The cast of "Naruto," clockwise from top right: instructor Iruka; students Sakura, Naruto and Sasuke; and instructor/mentor Kakashi.

‘Naruto’ wait ends

It's amazing how a series can garner such wide attention among anime fans before a single episode even airs officially in the United States.


Premieres tomorrow at 6 p.m. on Cartoon Network with a pair of episodes: "Enter Naruto Uzumaki" and "My Name is Konohamaru." Episodes repeat at 7 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday.

Such is the case with "Naruto." While it debuts tomorrow night as part of Cartoon Network's "Toonami" lineup, the adventures of young ninja Naruto Uzumaki and his friends and teachers have been published in manga (comic book) form stateside since late 2002. And seemingly even longer before that, fans were dressing up in orange outfits and headbands with swirly leaf symbols at anime conventions nationwide.

For those people who have managed to hold out until now without having seen even one frame of this series, here's the premise: In the village of Konohagakure live some of the world's most stealthy ninjas, protected through the generations by a Hokage, or village champion. To become a full-fledged ninja, one must first pass a test that demonstrates one's skill in the ninja arts.

This is where we meet our hero, Naruto, who aspires to be the next Hokage ... that is, when he's not busy goofing off and slurping down bowls of his favorite ramen. When teacher Iruka asks his class to practice the art of transformation in front of him, most of the other students transform into clones of him; Naruto performs the "sexy jutsu" and -- POOF! -- turns into a naked woman. (With strategically placed puffs of smoke, of course.) He also draws graffiti on a Mount Rushmore-like monument to past Hokage.

This alone would make Naruto the target of Konohagakure's scorn, but there's another reason most people speak of him in hushed whispers. Twelve years ago, a nine-tailed fox demon capable of destroying mountains and spawning tsunamis attacked Japan, and it took the sacrifice of a man referred to as "the fourth Hokage" to stop it. That demon's soul was sealed away in a child's body. And ever so conveniently for the purposes of our discussion, that child turned out to be Naruto.

The first anime episode is relatively faithful to the first chapter of the manga, deviating only slightly to briefly introduce Naruto's future running buddies, Sakura Haruno and Sasuke Uchiha. (The two were introduced in Chapter 3 of the manga.) It's standard-issue stuff for anime, really -- boy goofs off, boy is faced with a challenge by someone who is not as he seems, boy overcomes challenge until the next episode. And there's a whole bunch of slick fighting moves.

Yet there's a certain, "Dragon Ball Z"-esque appeal to the whole enterprise, with its blend of action, wit and suspense. There's something to be said about the staying power of a series that goes over 100 episodes with no end in sight and spawns several movies, as "Naruto" has in Japan.

Cartoon Network has acknowledged that Viz Media, the U.S. licensor of "Naruto," has made some content and dialogue edits to make the show more age-appropriate for its time slot. While most of the changes would be noticeable only to those who have seen the original Japanese footage, it does appear that Iruka's nosebleed from seeing Naruto's "sexy jutsu" has been edited to remove the blood. (A nosebleed is a common way of showing arousal in anime.) The original Japanese opening and ending themes also appear to have been ditched in favor of more generic fare.

But those changes are best left to debate on Internet forums. Everyone else, sit back and enjoy what should be a lengthy, enjoyable ride.

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