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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Manga Review: Naruto 53

Naruto volume 53
Author: Masashi Kishimoto
Viz Media/Shonen Jump
192 pages

The Birth of Naruto: Naruto faces his inner demons at the Waterfall of Truth! Can he tame the darkness inside himself while still retaining his biju's power? An important figure from his past shows up during the struggle to relate the history of his family and village, revealing astonishing new information about Naruto and Nine Tails!

Spoiler warning: Spoilers abound for the Naruto series so far in the following review. Read on with caution!

Few people do training story arcs like Masashi Kishimoto. Sure, for the longest time it seemed like Yoshihiro Togashi of Yu Yu Hakusho fame was the shonen manga-ka most (in)famous for his training arcs, which were usually very long and very multi-layered, but recently Kishimoto has shown us what he can really do with some age-old genre tropes, and what comes out of all of this is volume fifty-three of Naruto, in which Naruto fights himself and then fights inside himself, only to find some unexpected assistance from a character I did not expect to see return any time soon. This volume is not so much the birth of Naruto – though it is that too – as much as the rebirth of Naruto, in which he embraces who he truly is and uses it to his own advantage in some incredible character growth that is much needed after what seemed like volumes of the young man struggling with his own self-identity. In short, if you are a fan of the series' title orange-clad character, this is a volume of Naruto to marvel and enjoy and possible get a bit teary over.

Read the rest of my review after the jump!

The fight with Naruto's 'dark' side comes to a close in the first handful of chapters, as Naruto doesn't so much fight him as embrace him, literally, into himself, where his various facets can finally learn to live in harmony (or close enough). Let's be honest, his dark side is a nasty piece of work, but also an unsettling reflection on not only the kind of thoughts that flit through Naruto's subconscious but also a reminder of how the greater ninja community used to treat the Uzumaki boy until very recently. Hell, it wasn't until a number of volumes ago that his fellow Konoha villagers started outwardly treating him with the respect and honor he deserves, considering all the things Naruto has done for Konoha in the past.

Really, it's an issue that does not get the amount of page exposure it deserves, considering how many in its target demographic grapple with this issue on a regular basis: bullying, whether openly or subtly by those around you. Naruto has been forced to come to terms with the fact that his bitterness and underlying resentment at those who hurt him from birth into his youth will always be there, but it will no longer dominate his heart or way of thinking. It certainly helps that he now has a huge support team of friends and fellow ninja who he can count on to back him up when in danger; something that a parallel-narrative character, Gaara, didn’t have when he was growing up which explains his problems with trust and abandonment. This is something that was brilliantly if not heart achingly illustrated in the very end of the Kishin arc where we see Naruto surrounded by his loved ones throughout the years while Gaara stand by himself without any visible means of support.

These are certainly important lessons we should be teaching our youth: that bullying is a problem, and everyone should be loved, both by others and by themselves. It's taken a while but I think Naruto can finally love himself just like others love him in turn.

Naturally, what follows the end of the 'Dark Naruto' arc is the next leg in Naruto's sage training, in which he must combat the nine-tailed demon fox spirit Kyuubi that lives within him. Instead of being a typical brawl with a giant chakra-based multi-tailed life form, it turns into a journey within the Uzumaki family past as Naruto meets the remaining spirit of his deceased mother, Kushina. Yes, Naruto is talking to dead people now – although as you read on further, you’ll soon learn that’s not exactly the case.

See the red-haired woman on the cover? That's Kushina. And she is absolutely wonderful. You can easily see how a guy like Minato would fall in love with such a spirited, honest woman like Kushina. Ah, true ninja love! And then naturally, after the tear-jerking mother/son reunion, Kishimoto drops the ball on us: Kushina was the host of the Kyuubi spirit immediately before Naruto. As in XXXHOLiC, there is no such thing as circumstance, only hitsuzen. And hitsuzen has decreed that both Kushina and Naruto would bear the burden of the fox spirit for both of their lifetimes (although the respective scenarios for them were decidedly different).

Before we even touch the revelations brought on through Kushina's story, or the effect of her love on Naruto's battle with the Kyuubi, can we just take a step back and appreciate the aesthetic quality of the scene that makes up Naruto and Kushina's reunion in his subconscious? Because that is probably one of the most beautifully crafted visuals seen so far in this far-spanning series, further proving that Kishimoto is no novice when it comes to using panels and empty space as an effective tool in setting up a scene and the emotional responses that are automatically pulled from it through the readers.

The initial image of Naruto embracing his mother with the force of a son who has been separated for too long, and the panel on the following page that pulls back from these two embracing, surrounded by white space and the suggestion of light falling from above, is one that really stuck with me long after its respective chapter ended. It truly is a return to form for Kishimoto's artwork this volume, as well as a reminder that it isn't only fight scenes that he's good at choreographing but also the more emotional and intimate of moments between his characters, whether they be enemy or friend or, yes, family once separated by death itself.

Anyways, a lot of stuff gets dropped all at once on readers' heads during the many chapters of detailed flashbacks following Kushina and Minato from their first meeting to their inevitable demises. It's quite a bit to process and will probably require a re-read on the parts of many people's heads, myself included. Hopefully, the real fallout from all of this info will be felt in following volumes, as it is very integral to Naruto's history and character. Don't forget about it, Kishimoto!

But seriously, I trust the guy not to let us down on this, as well as whatever may come of Naruto meeting his mother face to face for the first time - you don't really step away from that kind of encounter the same person. Considering the great leaps in personal growth our favorite spirited ninja has taken from series' start, I've got faith in the fact that this young man is going to keep growing and pushing this series further and further away from its basic premise of 'energetic boy takes on world' into somewhere different.

These are the kinds of story arcs I want to see in Naruto, ones that explore characters’ pasts with a purpose, expose emotional moments amid chaos, and provide balance within our cast of protagonists. We’ve seen Naruto literally face his inner demons and conquer them, once with his own strength and again with the added strength of a mother’s love that has been waiting inside him for so long. If this is the direction Naruto is going in – still moving forward story wise but willing to become introspective when it needs to – then bravo. As long as it never forgets it’s still a shonen manga at heart, it will do all right by me.