Part 4.2 - Combat (Masashi Kishimoto, NARUTO)

And here we go again, an analysis of action scenes based on scenes that contain actual action this time! And it's close to 3AM so my typoes will probably be even worse than usual.

6 images, up to 200+K each.

NARUTO is a shounen fighting manga. The story is constructed around combat and bettering oneself through and for combat. The main characters are student ninjas trying to achieve their goals - revenge, respect, acceptance, love, and so on.

This is, I think, a good time to put in a plug for EVEN A MONKEY CAN DRAW MANGA, which is a manga parody of HOW TO DRAW MANGA-type books, most especially because it talks about the "Shounen Manga Plot Shish Kabob," which is basically:

Start -> Fight -> Fight -> Fight -> Fight -> Fight -> Fight -> Series Cancellation

Looked at superficially, NARUTO seems to fit this, but Kishimoto is a master of character and manages to cram enough characterization and backstory between and during the fights that his world develops an appealing richness. You don't become one of the most popular manga out there by not supplying some sort of complexity.

Anyway, while NARUTO has lots of combat in it, it's rare that you'll get panel after panel after panel of action - the characters stop for a panel or two to think to themswelves or to power up for another attack, or to have a flashback. The camera will sometimes go to onlookers, especially when they need to explain something to the reader, and the camera will also dwell, cinematically again, if you remember from the BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL essays, on close-ups of the characters' feet, fists, faces, or various props and background bits. This keeps you from zooming through the scene, forcing you to slow down and pay attention, as well as controlling the pacing, to speed you up or slow you down according to the rhythm of the fight.

I've found a four-page sequence here from fairly early on in the manga that doesn't have a whole lot of slowing down, just because the BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL pages were nothing *but* the slowing down. This is from the climax of the first serious mission that 12-year-old Naruto and his friends Sasuke and Sakura have gone on, along with their teacher Kakashi. Naruto thinks that Haku, his opponent, has killed Sasuke and is on the edge of losing it (and when you've got a nine-tailed fox spirit trapped within your body, losing it can take on a whole new kind of meaning). Haku's jutsu (ninja power) involves creating mirrors out of ice, within which he can travel and from which he can shoot darts.

Published in SHONEN JUMP magazine, in March 2004, pages 166-167. Read the Japanese style, from right to left. Haku is the longhaired boy wearing the mask, Naruto is the blond boy with the headband and whisker marks.

The firat thing to note, other than the fact that it's so crowded with line and shape and such, is that there's minimal backgrounds other than speedlines. Kishimoto spent some time previously establishing the background, so by the time we get to this part of the scene, he can drop the background, which would make the panels look static, in favor of motion-indicating lines and effects.

Now for my usual panel-by-panel commentary. Panel 1 - Haku leaping downwards, indicated by Haku still and in focus, with vertical speedlines to give the effect of motion. There are some fairly strong visual lines on this page, starting with the panels themselves, which for a V on its side, showing you which way the action is going. Haku is heading straight down, but his head is tilted looking in the direction you should read, and his elbow is pointing the way.

Panel 2 - You can't really tell from this panel alone, without having seen the previous page, but Naruto is crouched down, looking around for Haku. The lines of his headband and the dark streak on his jacket lead you into the next panel.

Panel 3 - A bit confusing. I interpret it as Haku impacting on the concrete right next to Naruto, as he starts to leap away. Speedlines lead to the point of impact and an enourmous sound effect takes up space. The shape of the BOOOOOM plus the way the horizon is tilted in the panel point you down to the middle panel - if the horizon had been tilted the other way, it wouldn't have *quite* the same movement.

Panel 4 - This is where what's going on resolves itself. We see Haku as he lands, and Naruto spinning away from him. The shape of the panel, Naruto's path, and the THUD sound effect all push your eye from left to right. This is a time to point out the use of sound effects as integral to the design. They take up empty space to provide visual interest, add whitespace or dark space as necessary, and help push your eye along, as well as add to the whole environment. The Japanese have sound effects for all sorts of things that American comics don't - you can see this in the 'TUMBLE' that accompanies Naruto. Anyway, the effect lines going along the ground from Haku's impact, Naturo, and the THUD lead you to panel 5.

Panel 5 - Naruto skids to a stop. The smoke/dust effects, speedlines, and sound effect again add movement to the scene. Even though Naruto is skidding backwards, the right side of the panel is smaller than the left, and the lines all get bigger to the left, and Naruto is *facing* left, which pushes your eye to the left and the last panel.

Panel 6 - Haku, blurred to indicate his speed, and a thought burst to let you know what he plans to do.

Next page. Panel 1 is Haku, blurred to indicate his speed. The speedlines and sound effect lead you, naturally, from upper right to lower left, to the next panel.

Panel 2 - The movement in this panel is left to right, so your eye follows it naturally. Naruto is mostly still, with a few speedlines, while Haku is entirely in speedlines to show how Naruto is managing to grab Haku's arm while he's still in super-speed. The movement here leads you into the next panel. This is the biggest panel on the two pages, and is meant to be seen as the most important panel - it indicates the point in the scene where the tide of battle changes, so that Haku is no longer winning, but Naruto is.

Panel 3 - Haku still, with speedlines in the background and his thought of disbelief. His hair and the lines in his sleeve point to the last panel.

