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Friday, March 27, 2015

My Top 10 Favorite Naruto Characters

            Naruto, like Bleach and One Piece, is a vast and sprawling epic, with more than enough wacky, cool, mysterious, powerful, and colorful personalities a fan could spend a lifetime obsessing over.  It is therefore only fitting that my final post in this brief little look-back be devoted to my own personal favorites from the immense cast of characters we got to spend varied amounts of time with over the course of the franchise’s 700-chapter adventure (plus the anime episodes, obviously). 

            An honorable mention goes to Kabuto, mostly because of the one flashback chapter that takes us, almost entirely without dialogue, through his growth after joining Orochimaru.  It was, alongside Danzo’s, one of the most effective uses of the flashback technique in a series notorious for useless flashback sequences. 

10. Jiraiya

           I always had a soft spot for Jiraiya, even if his whole “I am hopelessly perverted whenever a woman is around” shtick got old very fast.  I think this was mostly because that side of his character came across as a bit of a deliberate red herring, something he played up or over-exaggerated to mask a deep reservoir of power, wisdom, and steely determination, one that allowed him to come and go as he pleased without ever being tracked or followed.  No shinobi dares challenge him, and no Kage ever orders him to stay put.  Even Itachi, one of the most powerful people alive, flees rather than be forced into a battle with him, claiming that he would definitely die should he ever have to face him.  That’s pretty damn impressive, when you think about it. 

9. The Raikage

           Naruto, like most manga/anime series, has a noticeable paucity of non-white characters, and like with other hugely influential franchises (looking at you, DBZ), features at least one that is borderline offensive.  Thank God, then, that at least one of the major black characters we got towards the end was a tremendous badass.  The Raikage was not only one of the core shinobi leaders, possessing a size, stature, and strength equivalent to that of roughly 1.2 Alaskan grizzly bears, he also had one of my favorite powers of the entire series- by using his chakra to surround his body with an electric current, he could supplement his stupefying physical strength with the ability to move at almost-supersonic speed.  He was so fast that Amaterasu, which was effectively instantaneous in its speed, could not touch him.  And when he is injured enough to have to lose an arm, he’s like, “Meh.  Slice.”


8.  Ao

            I attribute my love for Ao to the fact that, at the time he was introduced, my pure hatred for Danzo was reaching its apex.  When the Kage Summit finally commenced, we had had one chapter after another of Danzo walking over or downright out-manipulating everyone around him, and to top it all off, he was about to be handed control of the entire shinobi alliance.  But then Ao steps up, and not only does he prove that Danzo was controlling Mifuni from the start, he does so by revealing that he actually possesses a Byakugan, meaning that, even though was primarily a senser, he had enough skill and power as a fighter to take out one of Neji’s kin.  And even though he was not really part of the action afterwards, he still shone by coming across for the younger generation as another Kakashi-type figure, someone grizzled by experience of past wars, but not embittered enough to keep him from seeing the benefits of the changes being wrought by Naruto and his generation. 

7. Guy

            Guy was always fun.  He was just plain fun to be around.  His bizarre relationship to Rock Lee could easily have gotten very creepy, very fast, but it was always genuine enough to make it endearing.  He was the outlandish Jerry Lewis to Kakashi’s straight-man Dean Martin.  Plus, it was always fascinating to see how he was able to use Taijutsu to match up against some of the most powerful Ninjutsu users around, including Kisame and eventually even Madara himself. 

6. Gaara

            Out of all the original characters in the story that lived on after the time skip (so, discounting guys like Zabuza), Gaara might have had the best individual story arc pre-Shippuden.  The flashbacks establishing his horrible backstory were brutally effective, turning him from a powerful and terrifying monster in an object of abject pity, but also setting up his turn from the darkness that eventually made him one of the mainstay good guys all the way to the end of the series. 

