Naruto, Live on Stage? Believe It! – This Week in Anime

The world of anime stage plays have often been inaccessible to a wider international audience. Now, for the first time, fans can get a glimpse of the singing, dancing, and air-flipping versions of their favorite characters. Jean-Karlo and Monique check out the first offering of three such shows available for streaming this month: Naruto!

This stage play performance is streaming on Japan 2.5D Stage Play World

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.


“Devil take the claims of non-strategic coloration and bewildering phantasmagoric arts! I, too, doubted in the power of these assassins, but their pathos rings true in this mercenary world. Children that they are, forced to choose between loyalty to their nation or loyalty to their hearts’ path—indeed, many would doubt the earnestness of such a story. But to that, I am most joyous to urge the naysayers: ‘Believe it!’.”

Wow Nicky, I wonder what has Orson Welles so excited he came back from the dead to give it the nod…

Well obviously he can’t help but be ecstatic enough to pop out of the ground in order to see an orange jumpsuit LIVE (sorta). As part of the first Japan 2.5D Stage Play World: Anime, Manga & Game Theater Online Festival 2021 we’re presenting to you a special column about this Live Spectacle “NARUTO performance.

Back in the ’00s when Bleach was one of the Big Three, I remember a lot of my fellow anime fans being especially big fans of the Bleach stage shows. I myself couldn’t normally be bothered (so sue me, I wasn’t much of a Bleach guy), but I was always curious at how the effects would be handled. Live Spectacle “NARUTO was one heck of a treat in that regard!
We’ve covered live-action movie adaptions and such before but never a live performance! Anime fans who keep up with any sort of PR circus are certain to see a lot of advertisement online for stage adaptions of their favorite series, and some of them are even quite notable. It’s also another form of tie-in that we rarely ever get to see brought to the English-speaking market in an official capacity. Ignoring the big obvious hurdle of “language barrier” when trying to see one in person on top of travel fees, most fans have to rely on importing an official recording and adding on a fansub track to be able to have this kind of experience.

As for my own experience, I hadn’t been able to watch this, but I did see some promotional cast images back when it first launched in 2015! And I was enamored by how detailed the costuming was.

The costumes are very creative and manage to bring the outlandish outfits of early Naruto to life without making them look too goofy or strange. They must have been hell to wear while jumping and dancing around. Those poor actors constantly look like they’re sweating up a storm in closeups.

While above we have Kōdai Matsuoka as the Leaf Village’s biggest wannabe Hokage, here’s Ryūji Satō lookin’ sweet as Sasuke from the 2016 promo as a closer example of what I mean. They’re interesting interpretations, I’ve always considered Naruto fashion to be very “modern” and “sporty” in a sense, but this interprets Sasuke’s traditional Hot Topic look into arguable something more practical. Though, it still looks tough to move around in!

Yūki Kimisawa’s Kakashi deserves special credit. Kakashi was always extremely cool, which of course means he’d be hard to bring to life without looking like a total doofus. Worry not, Best Boy™ was done justice!

Also, Asahi Uchida and Miho Imamura really stole my heart as Zabuza and Haku. This one little bit here, a throwaway appearance of theirs in the back of a stage during a dramatic speech, really tugged at my heartstrings. Zabuza’s face is still really weird with his lack of eyebrows, though, and what I’m sure is supposed to be camo paint on his arms just looks like he’s missed a few bath days.

We’ll get to that stuff! The cast is very big and this adaptation actually covers a lot, spanning the original manga’s 27 volumes, or basically the entirety of the story up to Naruto Shippūden in only two and a half hours! Normally, I don’t really like how many film or stage adaptions just cram the story in order to fit it into a few hours, but like a true ninja, the screenplay by director Akiko Kodama delivers a decisive blow to the heart with great swiftness and mastery of the stage.

Part of it is cutting out the absolutely useless parts of the story. In other words, the Genin Tournament and Tenten.
We do miss out on Rock Lee dropping the weights (how dare you), but who actually likes Neji or Tenten?

Currently sobbing behind my decades-old Tenten collection of fanart. Even Kishimoto thinks she has the best design!

Well, this is awkward…

I don’t really like to think of all of those things as useless but the live show really focuses on the romance brotherhood between Naruto and Sasuke really well. It excels at delivering on those heartrending “sad Naruto flute moments” in a way that harks back to the original. It’s super truncated but that works well for those already familiar with the story. I do think anyone can enjoy the kind of expressiveness brought in by the music, lighting, and the actors.

