Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Anime Review: Boruto: Naruto Next Generations

Show Name: Boruto: Naruto Next Generations
Genre: Action/Fantasy
Premiered: April 5, 2017

After many years of spectacular highs and horrendous lows, the epic saga of shonen juggernaut Naruto had finally closed the last page, leaving a flurry of mixed emotions in its wake.  For many fans, it was the quintessential end of an era, like bidding farewell to a lifelong companion after a childhood full of joy and pleasure.  For others, though, it probably felt like the long-awaited end to a song that had gone on for entirely too long, poisoning any fondness under a mountain of low-quality fillers and some serious literary faux pas.  Still, whatever side of the fence you fall on, there's no denying that Naruto has left a mark most manga can only dream of replicating.  So when it was announced last spring that this sacrosanct series will be getting a spinoff/continuation focusing on Boruto, Naruto's precocious and talented son, the reactions were, as you'd expect, mixed.  While the Boruto movie, along with many of the Next Gen kids, are relatively well-received, and some fans argue that a continuation falls nicely in line with the series's overarching theme of bequeathing responsibilities to the next generation, others felt it was an unnecessary cash cow leech, sucking on a franchise whose veins dried out long before it finally bit the dust. The fact that Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto has a relatively minor hand in this next swing in the property also gives little to expect for this new saga.  But that's all abstract speculation; with the cat now out of the bag, how does Boruto: Naruto Next Generations stand up under scrutiny?

(For a summary of the original Naruto series, click here.)

Many years have passed since the Fourth Great Ninja War, and the ninja world is finally at peace.  Thanks to the efforts of Naruto and his companions, old severances have been mended, new bonds forged, and our hero, having achieved his dream of becoming Hokage, presides over a Konohagakure bursting with life and possibility.  Even so, there’s a whisper on the winds, a sign that not all is well and that the world may once again taste the bitterness and heartache of war and violence.  Fortunately, a new generation has arisen, striking out from their early days in the ninja academy in hopes of making a name for themselves like their now-legendary parents.  Chief among them is Boruto, the rambunctious progeny of Naruto and Hinata Hyuga, who is driven by an intense desire to both escape his fabled father’s shadow, and win his undivided approval.  With his friends by his side and a host of new challenges ahead, Boruto is determined to carve his own unique story into the marble slab of shinobi history.

The Good
Boruto reels you in with an effective use of the tried-and-true cold open - showing us a near future dystopia of destruction and decay, with Boruto clashing swords with an unknown adversary atop the ruins of his hometown.  Though an oft-used strategy in fiction, it’s necessary, even crucial, for this series, since it gives us a reason to stick around (i.e. to see how we got here) while also bestowing a sense of narrative direction lacking in its predecessor.  While Naruto’s thread of continuity was tied to the protagonist’s personal ambitions (which were often muddled by drama and by adversaries whose own private hells became a black hole in the plot) Boruto presents us with a simpler, more direct, and honestly more compelling motive: How did this happen?  What are the circumstances that led Boruto to becoming the tattooed, sword-wielding badass as he appears in the opening?  Besides this intriguing narrative scaffolding, the animation is smooth and fluid, matching the best its parent series had to offer, and if nothing else will ensure a gorgeous spectacle of high-flying ninja action.

The Bad
Unfortunately, despite the nice start, the pacing of this new anime is likely to be a slow and maddeningly repetitive one.  Boruto starts its tale way back in the beginning of his academy days - before both the movie, and the intriguing Naruto Gaiden manga.  This could mean one of two things: that the anime will skip those elements and spare viewers the pain of retreading old territory with new boots; or they’ll just plunge ahead in the style of Dragon Ball Super, subjecting us to the same old plot while dragging out the series.  This can be a real problem, especially if stretching the distance between the current, somewhat boring point A to the tantalizing point B in the cold open proves to be more than what most fans are willing to tolerate.  Another issue is our main lead and his goals - or rather, his current lack thereof.  While Naruto didn’t have the same end post to hold our attention, he was blessed with a solid personal motivation that made for a fruitful and self-perpetuating journey.  Boruto has yet to show anything akin to this, besides some self-centered desire to surpass his father while steering clear of the path he had trodden at all costs.  Beyond that, he's just not that interesting of a character in his own right.  The creators wisely give Boruto just enough distinction so that he avoids becoming a Xerox of his dad, but stripped of Naruto's justified desires and without a matching sympathetic root for his bratty actions, there isn't a whole lot to endear this kid to the audience.  With his privileged background, loving family, and other advantages his parents would have killed to have growing up, he comes off as spoiled and obnoxious, even with the obligatory "hidden heart of gold" stock character trait that makes him less interesting than if he was an outright jerk.  Obviously, this is bound to change as the story goes on - but the question remains whether he’ll exhaust our tolerance for him by that point.

The Ugly
Truth be told, this entire new stunt sits in a hazy fog of “what ifs.”  Boruto might become a strong and likeable character, if he can surmount his flaws before we all lose interest.  The story might turn out to be a gripping and compelling account of passing the torch to the next generation, if the kids rounding out the cast herd move past their generic phase and start developing personalities worth watching.  It grants the series a lot of potential, sure - but it could also come crashing down in one big, steaming pile.  Boruto is pretty much a collection of possibilities, with no guarantees one way or the other that Kishimoto’s legacy will be a roaring crescendo or a shrill, deadening dirge.

Tune In or Tune Out
For now, Tune Out.  As interesting as the cold open is, and despite the number of nostalgia veins it’ll undoubtedly open for many of its fans, Boruto has little to offer otherwise, except a slow start and a flash of mildly interesting vignettes hung on a series of pessimistic question marks.  I won’t go full cynic and claim that it's just another cash cow grab, but the last arc of Naruto was a dry pump to begin with, and even its most die hard fans are hard-pressed to justify this new turn in the franchise.  The patented Naruto meta-theme of bequeathing to the next generation might make it worth keeping an eye out for here and there, but you can bypass this entirely and not feel like you're missing some critical part of the Naruto legendarium.

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