5. Zetsu

            We will pretend for the sake of this list that the eventual revelations regarding both Black and White Zetsu’s nature and origins never happened.  Because they were stupid.  That, and they broke one of the cardinal laws of creating a good villain- the less we know about them, the better, especially for ones a bizarrely unsettling as Zetsu.  A Venus-Flytrap Man with cannibalistic tendencies, plus the ability to literally split his body in half and transport instantly via the land itself, Zetsu’s entrances were always perfectly timed to creep me the hell out.  And that was all I needed to know.  Seriously.  We never needed a backstory.  He should have just walked away at the end.  CURSE YOU KISHIMOTO!!!1

4. Itachi

            Ah, Itachi.  Out of all the unsatisfying deaths in Naruto (which practically deserves a list all its own), Itachi’s was definitely one of the worst, partially because it relied on a poorly-conceived and even more poorly-explained Deus ex Machina, but largely because it meant Sasuke got to live.  No matter.  He was still a fantastic character from start to finish, from the early days of him being seen as a straight-up bad guy, through the plot twists that revealed him to actually be one of the smartest, wisest, and even noblest characters in the entire series.  Plus, he even tricked his way out of the Impure World Resurrection mind control technique.  Which was just plain awesome. 

3. Yamato

            One of many characters to get the shaft in the final chapter, Yamato won his way into my heart the first time he used his fantastic Threatening Face to make Naruto behave.  In a lot of ways, I actually think his importance to Team Seven got critically undersold; much has been made about how Kakashi, Jiraiya, and the Frog Clan were responsible for training him into the shinobi he became, not much attention has been paid to the fact that Yamato, due to the fact that he was a clone (of sorts) of the First Hokage, played just as big a role at a crucial part of the story in helping Naruto develop his growing powers.  That, and the Mokuton techniques were easily some of my favorite powers in the entire show, alongside Raikage's Lightening Armor.  Who wouldn’t want to be able to make an entire house grow out of the ground at will? 

2. Shikamaru

            I am willing to bet any amount of money none of you are surprised to see Shikamaru on this list.  And why would he not be?  He was one of the smartest and coolest characters to watch even though he could never be considered a very powerful fighter.  His Shadow techniques required specific circumstances to use, and had very strict limits on their usage, so he had to make do with his incredible intellect, which culminated in his crowning moment, when he found a way to permanently seal Hidan despite his physical immortality.  I think it’s also important to note that he had perhaps the most profound growth out of any of the original child characters.  Naruto develop great power, certainly, but his person, attitude, and disposition never underwent any radical alterations.  Shikamaru, however, did a full 180, paced out slowly between the first chapters and the Hidan/Kakuzu arc.  He started as completely childish, smart but aggressively immature and lazy.  By the end, he is a true adult, carrying a deep emotional and mental maturity that, despite his lack of overwhelming fighting power (or perhaps because of it) makes him a towering figure among shinobi. 

1. Kakashi

            No competition here.  From the moment he crossed blades with Zabuza at the very beginning of the series, I loved Kakashi, and none of the bullcrap he was subjected to in the Final Battle can alter that.  He was gold standard for badass from start to finish, but unlike many of my other favorite characters from the show, there was a lot more to him than just some cool powers.  He clearly carried the pain and weight of the senseless violence that had previously defined the shinobi world on his shoulders, but never allowed it to darken his person.  He was the perfect teacher and father-figure for Naruto; calm, reasoning, dependable in a pinch, and immensely wise.  For me, there was no character other than Kakashi who combined all the coolness, mystery, philosophy, and wonder that the world of Naruto had to offer. 

            And with that, I conclude by brief, and by no means comprehensive, look-back at one of the defining manga/anime franchises of our time.  Flawed as it might have been, I feel confident in saying that the best of what the series had to offer will more than stand the test of time.  In fact, I think I’ll go right now and rewatch some of my favorite episodes of the show.  Reread some of the best battle sequences in the series.  And let it all sink in again. 

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

My Top 10 Favorite Naruto Fights

            As promised last time, I return to the wide world of shinobi to list my top 10 favorite fights in Naruto.  Being a Shonen action/adventure/fantasy manga, Naruto was always, of course, filled to the brim with fights and battles, ranging from one-on-one showdowns to a whole-scale war between huge armies.  And for the most part, I loved it when we got them.  How could I not?  Warriors with the ability to reshape the earth around them (not dissimilar to Avatar in that respect) hurling all manner of weapons and superpowers at each other, some of them incredibly creative, combined with brilliant on-the-spot stratagems and a harsh narrative tone that emphasized the emptiness of death after a life spent fighting- what’s not to love? 

