Review: Narutaru

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Background

I’m not sure I can say a lot about Narutaru before an actual review.  It’s a little known anime better known as a manga series.  Kids Station, a station which seems to do special projects more than anything else, produced the anime.  And when I mean special projects, I really do mean special.  There’s not much in their anime roster which I’d ever define as a really “normal” anime.  Their most famous work is xxxHOLIC which in itself is quite unusual.

The writers for Narutaru will point you heavily in the direction of this anime; Mohiro Kitoh of Bokurano fame created the manga while Chiaki Konaka (best known for working on Serial Experiments Lain) wrote much of the anime. I should point out to you that Bokurano is famous, or maybe infamous, for having children not act like children.  Let’s keep that in mind.

A little known composer, Susumu Ueda, created the music.  This may seem like a bit of an odd point to put in but I’ll refer back to this later.

Story

It’s hard to discuss Narutaru‘s story without giving away details.  But let’s give it a try.  I’ll take a second to first say that Narutaru is not, and absolutely not, for children.  It’s bleak, cruel, and filled with things that will make childhood nightmares seem happy.

Our story follows a young girl named Shiina Tamai.  She’s energetic, headstrong, and a little bit of a tomboy.  She lives with her father (family relations are strained due to reasons you’ll only find out in the manga), a small company air force pilot.  She’s not the hardest working student in school.  She meets an unusual starfish creature, shown above, on a trip to her grandparents while swimming in the nearby ocean.  It doesn’t speak and makes childish motions.  It manages to save her from drowning despite this.  She names it Hoshimaru since it doesn’t speak and Shiina is still a young girl at heart.  Narutaru tells the tales of Shiina and Hoshimaru.

Shiina and Hoshimaru meet other individuals similar to them.  The humans often refer to the creatures as “shadow dragons”.  Shadow dragons are almost invincible beings.  They take missiles to the face, many gun shots, and will still keep fighting back.  The only limitation is the strength of the person they are connected to; the human feels all the suffering the shadow dragon takes.

Now, this is where the story takes its first mean twist.  This set up sounds like a great anime for kids.  It kind of sounds like Digimon or other similar “monster” franchises.  Except it’s absolutely not.  It’s really dark.  Remember before when I said that Kitoh is famous for Bokurano?  A lot of the story plays out like Bokurano if it forgot to take its medication.  Well, at least the manga.  For starters, the shadow dragons are not innocent.  It’s mentioned early that dragons “eat souls”.  And that’s generally true without getting into spoilerific details.  So we have the first strike that the monsters aren’t really heroic.

Then comes the characters.  They are mean.  And I don’t mean generic bully mean.  The anime and manga both contain scenes of human activity which I wish I could forget.  The first “villain” casually speaks of genocide on the order of 5 billion people.  He’s a young teen like most of the cast by the way.  Even the protagonists are kind of like that.  Most characters take actions that are downright terrifying.  It’s difficult to speak of without ruining the series since much of the shock value is how far each character goes but suffice to say that each of them WILL likely surprise you.  Just as a quick measuring stick, literal conspiracies work against making certain characters in the manga happy.  It’s just that type of story.

Then there’s a level of realism.  Shiina is reckless.  She’ll bite off more than she can chew.  That’s fine in a typical monster franchise.  The hero is almost always hot-blooded in that aspect.  But Narutaru isn’t your typical monster franchise.  Shiina ends up on the receiving end of an ass kicking more often than she deals them out.  She also comes into contact with the rules of momentum, inertia, and more throughout her adventures.  It’s mean and gritty in this aspect.

I will point out that Narutaru‘s story in the manga is complete.  There is an ending.  But the anime certainly doesn’t show one.  It generally faithfully replicates the first 8 or so volumes of the manga then ends.  This gives you a nice visual adaptation but also creates massive problems.  First is the sense of finality: the anime ends of a dark note and just stops.  There is no real ending and there is a strong feeling of “now what?” that stems from it.  So many mysteries are left unsolved…and it’s not like the manga itself actually answers too many on its own.  Second is the pacing that stems from this: stories, events, and entire characters appear and disappear with no seeming purpose in the anime.  Most events and characters are tied in a bow to some degree in the manga.  But since the anime ends before the most significant events occur, nothing stems from them.  We see a character, see some events, then it just drops them off the face of the earth.  And this destroys a lot of pacing and emotion in the anime.  Pacing is a major problem and the anime, at best, is scattered and disoriented until major events occur.  And you’ll remember the major events.

