With Viz ramping up their output of the Naruto manga, we’ll all have to do double time to catch up. Thankfully, that isn’t an arduous task, and we’re kicking things off with volumes 32 through 34, covering chapters 281 through 309 of the unstoppably popular series. That sounds like a buttload of manga to sift through, but it ends up flying by much more quickly than any of the previous volumes, and that’s saying something.
A lot of that has to do with one of the series’ new characters, Sai. He’s a stone cold ninja in the most straightforward sense. He has no emotions whatsoever, and struggles to even comprehend Naruto’s dedication to his friends. Yeah, I know the “emotionless warrior” is a pretty cliché device, but the way Kishimoto develops Sai in just these three volumes is pretty interesting. Also of interest is his power to bring sketches to life and use them as attacks. Again, not entirely original, but this is shonen manga we’re talking about here, so you gotta take what you can get.
Sai joins Naruto and Sakura, along with Yamato, who’s replacing the bedridden Kakashi as leader of the team. Their mission is simple: retrieve Sasuke, who’s been away for nearly three years, now holed up in a hideout with Orochimaru. While the assignment itself doesn’t sound complicated, the execution is going to take a lot of finesse, and no one is really prepared for the changes Sasuke may have gone through in the time since they last saw him.
Throughout these three volumes, Naruto and Sakura are primarily dealing with an uncooperative Sai, who appears to have ulterior motives beyond the mission at hand. Of course, it’s tough to pinpoint what’s going on in the mind of someone that lacks the ability to genuinely smile, and there’s something much more dire looming: The nine-tailed demon fox is getting closer and closer to exploding from within Naruto, as his rage triggers the appearance of more tails, replacing any degree of consciousness during battle with pure destructive impulse.
There’s obviously a lot happening in this set of chapters, but it pays off and never feels as if Kishimoto is juggling too much at once. It actually benefits some from focusing less overwhelmingly on action, leaving room for more thoughtful plot progression and making the action that is there seem more substantial. The battle that commences between Orochimaru and Naruto after a startling metamorphosis is one of the most over-the-top showdowns yet, with Naruto’s strange new form volleying massive blasts while Orochimaru runs him through from afar with the Sword of Kusanagi, jutting forth from the snake in his mouth. Yeah, I had to flip back through those pages a few times to make sure I wasn’t just projecting my own bizarro mental vision of how it should go down.
Story & Art: Masashi Kishimoto