            But which were the best ones?  The ones that stood out from all the rest, the ones that avoided the visual confusion of the later war or that succeeded in advancing the story in a meaningful way?  The ones that went above and beyond in showing cool powers or tricks, or that had an ending that did not make we want to smack my head into a brick wall and scream bloody murder?  After much thought, I sure know the ones that did it all for me. 

            Before we begin, a dishonorable mention goes to the hugely-hyped-up fight between Itachi and Sasuke.  After all of the build-up we got to this moment, the entire reason Sasuke turned dark in the first place, we not only went out with Itachi, one of the coolest characters in the entire franchise, drop dead from an illness not once hinted at previously, but also get the start of the awful trend of Sasuke getting his ass kicked in every battle, yet somehow surviving on a technicality (or just getting saved by others).  Ugh. 

            With that out of the way, on to the positive stuff!  Whenever possible, I have tried to find videos of at least somewhat-decent quality to aid a search for the fights, if you have not yet seen them yourself. 

**a note regarding the video clips.  I tried to find the best quality Japanese versions on Youtube to give a sense of the action, but if you really want to appreciate the full scope of each battle, I recommend digging up and watching the full episodes with each fight.  They are all worth the effort**

10. Sakura & Chiyo vs. Sasori

            I came very close to putting the fight between Guy and Kisame from the same arc on here, since it too is fantastic, but ended up pushing it off and picking this one mostly because this battle ended up carrying a lot more emotional weight.  Consider Kisame/Guy a very honorable mention.  Plus, Sakura deserves to be on this list somewhere. 

            A big part of what made this battle so excellent was how different it was from most.  While the different types of jutsu used most of the time tended to blend together after a while, the puppet techniques remained some of the most unique (and creepy- that chittering sound they make will never leave me in peace), and this was the lone battle we got with half a freaking army of them being thrown at each other. 

9. Killberbee/8-Tails vs. Sasuke & Co.

            Yeeeaaaaah, I won’t blame anyone who hated Killerbee’s character for being a touch on the racist (or at least heavily stereotypical) side.  Even if you hate him, though, there’s no hating his fantastic use of swords in this fight, and the 8-Tails may very well be my favorite of all the Tailed Beast designs, mixing a massive octopus with a longhorn bull.  Now that’s MY kind of insane monster design. 

            Plus, it features Sasuke being absolutely destroyed by an opponent he completely underestimated.  Kind of a pattern with him. 

8. The 5 Kages vs. Sasuke

            And speaking of Sasuke being destroyed by opponents because he totally overestimated his own strength! 

            I already spoke a bit about why I loved the 5-Kage Summit as a whole in my last post, and a big, BIG reason for that was due to how, in addition to getting some great bits of world-building and meeting some fantastic new characters, we also got to see each of the Kages show off their tremendous powers by beating Sasuke to a pulp.  It all culminates in the hilarious and cathartic image of an unconscious Sasuke slumped on Tobi’s shoulder. 

7. The 5 Kages vs. Madara

            The war at the end of Naruto began to feel needlessly dragged out, and the battles way too stupidly over-powered, way too fast.  For my money though, it was all worth it when we got to see all 5 Kages lined up against Madara Uchiha himself, each bringing out literally every power in their arsenal and combining them in fantastic ways.  Sadly, I felt compelled to take points off (thus bumping it down this list) mostly because of how unbelievably stupid Madara’s powers ended up being, especially the horrid cop-out of an ending that let Madara throw off the jutsu to end the resurrection with what amounted to a measly flick of his wrist. 