Another concern in the anime is the division of time.  The manga seems to decide early that it will be dark and bleak.  A little focus is put on Shiina’s life but more of it focuses on Narutaru‘s deconstruction.  You get less sense of that in the anime.  Maybe it’s the timing.  Maybe it’s the animation quality shift.  Maybe it’s just that I watched and read the anime/manga at 1-2 AM.  But I certainly felt more of a slice-of-life emotion coming from Narutaru in the anime.  And this really doesn’t help the story since it is wholeheartedly destructive and rips apart the common tropes you’ll come to expect.

That being said, the anime isn’t entirely bad.  This premise and the deconstruction of it is quite a nice treat.  I’m not sure I’d describe it as a horror anime as many do.  But it is certainly unnerving.  The anime kicks off its first major story with some horribly cruel actions…such as the aforementioned casual genocide of humanity.  And the level of creepiness just goes up from there typically.  If you’re into this type of thing like I am the actions become far more interesting than the anime really should allow for.

And I’ll even praise the anime since it does some things that the manga doesn’t.  One character, Akira Sakura, has considered suicide on more than one occasion.  The manga just brings this up quickly but the anime actively shows us a sequence of Akira considering slitting her wrists.  And this is episode 2 by the way.

No, she won't succeed.

Yeah, Narutaru is kind of screwed up like that.

This really works in the anime’s favour.  I’ve got many, many notes circled around episode 2 because of this one short sequence.  It’s extremely well done and gives the anime some memorability.  Translating genres requires adjustments to succeed and some decisions like this work in its favour.  Ultimately, Narutaru is an example of both how to and how not to translate from manga to anime.  On the plus side, we get this.  On the negative, we get a little too faithful of and adaptation since it fails to filter events which clutter the story and make it too distracted to work real well.

Characters

The main character, undoubtedly, is Shiina Tamai.  As a deconstructive work, we watch the horrible consequences of being in a work about monsters and how a Digimon or Pokemon universe would actually kind of suck.  And Shiina is a great viewpoint for all this because she is very much the quintessential hero for these works.  Often aimed at the shonen demographic, she really does portray the traits of your typical shonen hero: actively gets herself involved, is high energy, acts heroic, and jumps before she even considers the consequences.  This work well because it acquaints us to the typical conventions of the genre and set us up for a typical anime making the deconstruction much harsher and more pronounced in its action.  So this works great.

Supporting Shiina primarily is Akira Sakura.  She’s a horribly broken individual…if the above picture of her wasn’t an indication of that already.  A nervous wreck, horribly shy, and a kind girl who hasn’t been given any real fair shakes in life, Akira is a signal of the anime’s true tone.  Contrasting her with Shiina is a perfect way to see the anime’s deconstructive elements.

Unfortunately this is where the problems for the anime start.  We get a whole host of character besides these two.  And I mean a host.  Virtually all the characters from the manga are shown at the proper time.  But because the anime is only a partial translation of the manga work the characters too feel unfinished.  Many characters’ arcs end in the latter portion of the manga.  So many are introduced, given a little interesting information and screen time, then vanish into oblivion with no concept of resolution and often limited character development at best.  In the manga these characters are often quite strong.  The decision to halt the characters mid-arc is quite a drawback and creates massive problems since we’re just faced with half-painted characters living in a world where we’re supposed to see the consequences of their actions.  This element even becomes a problem for Shiina since her most significant developments occur later in the manga after she enters middle school.

