Thursday, September 25, 2008

Naruto on Hulu

If you're ever on YouTube, Naruto is unavoidable. You've seen him, you just don't know it--Naruto is a spiky-haired blond kid with a headband and an orange jacket who looks like a cuter cross between Bart Simpson and Kenny from South Park. Until today, I had never watched this show, but Hulu just introduced an Anime channel featuring the first season of Naruto. I think it's either the canniest thing an anime distributor has done, or too little, too late.

There is probably a statistic on how much of YouTube content is actually repurposed from movies and TV and if there is, I'm guessing a quarter of that content is anime, and half of that is Naruto. It's most likely posted and viewed by kids between the ages of 10 and 20. The question is whether any of these kids will watch this on Hulu, rather than via torrents or on YouTube, which seems to be perfectly acceptable in this age group, not to mention much older kids. But if anything would draw them to Hulu, it would be this show.

One huge difference between watching the show on Hulu and seeing it on Cartoon Network is that Hulu features the original Japanese show with subtitles, whereas CN shows it dubbed into English. Depending on the kid who is watching it, this could be a plus or a minus. I know one co-worker's teen was inspired to learn Japanese because of watching anime, so the chance to listen to native speakers while reading translation might be a bonus. However, I was trying to read another web page while watching this first episode above, which is nearly impossible when you have to read subtitles, so for those kids who like to multitask, it might be a pain.

For a long time, I've wondered what the appeal of Naruto was so I watched the first episode and was pleasantly surprised that this wasn't as empty as your average episode of Pokemon. If Harry Potter were training to become a ninja instead of a wizard, you'd have Naruto. Like Harry, he's a nascently talented if misunderstood orphan who is going to a special academy to hone his skills. But the parallel is not quite right--rather than becoming popular, he's an outsider. Because of this, he's always pulling pranks to get attention, more like the Weasley Twins.

But Naruto carries a dark secret that is revealed in the first episode--the reason he's been mistreated is because, unknown to him, he's actually the vessel for a dormant demon spirit that destroyed the village many years ago (for any Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans, he's like Buffy's "sister" Dawn). Fortunately, there are still teachers and elders who believe in him and treat him without prejudice. This is most touchingly shown in the first episode when we find out that Naruto's tough teacher, Iruka Umino, lost his own parents as a youth during the demon attack and yet is committed to nuturing Naruto to be better and overcome his heritage.

Having not watched the series beyond the first episode, I wonder if it's devolved into merchandising-laden show that kids tune in for only for action sequences. But I'm a sucker for themes of forgiveness and redemption, which these first episode sets up nicely.

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