6. Gaara vs. Naruto/Sasuke (Chuunin Exam Arc)

             This one was a hard, hard choice.  This is one of three iconic fights from this arc, the other two being Naruto vs. Neji and Gaara vs. Rock Lee (both of them part of the official exam itself and not the invasion that follows).  Those two join Guy vs. Kisame in the honorable mention category.  I suppose I ended up picking this last one mostly because, in addition to Naruto’s fight with Neji, it is the first real affirmation of Naruto’s choices as a shinobi and as a person- a scrappy fighter able to win by straight-up out-crazying his opponents, but also a truly compassionate person, who’s lack of vengeful or spiteful feelings towards everyone and anyone allow him to turn former enemies into friends and allies later on (much like Luffy, but that is a comparison I will flesh out another time).  Given Gaara’s later importance to the overall series, the end of this fight becomes a key moment.  Plus, I always loved seeing the frogs fight. 

5. Zabuza vs. Kakashi (both parts)

            This would eventually be outpaced in terms of its size, grandeur, and narrative importance by many, many other battles in the show, including a few from the Chunnin exam shortly afterwards.  Despite that, this one will still always stand out prominently in my mind, simple because it was the first real, deadly serious fight between elite ninja that we got to experience, and like with the arc itself, it set a considerable amount of the tone and standards for fights in the rest of the series, especially in how big superpower attacks took a backseat to the use of clever stratagems to keep one’s opponent off-guard. 

            Plus, it firmly established Kakashi as the gold standard for Effing Bad-Assery.  So, there’s that too. 

4. Naruto vs. Pain

            This battle marked the big turning point for Naruto as a character, where he officially established himself as a legitimate warrior, and not just a brash, idiotic kid with enough raw power to just scrape by.  Naruto’s relative ineffectiveness as a fighter had been a mainstay of both the original series and an awful lot of Shippuden (Jiraiya really didn’t seem to teach him all that much during their time training together).  He was simply never a stand-alone threat to any of the major villains.  However, if the series really was to follow through on having him realize his dream of becoming Hokage, the switch had to occur somewhere, and when we finally get it here, it proves well-worth the wait.  It’s a perfect mix of the use of powerful elemental techniques with the sleight-of-hand trickery that had always been a mainstay in Naruto, and the final climax outside the village is one of the best and most satisfying endings to a fight in the entire series.  It also included Hinata declaring her love for Naruto, which might have melted my heart.  Just a little. 

            Damnit Hinata, you really did deserve better.  Why couldn’t Kishimoto have stuck you with Shikimaru? 

3. Danzo vs. Sasuke   

**For some reason, linking would not work for this one.  No matter.  Here is the URL**

            I already listed Danzo’s death as one of my favorite moments in the overall story of Naruto, but a big reason it resonated so much with me was that it came at the tail end of one of the best 10-chapter spreads of combat in the entire series.  And no, I am NOT just saying that because Sasuke got himself Yamcha’d for the umpteenth time (although that certainly helped).  No, the fight itself really was incredibly tense to follow, mostly due to the Izanagi Sharingan technique it introduces.  An incredibly clever and interesting idea, namely that it can allow someone to briefly negate their own death, and one where Kishimoto firmly stuck to the price of using the technique for more than a few moments at a time.  Plus, even though I started off the fight still hating Danzo’s bandaged guts, it was pretty friggin’ awesome seeing him whip out an arm literally covered in Sharingans.  And then proceed to beat the crap out of Sasuke.  Which never gets old. 

2. Shikamaru/Naruto/Kakashi/Choji/Ino vs. Hidan/Kakuzu

            Shikamaru’s crowning moment as a character, this topped off one of the last great arcs of the second-half of Naruto.  Determined to avenge the death of their teacher at the hands of the “Zombie Brothers” of Akatsuki, Ino, Choji, and Shikamaru ask Kakashi to step in as their leader to help them track Hidan and Kakuzu down and eliminate them.  We get to see Kakashi in extended action again, and the end of the fight with Kakuzu features the unveiling of Naruto’s new signature technique, the Rasenshuriken, but what makes this one stand apart from all others is the brilliant and multi-layered ploy Shikamaru develops specifically to handle Hidan’s immortality and seal him away forever.  It is his high-water mark as a warrior and a strategist (although he acquits himself well in the war later on), and is one of the most emotional character moments in the entire story. 

