TTR/TTS: The Kazekage Rescue Mission Arc

With this being the first of my post-script posts on areas that I wish in hindsight I’d covered in greater detail, I bring to you a review proper of the first arc of Part II of Naruto.

With Naruto returning to Konoha, he meets up with what remains of Team 7. No longer students in need of Kakashi’s mentorship, but peers to be collaborated with on missions, Naruto and Sakura have grown into their roles as shinobi. Meanwhile, Gaara, once a feared outcast among the ninja of Sunagakure, had redeemed himself in the eyes of his fellow villagers, becoming the fifth Kazekage.

However, the dreaded Akatsuki finally decides to commence operations openly, taking out Sunagakure’s village security before nabbing Gaara for some nefarious reason or another. Team 7 is chosen for their first mission together in years: rescuing the Kazekage.

After an explosive climax and a finale that hinted at greater things with the converging schedules of Orochimaru and the Akatsuki, it seemed that Part II would take what we loved about the series and bring it to new heights, with a greater focus on the wider world Kishimoto had created, kick-ass battles, and a scale unprecedented in the story. It quickly became clear however, that it was rather akin to the later Star Wars films in that it was a huge piece of crap that ranged from “I’d rather flay my dick” to mediocre. Of course, given that this is an excuse for me to flex my critical thinking capabilities; I may as well see if the first arc of the lesser part of Naruto is really all that bad.

Things That Rocked: The Tragic Tale of Chiyo and Sasori
I’ll say it right now: Chiyo and Sasori’s relationship was not only easily one of the best handled relationships among the supporting cast, it was one of the best written relationships in the series period. While other relationships in the story showed you everything, this one teased bits of detail at a time, slowly building up the bond between the two characters, and even then left you with some questions, resulting in a relationship that felt a lot more real than a lot the other ones that pop up throughout the manga. Furthermore, it served to explore the ideologies and relevant themes of the greater story, and in turn fed into what was a decent fight scene.

The bond between the two characters is not only tragic, but also serves to further put a human face on the poisonous effects of the shinobi world’s past and the flawed systems that permeate it. Once again, it is clear how war and culture destroy normal people, in this case a broken family whose survivors are themselves left damaged. Chiyo retired from public life and was content to lazily live out the rest of her days doing nothing, yet it became clear as the arc went on that she was full of regret over her past actions, and that despite her bravado in the face of the current generation’s “softness,” she had come to question the merits of the ideals that she lived by and tried to pass down. Sasori was a seemingly cool, consummate criminal that had mastered his art to its very limits, but he also was revealed to be little more than a lonely little boy all grown up and eager to replace fragile human bonds with something more permanent, something that would not leave him and the world behind.

It was also interesting to note that despite the heavy emphasis on the loss of his parents, Chiyo suggests that while this event heavily influenced Sasori’s worldview, the roots of it were much more complicated. It serves to subvert Kishimoto’s tendency to reduce a villain’s motivations to a single issue in that based on Chiyo’s comment, Sasori’s personal philosophy and the resulting “art” was actually the dehumanizing shinobi culture of Sunagakure taken to its logical extreme. Sasori no longer desired to be merely human and looked down on human concepts such as bonds and emotions. Like Haku before him, Sasori sought to kill his heart and turn it into one of swords, yet the truth of Sasori was symbolized by the fact that in the end, the only part of him that he could not turn replace with puppet parts was his heart. What brought him down, in fact, was his momentary hesitation upon seeing the puppets Mother and Father preparing to end him with a pincer attack, a grotesque parody of the warm embrace that he sought in vain from them after losing his parents. Once again, the system and the ideals it espouses come into conflict with the very human people each seek to influence.

I’ll get more into this topic in the very next section, where I discuss

Things That Rocked: Puppet Masters Duking It Out
Before I start, I would like to say this: the battle against Sasori is the in some respects one of my favorite battles in Part II. It does have its share of flaws: being overly drawn out and possessing noticeable gaps of inaction where the characters stand around like idiots talking to each other (taking their eyes of the enemy in the process!), interrupting the flow of the battle. But it also has so much to it that works: a strong emotional undercurrent surrounding Chiyo and Sasori, an epic scope with amazing jutsu, Sakura’s (at the time) admirable character development; it’s all there.

What I really admired about the battle was how it handled Chiyo and Sasori’s relationship. You could really sense a strong undercurrent of emotion and regret between the two characters in spite of Chiyo’s cool professionalism and Sasori’s claims to the contrary.

What makes a good fight isn’t simply flashy choreography or an epic scale. It’s the emotional aspect that draws the audience in, and makes the characters and their situation matter to them. Battles should not be gratuitous; rather, they should mirror a dialogue between characters. A well written battle is simultaneously symbolic and explicit. The explicit nature of a physical fight lies in the aforementioned internalization of the characters. The symbolic aspect relates to how this physical demonstration of these internalized characterizations represents an indirect form of communication between the involved parties. It serves as catharsis for both characters and audience.