The characters who actually do end up with full arcs are generally very well done though.  Each disturbing element played out to its fullest works the way it is supposed to and the characters draw you in by their seemingly uncanny actions.  The saga between Aki Honda and Hiroko Kaizuka works very well.  You really feel the tension and emotion in this segment.  I’m almost positive you’ll feel for Hiroko.  And maybe Aki.  Either way though, their segment will likely burn itself into your brain should you choose to watch this anime.  I know I’ll probably have that segment lodged in my head ‘lest I take a blow to the head.

Yeah. What this poster says…I wish.

One problem I faced, and it might not occur for everyone, is the lack of distinct names.  I continually had to remind myself who [x] was by name.  I could visually identify each character and tell you all their actions but if they just stated “Norio” for example, it would take me a bit of effort to recall who Norio was.

Animation

I’m going to rip the band-aid off quickly: the animation quality is dreadful.  I can’t find any two ways around it.

Actually, maybe I’ll go into a little bit of an explanation first: this anime appears to have suffered from low-budget.  This point is very clearly evident in the high use of pans through still frames.  Many sequences dodge their animation by drawing a single frame and just looking around it to give the illusion of action.  While each frame typically looked good this skimping out still hurts the animation quality.  There are few real heavy action sequences.  Those that exist are best described as “acceptable”.  Even here it is plainly evident money was tight since often fights consisted of an action followed by the consequence without showing how it occurred.

I will note however that the level of detail on planes is unusual.  In the manga, characters spouted extremely detailed points about aircraft…especially military aircraft.  This transfers over to the anime a little.  I’ll admit I don’t know enough to tell you whether it is accurate or not but I’ll go with the old knowledge: say something confidently enough and you’ll likely keep people attentive.  So they sound good to me either way.

Unfortunately this comes as a bit of a distraction in the anime.  The quality is done so poorly that it does detract from the rest of the qualities of Narutaru.  I found it sometimes difficult to focus on the events when the characters were facing away from me while speaking.  Granted, I could deal with it in Evangelion and I managed to get through it here.  Just be aware that if you’re the type who loves top-notch animation you’ll want to look elsewhere.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

Sound.  I would argue this is a major strength of the Narutaru anime.  In my top 10 anime openings post I openly admit I have a huge liking of the piano.  This carries over into background music…I really, really like the use of melancholic strings and dreary piano; they set the tone perfectly in the sequences where they are deployed.  There are a few pieces where the piano notes rip through everything.  Then the string instruments start and it pulls on you hard.  I earlier mentioned Susumu Ueda in my introduction.  I absolutely love the work done here…I wonder if Ueda go the credit he really deserved from Narutaru.

The opening and closing are best described as absolute traps.  I don’t mind either as they’re kind of lighter songs…the opening is very much a “bubblegum” opening between the song and the animation.  The closing is also much lighter than you’d expect of an anime of this variety.  If you’ve ever watched Puella Magi Madoka Magica, you know the drill.  It’s really kind of cruel since you know the anime is going to be dark as it’s commonly cited for the seinen demographic…yet it gives you this lovely and cutesy opening to make you feel better.

And why did you even offer the possibility that this would be the tone of the anime?

I watched this anime in both subs and dubs.  The dubbing studio didn’t do a great job…I’ll just put it this way.  They actually did hire some decent VAs for side characters (such as Lisa Ortiz and Veronica Taylor) but the main cast wasn’t great.  That being said, the Japanese voice acting team wasn’t great.  You’ll certainly recognize most of the voice actors, especially Akira Ishida, but I can’t say they really did anything special.  I will argue though that you should watch this subbed either way…probably the only way you’ll see it anyways since Central Park Media folded a while ago and nobody seems interested in redistributing Narutaru.

Synergy

The main aspect of this anime that you must consider is the juxtaposition of disturbing elements to the cute characters.  The manga characters are delicately built to create an atmosphere where you’ll constantly be shocked and horrified about how dark the world will get…about how evil the evil characters are and whether or not there are really any “good” characters.  It’s a thrilling anime in this regard.  Unfortunately this synergy also becomes the undoing since the anime doesn’t actually have any conclusion or satisfactory wrap up of much more than the arc it’s on.  Longer character arcs are left unanswered unless you turn to manga.

