Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
DVD - Season 4 Part 4
Robin's betrayal has turned all of Water 7 against the Straw Hat Pirates, and left Luffy and the remaining members reeling. They regroup and decide that they need the truth direct from Robin. So they head to Galley-La's main office, figuring that the only way they're guaranteed a meeting is to ambush her when she returns to finish Iceberg off. But Robin doesn't come alone. She's accompanied by CP9, a cruel and incredibly powerful unit of the World Government's secret police. Once they battle their way to Robin, the Straw Hats learn that much more than just their solidarity is at stake. But worse than any enemy, any threat, is Robin's answer to their query.
There isn't a whole lot of action satisfaction in this fourth of One Piece's season four box sets. There's fighting to be sure. Quite a bit of it early on. But it's of a brutal, preliminary, and defeat-oriented variety. This is a dark set, full of betrayal and despair and black revelations. It begins in a dark place, with Luffy's crew fragmented, doubt clouding their judgment, and shadowy forces coiling themselves for action. And it gets darker as it goes. Their assault on Galley-La immediately goes bad, and then gets progressively worse as the masked CP9 members wreak havoc and the sense that something is very wrong grows to a certainty, ending with their unmasking. Iceberg turns the tables, but only briefly. From there it's a buffet of bitter defeat as Luffy and his crew, along with Iceberg and what remains of his, are treated to the true depths of the CP9's power. Robin gives her answer, Galley-La descends into fiery hell, and the darkness is complete.
Whereupon the show decides it's a right dandy time to dive into an extended flashback about Franky. Which would normally have us spitting nails and cursing the animators to the seventh generation, but in this case is handled with enough grace, and ties so tightly into ongoing events, that one really doesn't mind at all. In its broad outlines it's a classic One Piece flashback: a story of happiness and dreams destroyed by low villainy and high tragedy. It provides the requisite motivation for Franky, and the requisite emotional foundation for us to start liking him (beyond liking his sheer weirdness factor). More importantly, though, it starts connecting the dots of the unfolding nastiness in present-day Water 7. Suffice to say the dots involve a superweapon (whose name has been whispered before), a secret blueprint, an exceedingly vile government official, and a plan of great patience and cold cruelty.
The series eases into the flashback during an alternately funny and fraught episode in which Franky and Usopp strike up an unlikely friendship. When the flashback gets truly underway, the show brackets each episode with snapshots of Luffy's shattered crew slowly pulling themselves together. When the flashback ends, the show slips just as easily back into the present, where the black knots in the Straw Hats' collective relationship begin to resolve themselves and the orchestration for the next big showdown begins. It's probably the cleanest and most narratively polished treatment the show has ever given a flashback.
If all this sounds way too depressing, never fear. Even as it grinds up the main cast, piles more heartache on poor Usopp (his association with Franky does not end well), and puts young Franky through a creative emotional hell, the show never loses its sense of humor. And when the truth—the real truth—comes to the demoralized Straw Hats' rescue, their resurrection is as emotionally satisfying as any physical comeback. When the set ends, it's on a note of combined hope and sadness that drives us onto the next volume as surely as the mounting disasters of last volume drove us to this one.
With less action and less extremity of emotion (relatively less—even at its subtlest, emotion in One Piece is pretty extreme), the show can't rely on the cartoonish excesses that usually serve it so well. Oh, there are plenty of cartoonish excesses. How could there not be, with Franky in his speedo weeping through his metal nose, or Luffy throwing himself in a rage at the CP9. But strangely enough, there's real subtlety too. There's a new cleanness to the characters' lines, a certain indefinable maturity, that serves the show well in such scenes. It's most evident as NAMI listens to Iceberg recount his conversation with Robin and, especially, in the set's final scenes, when Robin's true feelings leak into her eyes and distant smile.
With the emotional onus moving from Sonny Strait's excellent Usopp last volume to Stephanie Young's solidly competent Robin this volume, Funimation's dub takes a step down in overall efficacy. The big scenes don't hit as hard, and the quieter scenes don't cut as deep when Robin is at their center. That the villains are less threatening and Franky less delightfully odd in English doesn't help either. Luci Christian does what she can as NAMI, single-handedly elevating the last few episodes a notch or two, and Young gets a few good stings in too, but overall the show is definitely less effective in English (at least at this time).
Rather than the customary commentary tracks, this set comes with two fifteen-minute interviews in which ADR director Mike McFarland questions Brina Palencia and Eric Vale about their roles (Chopper and Sanji respectively).
Rather than action or even character (despite Franky's back-story), this is a set driven by plot. By the big, tragic, irreversible forward stride of the plot. Big changes are afoot and the show's world is expanding, giving us our first real look at how it is governed. Downbeat as these episodes can be, they are a thrill to watch. As should be the next eleven.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Nasty new villains, forward speeding plot, and a flashback that does more than just eat up time; beautifully modulated final scene.
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