1. Naruto vs. Sasuke (the original)

            I suppose the series set itself up for some disappointment with the end after this fight, because it would have been extremely hard to top this battle even if Kishimoto had not started sabotaging his own story long before it ended.  As the culmination of the first part of Naruto, which functions much better as a tightly-contained storyline than the second half does, there was no other battle as emotionally fraught as this one, with two boys forced to confront their admiration for each other, yet still feeling compelled to fight to the death.  Sasuke never again succeeded in being a compelling character, while Naruto actually went on to get more interesting by the end, so as far as their interactions as characters went, this was the greatest height achieved.  And what a height it was.  Great action, brilliantly animated, and brimming with tension, it is my personal favorite of all the fights in Naruto

            Thus ends Part 2 of my Naruto look-back.  Soon to come, the third and final installment, followed by a special announcement for April.  Stay tuned. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, March 16, 2015

My Top 10 Favorite Naruto Arcs and/or Story Moments

            I apologize for the delay in releasing this, but as I stated in my initial post on the end of Naruto, the final chapter ended up coming out at a bad time, coinciding with the start of awards season frenzy, which made it impossible time-wise to really devote much thought to a comprehensive look-back.  However, now that that has all died down, I am finally able to spend my next several posts looking back at a franchise that was a huge part of my life for many years, even if my feelings towards it became rather complicated towards the end. 

            To start things off then, here is a list of my favorite arcs and/or story moments of the entire series.  For all the narrative and structural problems Naruto had by the end, there were still plenty of fantastic and powerful story arcs and character bits, and it was these aspects that made continuing to follow along well worth it

            Just to clarify, this list will not focus on any of the specific fights or battles between main characters- that will be dealt with in the next post.  What some of these arcs do include, however, are a series of smaller fights that, on their own, may have been good, but become great through how they mesh together in context to flesh out either the arc itself or the world as a whole.  Let us begin. 

10. Itachi overcomes Kabuto’s control of the Impure World Resurrection

            Itachi was always one of my favorite characters in the show and manga, and thankfully he got one final cool moment before being dumped back into the saddle with Sasuke for the purpose of explaining to him- AGAIN- why he is a moronic tool.  After being resurrected alongside Pain and sent off with the explicit mission to locate and eliminate Naruto and Killerbee, they find them en route to the battlefield, and are giving them a run for their money when a small action of Itachi’s earlier on (and prior to his death) comes full-circle; in a brief encounter in the woods, Itachi gave Naruto an unspecified power of his, and we finally found out what when, under the control of Kabuto, he attempts to use Amaterasu on Naruto and Killerbee, only to activate the power within Naruto.  The crow he gave him flies out of Naruto’s mouth, and we see that it has a Sharingan, specifically one from Uchiha Shisui, with the ability to basically take away one’s free will and make them do whatever the user wants them to do.  Having essentially “pre-programmed” the eye to make it’s victim protect the leaf at all costs, Itachi is freed from Kabuto’s control and effectively regains his free will, allowing him to aid Naruto in defeating Pain. 

            Fantastic.  Even when dead, Itachi was still able to outsmart and out-plan everyone around him.  Kabuto himself, after realizing what happened, basically just shrugs his shoulders and says, “Ah well, it’s Itachi.  What you gonna do.” 

9. Guy remembers Kisame’s name

            Kisame was always one of the more interesting members of Akatsuki, partially because he actually showed respect and even affection for his partner Itachi, unlike the others, who sometimes actively tried to kill each other.  And a major running gag concerning his character was that, even though he and Guy encountered and fought each other several times, Guy never seemed to remember who he was. 

            For the longest time, this seemed like just another riff on the “Guy is so childlike he’s kind of dumb” motif that was a huge part of his character, but it actually led to a pretty decent payoff when Kisame finally died (by committing suicide-by-shark…..which is actually kind of awesome) to prevent the Leaf from interrogating him and finding out who, exactly, Tobi really was.  After the others recover from their shock, and some wonder why he would even bother doing that, Guy speaks up and lauds him for protecting his comrades to the death like a true shinobi, even though they are on opposite sides.  He then says one my favorite lines of his in the entire series- “Kisame Hoshigaki; I will remember your name for the rest of my life.” 