Why to Watch

Narutaru is a franchise I’d highly recommend if you like dark deconstructions.  It is twisted and cruel about how monsters play out.  Everything you loved about owning a pet monster is twisted around.  Owning one isn’t as fun as it seems…everybody is drawn towards each other and most of these guys are mentally broken nine ways to Sunday or so insane that you’re sure the only solution is a bullet to the face.  It pulls on our concepts of humanity and gives us the typical question: what happens to people when given absolute power?  They go corrupt absolutely.  The question is just extended into unfamiliar territory with young children.

I’d also recommend it if you like something along a cosmic horror story.  It really doesn’t fit the nature so much but in the end the manga still plays on the basic fear of human triviality.  But that’s enough of that since going any further will start bringing in spoilers and I really don’t think this is a franchise you can get into if you know what’s going to happen next.  If this is for you, you might find Narutaru is a really rough diamond.

Why Not to Watch

If you want anything even remotely close to positive or cheerful, just go.  You won’t want to see Narutaru and its inevitable conclusion.  Just have a sandwich and drop the idea.  Seriously Narutaru is probably on the same order of darkness as Warhammer 40,000‘s universe.  It manages to make Bokurano look cheerful.  And that’s a feat of incredible proportions.  So again, if you’re looking for good and cheerful, don’t go here.

Additionally, the quality of animation can be a major problem if you’re not into that sort of thing.

Finally, I can’t really recommend the anime when the manga for Narutaru exists and is complete.  The final volumes of the manga provide a much expanded narrative which explores the characters further, explains the relevance of most characters, and ends the narrative…kind of.  It’s a bit difficult to explain.  End of Evangelion difficult to explain.  If you’re really interested though, I’d suggest you just read the manga.

There’s also the fact that Central Park Media suffers from existence failure.  It’s unlikely you’ll find a legal copy too easily.  Crunchyroll and other sites seem to have problems finding this anime.  There are videos on YouTube but those really flirt with the concept of legality.  I don’t mind the idea of pirating abandonware but this is a bit of a grey territory.  If you’re uncomfortable with the notion of pirating an anime which looks like it’ll never get distributed in your area again, go ahead.

Personal Enjoyment

I probably am the ideal target for this anime…I love deconstructions.  They’re typically quite interesting to watch because of how they twist tropes and conventions.  As much as this should be a ringing endorsement, I found myself really struggling with the lack of conclusion, direction, or real focus in the anime.  It left me wanting.  Though this did make me read the manga quite intensely…so there’s that.

Summary

Let’s just keep this straight…one last time: this anime is dark, mean, and cruel.  It’s a horribly cruel deconstruction of owning a monster in anime.  The characters, despite being young teens, are not nice people and you’ll find that out multiple times.  The interaction and shock of these traits will generate a dark fascination with the anime should you be into that sort of thing.  If you’re not, it’s unlikely you could bear watching the horrors shown.  And if you’re interested, please keep in mind that there is a manga which I personally believe is better since the anime suffers from many flaws in pacing and animation

Overall Rating

Narutaru’s columnended with 4.88/10 on my spreadsheet.  Given I use 5 as average, this ranks as a reasonable anime. I certainly can’t suggest this for everyone given how niche the anime is.  I’m not sure how to put it any clearer than this: if you think you’d like a dark and unusual anime and don’t mind the other flaws, give it a shot.  If not, just ignore it and move on.

The show highly excelled in its narrative elements…or should I say potential.  The narrative worked well except for any actual catharsis or explanation.  The characters were well done in the parts that were shown…stand alone, they are nothing more than seemingly arbitrary and meaningless distractions.  It lagged in virtually every other element except background music…I found it effective and lovely.

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2 responses to “Review: Narutaru

  1. Pingback: Despera’s Rejuvenated Hope | Lain's First Law

  2. An excellent review. I just loved this anime and manga! I like when you say that the op and eds are traps. I couldn’t hace said it better! 🙂
    Did you know there’s a whole volumen missing from the manga in the english version?

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