As mentioned in the above section, Sasori’s situation and Chiyo’s past complacency highlighted the tragic effects of the traditional shinobi system. Sasori wasn’t some flat villain with generic motivations. He was a highly nuanced and haunted genius whose was twisted by the world he grew up in. Chiyo wasn’t a typical old master coming out of retirement. She was an old woman filled with regrets for actions she committed as both a ninja and a human being. By the end of it, you ended up feeling for both the villain and the supporting character. Seeing the bad guy lying dead in defeat didn’t bring about a sense of pride or joy. The only thing to feel was sadness at the culmination of a tragedy years in the making.

The eye candy aspects of the fight were also done well. We were given hints of the growing scale of jutsu that would be a trend throughout Part II while also witnessing the true nature of a battle between top class ninja. After Kankuro had showed readers just what puppeteers were capable of back in Part I, Kishimoto decided to take things to their natural conclusion with the two greatest puppet masters alive at the time, making the art of puppetry look pretty damn awesome in the process (which is why it kind of sucks that Kankuro’s growth in a later arc failed to come off as all that impressive in its context, but that’s a complaint to expand on later). Not only did we see some insane use of puppets, but we also got to see some pretty cool jutsu and tools in action. A lot of this stuff was so interesting that I’m surprised they didn’t really show up again later save for Sasori’s puppet body (you would think that the device Sakura used to seal said body would have come in handy during later arcs, like perhaps when she was fighting enemies who couldn’t be killed, but only sealed away).

The fight against Sasori is most definitely Sakura’s crowning moment. If Masashi Kishimoto wanted to express Sakura’s development emotionally, mentally, and physically after the time skip, he could not have done much better than her showing here. In contrast to badly written fan fiction that turns Sakura into a Mary Sue, here Sakura was a young ninja with talent who was a bit out of her element and league, but still found a way to contribute substantially to the end result. She kicked ass, adapted to Sasori’s movements, figured out the antidote to a highly complex poison, was willing to sacrifice herself for Chiyo without a moment’s hesitation, and proved to be a deciding factor in the battle. In fact, Sakura was a strength throughout the arc.

Things That Rocked: Sakura
This arc represents the high point of Sakura’s character. After an inauspicious beginning followed by several false starts, Sakura finally made good on the promise she showed at the end of Part 1 by not only showing that she had become a pretty decent ninja in her own right, but had also grown up somewhat in mental and emotional terms, showing great sympathy upon learning the truth about Naruto while also displaying a cool head and resourcefulness in the battle against Sasori.

Of note is how she resolves that this time, she intends to protect both of her boys, a far cry from the empty promises of the past. It’s a shame that Kishimoto kept this an empty promise, but I’ll keep myself from getting into that. Let’s try to focus on the positives for now.

Also, particularly striking is the bond Sakura develops with Chiyo, and how the two of them come to form a pretty good team during their fight against Sasori. In fact, aside from her bond with Sasori, the other major bond Chiyo develops during the arc is the one she forms with Sakura, with the younger kunoichi’s idealism (along with Naruto’s own) rubbing off on the old cynic. It’s easy to appreciate the bond, which slowly develops from one of respect on Chiyo’s part after witnessing Sakura’s medical skills in action to a more mutual appreciation after Chiyo shows just what she can do in the battle against her wayward grandson (Sakura’s performance in turn also adds to the older woman’s opinion of her).

Things That Rocked: Akatsuki Ups the Ante
It was also to finally see the Akatsuki in action as a whole. The introduction of Sasori and Deidara was great at showing just how dangerous the organization was despite its rather small membership, with the group as a whole serving as a means of upping the ante from Orochimaru alone. With their mysterious goals and a rather strange statue into which they sealed biju (which often required fatal extraction from the people that they had prior been sealed within), it was clear that they were to take a leading role in driving the story forward.

I also appreciated how Kishimoto followed up on the hints at the costs of using the Mangekyo Sharingan while hinting at Kakashi’s own at the same time prior to it being unveiled. While it was a tad odd that the dojutsu was so damned overpowered and variable in its uses (a problem that defined much of Part II later on), at least now it was clear that there was a price to be paid not only for unlocking it, but also simply utilizing it. Plus, it kept Kakashi relevant, showing that even the adults could grow over the course of the time-skip.

If there is anything I really do wish was done better though, it was Kisame’s treatment given that while his fight with Guy here was decent enough (he dominated a good part of it and even a weakened version of himself required unlocking seven of the physical gates to take down), his final defeat much later in the series really should have been flashier given that he gets taken down with little much more effort (granted, he was without Samehada at the time).