8. The Entire 5-Kage Summit Arc

            This was, for me, the high-water mark of Naruto as a whole.  It introduces the last major pieces of the shinobi world that had been missing all the years we had been following along.  First, we finally see the remaining 3 Kages, learning additional bits and pieces about the histories of the other villages in the process.  Then, to the very personal joy of myself and the friend who first got me hooked on the show, we find out that there is another country in the world, this one populated by samurai!  We get some great, tense moments during the summit itself, and best of all, we got to see each of the Kages practically line up and take turns beating Sasuke’s sorry ass to a pulp. 

            After that, with the formation of the alliance and the start of the war, everything started ever so slowly to go downhill.  It took awhile before the series really got bad.  But this was the last whole arc of the show that was unreservedly awesome from start to finish, making it all the more memorable as a result. 

7. The Sasori Arc

            Alternatively known as the “Last Known Sighting of Sakura’s Dignity Arc,” this was the first storyline we got after the time-jump in the middle of the manga and anime, and what a fantastic way it was to introduce to the older versions of all the main characters.  Plus, it finally expanded the ranks of known Akatsuki members to 5 (ah man, the days when Akatsuki was still a source of mystery) with the introduction of Deidara and Sasori, the gruesome puppet master.  Plus, we got to see more of Gaara in action, which I never tire of. 

            And, in case the bit of snark above didn’t tip you off, it was also the first and final arc where Sakura was allowed to really shine as a character.  First, she saves Kankuro from Sasori’s poison with an antidote she practically develops on the spot, then is the only one strong enough to bust open the entrance to the Akatsuki hideout, and finally assists Grandma Chiyo in taking on Sasori directly in one of the best battles of the entire series.  And for her character, it was all downhill from there.  Such a shame. 

6. Seeing Adult-Naruto as the Hokage

            The last chapter was very much a mixed bag, devoting way too much time to the couplings and not nearly enough to explaining what happened in the larger world following the war.  That said, the one unassailably perfect part of it was finally seeing Naruto as the Hokage, with his face alongside that of Kakashi, Tsunade, and the others on the cliff face overlooking the village.  Naruto’s dream had been his driving force and motivation from chapter/episode one, and for all the story’s flaws, at least it followed through on this one, most important point. 

5. Hinata declares her love for Naruto

            Here’s a good think piece for you- which female character got shafted more over the course of Naruto; Saukra, or Hinata? 

            I would ultimately say Sakura myself, but that is really only because she had much more face-time than Hinata did, enough that the lack of development on her part became truly painful to endure at times.  Hinata comes in second because she actually did have some very profound moments of growth by the end.  And the best one was by far was where, staring certain maiming and/or death in the face, she confronts the head of Akatsuki as he is about to capture Naruto, and goes toe-to-toe with him.  And when Naruto asks her why, she says, quite simply, “Because I love you.” 

            Gone is the shyness.  Gone is the fear and hesitation.  Only a steely resolve to save the one she loves remains. 

            Keep on rocking, girl.  Naruto doesn’t really deserve you. 

4. Sasuke Leaves the Leaf Arc

            This was the final arc before the time skip halfway through Naruto (I am pretending, for my health’s sake, that all the filler crap in the anime never happened), the big moment where Sasuke decides to break with the Leaf and become a rogue ninja, or “Missing-Nin,” a designation that meant torture and death should the Anbu or elite forces of any village ever capture him.  Much like how the Sasori arc marked the high point of Sakura’s development as a character, this was also the last time Sasuke was in any way interesting (or relevant) as a character.  The tension within himself, and in the final confrontation between him and Naruto, is palpable, making their battle at the waterfall all the more affecting (more on that in a later post though). 

            It is also one of the best team moments of the entire series, and Naruto was always at its best when it focused on the group dynamics of Naruto’s generation from the Leaf, and how they struggled in their own individual ways to confront and shoulder the burdens, ghosts, and regrets of past generations.  Neji, Choji, Shikimaru, Rock Lee, and Kiba all have some great battle moments, and I always liked having Gaara, Kankuro, and Temari around whenever they showed up. 

