Based on it current reception, it would seem as if ‘Naruto: The Stone of Gelel’ were just a repeat performance of ‘Ninja Clash in the Land of Snow’ – attracting broadly reviews and opinions – but I don’t actually think that’s a fair account of the series second film.
Taking place some time ahead of the first, and where UK television viewers are at the moment, ‘The Stone of Gelel’ opens with Gaara and Kankuro now allies of the Leaf Village, fighting off an invasion of the Land of Wind from a foreign army. Warriors in huge sets of armour fight local ninja on the beach with their maces (seeming reminiscent of medieval soldiers rather than ninja, which some argue detracts from the film), but they retreat when it becomes apparent how strong Gaara is. When several ninja follow them into the night by boat, however, only the sound of their demise escapes the darkness, until Gaara calls for flares to be fired, which reveal several warships that fire on the beach, in an impressive scene which only lasts a few minutes.
It’s all standard-fare for this kind of film: Gaara and Kankuro’s presence itself might just be fanservice, the enemy is revealed early on, is fairly imperial in nature, and seems to be an appropriate threat (the scene going unresolved, and the fate of these characters then being unknown). The fact that it implies the kind of scene you’d see in things like Bleach’s exciting but non-canonical opening song video fights doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t accomplished. Being set ahead of where UK audiences currently are at the moment also has the effect of allowing the fight scenes to be more rapid, with most resembling those in Dragonball films more than anything else, but in general, I don’t think it’s so contrived as to constantly suggest other films or generic structures, unlike the previous film.
Shikimaru takes the place of the absent and departed Sasuke, effectively bolstering the tripartite structure as a replacement to keep a makeshift Team 7 intact. Following them from after the scene on the beach, we find our heroes chasing after a ferret they’ve been assigned to capture and return (OK, you might think that’s contrived, but it’s not unbearable). It isn’t long after capturing the ferret that they’re confronted with one of the knights from the intro, accompanying a young soldier in more ornate armour, called Temujin, who then proceeds to fight them for no apparent reason. Despite his incredible strength, however, he only manages to draw with Naruto, when the power of his sword is put into contest with Naruto’s rasengan, destroying the ground beneath them, and causing their separation from Sakura and Shikimaru.
Recovering in the same Caravan of travelling nomads, Naruto and the highly reserved warrior form a tenuous friendship – returning to the base of Master Haido, Temujin’s leader, who explains his vision of utopia. When it becomes apparent to Naruto that Temujin is among a group of people who attacked the Wind Village (after meeting up with Kankuro), and that their utopia is being achieved through the destruction of anyone who opposes it, however, the fights suddenly begin, with a series of one on one duels between these extremely powerful foes, who use and seek out Gelel as a source of power, and the ninja of the Hidden Sand and Leaf Villages (no, the Village Hidden in the Wind doesn’t send anyone to help, and functions purely as a locale).
What Gelel is and how it’s used is explained during the film, but essentially it’s just another source of power for people without chakra, and it doesn’t need any greater justification than that, just like Master Haido’s boats and complex bases. The same can be said of the story as a whole, even though its not without appeal. Even though the story, the stones of Gelel and the new civilisations suddenly and perhaps diminishingly added to the otherwise intricate but coherent world are ad hoc, this film is generally much better than the previous one, with far more satisfying action scenes and employment of its cast. Temujin is also noteworthy, and even though the rest of the villains are just evil stock-characters, they still manage to fill their roles nonetheless.
The visuals of the film are mostly great; the characters can seem a little plastic or fluid at times (their bodies seeming to have no clearly defined outline, as their shape changes again and again), but this lends itself well to otherwise impossible fight scenes, and they usually do justice to the iconic character designs. The backgrounds are particularly good as well, often too good, to the effect of making the characters look even more plastic (in the first half at least, in the second half the reverse tends to be the case, when fairly basic CGI is used). Overall, however, the visuals aren’t going to be the source of viewers’ complaints here.
The story is clichéd, inescapably traditional in its internal structures, many things in the film aren’t reasonably justified within or outside of the fiction (basically its just a film for the sake of it, and one for the fans), and it does a disservice to the otherwise well-realised world of the fiction. Despite this however, criticism or dissatisfaction didn’t seem to be naturally on the surface of my thoughts like it did with the previous film and OVA. The Stone of Gelel is a far more satisfying action film than its predecessor, and since it only ever attempted to be an action film, I wouldn’t have many reservations in recommending it to fans of the series.
Whether they’re a good fit or not, I also found myself liking the Temujin and the civilisation he came from, so it might not be wasted on every viewer. Since they seem to be the real source of contention among most critics – forming the backbone of the story and providing the second half of the cast – I think that’s the most important thing. It also doesn’t hurt that the film isn’t devoid of emotion, in the same way its predecessor was, and for those reasons, I find it worthy of note.
An enjoyable bit of self-contained fanservice, with its own feel and aesthetic, but one that – in these contrary poles – manages both to affirm and depart from the series as a whole, creating something that isn’t essential, but that I wouldn’t like to think would be lost on fans.