Things That Rocked: A Reason to Get Emotionally Invested
When you think about it, more than just being an important bond for Naruto, Gaara also represents what Naruto was hoping for himself both in terms of becoming Hokage and in terms of saving Sasuke. To see his dead body after all that worrying was like seeing all his hopes do the same.

First of all, by becoming Kazekage, Gaara further cemented himself as a foil for Naruto, and for the latter, seeing Gaara, a once feared and highly disturbed young, man grow into a beloved village leader was evidence that even Naruto, with his tragic history, could achieve his dream of becoming Hokage and being respected, if not outright loved, by the village that once treated him like an outcast. This was the very core of Naruto’s character at stake, and it explains why Kishimoto saw fit to plot things out this way to start off Part II (it also makes Naruto’s recognition of Gaara’s status among his fellow Sand nin all the more prominent on rereads). The second thing Gaara symbolizes also ties in with Naruto’s most prominent bits of characterization: his relationship with Sasuke.

That the first arc of Part II was a rescue arc just like the last one of Part I is no accident. It serves to not only foreshadow the success of Naruto’s attempts at bringing Sasuke back to the light, but also fits with the insecurities of the character past the end of Part I. The end of Part I saw Naruto failing to bring back Sasuke, but in this arc, after an initial failure due to Gaara’s death at the hands of the Akatsuki, the Kazekage is brought back through the sacrifice of Chiyo, who was influenced by the optimistic future that Naruto and Sakura represented. In this way then, the end of the arc is an affirmation not only of Naruto’s positive effects on the ninja world, but also of how his ideals will in turn redeem Sasuke, even if it is at least a little indirectly done (which it was given later events). Given this symbolism, it is clear why saving Gaara was such a major goal of Naruto’s despite their lack of actual interactions past their fight in Part I until this arc.

Saving Gaara was a way for Naruto to redeem himself for his failure to bring back Sasuke the first time. It was bad enough to fail once, and despite his putting on a brave face, Itachi’s illusion reveals that Naruto is not nearly as confident of success as he tries to appear, a major source of internal distress that fully externalizes itself later after the second failed attempt to bring Sasuke back. To save Gaara was to prove that Naruto could save a friend, and thus meant that maybe he stood a chance at saving the friend he’d lost earlier in the story. It’s why it’s so sad to see him so distraught after it becomes clear that Gaara really was (seemingly) beyond help. As Naruto would himself put it during his first meeting with Sasuke in Part II, how could he hope to become Hokage if he couldn’t even save one friend (see my above comments on what Gaara represented in terms of Naruto’s core goals)?

Becoming Hokage was an end in itself in that Naruto believed that once he achieved that status, he would be able to make the positive changes he felt were needed to improve life for everyone. To fail to save even one person would have made him unworthy of that status, because how could he pretend to save the world when he could not even save a single person?

Things to Note: Foreshadowing?
Something that probably wasn’t intentional was the jutsu Pain used to have Akatsuki members attack the two teams by proxy. In a way, it served to foreshadow Pain’s own nature, as Nagato himself uses dead bodies to handle opponents from afar.

Things That Sucked: The Weaker Aspects of Gaara’s Story
An issue with the arc happens to involve Gaara’s own personal storyline. While there was a clear difference in how he was treated by his fellow denizens of Sunagakure after the time-skip compared to what we were shown prior to his change of heart in Part I, I do wish we could have seen more of this transition. After his defeat at Naruto’s hands, Gaara had been shown as having changed quite a bit when he assisted Lee against Kimimaro, showing a more pensive and thoughtful side to go with his familiar ruthless application of brute force. Still, his transformation over the years was a dramatic one, and aside from that one flashback Kimimaro has, we only get to see the fruits of Gaara’s labors.

Another issue I had with the storytelling was the extent of Gaara’s bond with Naruto. While they did share a bond that could not be easily replicated due to their similar backgrounds, after that their actual interactions were limited. Gaara wasn’t shown directly interacting with Naruto after their fight—in fact; their next direct conversation would come near the end of this arc. It kind of made Naruto’s interest in saving Gaara more about himself than about the person he was saving, which kind of sums up much of the trouble with the overarching issue of bringing back Sasuke.

Things That Sucked: Kishimoto’s Continuing Experiments with the Art Style
Again, this is bringing up something that I complained about before, but for a time, Kishimoto’s art could be a tad distracting at times, whether in terms of the flatness of his cleaner style or his experiments with perspective.