3. Danzo’s Death

            From pretty much the moment he was introduced, I hated Danzo.  Just hated him.  I hated how he always escaped having to pay for being such a terrible schemer that he was willing to let the village be destroyed just for his own ends.  I hated him even more when it was revealed that he had a bloody Sharingan that made him not only invincible as a fighter, but also able to control the minds of anyone he chose.  I hated him for escaping from the other Kages, AND for nearly capturing Ao.  And when he was finally confronted by Tobi and Sasuke, I only wished for him to live long enough to hand Sasuke another well-earned ass-wupping (which he did, verily) before finally croaking, and good riddance. 

            So when he finally DID lose to Sasuke and die, I should have been pretty pleased, right? 

            Much to my shock, I wasn’t.  In fact, I found myself incredibly moved, and felt more than a little sad.  All because, right before he does die, Kishimoto pulls one of the best minor twists of the entire show, and gives us a single glimpse into Danzo’s past.  A glimpse of him wanting to sacrifice himself to save his team, but failing to speak up, resulting in the Second Hokage staying behind and dying so that they could escape.  He thinks back on this moment, and on the effect it had on him, and we, the readers, understand.  It does not justify his crimes, nor does it try to.  But we do finally see and understand the potent mixture of heartache, self-loathing, and personal pride that drove him to such extreme ends as a bitter old man. 

            Not only do we finally get to really see and know Danzo as a character better than ever before, he decides, in the last moments of his life, to cast aside his sense of self-preservation and make a final act of self-sacrifice, the one last technique he can use to defeat Tobi and Sasuke and protect the Leaf.  His last decision is, finally, the right one, and its ultimate failure lends his death an air of the bittersweet that was wholly unexpected.  It was exactly the sort of ending Sasuke needed, but never got.  At least we got it somewhere. 

2. Chuunin Exam Arc

            One of the longest arcs prior to the war, the Chuunin exam reaches a potent height of exotic grandeur unmatched by just about any other major arc of the story, filled to the brim with character development, world-building, fantastic fights, and a real sense of danger and threat that makes every move, every twist, and every victory by the good guys all the more exciting.  It is the first great elevation of the franchise to the status of fantasy epic, something that none of the lesser parts of the show or manga can even take away from it. 

1. Zabuza Arc

            While I know the Chuunin exam would justifiably top most people’s list of the best arc in the entire series, for me personally, nothing will ever be so close to my heart as the first real story arc of the entire franchise.  Sent on what was supposed to be a low-level escort mission, Naruto and the gang realize that the person they are assigned to protect is actually the crucial designer of a bridge meant to free his island from the tyrannical rule of a ruthless, corrupt businessman named Gato, and that hot on their trail is Zabuza, one of the deadliest rogue ninjas in the entire shinobi world.  It was here where the most crucial and enduring aspects of the franchise were set in stone; Naruto and Sasuke’s antagonistic rivalry, Kakashi’s wisdom as a fighter and teacher, the recurring theme of choice making a greater difference than parentage or inheritance in determining fate, and above all else, the inevitability of death and loss as part and parcel of life as a shinobi, something that always gave the series a greater sense of gravity and seriousness than One Piece or Bleach have ever had (both being franchises where no one ever dies).  It was the arc that drew me completely into the world of Naruto, and I have never looked back since. 

            And those, my friends, are the story arcs and moments from Naruto that I will always be able to reread or rewatch, the ones that made the entire effort to keep abreast of the story worth it for me.  Check back soon for my favorite fights and favorite characters of the series as well! 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, March 9, 2015

In Memoriam- Leonard Nimoy

            When I heard the news on the radio (and quickly confirmed it with a Facebook check) that Leonard Nimoy, better known to most as the original Spock on Star Trek, had finally passed away, I can’t exactly say that I felt an explicit sadness.  There was simply a weight, a sense of being borne down to the ground by a pressure felt on my shoulders, and in my chest.  A new void had opened up within me, and it was being filled with solid lead.  And I knew, as illogical as Spock would find such a reaction to be, that I was about to have a moment of silent grieving. 

