Viz Media's Naruto publishing blitz – a schedule that saw three volumes of the manga series being released on a monthly basis from September through December – has concluded with the finish of the series' most recent plotline. In it, our title hero and a band of fellow student ninjas had gone on a mission to rescue Naruto's friend and rival, Sasuke, who's in the clutches of an evil former ninja named Orochimaru. Though each of Naruto's companions gets their own moment of battle glory, the story's big climax appears in the blitz's penultimate volume: an epic fight between Naruto and Sasuke. It's a moment that the series has been building to and backing away from since the first volume – and series creator Masashi Kishimoto doesn't disappoint.
Without giving too much away, though, the series' "Part One" ends with Sasuke still enmeshed in Orochimaru's villainous scheme – and our hero departing for a two-year apprenticeship with a new mentor named Jiraiya. Final volume 27 only devotes three chapters to Naruto, Sasuke and the third member of their training triad, Sakura, before filling the book out with a flashback set ten years earlier. At the same time, the newest issue of Shonen Jump, the manga mag where Naruto first debuted in this country, has the first five chapter of our boy's post-apprenticeship adventures. For those (like me) waiting for the paperback, the first volume of the older Naruto's story is set for March 2008 release.
Volume 27 aside (as entertaining as the extended flashback is, it still feels like a placeholder), the storylines featured in the past twelve volumes have been pretty engaging. The first half was devoted to the search for a new hokage (leader), to replace the one killed during an attack on Naruto's home village, and with medical ninja/gambling addict Tsunade, Kishimoto found an entertaining replacement. (One of the comic conceits that bolster this series is the fact that – for all that they may rail against Naruto's boyish impulsiveness – few, if any, of the adult ninjas we meet are all that more mature than the kids they teach.) The second half focused on the Sasuke rescue mission.
After earlier introducing a vast cast of young student ninjas in the Chunin Ninja Selection Exam, we got to see many of these same kids as they engaged in real one-on-one combat. Though occasionally, the size of Naruto's cast threatened to grow overwhelming for more casual readers, the energy and enthusiasm with which Kishimoto and his assistants tell their ongoing story is unflagging. Even if you initially forget (as I sometimes did) who some of these young warriors are supposed to be, Kishimoto has enough of a hold on their individual personalities that you quickly reacquaint yourself with them.
As for our title lead, a few months back, I found myself wondering about whether two years of maturation would work against his character appeal. By the end of Part One, though, I'm less worried. Told that he should abandon his pledge to rescue Sasuke from turning to the dark side, Naruto refuses to listen to either threats or reason. "If being smart means what you say," he declares to his new mentor. "I'll remain a fool my entire life."
That's our boy.