One issue I have with Part II’s art is that while it is in many ways an improvement over what came before, it could also feel rather flat and almost soulless. The cleaner lines and less exaggerated designs, which led to the manga more and more resembling the anime adaptations, could alternately seem more refined and were probably easier to efficiently replicate and draw on a weekly basis. At the same time however, they were often lacking that characteristic grittiness that I’d come to identify with some of the better moments of Part I. The world of Naruto is gritty by its very nature, and the art in many respects reflected that. Like the Star Wars prequels, what had felt like a rather lived-in world looked a bit more generic and clean than it had before. Perhaps not everyone would agree with me, and I’m sure that those more knowledgeable about drawings and art would find a lot of holes in this argument, but for me, the changes to the series’ art just didn’t sit right.

One prominent example of an odd use of perspective comes after Gaara gets taken down by Deidara. Baki is running around giving orders to prepare the village’s response when we get this really bizarre fish-eye effect. Why did we need to see this? Yeah, Kishimoto might have wanted to make what could have been a boring looking panel more interesting, but did he have to make it look so silly during a serious moment?

Things That Sucked: Pointless Fanservice
One of the issues that I had with this arc, and that I wound up having with much of Part II in general, is the general pointlessness of the old supporting cast. Here, the inclusion of Team Guy felt like fanservice rather than an important aspect of the story being told.

Sent to back up Kakashi’s team, Team Guy finds itself temporarily slowed by Kisame’s proxy, and then later by clones of themselves. As a result, they failed to have an impact on any of the arc’s important battles. While this may have been in part to save them for later and to let Team 7 (particularly Sakura and Kakashi) shine, it still made them feel rather extraneous. Furthermore, why did they have to be the ones to undo the seals around the Akatsuki hideout? Why didn’t Naruto just create a bunch of clones so that the two teams would have the maximum amount of manpower available to them at the time when facing members of an organization comprised of ninja so powerful that even proxies fighting at a fraction of their full potential were threats to even elite jonin? It’s like Kishimoto didn’t think this part of the story through in the slightest when trying to justify having certain characters in the spotlight.

It also doesn’t help that one character that should have been relevant, Lee, failed to do anything of importance. In Part I, Lee and Gaara were not only opponents during the Exams arc, but also wound up developing a thematic dynamic regarding the nature of bonds and strength, which was in turn followed up on with a more direct dynamic between the two after the Sand shinobi showed up to rescue Lee from Kimimaro. As a result, any reader with some degree of appreciation for the bonds in this series (and let’s face it, bonds are a pretty big deal throughout the story) would expect something from Lee during the arc. Maybe some sort of conversation with Naruto or Gaara, or perhaps a peek at his thoughts about what was going on. Unfortunately, if readers were expecting some semblance of decent character-driven interactions and storytelling, they were wrong as wrong gets. Lee doesn’t do anything of value during the arc. No character beats whatsoever. That really sucks no matter how you look at it.

While it was nice to see these guys again after the time-skip, by the time the arc had ended, I really didn’t see any real reason why they needed to be there instead of some other random group of characters. In fact, one could say the same for much of the rest of the Konoha supporting casts’ treatments, as with a notable exception (Shikamaru), these characters were basically treated as nothing more than spear carriers during the first half of Part II.

Things to Note: Parallels With Part I

It’s actually rather interesting to note that some of the earlier arcs of Part II do mirror those of Part I. As with the Wave arc, this arc happened to set the tone for the following arcs by: introducing a villainous duo, had Naruto call upon the fox’s power after seeing the body of someone he thought a friend, having Kakashi first fake out a lesser opponent using a decoy, then later show off the abilities of his Sharingan only to exhaust himself to the point of being bedridden, and even ends on a bittersweet note. Unlike the earlier arc however, this arc’s ending is slightly less bitter.

The deaths of Haku and Zabuza stand out in part because while they are to some extent redeemed in the eyes of the characters and readers, they also do not survive past their plotline’s end. While they do serve to thus influence Naruto’s own character development in a large way, it’s a far more tragic end than is common throughout the rest of the manga.

Here, while Chiyo does give her life, it is she who was influenced by Naruto (although I have some issues with this), and in the end, Naruto does manage to bring Gaara back (alive) to Sunagakure.

Things That Sucked: Shilling the Hero
One of the things that really became a pattern during certain parts of Part II was how Kishimoto engaged in telling rather than showing. Some prominent examples of this revolved around the presentation of Naruto after the time skip, both in terms of his influence on another character and in terms of how much he had grown as a ninja over the years.

What really got on my nerves in hindsight was the way that the story failed to really give Sakura her proper due. While her growth was noted in detail, towards the end of the arc, Chiyo’s change of heart is credited mostly to Naruto despite Sakura having not only developed a bond with the old kunoichi, but also having impacted her worldview in her own way during the arc. But that’s not even the biggest issue with how Naruto is presented during the arc.

