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Andrew Osmond looks for hidden messages in the One Piece movies

Monday sees the release of the second set of One Piece movies which brought Luffy and his Straw Hats to Japanese cinemas. There’s Dead End Adventure, in which the rogues enter a pirate ship race, and The Cursed Holy Sword, where Zoro gets involved in a plan to revive the title weapon. But it’s the last of the three films, called Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island, which gets most fan attention. Why? Because it was directed by Mamoru Hosoda.

Yes, that Hosoda, director of The Girl who Leapt through Time, Summer Wars and The Wolf Children. Omatsuri, though, was made way earlier, back when Hosoda was mostly known by fans of Digimon pics like Our War Game (the prototype for Summer Wars). Anime franchise features, spun off from massively popular, long-running properties like One Piece, have long been a nursery for future auteurs. Hayao Miyazaki developed his voice on Lupin; Mamoru Oshii worked on the comedy Urusei Yatsura; and Keiichi Hara wrangled the bratty toddler Crayon Shin-chan before spreading his wings on Colorful.

Baron Omatsuri starts with Luffy’s crew being enticed to an island (also called Omatsuri). It advertises itself as a resort paradise of fun and frolics for the best pirates. The crew quickly reaches a city-cum-theme park, which rivals the metropolis in Blue Exorcist for scale, and are greeted by the Baron himself. He rides in an elephant-borne pagoda and looks like the archetypal evil Vizier from an Arabian Nights yarn. He invites Luffy to a challenge of strength, which the lad of course accepts. Things quickly get manic, with kaiju-sized fish and frantic gondola races (they’re a visual highlight, set in what looks like a fantastically huge Venice). It seems like a normal day’s outing for Luffy and his friends.

But, minimising spoilers, we can say that after the funny, goofy stuff – and there’s plenty of that – the film grows strangely dark, and then really dark in the last act. We don’t mean dark in the normal Shonen Jump way. We expect Luffy to be challenged, tested, even defeated for a while. But in this film he ends up being tortured, both physically and mentally, driven towards madness and despair. It wouldn’t seem so odd at the end of an epic TV story-arc, where you expect the stakes to rise and rise toward the final battle. But in a holiday film spinoff? It’s almost as if the person behind the picture was working through his own issues…

… And that’s the basis for a fan myth about the film. By ‘myth,’ we’re not saying it’s wrong, but it’s almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. Here’s what we know… A couple of years before Baron Omatsuri, Hosoda was invited to the world-famous Studio Ghibli (this was at Ghibli’s peak, just after its all-time hit Spirited Away). Hosoda was hired to direct Howl’s Moving Castle, adapted from the fantasy novel by Britain’s Diana Wynne Jones, which had been picked by Miyazaki as a property for the studio. For Hosoda, it was an incredible honour, given that he’d never worked at Ghibli before.  The only ‘outsider’ who’d previously been allowed to direct a Ghibli film was Tomomi Mochizuki (Here is Greenwood), who helmed the feature Ocean Waves – and that was for TV.

Hosoda set to work on Howl’s Moving Castle… and what exactly happened then is a mystery. One story goes that Hosoda had a clash with a famous Ghibli artist (and no, we don’t mean Miyazaki). There’s also what seems to be a transcript of a French-language interview with Hosoda here, parts of which are unofficially translated here. This also suggests he had creative differences with the studio. Intriguingly, a few of Hosoda’s storyboards for his version of Howl went online years later, and can be seen here. The appearance of a normal-looking car in the first frame suggests his Howl might have been set in a world like our own.

But whatever happened at Ghibli, we know the final outcome. Hosoda’s version was spiked, and Hosoda left the studio. Miyazaki took the vacated director’s chair to make his own Howl’s Moving Castle, which was released in 2004.

It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened at Ghibli. Back in the 1980s, Ghibli’s film of Kiki’s Delivery Service had been developed by a young animation screenwriter. However, according to Kiki’s Art of book, “Miyazaki wasn’t happy with the (Kiki) draft… The approach was interesting but it departed too much from Miyazaki’s approach. He found the screenwriter’s approach too cold. This screenplay was subsequently shelved.” In fairness, you can find similar stories throughout filmmaking, especially with animated films. (A contentious recent case was Pixar’s Brave.)

It’s tempting to say that a young professional like Hosoda, brought to one of Japan’s top studios and then let go, should just suck it up and move on – as Hosoda did, joining Madhouse and making some of the best anime of recent years. But, surely, the Ghibli experience must have hurt. In the period just after Hosoda left Howl, it must have been devastatingly disappointing, to a man in an industry where artistic achievement counts for more than pay cheques. And so the story has risen: that Omatsuri is Hosoda’s venting of his demons, that Luffy’s howls of despair are Hosoda’s own.

It’s also been suggested that the Baron’s island, with its seductive advertising and impossible trials, is really a bitter parody of Ghibli. If that sounds far-fetched, remember that Spirited Away’s crazy bathhouse, with its scary people and confusing rules, was partly a metaphor for Ghibli, according to Miyazaki himself. “For us, Ghibli is a familiar place,” the director said. “But it would look like a labyrinth to a girl coming here for the first time.” Moreover, when Hosoda was asked directly if Omatsuri was about Ghibli – at the end of an interview with blogger Wes Black – his reply was a laughing “No comment.”

Which, for many fans, is all the confirmation they need. On the other hand, the French interview (which looks genuine), makes interesting reading. In it, Hosoda suggests his time at Ghibli taught him to move away from adolescent, dark, tormented works. If true, then it would have been rather ironic if Hosoda’s first post-Howl film was darkened by his Ghibli experience! It’s quite possible, of course. But it might also be that Luffy’s sufferings in Omatsuri simply reflect Hosoda taking the story seriously; making the stakes of the adventure clear and weighty. Hosoda certainly torments his characters when the story demands it. Remember the ‘Stop stop stop…’ hysterical breakdown in The Girl who Leapt Through Time?

And perhaps we’re too fast in attributing Luffy’s suffering to Hosoda. The credited writer on Omatsuri is Masahiro Itou, who’s about twice Hosoda’s age, and who may deserve some or all of the blame for the scene. Itou also scripted the next One Piece feature, Giant Mecha Soldier of Kamakuri Castle, which we’ll see in the next collection from Manga Entertainment. It’ll make an interesting comparison to Omatsuri.

What really happened to Hosoda at Ghibli may never be known, except to a few anime pros. However, the idea that Omatsuri is a prodigy’s rant against a heartless studio is too good to die. It puts the film in the tradition of Evangelion (the original series is seen as a metaphor for Hideaki Anno’s breakdown), and even the first Shrek (which supposedly contains a caricature of Disney honcho Michael Eisner).

And these rumours add loads of juicy extra meaning to Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island. For example, one of the film’s most arresting images is of a giant carnivorous plant, which absorbs people like jelly babies. Now consider this interview from Miyazaki, in which he talks about young staff members at Studio Ghibli. “Frankly, we used them up. It’s like we ate them. I feel guilty about them…’

One Piece Movie Collection 2 is released on UK DVD by Manga Entertainment.

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