            But is that really so illogical, after all?  To grieve?  To embrace and love the moments that made a person’s life meaningful to one’s own, and yet regret that there will be no more moments to come in the future?  I do not know.  Perhaps it is, and it is only my own human failings that prevent me from seeing that.  Or perhaps it is a sign that we have truly lived, when we can admit our emotional responses to life’s inevitable end. 

            For many Trekkies, especially younger ones in and around my generation, Leonard Nimoy seemed like one of those figures from a strange and distant past that will be there forever, unmoving, immutable.  And in a sense he was, and is- although it is too soon to tell, the figure and legacy of Spock may very well continue to be one of the most culturally influential and recognizable symbols of 20th-century storytelling.  Few have not encountered his trademark Vulcan hand gesture of peace, and heard its accompanying mantra, “Live long, and prosper.”  He made pointed ears cool long before Peter Jackson had even picked up a camera.  His moment of singular and definitive (unfortunately so) artistic genius was one of the primary genesis moments of modern sci-fi/geek/nerd culture, and remains one of its greatest pillars today.  That is not about to change within the foreseeable future. 

            Leonard Nimoy was, of course, far more than a green-blooded Vulcan.  Although his musical recordings from the 70’s will never top anyone’s “Best of the Decade” list, there was a classic huskiness to his voice that worked well for such standards as “If I Had A Hammer.”  His additional forays into the realms of photography and poetry reveal a broad, expansive mind, eager to pursue his ideas of beauty and artistic significance wherever he found the chance. 

            Of course, he was always an actor and director above all else, and a fearsomely dedicated one at that.  Even before I had really delved into the Star Trek classics, I was well-aware of the now-itself-classic horror remake Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where Leonard Nimoy appears as a blindly calm therapist unconvinced of the main character’s suspicions.  It is as intense and committed a performance as any other on his resume, Spock included.  However, he was also never one to only use his acting abilities when on-screen.  William Shatner included a telling anecdote to this effect in his excellently-written book Star Trek Memories- with everyone in the cast and crew overwhelmed by how sweltering their backlot studio tended to get in summer, Nimoy requested that a fan be installed in his changing room.  When the tight-fisted studio refused, he told his secretary to come into the room, lay down on the floor, and act like she had passed out.  He then proceeded to call in security in a panicked voice, all the while trying to “revive” the “poor lady” who had obviously been overwhelmed by the heat and humidity.  In no time at all, air conditioning was up and running in his room, much to the amusement (and probably also jealousy) of the rest of the cast. 

            That said, for all the remarkable breadth and variety of his works and accomplishments (including one I only recently uncovered, a photography series primarily of overweight women) it will, of course, be Spock that defines his legacy and reach into popular consciousness.  His absolute dedication to crafting every facet of a character’s person, history, and mannerisms made Spock such a unique artistic creation that it overwhelmed or subsumed all else he tried to do in his life, leading to the somewhat-exasperated title of his first autobiography, “I Am Not Spock.” 

            That is, of course, very true- Leonard Nimoy was not Spock.  But he also very much was.  That is the strange paradox lived out by all who gain lasting public recognition and fame, especially actors.  True acting is the full realization of self- even though, clearly, no single character or role performed by an individual is the person itself, if it is a truly great performance, it will contain a large dose of the performer’s pure, undiluted human essence, giving us a glimpse into their minds, and in the greatest performances of all time, their souls. 

            So we are at a crossroads at the passing of a great, wonderful person, someone who has touched the lives of so many.  Which do we honor more, his part in a magnum opus that has defined a whole realm of sci-fi for several generations, or the person he was as a whole, warts, makeup, pointy ears, and all? 

            For what’s worth, I vote both.  Leonard Nimoy was a great man, and like with many others who has passed on in recent years, the void he leaves is particularly unfillable.  He was himself, always himself.  But he was also Spock.  And we are Spock as well, in our own ways.  We are bound to him, and he to us, eternally, through a fictional character that, for all the ways he is so unlike us, somehow also managed to embody the best in us, and all the possibilities our lives afford us the possibility of embracing. 

            May God bless and keep you Leonard.  We will miss you, and we will not forget you, as illogical as that may seem. 

-Noah Franc