For those who were too young to see Boruto’s Dad in action: Naruto tells the story of a young man who had a powerful nine-tailed fox sealed inside of him as a baby. Sealing the ninetails cost the Village Hidden in the Leaves a lot of lives, and so Naruto grew ostracized. He aspires to be a great ninja and to become Hokage, the leader of the village.

A lot of other things happen, but the main crux of things is that Sasuke Uchiha is another ninja that Naruto is teamed up with. Sasuke is out for revenge upon his older brother, Itachi, who slew Sasuke’s entire clan. Sasuke’s desire for revenge leads to him turning his back on the Village Hidden in the Leaves and allying himself with Orochimaru, an evil ninja who seeks a way to cheat death, potentially with Sasuke’s own body. The better part is him doing everything he can to open the door for Sasuke to come back, even when he’s working with war criminals.

How do you bring intense shōnen fighting action to the stage? Well, really good choreography to start! I was surprised how physical the actors were willing to get, on top of looking the part and saying their lines. The stage also employs some unique abstractions, like trampolines, LEDs, and a lot of unique use of projectors! Even though I feel like I know the story of Naruto like the back of my hand after all this time, I had a lot of fun seeing how they were interpreted in this way.

I was curious how they’d adapt Naruto’s Shadow Clone Jutsu to the stage, but a choreographed LED dance number was not what I expected! It definitely hit the spot. I was crushed to find out they only did it once, especially with how iconic Shadow Clone is in the series. And it was one of the first things they did!

Things like the choreographed trampoline segments or the forced perspective changes for “walking up trees” were also exciting and inspired. A lot of creativity went into making sure the iconic abilities all looked great.
They also never really mention the Rasengan or anything even though that’s his OTHER iconic move, but it moves so fast I didn’t even notice until I thought about it. It doesn’t need all of those things to “work” as a story, it’s just focused on being fun and entertaining to watch as it pulls out more tricks from its bag of jutsu.

The Blacklight Ninetails! That was definitely a showstopper for me. Again, it’s a tragedy that this was something they only did the one time, but everything about that black-lit fox head being puppeteered around by a stagehand wearing all black was just magical to me.

I think my personal favorite trick might be making the character Chōji, who can expand into the size of a boulder, an actual huge air-filled ball that could be tossed around by the audience. Even though we don’t have the Chūnin exams, it was nice to see some of the main cast appear in a few scenes or the Sasuke retrieval portion at the end.

They’re good crowd-pleasers!

Yes! The audience participation bits were the best! I always got so excited whenever someone ran out into the audience. You almost expect some lucky kid to become a temporary ninja onstage and get his hair tousled by Kakashi.

I think you mean “Naruto run into the audience”, stuff like Naruto and Rock Lee having a race between the seats after a ninja backup dance-filled morning routine is also really charming. The whole thing is just full of energy.

Their morning routines were especially fun—the stagehands clearly rose to the challenge of having to deal with such grandiose personalities.

Even some of the stranger bits got a laugh out of me. Like there’s a part where the notably perverted mentor Jiraiya shows up and comically nosebleeds via breathing into a prop like a party blower. Yoshiaki Umegaki is a pretty legendary actor. He doesn’t teach the Rasengan but he does a pretty good Kabuki pose!

Some anime fans might recognize his voice from Satoshi Kon‘s Tokyo Godfathers as he plays Hana in the original Japanese audio.

Jiraiya teaching Naruto to summon frogs was another one of the excised bits. There was a nifty projection of a frog, but my heart longed to see a big frog puppet slapping Naruto upside the head.

Speaking of imposing. Hiro Yūmi also does a lovely and terrifying Orochimaru. And she’s totally got a set of pipes to prove it! It’s pretty great how sinister she is as this snake-themed villain. That level of ham reminded me a lot of tokusatsu, but she still maintained an aura of fear and grace of something deadly.

Razzle dazzle ’em with that snakeskin and glittery rope!

Playing a villain means going big or going home. Hiro was feeling herself as Orochimaru, and she definitely left an impact. We didn’t get to see much martial arts choreography from her, but she belted her heart out with some harmonics the first time Orochimaru appeared. Way to let the folks know just who walked in!

