Happy Birthday, Shikamaru
If you’ve ended up watching enough Naruto, you’ll begin to pick up on the overall style of the show. The way the characters look, how they animate, the specific colors used throughout the series, there’s a certain way that Naruto and Naruto Shippuden look through their combined first 300 episodes. On rare occasions, that style switches to help showcase a big fight, such as early on against Zabuza and Haku, Rock Lee vs. Gaara, and in Shippuden when the Leaf takes on Hidan and Kakuzu, Sasuke vs. Deidara, and others further in the series. This fluid animation style alters how the characters look and move, while also using more of a muted color scheme. Most notably, this is usually thanks in part to episodes that Hirofumi Suzuki worked on as the animation director.
One episode that Suzuki worked on that sticks out by subverting the regular formula of Naruto is Episode 82 of Shippuden, "Team Ten." It’s not an episode that features any big fights, nor are there really any big conflicts between characters here. Instead, we see the inner turmoil that Shikamaru is facing following the death of Asuma. He’s skipping out on his funeral and just seems lost after the previous mission went horribly wrong. So, instead of creating another episode of Shippuden that is the same formula as everything else, Suzuki and the rest of the production staff decided to go in a different direction — one that is more likely to be seen on the big screen, rather than in television.
Given the highly emotional aspects of where the story is, the episode does a lot to make you feel uncomfortable — to get you into the same headspace as Shikamaru — and at times almost makes the viewer seem like a voyeur. We’re essentially going through the same process as Shikamaru as we see him tell Kurenai about Asuma’s death, relay that to people in town, figure out his own emotions about what happened, and then come back from the brink and find a way to stand tall again.
In order to truly get into Shikamaru’s mindset for this episode, the pacing slows to a halt. Everything is laborious and with a certain purpose to it. This is the kind of pacing and style you’d most likely see from a Naruto film or a more serious drama series rather than what you’d expect from a shonen series. It would be hard to pull off what this episode wants to force the viewer to witness if it was the same package that every other episode of Naruto Shippuden is. In order to pull viewers in and let them immediately know that something is wrong, you’ve got to disrupt their normalcy and their perception of what the series is.
Throughout the episode, if you’re watching for the first time or just trying to pay attention to figure out what’s different, you’ll notice a few things. Most notable to me was the lack of camera movement. Shonen series and anything with action will rely on camera movement to make episodes have a fast pace to them. Instead, here we get only four shots that feature any sort of movement. Each one is incredibly slight as well. They’re not quick but are slow and subtle to where you can easily miss them. In fact, the first bit of camera movement doesn’t occur until nearly halfway through the episode, which seems striking for this series. Instead, we get a lot of cuts and shots that linger long enough that it begins to feel uncomfortable.
One of the more striking shots in this episode is when Shikamaru and his father, Shikaku, play shogi together. There are cuts between the two as they begin to play, but then the camera goes to a side angle of the two playing and going back and forth with their moves. You’d think that eventually there would be cuts to each character as they place their moves and with Shikaku trying to tell Shikamaru why he shouldn’t beat himself up over what happened. Instead, the shot lingers. For two whole minutes. That’s not something that occurs in most series that are relegated to 24 minutes of air time. After all, camera cuts help keep the pace up and give viewers something new to look at. Yet, it fits the overall tone and style of this episode. You start to see Shikamaru’s emotions begin to get the better of him from this shot alone, and it’s able to tell that story in a better way than it would have if it was just the camera cutting between Shikamaru and Shikaku.
That scene, and those two minutes spent looking at their shogi game, leads up to Shikamaru finally being able to break down. This brings up another strange aspect of this episode: This scene is the first time we hear any music in the episode and again, we’re nearly halfway through. Before, you’d hear a lot of natural sounds such as insects humming or the chatter of people in the streets as Shikamaru wanders through the town. Even with the addition of music for this brief instant, it’s again subtle and not overpowering. It’s another aspect of something that you could easily gloss over as it comes and goes very quickly. That might seem as if it doesn’t really fit the emotional nature of this scene given that Shikamaru begins to cry and wail in this room they were playing in, but it absolutely fits because the music is just giving the viewer the slight push to tell them this is emotional. That doesn’t need to overpower the scene when you’ve got a character letting out deep emotional pain at the same time.
Perhaps this is why Suzuki and the rest of the production staff were tapped for this episode. Their style of animation that has worked so well for some of the biggest fights in the series works its magic for truly showing the emotional pain a character is going through. You’re able to see the pain and trauma rise up through Shikamaru’s face and then break through the levy as he’s finally able to let out all of his emotions and cry. His face distorts in realistic ways that wouldn’t have been the same if it was in the traditional animation or style. It’s the same kind of realistic expression that you would also have if you were in his situation, which of course is what the episode is trying to make you do. Become emotional and cry alongside Shikamaru.
One of the biggest takeaways I had from this episode is how much Suzuki and the team’s style reminded me of Naoko Yamada’s way of directing. Yamada’s work on K-ON and specifically Liz and the Blue Bird are very similar to what we see in this episode. There’s a lot of lingering shots, little camera movement, and relying more on cuts to showcase what’s happening — and a soundtrack that isn’t overemphasizing what’s happening. You truly get to see what these characters go through, which is an aspect of directing that Yamada accentuates as she’s said she likes to “watch people” and “get into the minds of the characters.” Those are definitely part of what makes this episode of Naruto Shippuden work so well. You’re truly able to dive into Shikamaru and see what he’s going through, how he’s able to figure out what to do next, and then act upon it.
The rest of the episode sees how Shikamaru is able to find an answer that gives him the drive to go out and finish the original mission and avenge Asuma. The pacing is still slow and methodical, but by the time we reach the end and Team Ten announces their plans to head out on their next mission while Tsunade tries to stop them, we begin to move back into the regular style of Shippuden as the music begins to take hold in a way you’d normally expect. In a way, this episode is able to pump the brakes on the whole pacing of the show, but then softly begins to accelerate by the end that lets you ease back into what you’d expect from the series.
There’s truly no way you could do this kind of episode for a series as big as Naruto every week. Obviously, it’d take too long to maintain this kind of quality for 500 episodes, so you’d have an episode a month at best, but also the charm of these subversions to the series would wear off rather quickly. Instead, you’d have fast-paced, action-packed episodes that would serve as that. “Team Ten” is a special episode and one that rewards people for sticking with the series as it lets you truly see everything from a different perspective, from pacing, style, character development, to storytelling. It’s hard to argue that this isn’t one of the absolute best parts of the series and should be recognized in the same way that the best fights of the series are.
What are some of your favorite episodes that seem to try and shake up the status quo of Naruto? Let us know down in the comments below!
Jared Clemons is a writer and podcaster for Seasonal Anime Checkup where he can be found always wanting to talk about Love Live! Sunshine!! or whatever else he's into at the moment. He can be found on Twitter @ragbag.
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