Having failed a second time to bring Sasuke back with him, Naruto does a little brooding. But not too much; after all, it isn't really in his nature. Failure merely means he needs more training, and that's what he means to do. Kakashi decides it's time that Naruto learned to master his chakra "nature," and plans out a training regimen that only Naruto can use. Training never goes uninterrupted though, and before long Naruto and Team Kakashi (sans Kakashi ironically) are sent on a mission to the Fire Temple—in no small part to keep Naruto on the move and beyond the grasp of the Akatsuki. Nabbing grave robbers for temple monks seems easy enough, but of course it isn't so simple as that. Somehow it all ties into a coup d'état that Leaf jonin Asuma Sarutobi foiled ten years ago, and to Sora, the powerful son of one of the coup's leaders. That coup, it turns out, isn't as dead as Asuma thought.Having failed a second time to bring Sasuke back with him, Naruto does a little brooding. But not too much; after all, it isn't really in his nature. Failure merely means he needs more training, and that's what he means to do. Kakashi decides it's time that Naruto learned to master his chakra "nature," and plans out a training regimen that only Naruto can use. Training never goes uninterrupted though, and before long Naruto and Team Kakashi (sans Kakashi ironically) are sent on a mission to the Fire Temple—in no small part to keep Naruto on the move and beyond the grasp of the Akatsuki. Nabbing grave robbers for temple monks seems easy enough, but of course it isn't so simple as that. Somehow it all ties into a coup d'état that Leaf jonin Asuma Sarutobi foiled ten years ago, and to Sora, the powerful son of one of the coup's leaders. That coup, it turns out, isn't as dead as Asuma thought.
The shadow of its progenitor's near-lethal devolution into uninterrupted filler lies heavily on Naruto Shippuden's first foray into non-canon storytelling. In a good way. The series has learned from its past mistakes. Rather than create characters, settings and situations of whole cloth, it opts for what is basically an expansion of a small and neglected portion of the manga's world—namely the Guardian Shinobi Twelve, an organization that was briefly mentioned in the manga as Asuma's former employer. It's a good move, one that keeps the arc at least marginally relevant to the main plot. The extra depth for Asuma definitely benefits future arcs (about which no more will be said), and the elaboration of the Guardian Shinobi Twelve is quite welcome. The series also keeps the ongoing story's major players in play, bringing Danzo in to play bogeyman (it's what he does best) and using the specter of the Akatsuki to facilitate the occasional plot point. Factor in the parallels the series draws between Sora and Sasuke and its willingness to let the plot and stakes grow epic and you get a filler arc that almost feels...substantial. Weird.
There are, of course, lessons that the series didn't learn. While the details, scale and overall integration of the arc are new, its broad outlines are dispiritingly familiar. Naruto being sent on a seemingly innocent mission, meeting a seemingly antagonistic youngster, and bonding with him while the mission blows up in everyone's faces... Where have we seen that before? Only in every miserable episode of the original Naruto's miserable mass of filler. The series mitigates the sad familiarity of its plot by having Sora genuinely cross the line to the dark side, but that still doesn't excuse Sora and Naruto's hackneyed they-fight-but-get-along rivalry, or their excruciating buddy-bonding. One whiff of their relationship's inspirational tone ("thank you Mr. Naruto for saving me from my case of the dark broodies!") could well send Naruto veterans running for the hills pursued by PTSD filler-flashbacks. And really, no one could blame them.
Though it would be a bit of a shame, particularly for veterans disappointed by the slow and humorless turn Naruto took when it became Naruto Shippuden. No longer required to drag its story out, the series is now free to include multiple significant events per episode. The number of episodes a fight covers can now finally be counted on a single hand. Oh blessed brevity! The tone is still dark, and objectively speaking the arc's progress is deliberate, but only insofar as it's beneficial in staving off undue frivolity. And neither stops the show from horning in a goodly helping of its now-infrequent silly humor (the best of it involving Sai and his how-to books). This is the first time, really, that Shippuden has successfully achieved the balance of goofy fun and emotionally fraught ninja action that characterized the best parts of the fist series.
The mixture isn't perfect. Neither the characters, specifically Sora, nor the writers are good enough to convincingly carry off the "emotionally fraught" part of the formula, and the humor tends to be recycled. Transparent plot devices (Kakashi just happens to be off on a mission when the villains bring the fight to Hidden Leaf) and long explanatory briefings also work their deadening magic. But the balance still stands, and still entertains, which places this filler arc, in one way at least, above the dreary arcs preceding it.
If there's another way this arc out-competes previous arcs, it isn't in visuals. Fight choreography remains one of the series' major weaknesses, and without Masashi Kishimoto's outrageous ninja inventions to lean on, it really shows. The show may have learned its lesson about inventing lame ninjutsu—the enemy ninjutsu, with their summoned mountains and floods and tornadoes, are pure spectacle—but when the battle gets in close, things tend to break down a bit. Inconsistent art and occasionally awkward animation play a part, but the main problem is that the series' martial arts just aren't interestingly conceived or executed.
The rest of the series looks fine. The show favors clean, proudly computer-assisted movement that looks uniformly good outside of its periodic breakdowns in quality control, and Hidden Leaf, within which the set's latter half takes place, has always been an artistic highlight. Even the mannequin-ish character designs get a boost in flexibility, mostly thanks to their new comic responsibilities. But even so the show's overall look never exceeds a sort of base-level competence.
Not so Yasuharu Takanashi's score, which while pretty bad at bolstering comic energy, is gangbusters at snaking tendrils of ominous dread into ninja brawls and backroom political nastiness. And not so the pleasantly melancholy pop opener. The two different but equally forgettable pop and pop-rock closers are a little more appropriately mediocre.
Viz continues to provide a nice, viable English alternative for the sub-averse, a kindness that should not be overlooked in these cash-strapped times. The new additions fit into the established cast without much in the way of glitches, the script remains conservative yet solidly written, and everything generally runs like the reliable machine the dub has become. The four villains aren't exactly subtly played, but since when has ham been an impediment to villainy? Rock solid, and be glad for it. Because it's basically the only added content you'll get on these discs. Oh sure, there are extras, but when the most substantial of them is a collection of dub-only omake, each of which is already available at the end of its corresponding episode, you can't really call them added content.
Fans may be reluctant to dive into yet another Naruto plot digression, and justifiably so. The series' track record with digressions isn't good. This is one stretch of filler you might want to consider digging into, however. And not just because it mixes a little bit of the ongoing plot (rote training stuff, but still essential) into its opening episodes. When the set ends—with a zombie-apocalypse cliffhanger no less—you genuinely want to see what happens next. And it's been a while since Shippuden pulled that off.