When Bleach ended its TV run in March 2012, I was sad. When I found out that a cute chibi spin-off of Naruto was replacing it, I was annoyed and confused. Now several years later, that previously mentioned spin-off has made its way to DVD in the UK via Manga Entertainment. Naruto Spin-off! Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals is basically those silly light-hearted omake segments that are normally at the end of TV anime, stretched to a whole series of 51 episodes, the first 26 of which can be found here.
The main focus of the episodes, as you’d imagine, is lovable ninjitsu-less Rock Lee, plus his close associates Neji, Tenten and master Guy, with plenty of cameos and stories based around other members of the large cast, from Naruto himself to villains like Orochimaru. Each episode is two mini-stories, and so I can’t really give an overview of the series beyond that. There are obvious gags for the age group here, failed love gestures, sneaking a peak at girls in the communal baths, toilet humour and slapstick, plus some pretty standard storylines, like the old body swap hijinks, mishearing that you’re going to die soon and doing silly things before finding out you’re fine, beach-based episode, evil impersonator, school and homework-based worries and many more.
While a lot of the humour is basic, there are a few gags aimed at Naruto fans only, characters acting out of character for the hell of it, or little asides to the camera. While you could watch the show without prior knowledge of the main Naruto universe, it certainly helps. I was informed that the English dub had been altered in order to make the comedy more approachable, which makes sense, similar shows have done so previously. I watched two episodes in English but with the Japanese subtitle track on, and really it seems to amount to a few pop culture references (which given this is a light-hearted spin-off, I’ll ignore that fact that they’re “breaking the fourth wall” and all that) and a few changing of food or folklore. It’s fine, and actually can be a bit funnier, especially as some English voice actors have got good comic timing, specifically Vic Mignogna’s Orochimaru (bonus points for having him and Kabuto use the old “we’re blasting off again!” Team Rocket line from Pokemon!)
The soundtrack is all very cartoony and light-hearted, as you’d imagine, and the opening (“”Give Lee Give Lee Rock Lee” by Animetal USA) is cheerful and catchy, while the two endings for this set (“Twinkle Twinkle” by Secret and “Go! Go! Here We Go! Rock Lee” by Shiritsu Ebisu Chugaku) are also obnoxiously catchy. The extras here are just the old trailers and clean opening and endings.
So, Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals… this is a hard one to rate. Firstly it’s not as bad as I remembered, maybe I was just bitter over Bleach’s cancellation, but it’s still not great. Maybe in small doses, like its old weekly slot, it might be easier to take, but watching multiple episodes in a row makes the often immature jokes start to grate. I don’t want to rag on the show for being aimed at an audience younger than me, though, which is what makes this difficult to judge.
I’d say if you’re a Naruto completionist, then get it, give it a watch through (over a long period of time) and then put it on your shelf. If you’re a younger fan of the show, but don’t have to buy everything, get it cheap and you’ll get a laugh out of it or ignore it completely without worry. I do have to say though that it’s currently retailing at over £30 everywhere, so I’d definitely wait for a price drop, no matter which category you fit in, at the end of the day it’s just a collection of comedy shorts. Anyone else, especially those who have no interest in Naruto, avoid it. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but seriously, I grew tired of it very quickly and got the in-jokes; I can only imagine what the show would be like when you don’t even have that!