When variously-empowered shinobi from different hidden villages vanish without a trace, Kakashi soon follows suit—much to the consternation of Naruto and his friends. Soon he’s leading a team to bring Kakashi back, even when all signs point to him having left of his own volition to stop an enemy with plans to spark a new ninja war.
The sixth of the Naruto feature films (third for Naruto Shippuden) is among the best of the bunch. It doesn’t have the scope of Naruto Shippuden the Movie: Bonds, but it more than makes up for it with a better-constructed story where there’s a genuine sense of things being at stake—always a tough thing for any franchise’s feature-film side story to conjure up.
- An emotionally-ballasted story, which gives it a bit more weight than might be expected for a Naruto film.
- Good-to-great action and fights (even if that's not the main focus).
- Requires familiarity with the franchise to really work.
- Director: Masahiko Murata
- Animation Studio: Studio Pierrot
- Released By: Toho
- Released Domestically By: VIZ Media / Warner Brothers.
- Audio: English / Japanese w/English subtitles
- Age Rating: TV-14 (action violence and some disturbing imagery)
- List Price: $19.98 (DVD), $24.98 (Blu-ray)
Something's rotten in the village of Konoha
Bad news abounds throughout the world of Naruto at the start of The Will of Fire. Four ninja with kekkei genkai abilities—hereditary powers that exist nowhere else—have all gone missing from other ninja villages, and only Konoha Village remains untouched. That makes Konoha the prime suspects, and unless they prove their innocence, all-out war may begin.
That’s bad enough, but even worse is how the fifth victim is none other than Kakashi—Naruto’s mentor and friend, who leaves the village under the influence of a curse placed on him years ago. Turns out this is all part of a larger plan hatched by Tsunade, to allow Kakashi to serve as a kind of human weapon: when he’s in the custody of the true culprit, his powers will unseal and the real bad guy will be destroyed … but so will Kakashi himself.
Naruto, being the hothead he is, finds this unacceptable, to put it mildly. He remembers all too well what Kakashi himself taught him: Those who break the laws of the ninja are scum, but those who abandon their friends are worse. He’s willing to defy his own comrades—some of whom have been sent to stop him—and bring Kakashi back despite the risk to everyone involved, not least of all Naruto himself.
Not just another beat-'em-up
This is a less complicated setup than it might seem, especially for those who are already familiar with the Naruto Shippuden mythos and backstory—in other words, the folks who are the main audience for The Will of Fire. And the way it plays off is far more rewarding, emotionally, than the previous Shippuden film, Bonds (screened at the 2011 New York Anime Festival). That movie had no end of wild, stylized action, but like too many standalone movies made from anime franchises it felt too self-contained for its own good. Similar problems plagued Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos: as great as the film was to watch, it felt like a standalone movie that had been forcibly rewritten into an FMA feature, and much of the audience’s emotional connection to the film was fumbled in the process.
Fire, on the other hand, trades the expansive scope of Bonds for a more tightly-told, compelling story, one where the audience has much more of an emotional stake in what’s going on. Example: the main bad guy, Hiruko, is a former comrade of Jiraiya and Tsunade, who tried to make up for his frail physique by developing powers that allow him to absorb whatever powers are used against him. To that end, he draws all his strength by exploiting others, whereas Naruto and his comrades draw their strengths from each other supportively—a point the movie doesn’t fail to make in various ways without getting too preachy about it.
"Naruto" fans come first, though
No Naruto project would be complete without a generous helping of super-powered ninja action, and The Will of Fire certainly doesn’t fail to deliver on that level. Again, the action isn’t as inventive as what we saw in Bonds—it’s mostly a few basic set-pieces where Naruto’s comrades gang up on various bizarre enemies-of-the-moment—but because it’s supported by a story with a more immediate and involving emotional component, it all works.
The biggest drawback to The Will of Fire is the fact that it’s bound up with the Naruto franchise. Those who know nothing about the setup will be at sea; the film assumes the audience is automatically familiar with the material, and hits the ground running. It’s hard not to expect that, actually: by the standards of most fans, inserting that stuff would only take up valuable running time. But for those already up to speed, it’s one of the better feature films productions yet created for Naruto—better because it honors the key concepts that fuel the franchise (e.g., loyalty amongst friends), and not just because it’s a spectacle. These days, you can get that most anywhere.