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.
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