After the disappointing Bonds and the downright terrible Inheritors of the Will of Fire, I was uncertain that it was ever again going to be worth watching a Naruto feature film. They’ve never been good pieces of animated storytelling, the worst kind of cash-in to milk a popular franchise, but they were at one stage fun, being silly, straightforward stories that usually gave a chance to see the characters with superior art and animation. Lately the films have lacked even that much.
So I’m quite happy that The Lost Tower was a return to form, however much that may sound like damning with faint praise. It was not high art, or daring or a highlight for the few fans who are sticking with Naruto to the bitter end through dogged loyalty to the manga and original series, but it was entertaining, solid and had a few great ideas.
Naruto and the new Team 7 – that is, with Yamato and Sai – are tracking a rogue ninja to the ruins of a city that was once great, but only a couple of decades earlier had fallen to ruin. Their target, however, is in the midst of a plan to travel back to the glory days of the metropolis and make use of a great power source. Of course, Naruto gets pulled into the time vortex that is created and finds himself in the city twenty years before. The rogue ninja, Mukade, was sent back several years earlier than this, and has by now established himself as the political leader of the city, using the vulnerable young princess as a puppet. Naruto foils an assassination attempt on her life, and so gets pulled into the intrigues Mukade has set up, as well as finding himself in the company of other Konoha ninja from the past.
The story unfolds with a simplicity beyond even most Shounen Jump movies: before the halfway point, the major battle with the antagonist has begun and the exact aims of the characters are established. This leaves a lot of room for the rest of the film to be thrilling battles, rescues and inspirational speeches – the bread and butter of this sort of anime. While maybe a little more sophistication would not have gone amiss, there is much to be said for the direct option, and it works nicely.
And once again it looks great. Pierrot are capable of producing high-quality stuff when they work hard: let us not forget that their KumoKaze is often mistaken for a Ghibli production, and not just for the character design. This isn’t stunningly beautiful, but it certainly stands above the other recent Naruto films and the state of the weekly anime. There is some superb fluid animation here, in speech as much as in the action, the CG is nicely integrated and there are actually nice attempts at introducing Dutch angles and other less conventional mise-en-scene techniques to make the visuals interesting.
And dubious though I was at the start, the idea of going back in time twenty years provides some great moments. I loved that for some reason, Minato’s teammates on this mission were Chouji’s dad Chouza and Shino’s dad Shibi, as well as mini-Kakashi. It was great seeing them in action. The idea of having Naruto and Minato interacting provided some problems for continuity and some contrivance to work, but it turns out to be just about worth it, and while the inevitable closing scenes where the events get squeezed out of the canon continuity are a necessary evil but still grate somewhat.
But these are the pitfalls of making a Naruto film. And as they go, this one isn’t bad at all.