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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Initial Thoughts: Rock Lee & His Ninja Pals

Based on a manga by Taira Kenji, serialized in Saikyou Jump. A spin-off of Kishimoto Masashi's popular Naruto manga. The story focuses on the strange antics of Team Guy as they work on becoming great ninjas, a job which often requires saving Lee from himself. (Source: AniDB)

If I had to have made a bet on which Naruto cast member would be first to get their own certified spin-off . . . then, yeah, I would have bet Rock Lee. And who is surprised, really? Rock Lee is one of those characters who may be a part of the secondary cast but attracts one hell of a fan following, to the point that it becomes inevitable that his popularity cannot be ignored any longer. And since the anime industry does love making money off a good thing, it's only natural they would follow suit with their beloved Naruto franchise by spinning off an entire anime series (based on the manga series by the same name) about Rock Lee and his ninja antics.

For those who want to watch the cast of Naruto without sitting through 300+ episodes, we have Rock Lee no Seishun Full-Power Ninden (ロック・リーの青春フルパワー忍伝) or, as Crunchyroll is so helpfully translating it to be, Rock Lee & His Ninja Pals, the newest efforts from Studio Pierrot. Everyone is super deformed and looking super cute, so it definitely has looks going for it. Unless you don't like SD characters (or Naruto) . . . in which case, you'd probably be best off avoiding this one. The rest of y'all? Have fun!

Rock Lee & His Ninja Pals is basically what it says on the tin: Rock Lee! And his ninja pals! Doing ninja stuff! This so far involves retrieving expensive cakes for old ladies, protecting young girls from some laughable debt collectors, missions like that. As it looks, this series is going to be pretty lightweight in plot, which is usually par for the course with SD spin-off series like these.

It's also pretty reliant on a handful of jokes, such as the fact that Rock Lee is a ninja who cannot do ninjutsu, a claim that shouldn't mean much to anyone who has ever seen Rock Lee in action in Naruto proper, especially in the post-time skip series, yet he feels it necessary to prove himself as a worthy ninja. Also, a whole lot of poop jokes. Kiba should really keep a tighter leash on his dogs if they keep squatting all over Konoha.

But there are quite a number of genuinely hilarious moments in Rock Lee & His Ninja Pals’ opening episode, from Rock Lee’s dramatic movie star speech to the young girl being pursued by debt collectors to the impromptu skit conducted by Rock Lee’s squad in order to change Naruto’s mind about a cake voucher. It’s in the moments where the characters can just be themselves and aren’t constricted by the various mini-stories going that the humor really shines through.

There’s also the numerous moments of meta humor that call upon the Naruto verse’s confusing relationship with modern technology as well as a level amount of self-awareness by the characters during certain moments (Tenten’s reluctance to keep playing the straight man to Rock Lee’s goofiness comes to mind – and she’s really the perfect member to say something like that). Naturally, the jokes rely solely on the audience already being Naruto fans. I can’t really imagine anyone else watching this series – except for maybe anime bloggers determined to watch every single series that premieres this season. Yikes.

Really, this series is Naruto if Rock Lee was the main character and the series never shifted out of the goofy mission-phase of its earlier story arcs. Also, y’know, the whole super deformed art style – which actually works pretty well, considering, although Rock Lee looks odd without all his usual sharp angles (especially with his signature hairdo). It’s more entertaining than the filler arcs of the main Naruto arc but has less actual plot than the various Naruto films.

Overall, it’s one of those nefarious ‘your mileage may vary’ kind of series geared mainly towards shonen fans of the Dattebayo variety; those who love them a goofy off-the-wall comedy spin-off will definitely enjoy Rock Lee’s adventures with his team members. Those who like a coherent structured plot and story development – well, they’re better off watching the main anime series. Just not the fillers, though!

You can watch streaming episodes of Rock Lee & His Ninja Pals on Crunchyroll here.