I experienced two blasts from the past this week, one a tad more literal than the other. First were episodes 371 – 373 of NARUTO SHIPPUDEN, some of the last of the franchise. The original NARUTO not only took the world of shonen by storm, it reignited my own interest in anime during my college years. I ended up dropping the show for one reason or another shortly after Naruto started training with Jiraiya and haven’t really checked in since.
The second was Peter Capaldi’s premiere episode as the titular Doctor in the BBC’s DOCTOR WHO series. This was another show that I had dove into head first, watching episodes from all the various incarnations of the character to bone up on lore. I hadn’t watched a single episode of Matt Smith’s last season, though, as the novelty of a pulp science hero who always wins had worn out.
As long running shows with extensive canons, these two franchises have a lot more in common than you’d think. Checking in after such long breaks, I was pretty surprised – but not by how much things had changed. I was surprised, really, by how much they hadn’t.
I noticed the big changes first, of course. SHIPPUDEN began after a large time skip in the original NARUTO series, so all the kid ninjas had naturally done some growing up. Also, hey, Naruto’s made of fire now. Having reconciled with the Nine-Tailed Fox demon sealed within him, he’s unlocked a bevvy of new powers and now has more chakra than you can shake ten tails at – which is good because every ninja ever is fighting the Ten Tails Cactus demon.
And I do mean ever ninja ever. We’re not just talking all the Hidden Leaf ninjas, or even all their allies. Recognizing the Ten Tails as a threat to all ninja-kind, even freakin’ Sasuke shows up. Sasuke – the one who abandoned the concept of friendship by becoming the pupil of evil snake-dude Orochimaru. Orochimaru’s probably gonna show up and help too! And then probably kill everybody!
And then there’s the fact that they’ve brought back all four of the previous Hokages back from the dead. It’s like the yearly Ninja Scout Jamboree!
Capaldi’s WHO similarly brings back a trio of popular characters, all of who somehow know more about Time Lord regeneration than Companion Clara. This is very convenient, as the Doctor’s in no state to tell her anything about it. They behave precisely how you’d expect if you’d seen them before: Strax the Sontaran nurse is gruff, but well-intentioned; lizard woman Madam Vastra is wry and eats someone offscreen; and Jenny the human says “ma’am” a lot. The whole gang, back together!
A rehash of an old villain even makes an appearance. The Clockwork Men from the “Girl in the Fireplace” episode are in Victorian London now, running about stealing body parts for the exact same reasons they did in their first appearance. Their origin is even the sister ship of one that produced the first versions. All the while, the new Doctor struggles to remember details from that first adventure, which of course leads to lots of overt references to it.
I find his sort of pandering nostalgia a cheap substitute for actual content. They try to get you to relive positive memories of the past so that you associate the feelings you had then with the content you’re watching now. Wasn’t that guy with the long scarf great? Wasn’t that Sontaran silly? Remember how cool “The Girl in the Fireplace” was when you first saw it? Apply those feelings to this show, please, so we don’t have to make up anything new.
SHIPPUDEN is simultaneously less shameless and better at this than WHO. Naruto and Sakura both have extended flashback montages, reaching all the way back to fighting Zabuza (the first real story arc of the franchise). And sure there’s sappy music playing, and sure they’re monologuing about the power of friendship and marveling at how much they’ve grown as shinobi, but dangit at least something’s new. The shonen flashback is an overused trope, sure, but you know at least the insight the character is having that will immediately bring them a huge boost in power. Something big is going to come from that saved animation budget.
Yet the characters behave just as they always did. Sasuke is standoffish and cool. Sakura cares more about Sasuke than Naruto and gets angry when called out on it. Naruto is a blowhard who really just wants to impress his peers (and make out with Sakura). They even make a big deal of how Team 7 is finally back together again, just like old times. Even Sai shows up (seemingly out of nowhere) in case anyone ever liked Sai.
Then everyone uses their signature moves -- the Hokages, the Rock Ninjas, all of Naruto’s ex-classmates and of course Team 7 – only now they’re of course supercharged with ninja mastery. In a rare moment of turnaround, Sakura is even allowed to be badass as she attains a new level of strength on the battlefield. She’s “finally keeping up with” Naruto and Sasuke which, truth be told, felt more like an apology than character development.
But at least that’s something. Clara big change in character seemed to be accepting the fact that her boyfriend is now an old man.
It all comes down to one simple concept that I think everyone on Anime Vice will be familiar with: fan service. While in anime circles it’s usually shorthand for ecchi, that’s really only one shade of it. It more broadly refers to anything that fans of the show – your most devoted viewership – want to see or see again. In the case of DOCTOR WHO, it was a lot of inside jokes and pleas for nostalgia, and the problem with those is that if you don’t get the joke or haven’t seen the show, you feel excluded.
Sure these SHIPPUDEN eps are fan service. Naruto meets his dad, for crying out loud! But at least they do so in a way that doesn’t require you to have seen every one of the hundreds of episodes of the show to enjoy it.
And as standalone episodes, I did enjoy this look back into SHIPPUDEN. You can go along for the ride, even if it is toward the end, by being swept up in the shonen cool. DOCTOR WHO felt more like a pulpy hodgepodge of elements clumped together for maximum fanbase effect. While I wouldn’t say either was an example of stellar storytelling, SHIPPUDEN certainly entertained me.
About the Author
Matt Murphy is a freelance nerd who has contributed to many nerd websites. You can reach him by going to where the light meets the shadow, by sending out zeta-brainwaves or by following him on Twitter @Murphix.