What was even more annoying, considering that the series is a battle manga, was how Naruto’s growth felt less concrete than it should otherwise have. The start of the arc began promisingly by showing Naruto with improved fundamentals and doing much better against Kakashi during the second bell test, even if much of it was not shown to readers. However, the rest of the arc featured him falling short in various ways, whether in terms of being embarrassed by far more skilled opponents or losing his temper and allowing the demon fox to take over. During the fight against Itachi’s proxy, it is noteworthy that despite getting a brief flashback showing Naruto being taught the importance of breaking an enemy’s illusions, Itachi still managed to easily handle him (while Itachi is for the rest of the story clearly one of the very best genjutsu users, it was still rather pathetic for Naruto to be shown up with so little difficulty). Even Naruto’s newest technique, which he busts out against Itachi, doesn’t really seem to have much of a purpose given that a normal Rasengan would have easily sufficed against an opponent of average human durability.

Unlike the Wave arc in Part I where Naruto served as the center of the story’s climactic fight scenes and resolution, emotionally-speaking, here he felt less integral to the story, an issue that would define a large part of the writing for his character during the first half of Part II.

Things That Sucked: Tsunade is a Dumb Blonde
A common factor throughout Tsunade’s tenure as Hokage is the way many of her decisions, particularly those pertaining to Naruto, can easily come off as more than a little questionable. I mean, the reader sees for themselves that each individual member of the Akatsuki is highly skilled and dangerous to the point that even an elite ninja outside of one of the kage or someone of that level might want backup when dealing with these guys. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, Tsunade thinks it’s a good idea to send Naruto out on missions beyond the village walls despite knowing full well that the Akatsuki’s goals include attaining all the biju for whatever reason.

Now granted, she did send backup for Team Kakashi, who were themselves to be backed by Sunagakure’s forces due to the sensitive nature of the mission (even if the Sand did take its sweet time getting there). However, during the next arc, Tsunade fails to provide even that for Naruto’s protection, and in a way, I kind of agreed with the arguments made by the elders regardless of how Kishimoto tried to portray the argument from a sentimental standpoint. A good leader has to know that decisions are made with the head rather than the heart in most cases for good reason. Hell, even the next of Naruto’s excursions outside the village only has another team to serve as backup for Team 7 despite it being clear that most Akatsuki duos can probably handle the average platoon or two.

On the whole, where she is meant to be open-minded, strong-willed, and full of faith in both Naruto and the next generation of Konoha’s ninja, Tsunade instead comes off as an incompetent blonde drunkard.

Things That Sucked: Not Really Planning Things Out
Reading this arc in hindsight really shows how poorly planned out the story was. Tobi feels like a completely different character beyond the purposes of the plot, and the Akatsuki rings, despite being heavily hinted at being important, fall off the face of the Earth.

First up: Tobi. Tobi feels like a completely different character, and it’s not just due to his pretending to be a goofball. The fact that he’s taking this guise even around Zetsu doesn’t make sense given what we learn later unless one re-interprets his first scene as Obito being serious but facetious, only to miss the catch due to a lack of depth perception, or something like that, but even then there are issues given that, among other things, this sort of clumsiness never comes into play again. Still, it actually would have been hilarious if instead of being yet another mostly stoic emo, Obito had basically acted like a villainous and jaded Naruto, down to being very affable despite planning on wiping out free will. It certainly would have been way more entertaining than the walking bitch-fit we actually got.

As for the rings, what was the point of them? I’m curious, because I can’t come up with any good reason why Akatsuki members should find them so important if they were ultimately worthless to the story. Were they necessary for communication or syncing with the statue? Was there some other reason why we got dialogue devoted to mentioning them?

It’s little things like this adding up that do damage to the audience’s ability to take fictional worlds seriously.

Conclusion
Overall, the Kazekage Rescue Mission arc was a highly uneven one. While it contained some of the stronger aspects of Part II’s story (if not in the entire manga), it also could be a bit of a chore to read due to the various issues I brought up above. Notable in the latter category were the issues that defined much of Part II (and parts of Part I): a visible lack of planning, the tendency to tell rather than show, idiot plotting, and a failure to properly utilize previously introduced members of the supporting cast.

Still, at least it was readable, which is more than I can say for what followed, an arc so bemoaned that it is known in fan circles as the “Penis Arc.”

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Things That Rocked, Things That Sucked: ‘Beet the Vandel Buster’

I remember going to the theater to watch John Carter, the ill-fated adaptation of the novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs detailing the adventures of a guy from Earth who finds himself transported to Mars. As ridiculous as it sounds, it did inspire quite a few later works, with such derivative pieces having made various tropes from the Burroughs series so well known that going back and reading those books feels like reading a laundry list of clichés despite it being the opposite.

