Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Dec 26th 2013
DVD - Season 5 Part 2
The Straw Hats have pursued Robin literally to the ends of the world. Or one of the ends. Standing across an abyss of rushing water, Robin—in chains and waiting to be escorted by the CP9 to the government's unbreakable deep-sea prison—watches as her erstwhile companions gather to ask her one question: "Do you want to live?" The answer lies deep in Robin's childhood, and only when it finally breaks free do Luffy and his crew begin to move in earnest.
Ah, One Piece. Loving One Piece isn't exactly like being in an abusive relationship—it's way too good to us most of the time—but there are definitely times when it feels like it's hurting us on purpose. The show spent most of the last set whipping us up into a fine shonen-action furor. The battle to reach Robin reached fever pitch as the Straw Hats and Franky Family rampaged their way through Enies Lobby, the city crumbling and burning while the crew demolished government forces and Luffy put the fear of god into the first of CP9's indestructible assassins. The Straw Hats line up, the CP9 sneer across the chasm, and Robin pours out her fears and insecurities as government toad Spandam cackles in glee and a brutal multi-pronged showdown looms. This, the show thinks to itself, is a great place to insert an extended flashback. Perhaps to Robin's childhood. This, we think to ourselves, is a great time to scream and ask: Why do we still love this show?
And then the show answers, in that heartbreaking way that it sometimes does. You know Robin's past can't be a happy one. One Piece's backstories are never laff riots. And Robin's personality and recent history, along with what others say about her, are not indicative of a fun frolicky childhood. But knowing that doesn't make watching it unfold any easier. Indeed it just hurts that much better. We fidget as young Robin, whip-smart but fragile and lonely after her mother left her behind to practice illegal archaeology, bonds with kindly local scholars. Dread and warmth fight inside as a friendly castaway giant teaches his tiny charge to laugh when things get tough. The better things get, the worse we fear. It's baldly manipulative, but li'l Robin is so cute and loveable that we can't help but fall for the trap.
So when the other shoe drops, it drops with crushing force. The scene where Robin realizes who her mother is, her child's need for attachment dooming her to an outlaw existence, positively shreds you up inside. And the fallout, in which young Robin tries to follow the giant's gentle advice as the world conspires to choke every ounce of goodness and happiness from her, is even worse. Broken little Robin laughing her dorky giant's laugh, alone once more as her life burns around her and the world turns against her, ranks among One Piece's most heartbreaking sights.
The series then returns to the present, where Robin's answer to her companions' query breaks our hearts all over again. Surveying this emotional carnage, the show smiles a horrible Grinchy smile. "Yes," it says, its heart growing two sizes too small, "now is the time for some recapping." "Aargh," we say, clawing at our TVs in impotent rage.
After we've buffed the fingernail marks from our screen, we settle down some. An episode, maybe two, and we'll be back on the action train, we think. No need to lose our heads.
Five episodes later, our heads are officially lost. It probably wasn't raw, evil sadism that prompted the series' creators to compile a clip show for every member of Luffy's crew. Likely it had more to do with budgets. Or buying time for Eiichiro Oda's manga to gain ground. But it still feels like evil. Especially after the third or fourth time our hopes of resuming the action ascent have been crushed. Luffy. Then Zoro and Usopp. Then Nami. Then Sanji and Chopper. With each retread of old backstory our Hearts Grow heavier. But the pièce de résistance is saved for the end. After the main crew has had their go, hope flares again. And then, bam!, the show takes an episode to go through Robin's CP9 travails. Which we've just. Finished. Watching.
To be fair, the experience has its silver linings. (And no, I'm not talking about the bad alternate-world gags that are tacked onto each recap to make them more palatable.) It's honestly been a long time since we've seen the events that led to each member joining the crew, and the refresher reminds us of the weight behind the words that Luffy bandies about: comrade, friend, crewmember. The recaps are also a fine way to appreciate how the show's look has evolved over the years. The cumulative effect of years of slowly drifting character designs is particularly startling. The Luffy and crew who face down the CP9 are clearly the same and yet clearly different from the Luffy and crew who walloped Captain Kuro and stomped on Arlong. They've matured; they're longer and leaner, with sharper features and cleaner lines—clearly young adults where before they were growing children.
Other things haven't changed. Like Kouhei Tanaka's wonderful symphonic contributions to the score. Or the wacko humor, with its distinctively exaggerated reactions. Or the shameless (and shamelessly touching) way that characters emote. With little action, there's no real opportunity to appreciate the show's budget-conscious action genius, but there are snippets enough to remind us of what we're missing. And oh, do we miss it.
Expect the usual One Piece dub: efficient, highly faithful, and mostly well -acted. The faithfulness is a bit of an issue, since it sometimes impedes the natural flow of dialogue, which throws off some of the trickier emotional scenes. As Robin, Stephanie Young's performance is crucial, and while I've been critical of her in the past, she comes through here with a highly emotional performance. Jad Saxton's child Robin, on the other hand, is steamrolled by the Japanese rendition, which benefits mightily from being voiced by an actual child.
Also expect the usual One Piece extras: OPs, EDs, and a pair of commentaries. The commentaries are fortified this time by two behind-the-scenes videos, which are basically just interviews—one with Young, the other with John Swasey (Crocodile). The videos tend to be more work-focused, the audio commentaries more goofing-off oriented.
After the recap nightmare, and after a bit of flailing as it yanks its own start chord trying to re-engage its engine, the show does get its hands back on its mojo. The last four episodes do some grunt work and then get down to the serious business of combining hilarious weirdness and ridiculous coolness with real thrills, blending them so thoroughly that they might never have been separate things. The lethal giraffe-man alone is almost enough to make you forget what you just went through. Almost. Tellingly, it's easier during the post-recap episodes to notice just how little actually happens per given moment. Four episodes post-recap and all the show has really done is juggle the Straw Hats' CP9 pairings a little. Still, the series is funny and exciting and touching enough that we're still in love. Dammit.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B+
+ The new material is wonderful, with a heart-rending account of Robin's childhood and some hysterical preliminary action.
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