It was also kinda weird just seeing her sing her way in right after the Zabuza arc without the framing of the Chūnin exam, but it was a great shock before cutting to intermission. (Note: I actually watched my performance “Live” so I had to actually wait, but those who buy tickets can also view a VOD for up to 24 hours after. )

Hers is also basically the only vocal performance in the whole show. I expected song and dance, but besides ninja choreography there’s a surprising dearth of singing.

Yeah, I expected more singing from NART: The Musical, but the actual music they use still rocks and it makes up for it by having lots of good moves that even most musicals don’t. Also, Inner Sakura is there.

Yeah, remember when that was Sakura’s shtick? Considering the twists and turns that Naruto eventually runs through, it was nostalgic to see the gang where it all started. Naruto crushing on Sakura while Hinata hangs in the background, Sakura’s inner monologue… all we needed was the ever looming presence of that swing.

The Sad Flute intensifies. But since we covered lots of “cool” moments how about any moving ones? The stuff with Zabuza and Haku comes to mind, but both that and Sasuke’s backstory have this kind of neat shadow play in place of proper flashbacks using projection.

I imagine these would make Ikuhara very happy indeed. It’s a very effective and economical way to truncate all of that extra character information and not get bogged down in details. A similar feat was done with Gaara, showcasing his backstory as an animation on the wall while he reacted to his bitter memories. Also, some nifty special effects were used to recreate Gaara’s sand armor transformation.

Gaara’s story using images from the manga but moving in a more slow and sand-like way, interspersed with Naruto’s own tragedy really got me! Also, good job recreating Gaara’s monstrous form.

I also particularly liked Sasuke’s aerial silk dance to represent the trance-like state of his trauma and his brother’s Mangekyō Sharingan. Especially, since again, most of the actors are doing their own stunts!

I don’t know much about aerialism, but I know it’s something people put a lot of time into practicing. For a stage show about ninja, Naruto On Ice really did a great job of giving us actors showing off all kinds of feats of grace and agility. Naruto and Kabuto’s trampoline fight is another great example (not to mention something that looks like it was a lot of fun to practice).

It’s clear that the crew spared no expense in terms of the time and effort that went into showing everything. At first I thought the price of the ticket at US$15 was a little expensive for just streaming, but people normally pay way more than that to see performances at this level in person!

However, the film festival is only for this month, and by the time this article is out, Live Spectacle “NARUTO will only be available to purchase for a few more days. Not everyone will be able to see it but I’m glad we we’re privileged enough to be able to document this kind of craft in whatever way possible.

Naruto was a thing I enjoyed reading whenever my issues of Shonen Jump came in the mail, but it wasn’t exactly my favorite shōnen manga when I was younger. Regardless, I do have fond nostalgia for those early days of the series and that sad song telling you to 🎶 CULTIVATE YOUR HUNGER BEFORE YOU IDEALIZE 🎶. This musical may miss out on a lot of the little bits that people really love about Naruto, like (again) Rock Lee dropping his weights or Naruto’s impassioned speech to Neji about how people’s fates aren’t set in stone. But it hits the high notes of the arcs it does cover. Naruto learning the ruthlessness of the mercenary life through Zabuza and Haku, Sakura’s anguish over Sasuke’s wellbeing, Sasuke’s inner turmoil in his attempts at avenging his clan, the remaining Chunin of the village rallying to Naruto’s defense… scenes like this are what hooked people into Naruto way back when, and this stage show did a lot in reminding me of all that.

I’ve discussed before some of my many issues with Naruto but but you better “Believe It!” that those key moments of story are still capable of stripping me down just to my base emotions in a way I can’t articulate without becoming a mess. The play totally understands that and twirls them into a performance that feels larger than life. The biggest solace is knowing that this kind of adaption wasn’t just a cheap grab for cash. We want the people who adapt the stories we love to care just as much about the property as the fans do.

I didn’t know what to expect out of Live Spectacle “NARUTO, but I can say I walked way plainly impressed. I do hope people manage to find a way to watch this, especially Naruto fans. There’s a lot of love in this production.

And! They’re apparently streaming a stage show for My Hero Academia and a Sailor Moon musical! Yes, please!

I’m quite excited for the Sailor Moon one myself. Primarily, I hope this opens a way to having more live performances available. Those who love Naruto at its core and can afford it should definitely try to catch this while it’s still around. I don’t know if it’ll ever be available to us in this capacity again but I guarantee that it’ll be a fun and unique experience even by yourself at home.

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