Anyway, to get back to what I was originally talking about, I decided to see the movie because it was the live-action debut of one of Pixar’s directors, with reports suggesting that there would be some tinges of the studio in this production. When the film started, I was unimpressed, but figured that I might as well stick with it since I’d paid for my ticket. By the middle of the film, I was mildly curious though for the most part of the opinion that the movie was forgettable. By the time the final scenes rolled along, I found myself finally getting invested in what was going on. “Sweet, a happy ending! Oh shit, so that’s why this is all an extended flashback! Oh shit, look out son! Oh shit, he’s not dead! Oh shit, he’s heading back to Barroom! This is getting awesome! I wanna see what happens ne-it’s over?”

I highly doubt that movie will ever get a sequel. And given how shaky much of the film was before the third act totally redeemed it in my eyes, I’m not sure a sequel would have been all that much of an improvement. That said, it inflicted upon me the pain of enjoying something only to realize that there is no more of it. This was not a new feeling. In fact, there was one notable example, a manga that I will discuss at length right now.

That manga was Beet the Vandel Buster. Written by Riku Sanjo and illustrated by Koji Inada, the same team that did Dragon Quest: Dai no Daibōken, Beet is a take on an RPG-style world where demons called Vandels reign as the apex predator, spreading fear and chaos for seemingly no good reason other than their own pleasure. It also resembles Japanese RPGs, or to be more precise, Dragon Quest, due to the art style, which is reminiscent of Akira Toriyama’s, as well as the ranking system of characters, with characters being marked with brands (or stars in the case of Vandels) signifying their “levels.” It stars Beet, a typical shonen protagonist with a dull head and a good heart (and a face that somehow looks more and more punchable the more often I see it) who, after an incident with one of the world’s most terrifying Vandels, is gifted with five Saiga (weapons produced from a person’s soul) by the team of Vandel Hunters he looks up to. Beet is blessed with more stamina than the usual person, being able to function at full capacity for three consecutive days at the cost of then needing to sleep for 24 hours. He is joined in his journey to end the current dark age by his childhood friend and future wife Poala. Together, the two find themselves embroiled in a conflict that will net them allies and an enemy far more mysterious than they could have possibly imagined.

Things That Sucked: So Cliché it Hurts
I was introduced to the series by a preview in the American version of Shonen Jump, and my sister wound up taking an interest in it. As a result, she wound up buying the volumes as they came out in English, and I, being too lazy to use my free time to better myself (some things never change), decided to pass the time by reading the series that she bought, including Beet.

As with the preview, I wasn’t impressed, finding the whole thing not only clichéd, but unimpressive in its execution. You had the standard shonen hero who is more exuberant than he is talented. You had him being gifted with great power as well as having been born into a lineage with the potential to change the world. You had the childhood friend of the opposite sex with a fiery temper and a tendency to smack the round-faced hero (seriously, something about his face just pisses me off). You had the villains doing terrible things seemingly for the lulz. Later chapters introduced a stoic rival with a heart of gold, a pretty boy magical genius with serious self-esteem issues, a tough girl with large knockers and a short skirt, and a mysterious figure clad in armor with strange connections to the mystery behind what happened on the fateful day Beet received the five Saiga from his idols. In short, the series wasn’t going to win any awards for originality. And that’s not even getting into the issue of its protagonist.

Things That Sucked: Beet
Let’s get this out of the way: Beet is not interesting. The mystery surrounding him helps drive the plot, and I am interested in the people he is connected to. But I don’t have much reason to care for him. He’s a pretty standard shonen hero. He’s young and round-faced (did I mention how much his face pisses me off? Seriously, this kid is my John Claverhouse). His character doesn’t really develop all that much aside from becoming more patient. In fact, much of his growth has less to do with becoming a better person (because he’s already a good person) than with developing traits that make him a better fighter. He simply doesn’t really stand out from the crowd of shonen heroes. Also, his face pisses me off for some reason (I want to jam my fingers into his eye sockets and crush his head with my bare hands).

Things That Sucked: Rushed Pacing
In addition, the characters seem to grow a bit too strong too fast. One moment, they’re having trouble with lower ranked Vandels. A few volumes later, they’re taking on the toughest of the species on their own turf. Granted, teamwork is very important in this series, as individual humans can’t hope to match the toughest Vandels, but still. At one point, the group takes on an army of lesser monsters in order to get at one of the highest-ranking Vandels alive. They cut through it (the army, not the Vandel) like butter! You would think that more back-up would be required for such a job. Nope, there’s only slightly more tension in what little we see of them taking out an entire army of monsters than what we got in the entirety of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

What this does is that it makes the threat of the Vandels less credible than it was when just one relatively high-ranking Vandel was enough to get everyone into a panic. Hell, a Vandel who was at the time of the prologue of a lower rank than the ones the good guys take on later actually seemed more threatening within the story’s context (see how said threat in the prologue is treated compared to the so-called powerhouses that appear later). It feels like when the characters in a game level up too fast due to grinding and wind up breezing through the bosses. The tension is lessened somewhat when this occurs. Something needed to alleviate this issue if I was going to take the series even the slightest bit seriously.

