Naruto Spin Off! Rock Lee & His Ninja Pals originally aired in Japan from 2012 to 2013, totalling 51 episodes. This DVD-only release is brought to the UK by Manga Entertainment, with this first collection containing the first 23 episodes of the series. Pierrot, the studio behind the Naruto series proper, animated the Rock Lee spin-off series, and they did an excellent job. This series has seen a release in Australia thus far, but the US has it as a streaming-only title as of now.
“Welcome to the Hidden Leaf Village. The village where Uzumaki Naruto, star of the TV show ‘Naruto’ makes his home. Every day, countless powerful ninjas carry out missions and train to hone their skills. Our main character is one of these powerful ninjas…but it’s not Naruto! It’s the ninja who can’t use ninjutsu, Rock Lee!” — Manga Entertainment
Rock Lee and His Ninja Pals is a comedy-focused spin-off of the Naruto anime. Naruto’s name may be in the title to drawn in the fans, but in this anime, Rock Lee is the star, and he fills the role perfectly. Rock Lee’s inability to use ninjutsu is excellently suited to comedy and provides for more than its fair share of the gags within. Tenten serves as the straight man more often than not, despite actively complaining about being forced to undertake such a role. Neji’s character is somewhat of a joke in this anime, frequently cross-dressing as Rock Lee’s skits demand. On top of all of that, almost the entire anime is super-deformed, with only the occasional instance of a character being shown as per the Naruto design.
An episode of Rock Lee and His Ninja Pals is split into two segments, all of them focusing on slice-of-life comedy in the Hidden Leaf Village. The anime makes sure to utilise cast members perfectly to get some laughs from the viewer — Orichimaru trying to build a secret penthouse base within the giant rock head of a former Hokage? Check. It’s great to see all of the characters from Naruto in such amusing situations, and I can happily say that both dub and sub are really enjoyable for this particular anime. This show really isn’t very deep, but that’s perfect if you just want a series of non-stop laughs. After rewatching the 26 episodes included for this review, I’m eagerly anticipating part two later this year.
Despite being produced in HD, and available as such on Crunchyroll, this release is DVD-only, but the quality of the release is brilliant and, subtitles aside, you’re unlikely to be too inconvenienced by the lack of a Blu-ray release. Authored by Madman, as there is no US physical release available, TV broadcast masters are utilised, but this isn’t even really a problem – Japanese karaoke during the credits and sponsor cards are perfectly acceptable in an anime release. The opening and ending songs are incredibly catchy, and you’ll be attempting to sing along after a few episodes.
As can be seen in the screencap above, the subtitle track includes sign translations, but the actual subtitles themselves utilise a font that, while not too difficult to read, is certainly not the most aesthetically pleasing, especially with that excessive amount of shadowing. I opted to watch the dub rather than rewatch the sub for this review —sadly, there is no signs subtitle track to accompany the dub. However, unlike with the Naruto series itself, the dub really works for Rock Lee and His Ninja Pals – really bad voices for characters such as Naruto only enhance the comedy. On top of this, rather than just accurately conveying the meaning of the Japanese track, it actually goes out of its way to ensure the humour works well in English and flows relatively naturally even with that extra layer of dub humour crafted within it.
The only extras available in this release are the textless opening and ending, as is common with anime releases, and two trailers for other entries in the Naruto series. Unfortunately, while the episodes of Rock Lee are of a high quality, the trailers look awful and low quality. I’d argue that the episode of the anime promoting the sixth movie serves as a better trailer than either of the two trailers included.
Rock Lee and His Ninja Pals is an incredibly enjoyable spin-off of the Naruto series; notably, it is much better than the actual Naruto anime — although the entirety of the series is filler, it never ceases to make you laugh with how random it can be at times. The dub actually works here as well, a 40-year old female sounding Naruto in a gag anime sort of makes sense. Even if you don't know Naruto, give Rock Lee a try, there's plenty to enjoy even if you don't know the universe.