new and were curious to see the results. Despite the severe shortcomings, I enjoyed what Cell-Shading did for the battle scenes. The beneficial effect that the animation system had on the Sexy Jutsu in no way affected my score...
Sound: Classic Naruto style again. Good, if overenthusiastic, voice acting, the thrilling sounds of clashing kunais and exploding smoke bombs in the midst of battle, and an old favorite for the ED song. Positive points on all these accounts.
Characters: You can't really expect much character development in a one-episode OVA like this, especially since it is being squeezed into a storyline that has already been completed. That said, there is some evidence of a closer bond between Sasuke and Naruto and both exhibit certain strengths that foreshadow their future powerful roles in the series. Sakura, who I can't say enough bad things about (who says reviewers need to be unbiased?), is absolutely useless, but then this was the case for most of the first Naruto series so anything other than that would break with canon.
I should return here again to the enemy ninjas that this OVA introduces. While I previously mentioned the impressively unique character models as a positive, they managed to engage me with their personalities as well. This is even more impressive given their limited screen time and dialog. These people are given absolutely no back story and explanation but it'd be silly to expect any in a 24 minute lifetime. It's so disappointing that these ninjas were thrown away on this single-episode OVA rather than being used to give an added degree of interest to the interminable filler that defines much of the Naruto series. All of that filler would have been so much more bearable if it had stronger secondary characters like these.
Overall: I obviously wouldn't suggest that anyone view this OVA unless they saw and enjoyed the first arc of Naruto, but for fans who have had bad experiences in the past with Naruto OVAs (and considering the abysmal track record that exists with these, that'd probably be every fan), I would certainly suggest seeing this one. Beautifully animated battle scenes, nostalgic humor, and opponents who are interesting despite being necessarily shallow and transitory are points in this episode's favor.
I can't say I enjoyed this OVA too much, and I think that largely has to do with the animation style. I don't neccessarily mind animation being changed up for shorts, but while they did a good job at matching the style of the show with the 3D models, it just felt gimmicky and there were moments the animation just felt odd. I feel like they needed to spend more time on movement and on the mouth movements for this style to really work.
I did like the concept of the story, as it was neat to see how far back some of the aspects of the show started (remaining vague here to avoid spoilers), but it took so long for the story to make much sense and I got a little bored with it because there wasn't much of a point to the events going on until you learn the truth in the end.
It was nice to go back to near the beginning of Team 7's journey together, and Kakashi is great as always, but the story could have been put together so much better and the animation needs a lot of work.
Also, content warning for Naruto's Harem jutsu.