Thankfully, something proceeded to happen. The writing got better, good enough that my opinion of the series began to shift.

Things That Rocked: It Gets Better
Once the story gets going around the middle of the Grineed arc, things take a turn for the better. The writing which seemed so average takes things up a notch, and suddenly, the characters and their situation take on a new life. I was until that point reading the series due of having nothing better to do because the alternative was doing something that required effort, and without realizing it, things became readable, no, more than readable. I’m talking a series with the potential to make it worth your while.

The arc with Grineed hits its stride once they begin to take on Grineed’s strongest subordinates. Not only is the writing solid enough to get you interested in the battles, but the story begins to set up details that hint at the scale the plot will be taking shortly afterward. The battle against Grineed itself is good stuff.

Grineed initially appears to be a standard schemer with a hair-trigger temper once things don’t go his way. However, it becomes clear that this is not the case. Now this is a spoiler-heavy section, so I suggest skipping to the conclusion for my thoughts on the series as a whole if you don’t want me to ruin anything for you. I mean it. Spoilers begin in the next paragraph.

Things That Rocked: Grineed
Rather than a standard sob-story that many shonen villains get nowadays, what many Vandels get instead is an exploration into what they are, and the individual malevolence of their personalities. In the case of Grineed, he is a berserker, and not proud of it. His body possesses strength that is peerless even among the other elites of his kind, and his temper is but a reflection of his true nature, that of a beast who rampages throughout the world without fear of death.

Grineed despises and denies his true self, instead fancying himself a schemer and aristocrat open to utilizing pragmatic and cost-effective methods while enjoying a fine wine from all the way within his kingdom of despair. He is a warrior who fancies himself a scholar, and the truth causes him much internal strife. It’s an interesting contradiction, and it manages to result in a more memorable character than many villains who are given “depth” by being provided with “sympathetic” backstories (as I went into with Maleficent in my previous post). Grineed is pure evil, but his characterization results in a far richer character than is found in more gray examples. When he does give in to his rage, it is a thing to behold, and the resulting battle is arguably the best in the series.

Things That Rocked: Did I Mention That It Gets Better?
Grineed was but the first example of what the series was capable of in its characterization of what could have easily been stereotypical RPG-style stock characters, and this was itself supported by plotting that went from uninspired clichés to mysteries capable of drawing you in. Questions are raised about the very conceits of the series itself: why is the world engulfed in such darkness. What are Vandels really? What is the true nature of their existence? What of the dark gods connected to their history and creation? What of Beet’s idols? Who is this king among the humans who is aware of Beet’s true potential? Who is the Winged Knight? What are the various Vandels planning among themselves?

One finds oneself swamped with questions and eager to learn the answers, and the series doesn’t disappoint: at the end of the last released volume, a battle between one of the most powerful Vandels of all and one of Beet’s friends is about to take place. Beet is lying in bed and yet to wake up. Everyone else is down for the count. The series stops on a cliffhanger, its artist having suffered some sort of ailment, and it has yet to resume since.

It is times like this that one is tempted to swear. Very loudly and profusely.

Conclusion
Like John Carter, BtVB started off unimpressively, and then proceeded to prove that first impressions do not count for everything. This is a series that will punish you for growing to like it. It will start off by making you wonder why you are even reading it. It will then proceed to reward you for your persistence by slowly but surely transforming into something with the potential to be more than the rather solid story it becomes. It will make you want to read more and more of it. And then it will mock you by ending on a cliffhanger, as if it seeks to destroy that part of your soul that craves catharsis through escapist fiction. It will harm you, hurt you. And you will find yourself taking this punishment with a desperate smile, because all you desire is closure.

You will walk away from the series thinking that it couldn’t possibly be as good as you would expect it to be if it ever continues. You will think of its earlier flaws (like the fact that the lead character has a face that you want to rip into bloody shreds with your teeth). You will move on to other stories, telling yourself that it is not something worth losing sleep over. And you will move on. You will come across other stories that bring you pleasure. But there will be times, those gaps in between those other moments, when you will think of things that could have been. You will think about past life decisions. You will think of love lost. You will think of things like John Carter and Beet the Vandel Buster. And some small part of you will die a little thinking of those things, if it hadn’t already when they ended as they did.

Why ‘Maleficent’ Failed to Do Its Titular Character Justice

While I am of a rather mixed to negative opinion of Disney’s rebooting of their classic films, one particular bone I have to pick has to do with last year’s spin on Sleeping Beauty, the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent. While the movie came out last year, I was kind of reluctant to see it, and only really managed to watch the whole thing not that long ago. Honestly, looking at it, I felt that it not only failed to capture just why the character is such an icon among Disney villains, but also created a weaker character than the original classic villain despite attempting to strengthen it by adding depth to her.

