Commonly listed as a ‘mindfuck’ anime, NaruTaru starts out somewhat cutesy, rapidly grows darker and ends with a subplot that, while perhaps not the most gory or shockingly sexual piece of animation ever to come from Japan, comes suddenly and with such a shift in tone that it tends to catch people off-guard and leave them reeling, especially when they are not forewarned. However, the anime is also undoubtedly a mess. Its scant 13 episodes introduce main characters, begin to build a larger world and hint at revelations to come, then veer off into a sidestory before coming to an abrupt end. The problem was that it was far too early to adapt Narutaru into an anime when minor studio Planet decided to do so.
NaruTaru, then, does not stand alone. It’s one of several anime adaptations that only show one part of a manga’s overall story, and then end too soon for the rest to be unveiled. And it is not easy for an English-speaking fan to find the rest: it was popular enough for the first few volumes to be officially licensed for distribution in the States by Dark Horse, which put a stop to unofficial translations. But Dark Horse seemingly didn’t know what they were in for, and when the tone became extremely violent and frank in depictions of sexuality, they reacted first with censorship, and then by relegating their translations to a short-lived magazine without releasing volumes, and finally with abandonment. It took half a decade and the success of Bokurano, mangaka Kitoh Mohiro’s follow-up – with its theme song even immortalized as part of the Nico Douga Ryuuseigun mix that was such a hit in Japanese fandom - for fans to return to NaruTaru and complete translations.
All the conclusion of the manga brought to the fore, though, was that the anime didn’t go nearly far enough. The cheap kicks of violence and easy sex there are no match for the bleak way Shiina reaches her maturity, suffers through great loss, tastes imperfect and damaged love and remains always fragile, lost and yet optimistic. As in Bokurano, the adolescents here are not idealised or glamorously emotional, but stupid, cruel, selfish and vulnerable; they make mistakes and hate themselves. Cute things are not to be trusted, and the ones we support are not protected just because we like them. The world of Narutaru is brave for a mangaka, but mature, depressing and moving, so that despite the over-the-top final conclusion somewhat souring the final taste, it is a manga I will always count as one of my favourites – one of the cleverest, strangest and most elegant.
I would certainly welcome a second attempt to animate NaruTaru, or another studio deciding to continue what Planets started. Online fandom still exists: it remains popular in Japan to produce parodies of the opening sequence, replacing the characters with those from another series – my favourite being the girls from Higurashi – but NaruTaru was fragmentary and had no true ending, so remains too flawed to endure as a full piece of animation. On the other hand, there is no way whatsoever any anime company could animate the final episodes for television, and it’s doubtful an OVA would make money.
So it seems that like Wings of Vendemiaire, this work will remain one for Kitoh fans to seek out if they are interested, and unlikely to ever be animated in full. In truth, I’m grateful even these episodes were made, and introduced me to Kitoh.
(adapted from manga impressions, 13.10.09)