I always say that movies from big shōnen franchises are usually little more than filler arcs with a budget, and should be seen with the right mindset: relax, unplug your brain, enjoy the action. Naruto movies always managed to be at least entertaining, but the formula they reused again and again from the filler arcs started to smell funny after a while, and all of this came down in the lazily written Naruto Shippūden the movie 2 – The contractually obligatory movie. However, this one here, the sixth Naruto movie overall, finally managed to avoid at least partially the formula and actually feel, for lack of a better word, “cinematic”.
Ok, I never said the plot was original, did I? 'Cause it's not. What made me like this movie, is just that… it’s good to see a Naruto movie pick up its theme, that of comradeship vs. duty, and develop it effectively throughout its running time; it’s good to see a proper build-up to a well-done final series of battles; it’s good to see a Naruto movie pull off a slightly darker tone, even limiting comedy relief to the introduction and to one hilarious scene at the very end; it’s good to see a Naruto movie referencing various points of canon (Kakashi’s backstory with Obito, Asuma’s death, the Sannin’s youth, Naruto’s guilt over Sasuke, and especially Kakashi’s first lesson) so effectively and organically, tying in with various running themes of the series; it’s good to see battles being won with a team effort without Naruto pulling new one-use Rasengan techniques from out of bloody nowhere (OK, he does use the Rasenshuriken at one point, but it’s an already-introduced technique!). Sure it has its flaws: many plot points are left underdeveloped (for example, the subplot of the Land of Fire being blamed for Hiruko’s plan and thus other countries threatening to start a Fourth Shinobi World War is barely touched upon), the storytelling is flat as a college student’s EEC when the six ‘o clock alarm rings, lines of repeated dialogue make some scenes smell like filler, it’s quite slow at times (though whether this is a defect is arguable), and it’s not like at any point you expect it to finish any differently than it does. Still, the scenes are done well enough to have an emotional impact, even in a heavier and more tragic way than we’re used to seeing in these films, the battle scenes are exciting, and the premise per se is quite interesting. What’s more, for reasons I can’t describe, to me it felt actually “cinematic”, like acutally a movie instead of a discarded TV episode.
Allow me to reprise the anaphora from before: it’s good to see so many of the characters in for the ride instead of just a token small number of the Rookie Nine (yes, most are just a convenient deus ex machina or an obstacle, but at least it’s someone we know and not a new bloke who needs to be introduced only to then be bashed as uninspired and uninteresting by some pretentious reviewer on the internet! Wait…); it’s good to see them in a dire situation involving themselves, their nakama, their Will of Fire, their beliefs, to even see some of them facing a dilemma; it’s good to see a Naruto movie take the chance to explore some characters’ feelings; and most importantly, it’s good to NOT see the usual FillerEmoKid™ for Dr. Naruto’s Psychotherapy Division-ttebayo. Now, of course it doesn’t mean it’s a masterpiece: the conflict may feel a bit forced here and there, some lines are quite cheesy, and it’s pretty clear which “side” is going to prevail, but I could still feel the chemistry and intensity in their interaction, the theme raised is interesting enough, and in the unavoidable comparison to the other movies I think it’s only fair to give this one credit for at least improving.
The villain, on the other hand, is the usual stuff. Besides the miniboss squad of three mindless minions, hardly even worth a mention (it’s ninjūtsu fodder and a pair of boobs, basically), Hiruko is our typical cardboard cut-out power-hungry villain with forbidden powers, basic motives, and just what little exploration is needed to classify him as an Orochimaru wannabe. I must say he has a surprisingly well-done final moment with the potential to be pretty touching, but he wasn’t given enough space to make the viewer care about him so it may fall flat on you. He works decently as a villain, but he’s definitely forgettable.
As with any Naruto movie, the art and animation is consistently good, with great action sequences, impressive backgrounds, nice design on both the landscapes and the original characters, but here we get even some great lightning that manages to help a lot in creating that darker, moodier atmosphere.
The soundtrack, again by the same Takahashi Yasunaru who produces the soundtrack for Naruto: Shippūden, is in the usual Japanese-music-meets-rock-meets-orchestra style, but particularly rich of heavy guitar riffs and shredding guitar solos which, as a guitar player, I couldn’t but drool over. It works really well in the fight scenes, where it easily stands out, and does its job well also in slower emotional moments. All around, really good.
The same can be said about the voice acting: Takeuchi Junko is at her usual awesome as the protagonist, the main cast are doing their thing even in their limited roles (a couple of them have just one or two lines, really, I kind of feel sorry for them, I bet it feels degrading to be paid for basically saying “I am my character” into a microphone), Hoshi Sōichiro performs well at all times as the textbook villain Hiruko is, Shikamaru is given a pretty major role and Morikubo Showtaro handles it OK although a bit more depth might have been helpful, ditto for Inoue Kazuhiko as Kakashi, even good ol’ Ishida Akira as Gaara leaves an impact in the small role he has here, but in general it doesn’t stand out that much. Solid as expected, but nothing more than that.
To sum it up, this film is nowhere near a masterpiece, it’s got many of the defects shōnen franchise movies always have (predictable storyline, cardboard cut-out villain, and so on), but it does what it set out to do and easily stands out among Naruto films: it has more connections to the running themes of the canon, it presents the characters with harder decisions and internal conflicts creating a darker atmosphere, which is a nice change from the usual Naruto movie, it develops one single coherent theme, for once it feels like a movie and not like yet another filler arc, all while delivering solid action and a couple of nicely-done emotional moments. Which means, entertaining if experienced with the right mindset. I don’t think non-fans of the show would enjoy it (but why would they even watch it, after all?), but for fans I believe it’s a safe bet, and if you’re not someone who wants to see everything in the franchise, I'd say this is the movie you don’t want to skip. It's an improvement on what came before, which is, I think, reason enough to give it some praise.