In the world of anime there are just some franchises that stand out and develop more of a following than others. Shows like Dragon Ball and One Piece are prime examples of that, but when you're talking about series of that magnitude you'd be missing the buck if you didn't bring up Naruto.
In case you're unfamiliar with Naruto all you really need to know is that it's about a world of ninjas where villages set apart and use various skills to assert themselves in the ranks of their peers. Years ago a deadly Fox Demon tore apart Konoha Village, and their leader sacrificed his life to seal the demon within the body of a baby boy. Now that he's grown up Naruto has found himself shunned by those around him and he's become brash, obnoxious, and powerful all at the same time. He eventually makes several friends and is inevitably betrayed by Sasuke, who is on a quest for power and vengeance. Their rivalry is the driving force that backs the show and right up to the end it's something that defines the characters and those around them.
With over 200 episodes and several movies, the first Naruto series killed the anime charts and the original manga was even more successful. After some time the show got ahead of where the manga was and kicked it into neutral with filler episodes and absolutely no development whatsoever. Thankfully Shippuden corrected that.
The sequel, Naruto Shippuden, took the franchise ahead by a couple of years. Naruto was no longer considered an immature kid, but instead he has become an immature teenager. With new abilities, an improved sense of self on the battlefield, and more resemblance to that Hokage he desires to be, Naruto is once again a force to be reckoned with. One of the most striking things about Shippuden at the beginning is just how much he has/hasn't changed since we last saw him. Not only has Naruto matured, but the world around him has grown as well. Sakura is deadlier, Rock is more of a badass, Gaara is the leader of the Sand Village, and all over the place there were several nice touches added here.
For a little while now VIZ has been releasing Naruto Shippuden on individual volumes, which was something of a source of frustration for fans of the franchise. After all, VIZ's treatment of the uncut version of Naruto was stellar with a colorful array of boxed sets featuring multiple episodes and three discs worth of content. Going from boxed sets such as that to single discs with four episodes felt like a massive letdown. Thankfully it was soon announced that an Original & Uncut box would be released of Shippuden and that's what we have in hand today. Like the other treatments from VIZ this set includes three discs and 13 episodes and finally gives fans a nice chunk of Naruto all at once.
The set opens up and reintroduces us back into the world of Naruto and his ninja brethren. Right off the bat Lady Tsunade wants to see how far Naruto and Sakura have come, so she pits them in a battle against Kakashi-sensei. This instance included some nice throwbacks to the first training mission the two had with Sasuke and provided ample opportunity for flashbacks to the start of their friendship.
It hasn't been that long since we saw Konoha, but it's nice to watch as the show catches viewers up to speed on what's changed in the village these past couple of years. We see a lot of these examples through Naruto's eyes as he bumps into old friends and checks out how the place has evolved. Fans will recall that he's been away training with Jiraiya so he simply hasn't been around.
Once the immersion back into the world is over and done with, Gaara finds himself in a bit of hot water. It would seem that the Akatsuki (the main villains of the series) have been on the move and they've set their sights on Gaara for some reason. A couple of Akatsuki agents are sent to the Sand Village to capture him and what transpires for nearly the entirety of this installment is the rescue effort. Old friends and foes come together to save Gaara and throughout it's revealed that the Akatsuki are seeking Naruto as well. Could this all be part of a clever ruse to get both prizes at the same time?
By the time the first set is over you'll be itching for the next. The first 13 episodes have several cool moments and they really take us back to many highlights of the first season. With that being said there are still many extraneous pieces in each episode and things could have been much tighter. This isn't a byproduct of VIZ's transfer, but rather of the original production itself. The show is just filled with flashbacks, recaps, and recycled pieces of animation. Nestled in between is a solid experience and one that's definitely worth undertaking by fans of the original.
Naruto Shippuden lands on DVD with a 1.33:1 fullframe aspect ratio. The show looks very similar to the original in terms of technical aspects of the transfer. There's a light amount of grain, but the picture is solid all around with a great vibrancy and clarity. The lack of a widescreen presentation for this sequel is a bit disappointing, but coming from the original it's not too much of a letdown. English and Japanese 2.0 stereo are the audio options that are available on this boxed set. As far as the cast is concerned it's worth noting that most of the actors sound exactly the same and the tracks are on par with expectations. The technical quality is a little on the flat side, but it strikes a decent balance that sounds exactly like the first series.
On the individual disc release for these episodes there were no bonus features aside from some trailers. For this boxed set, though, there are actually three to take a look at. These are included on disc three and are actually more substantial than what we saw with the first series. "Voice Actor Featurette: Return of a Ninja" (14:34) is an English feature that looks at the American cast of voice actors. It's entertaining and the cast stands out as very upbeat. To say they fit their roles perfectly would be an understatement. "Relationship Chart: Team Kakashi" is a bit redundant of a feature and it's just textual information about how Kakashi, Naruto, and Sakura all relate to each other. And finally there's a production art gallery with 15 black and white sketches to click through.
Experiencing Naruto Shippuden as a boxed set with 13 episodes was far better than taking it a handful of episodes at a time. Fans of Naruto that held off should consider this set highly recommended, but those who picked up the individual discs have a tough decision. The bonus features are a welcome addition, but hardly a deal breaker. It all comes down to how you want the show to stack up next to the original on your DVD shelf. Either way the series is very entertaining so far and holds a lot of promise, so in that sense Shippuden is a must have.