Maleficent is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Disney villains within the animated canon. Alongside the three good fairies, she manages to almost completely steal the show in the original animated feature. What makes her so delightful to watch, what gave her a rather dark charm, is the fact that she is pure evil, and she loves it. She’s so over-the-top in how malefic she is, so theatrically charismatic, that you can’t take your eyes off her. Whether she’s being just plain malevolent to good people or expressing how infuriated she is with her incompetent subordinates, the character is a ball to watch. The scene where she reveals her great scheme to Prince Philip reveals the depths of her cruelty, as she outlines her intention to create a sick and twisted parody of fairy tales like the one the audience is watching (it’s a surprisingly meta moment from classic Disney) in a manner so mocking that if she went any further with it, she’d literally be chewing the scenery.

The woman is a B-I-T-C-H, and we love her for it.

Heck, even her death scene is preceded by her turning into a fire-breathing dragon, giving Philip the fight of his life, and then going down in a moment that truly feels more climactic than anything in the more recent live-action film. Among the various climaxes throughout the Disney animated canon, this is easily one of my favorites, providing an amazing sense of catharsis once it ends, with the film concluding not long afterward so that it doesn’t wind up going too far past the peak of the viewer’s interest.

Meanwhile, the only moment in Maleficent that really captures the essence of the character is the one where she appears at the royal court and sneers out a “well, well.”

Despite the rest of the film’s shortcomings, Jolie has the physical presence and persona down pat in that scene, and had the rest of the movie given us this Maleficent, I probably wouldn’t have nearly as much to complain about. However, by giving Maleficent the Wicked treatment and attempting to make her sympathetic, the filmmakers wound up completely missing the point of just why the character is so popular within the Disney canon decades after Sleeping Beauty first came out, and in the process also created a Maleficent that is far less memorable in their attempts at fleshing her out.

Part of the problems with Maleficent stem from its hackneyed script, which wants to be a Disney version of Wicked, but just falls flat in terms of writing and overall direction.* In attempting to tell a more “feminist” version of the story, the movie weakens the stronger female characters of the original film, the three good fairies, and reduces Maleficent herself to yet another victim of a terrible man’s betrayal. Such insipid clichés and attempts at “depth” made for a less than interesting character, and it didn’t help that Maleficent’s powers seemed to come and go as the story required them to. I’m pretty sure that the original Disney villain could have singlehandedly taken out at least a good chunk of the kingdom’s defenses herself with or without wings (I’d say that Maleficent didn’t need visible wings save for when she transformed, hence her lack of them in the older film. Plus she clearly didn’t need them to get around quickly). It all comes off as a propaganda film commissioned by the evil fairy herself (I’d consider that my head canon if it wasn’t for the fact that Maleficent loved being evil and openly boasted of just how horrible of a person she was).

Adding insult to injury, Maleficent doesn’t even get to turn into a dragon. No, that honor goes to her sometimes raven sidekick (because the film needed another hot guy to attract female viewers). I mean, what kind of film is supposed to be about Maleficent but doesn’t even let her utilize her hellish powers to deliver fiery beat-downs to anyone foolish enough to cross her?

In the end, what makes Maleficent so memorable in the original Disney movie is that she is a proactive and petty witch who finds oppressing others out of a sick mixture of spite and her own amusement a good thing. She makes no excuses for herself—she’s evil—and she revels in it, with everything from her design to her personality making it so that we do too. By trying to make her sympathetic, the makers of the later film not only missed the point of just why she’s such a great villain, but also create an iteration of the character that failed to connect with audiences to the same extent that the original did and still does despite trying to capitalize off the very appeal of said original. There’s nothing wrong with having a flat or rounded character by him or her or itself. What does matter, however, is what you do with said character. That, dear reader, is why Maleficent the film not only fails to step outside of the shadow of Sleeping Beauty’s iconic villain, but is also a prominent factor in why it falls short of being much more than mediocre in its own right.

* As for some of the other problems with the movie, in contrast to Wicked, which retold the same story from a different point of view, changing up our views of various characters, and also asked questions about the setting of the story, giving it the room needed to take the story in its own direction separate from the work that inspired it. Maleficent changes up too much, and while it has some interesting ideas, it also weakens much of what made the original so great while also turning in a rather flat tale with so many flat characters despite trying to give new dimensions to it. One example of this is King Stefan. In another contrast to Wicked, which took a flawed supporting character in the original story and gave him an unexpected reason to be even more relevant to things (while still making sense to some extent), Maleficent turns a well-meaning and loving, if occasionally bumbling, father and king into a ranting and raving villain with no real redeeming traits just so that they can make Maleficent into the unambiguously positive protagonist once she moves on from the pain he inflicted on her in the past.