Hirofumi Suzuki, Masaru Hyodo
Assistant Animation Director:
Chikara Sakurai, Takahiro Chiba
Chiyuki Tanaka, Takahiro Chiba, Chikara Sakurai, Tetsuya Takeuchi, Masayuki Yoshiki, Nozomu Abe, Kaori Takahashi, Retsu Okawara, Hideki Tachibana, Tokuyuki Matsutake
Megu Otsubo, WOMBAT, NARA ANIMATION
If you can believe it, this episode is twenty years old as of writing. As the climax of the first arc, it leaves the viewer with a taste of what the ninja world is really about. For that reason, I would consider it crucial to the average fan’s journey with the series – the first logical stopping point on a path containing hundreds of episodes. Chances are if this one is able to grab you, you’ll have a hard time letting go.
It’s fortunate then, that it would end up in the hands of Toshiyuki Tsuru. Perhaps the biggest endorsement of his abilities as a director can be found in the fact that he was given the seventeenth episode as well. With two of the three final episodes of the arc, for all intents and purposes, Zabuza and Haku’s part of the story was his to tell. On the flip side, directing two episodes so close to each other wasn’t without its difficulties. Overall, the sakuga power and level of polish, while still very high relative to the rest of the show, is not quite on the level we saw from the duo of Tsuru and his trusted animation director, Hirofumi Suzuki, just two episodes prior. Nor does it measure up with what they’d generally attain later, such as with Rock Lee vs. Gaara, and their many iconic OP’s. This is owing partially to some of the cleanup needing to be outsourced to Studio Wombat, and overseas to NARA Animation (uncommon for a prestigious episode), but we also see that Chikara Sakurai and Takahiro Chiba are credited for assistant animation director duties, likely picking up some slack from Hirofumi Suzuki, who had a major role on #17 as well. Moreover, aside from a few notable cuts, the episode does not feature nearly as much of the digital experimentation Toshiyuki Tsuru is known for as his previous one.
Yet, with all that said, this is undoubtedly the more impactful, enduring episode of the two. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say it is one of the better episodes in the entire NARUTO franchise even. Its claim to high nobility is sanctified by the tears of the audience. Part of this is no doubt due to being the climax of the first arc – one that a lot of people have deservedly, a lot of nostalgia for. However, its staying power can also largely be attributed to Tsuru’s direction, and the brilliant deployment of NARUTO’s sound-track.
For as liberal as NARUTO’s adaptation could be at times, there is still always going to be difficulty in balancing the tone changes between scenes. It’s a problem common to all anime adaptations. However, this episode in particular has an uncanny number of very distinct and disparate moods. While it’s largely remembered as a “sad” episode, in actuality that component comprises only two short scenes, with a number of uplifting or action-dense scenes between them. Where most adaptations falter is by not paying proper attention to how these tone shifts will affect our perception of the main one.
To that end, it certainly helps that NARUTO is blessed with an array of iconic musical cues, courtesy of Toshio Masuda. Sadness and Sorrow left such an impact on me that I even taught myself how to play it on the piano, though that skill has now long since been lost. In any event, it plays twice in the episode: first with Naruto’s confrontation of Zabuza’s ruthless politics, and later in his final moments beside his dead partner. Both times the track is placed with surgical precision, to where it feels as if Toshiyuki Tsuru carefully modified the storyboard and dialogue to respond to the swells and drops of the music. In particular here – the silence as the music takes over is powerful:
The transition to the action component is as abrupt as it is cool. Prolific legendary animator Tetsuya Takeuchi is responsible for Zabuza catching the kunai in his mouth and charging ahead into the mob. This was his first of many contributions to the NARUTO series and uncoincidentally, almost all of them come under the duo of Toshiyuki Tsuru and Hirofumi Suzuki. It is the latter more so who would have been in closer proximity to Takeuchi’s early career due to their mutual association to the Besame Mucho team lead by director Koji Masunari and screenwriter Hideyuki Kurata. In fact the association to this team is shared between most of the key animators found on this episode, demonstrating the strong creative connection NARUTO has with anime such as Read or Die, Kamichu!, and Welcome to the Space Show. Though, this is perhaps a topic for another day.
To this point, the anime had been relatively faithful to Masashi Kishimoto’s manga. However, that changed with Gato’s death. Zabuza skating on the discarded glasses is a neat minor addition. Moreover, instead of being brutally decapitated (potentially due to broadcast restrictions), Gato is sent over the side of the bridge, which was modeled in CGI, consequently allowing for an angle that would have been much less dynamic had it been done traditionally. While the technology no doubt shows its age in a charming way, it still manages to convey a strong sense of depth. Immediately prior to this, Tsuru laid a mix of fractal noise and gaussian blur over the finishing blow, metaphorically representing the so-called Demon of the Hidden Mist. While the execution is held back slightly by the tighter schedule, Zabuza’s killing blow remains a memorable piece nonetheless.
As previously mentioned, the tone then shifts dramatically between the united villagers appearing to chase off the mob, followed by the subsequent funeral, animated by Tokuyuki Matsutake. As a former classmate of Hirofumi Suzuki from their Studio Deen beginnings, Matsutake was never corrected on NARUTO, and it shows in that his drawings appear straight out of the Tales Of series which he did designs for.
Before arriving to this scene though, a moment is given to let the dust settle, and crucially, the music and snow enter at off-set times, but still within the same relatively long cut. The former signals the change in emotional intensity, while the latter underlines the sense of finality – the snow cannot be any earlier or else it would lose its meaning. This gradual, layered introduction goes a long way in establishing the shift necessary to allow what follows to hit as hard as it does. On the topic of the snow, the digital technique overlaid on the screen wasn’t set-and-forget style, but rather there’s tons of different patterns adjusted depending on the cut. For instance, it falls faster when viewed from the side than from any number of bird’s eye view perspectives, which makes physical sense. Toshiyuki Tsuru would have had some experience with this, encountering digital snow on Neo Ranga #41, #42 and Kaze no Yojimbo #25.
Ultimately, the final goodbye is one of the most tear-wrenching parts of the entire franchise, and it ends up being for a short-lived villain that in all honesty had little business receiving such blessed treatment. It briefly asks existential questions pertaining to the afterlife, but fortunately avoids lingering on the topic, being not well equipped enough to explore it properly. This superficial talking point ends up feeling significantly more tragic, and especially more than its manga counterpart thanks to the direction Toshiyuki Tsuru instilled throughout the episode.
There is a noteworthy omission in the scene that follows at the burial site. The decision to cut Naruto fooling around and being scolded by Sakura is a great one, as there are no shortage of eye-rolling shounen antics throughout the series. Discarding it here gives the anime version a much more mature feeling and avoids diminishing any lingering weight from the previous scene. Instead, the lightheartedness is entirely directed toward the final scene, where our protagonists say their goodbyes and head home.
Overall, despite this being Toshiyuki Tsuru’s weakest episode from a production perspective, it ends up being one of his most memorable. Part of that is due to the climactic context it covers, however, the attention to tempo, music and the iconic dialogue exchanged between Junko Takeuchi and the late Unsho Ishizuka, all combine to create an experience that pulls you into the series, sometimes, as I can personally attest, for life.