The Naruto manga flood has begun – as American publisher Viz has commenced its intense four-month release schedule of three new Naruto books a month. First three in this new schedule (volumes 16 – 18) have already started showing up in chain bookstores, though the books' official release date is September 4th.
To those unfamiliar with current manga release practices, prior to this, Masashi Kishimoto's Naruto collections were being issued by Viz on a bi-monthly schedule. The twelve volumes set for release over the next four months, thus, represent two years' worth of publication via that old schedule. In Japan, Kishimoto's mega-popular young boy ninja series is already up to its 39th volume, so even when this "Naruto Nation" surge concludes, the American editions will be at least twelve books behind the originals.
Still, the stepped-up release schedule will definitely prove a test of young American readers' brand loyalty. At $7.95 a pop, the "Shonen Jump" paperbacks are one of the better manga bargains, though tripling that expense every month is something else again. Will readers be forced to put aside other shonen manga (Viz's Bleach, say) to keep up with their favorite goof butt ninja-in-training or will our boy's hold on the manga market weaken? Per USA Today's "Top 150 Books," all three volumes debuted on the list, though how long they'll remain there is something manga loyalists and detractors will be watching over the next few months.
As for the books themselves, I picked up a copy of the sixteenth book this week and found it to be a typically engaging series entry. First half of the volume serves to wrap up a plotline that has been going on for several volumes now – the attack on Naruto's home village of Konohagakure – with our hero once more demonstrating how his will to succeed compensates for his impulsivity and lack of control. (Naruto: hero to Ritalin takers everywhere!)
Following an aftermath funeral, where one of the series' other characters gets to do some character-expanding flashbacking, a new plotline commences as a new set of villains called the Akatsuki show on the scene. The new crew of baddies is looking to capture Naruto for the Spirit of the Nine-Tailed Fox that resides within him, though our hero is off on a training mission with the disreputable voyeur ninja known as Pervy Sage. Mildly risqué hi-jinx are sure to follow in Volume 17 – in between all the serious fight scenes, of course.
Though it's still early in the character's career, you can see Kishimoto and his assistants aging their hero ever-so-slightly: at times he looks noticeably lankier than the big-headed kid of the earlier books. Purportedly, after the current spate of Narutos gets distributed, the series picks up with its first 2008 release, two-and-a-half years later in the storyline.
Is Naruto – or his American readership, for that matter – ready for maturity? Personally, I have my doubts, though, judging from the series' continued success in its native land, the extra years don't appear to have lessened his marquee appeal there. Interesting times for our mischievous would-be ninja . . .