We talked at length about One Piece previously, but actually besides some random episodes and a few clips here and there, this movie is my first true foray into watching One Piece rather than reading it. My personal preference is to reading shonen manga, random fact, but with things like franchise movies it can be a good time to make an exception. However, greater than just the fun of films with favorite characters was the pull of director Mamoru Hosada whose work I wanted to explore further after enjoying The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars so. Starting with the sixth of the One Piece movies isn’t odd, especially because it is really unlike any One Piece you’ve seen before.
Back in the age of chaos between the start of the infamous 4kids adaptation and the blessed license rescue by Funimation I would watch One Piece via fan subs as it was the only way to see a decent version of the series. As I was working my way through the series I eventually caught up to the latest TV broadcast episodes so I decided to move onto the movies. Overall I was rarely impressed with any of the One Piece movies. Like every other long running shonen fighting series the theatrical films are almost all the same. They are very high budget filler episodes. They make a decent profit at the box office and spawn a bunch of lucrative merchandise but they are ultimately utterly forgettable in all respects. But every once and a while there is a shonen fighting movie that stand out. The 6th One Piece movie most certainly does not fit into the category of the standard formula.
This movie is of course an original one off but its unique qualities for this franchise making it anything but your standard silly adventure. The gradual build of the strange happenings feels like it is pulling you along and you’re compelled to see what is around the next corner. As the crew starts to realize something is very wrong, the entire show starts to take on a surreal quality. The movie, and the viewing of said movie, is like a dream or rather a dream you slowly come to realize is a nightmare. Even at the end of the film it is hard to say what all has taken place, what the crew will take away from the experience, or if they even remember it all.
We start with what seems to be a normal One Piece filler plot. The Strawhat Crew get an invitation to stay on a pirate resort island with all the amenities. When they arrive it is less than the spectacular vacation getaway they were promised and they are soon forced to play in a series of strange pirate games that are supposedly a test of the crew’s teamwork. Of course there is something more sinister going on in the background. But this is where things begin to really go off in their own direction. The story of Baron Omatsuri and the island go straight to horror without even stopping to pass go or collect 200 berries.
It has become quite the classic setup, the paradise that is really a hell, but each time it is done the director has the ability to make it compelling. Hosoda gets an extra boost by starting with a known cast of characters and then being able to shock you with the wild departure of tone. From the beginning the moments feel off, from the designs to the humor to the music, it is communicated that something is not-quite-right, and each subsequent scene fills you with foreboding. The moments where this really starts to culminate is at the party being given once night falls on the island. And as you start to learn more about the mysterious Baron some parts become chilling.
Everything about this movie shouts that it is a One Piece movie that is not a One Piece movie. The most obvious difference is that it looks utterly unlike any other One Piece film. The character designs are radically different. Luffy is obviously Luffy and Nami is obviously Nami but they look more like superflat fan art interpretations than anything else. Many of the backgrounds are either photo-realistic or elaborate it ways that are very different that the elaborate backgrounds of the manga. It imminently clues you into the fact that the movie will have a very different feel. The tone especially near the end is utterly unlike anything in One Piece. There are pod people zombies and a creepy vibe that takes over the second half of the movie. Baron Omatsuri is dark in a way we have not seen anyone be in One Piece. Oda has done something with a horror theme in Thriller Bark but it is nothing like this. The vibe in the visuals and storytelling is unprecedented in the series and I know it throws many people off.
The difference in character stylization are obvious even from the movie poster. Oda’s already quirky approach to his cast is exaggerated further adding, or perhaps just enhancing, the surreal feeling surrounding the movie. While the character style is part of the film that creates makes this unconventional story come to life, the animation quality of those designs is less than impressive. However, intentional or not, that lack of smooth movement adds to the uneven footing the movie causes you to be standing on throughout its running time.
The real question is “Should I watch this movie?” My answer is yes if for nothing else how much it stands out. Unlike Strong World which goes out of its way to feel like lost arc of the manga this goes out of its way to be its own beast. You have to realize that you cannot watch this film wanting to see the new One Piece movie. You have to go in wanting to see an experimental Mamoru Hosoda film that happens to have One Piece characters. It almost is like a One Piece fan fiction got animated. Everything in the movie has a Mamoru Hosoda feeling. It is a intriguing and personal piece of in his body of work.
Hosoda’s rendition of a One Piece adventure is much more sinister in tone. Where the original series can swing from wildly silly with strange lands inhabited by people with even stranger powers but also punctuate itself with serious drama, the sixth movie is downright ghoulish in its departure. It certainly adds variety but I am not sure how I feel about it in the context of the One Piece universe. Is it sort of the One Piece equivalent to Oshii’s Beautiful Dreamer? The unexpected nature of this movie makes it a worthy see, but I am at a loss to say whether I actually liked it or not.
I will finish up with an intriguing bit of apocrypha. While I cannot find any interviews that verify this I have heard this story several times. Before Mamoru Hosoda caught most people’s attention with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time he was famous for being the original director of Howl’s Moving Castle before he had to leave Studio Ghibli. Apparently this movie is rumored to be based on Hosoda’s time at Ghibli. How much of that is true I cannot say but it is an interesting thought experiment. Is Baron Omatsuri based in part on Hayao Miyazaki especially considering how the man is infamous for being difficult to work with? How much of Baron Omatsuri villainy a commentary on the environment at Studio Ghibli. Are other people in Baron Omatsuri’s crew based on Studio Ghibli employees? Are Brief and the Tea Cup pirates based on people in the industry as well? How much of goes on within the movie Hosoda’s way of working through his experiences work on Howl? It is interesting to watch the movie one time through and just drink it in and then go back and reinterpreting the film in a new light.