Panel 4. Naruto's face. This is the first time on these two pages that we seen his eyes (and the first time ever we've seen his eyes clearly after his fox demon comes out) The whisker marks and the speedlines all lead to his face. The 'GRRRRR' serves to stop your eye movements dead, so you focus on his face and the lines leading to it instead of skimming along to the next page.

I'm going to post the lines of visual flow here, although by now you can probably see them for yourself, because the next two pages are going to do something different and I want to make it nice and clear. :) (Ignore my arrow going off the page in the last panel. I got overenthusiastic there - by all rights that line should end on his face.)

Thre ya go, the path, self-explanatory. Not let's go to the next two pages in the sequence:

Panel 1 - The biggest panel in the spread, and the most important panel. Naruto howling wordlessly as he holds Haku down and his chakra (SOOPA NINJA POWAHZ) boils up around them. There's a bit of background, just to remind you where they are - the rectangles are Haku's ice mirrors. There's flying concrete along with the chakra (the stuff that looks like flames) to indicate just how much strength and destructive power is flying around right now. The speedlines center your gaze on Naruto and Haku, who are greyed out to make them stand out in the sea of white and thin lines.

Panel 2 - Naruto's foot, with a few speedlines to indicate, probably, him getting a good footing from which to launch his next attack as the chakra continues to boil. The black on his sandal focuses your eye on his foot.

Panel 3 - the ice mirros starting to melt under the assault of the chakra.

Panel 4 - close on one mirror cracking. It's greyed to make it more visible and also to add some sort of stabilizing element to the page, which would otherwise look off-balance with a bunch of light areas and confusing lines.

Next page. Panel 1 - Haku realizes that the situation is getting desperate. The speelines and "!" balloon lead you to the next panel, which is him centered by speedlines, serving more as a symbol of his mental movement than physical movement, as he tries and fails to withstand the chakra assault.

Panel 3 - shot from above, which seems like the calm before the storm.

Panel 4 - close shot of Naruto's hand on Haku's arm, showing *why* Haku is saying "Ow" in panel 3.

Panel 5 - close on Haku again, as he grunts in pain.

Panel 6 - we see from Haku's point of view - Naruto suddenly springing to life and pulling back for the punch. The KRAK indicates that he's probably completely broken Haku's arm, and the 'HEH' makes him even more threatening and vicious - he's enjoying this; it's not a desperate fight for him, the way it uwas a few moments ago.

Panel 7 - we've gone to Naruto's point of view now, in the moment before his fist impacts Haku's face. Haku is slightly blurred, to focus Naruto's aim, and Naruto's fist is just a blurry shape because it's moving so fast.

OK, what's unusual about these two pages? There's no really clear visual flow. If you try to draw the red lines on these pages, you pretty much can't on the first page (there's a small bit of right-to-left movement in the bottom three panels, but not much), and the second page has lots of starts and stops. Witness:

Why? This is to slow you down, to stop you and have you contemplate each panel for just a hair longer than you normally would. In a movie, this would be the bit where the camera cuts from still shot to still shot to increase the dramatic tension. It also slows you down after the headlong rush of the two previous panels, to allow time to anticipate the final blow, which will be landed in a bit two-page splash panel on the two pages after these (very cinematically - on those pages you'll see the same blow landing from three different camera views). If you pull back and look at these two pages as a whole, I think the design also slows you down - you'll see that there's a lot of light over on the right side and a distinct vertical line of black and shade over on the left side. I think that's deliberate, and set there to stop you as you read these two pages.

You can also see from these two sets of pages, that none of the panels are square - they all have strong diagonal elements in the panel borders. Kishimoto does this for these scenes where Naruto's lost it - his other pages, combat and non-combat alike, have far more vertical and horizontal lines, and only a few diagonal. The panels symbolize Naruto's mental state. Let me show you the page where the possessed Naruto is about to land a killing blow:

And then the very next page, overleaf from the one above:

Notice the difference in the panels as Naruto regains control?

So overall -- combat isn't a straight thrust/parry thrust/parry thrust/parry type of situation. I had to look a bit to find these four pages in a sequence without anyone stopping for a couple of panels to analyze the situation or think about what they were going to do next, or to see the reactions of the onlookers. Those moments act as a visual and mental respite from relentless combat, and also serve as a chance to slip characterization and plot into the story. They also build dramatic tension by forcing you to rest a bit and prolonging the outcome of the fight. Even in the four-page sequence here, there were a couple of resting moments that allowed you to regroup and figure out what was going on. I think a sequence that was nothing but blows landing without character reactions or thoughts would probably be monotonous and end up dramatically ineffective.

Also - a hint on drawing combat poses. For the most part, when drawing martial arts or fistfights, you want to draw poses near to the beginning and ends of the blows. It's rare that you'll see someone with their fist or foot caught in-between the beginning and end of the movement. This is because full extension and complete contraction on the limbs looks more dramatic than partial extension. There's occasions when you'll draw a partial extension, for one reason or another, but in general: full extension or full contraction. You'll note that in the last page above, when Kishimoto wanted to show Naruto coming to his senses and losing the power behind his killing blow, he showed Naruto with a partial extension - he stopped mid-blow - as opposed to all his other images of the blows where his fist is either pulled back all the way or about to make impact.

Well, that's all I've got for now on this - there's probably a lot more things that I didn't see while going through this, and you guys will probably put it in the comments as you've done so far. Have at it!

I have no idea if there will be more essays like this - if there's anything you want me to attack, let me know.

Index to the Series
Tags: manga_analysis, naruto
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