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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