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The Mike Toole Show
Club Hosoda

by Mike Toole,

Every once in a while, someone asks me why I haven't written too extensively about One Piece, Eiichiro Oda's sprawling saga of straw-hat pirates. The simple fact is, I haven't had the time to absorb enough of it – I've got about 20 volumes of the manga on the shelf, but that's only about a quarter of what's out there. I made it about 20 episodes into the TV series before I realized that there was more than 600 to go, and counting(!!) and quit in despair. I've posed this question before: how do new fans really get into One Piece? The hook is obvious, but how are they able to absorb the story's many narrative arcs efficiently? Is it one of those “if you really love it, you'll make the time” deals? Because I can't seem to make the time, nosiree.

One good way to get into a long-running shonen action series like One Piece is by sampling the movies, which, like most of their type, are designed to be brisk, accessible, one-and-done affairs. But even that's a challenge – here in North America, we've only had three of the twelve films released, and while they're a worthy cross-section of the series' trademark light-hearted high-seas action, they're missing something. I felt this in a big way watching One Piece Film: Z; it had plenty of action, but a shallow story and adversary, and felt a bit bloated in the home stretch. Films like this start to struggle after the ninety-minute mark, and Film Z keeps at it for another twenty. The best One Piece movie, or at least the most interesting one, remains unreleased in these parts, barring a UK subtitled-only release. That'd be the sixth film in the series, Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island.

“Aha,” you all respond in unison, thousands of voices rising in monotone to drown out my annoyingly verbose musings, “that's the one directed by Mamoru Hosoda, isn't it?” Yeah, that's the one. In an industry that all-too-frequently frets about who's going to be Japan's Next Top Miyazaki, Hosoda's one of the few directors who seems worthy of the descriptor. His work at Toei was impressive enough to get him into Studio Ghibli's good graces, actually, where he was on track to become one of the exclusive club of directors at the studio that aren't named Miyazaki or Takahata. He was tipped to direct Howl's Moving Castle. But then, suddenly, he was on the outs, and Howl was eventually directed by Miyazaki himself. It was one of those things where the director and most of his staff for the film got kicked out over “creative differences,” and it almost torpedoed Hosoda's animation career entirely. Fortunately, he still had friends at Toei, and they hired him to direct a One Piece movie.

The genius of Hosoda's approach to One Piece in the Baron Omatsuri film is that he, along with scribe Masahiro Ito, a playwright and TV writer, pitches out the usual attraction to these films, which would be elaborate, increasingly high-stakes fight scenes, in favor of concentrating on the characters' friendship and chemistry. There's something that's voluble and genuine about the dialogue and the body language of the rubber-limbed Monkey D. Luffy and crew here, and it makes for a much more interesting film than a simple “they fight the new, movie-only bad guy” approach. The film is also a visual standout thanks to the Three Musketeers team of animator mad scientists Chikashi Kubota, Sushio, and Takaaki Yamashita. All three artists have a loose, expressive style that's way more charming and dynamic than your typical shonen fight animation.

But what's Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island about? Why, it's about an idealistic young man and his friends and companions, the crew of the Going Merry (I don't think they got the Thousand Sunny in these movies til a bit later; feel free to correct me, One Piece nerds!), the Straw Hat Pirates themselves, going to an enviable island paradise. There, they meet Baron Omatsuri, an imposing and willful man who poses them a series of seemingly-impossible carnival games to get into his good graces. But these are the Straw Hat Pirates, dammit, and after some requisite confusion and comedy, they get the tasks sorted out. But this island has some dark secrets—the titular baron's crew are servile and timeworn, and the intriguing lord of the island is himself a seemingly charismatic person who stabs our hero in the back and rips apart his trusted animation staff—er, PIRATE CREW.

I'm laying it on thick, but the fact is, Hosoda's been very frank about this particular One Piece movie being a reaction to his experiences at Ghibli, of that feeling of being powerless and put upon and unable to trust your colleagues. If you know a little bit about these events coming into your viewing of this movie, it's really obvious. It's interesting when social events influence movies in this way; one of my favorite films, Horus: Prince of the Sun, started as a rote fantasy adventure before mutating into a protest movie during a protracted labor dispute. This One Piece film also has plenty of moments of action and humor—I particularly enjoyed a gag when the pirates' adversaries, a trio of wacky old folks, grill up some meat on a hibachi to pull ahead in a boat race—the plumes of acrid smoke from the grill both blind the Straw Hats and make them hungry. Our heroes have to remain steadfast and also beat the bad guys in goldfish catching, ring-tossing, and a massive, no-holds-barred cooking contest on a giant teppanyaki grill.

At the center of it all is the Baron, who possesses a flower with mysterious powers, and can incapacitate the good guys by shooting them with magical arrows. But a few hardy survivors on the island, pirates who've been driven away from their crews by the Baron, reveal his true special power: the power to turn friends against each other. Man, I've met villains like this! The film's conflict therefore becomes not just a question of Luffy gum-gum-punching everything in sight, but a test of the Straw Hats' ability to settle their differences and remain good friends. It's the defining element of the film, and helps make it stand out from the rest. I hope we get a good, solid US release eventually—I've seen and enjoyed the three One Piece films that are out here, but this one's easily better than them all.

I'm actually kinda spoiled when it comes to Mamoru Hosoda, because every time he finishes up a new film and tours the festival circuit with it, he makes a stop in Boston to visit his buddy, the MIT professor Dr. Ian Condry. He did it for Girl Who Leapt Through Time, he did it for Summer Wars, and he did it for Wolf Children. Recently a trailer for his next film, The Boy and the Beast, hit; it's coming out in July. When that film starts going abroad, I expect Mr Hosoda will come to visit Boston again. He may be a famous animated film director, but these trips of his have me thinking of the guy as a neighbor who's away on business a lot. Aside from seeing his new films, it's always fun to pick his brain. It was at his Summer Wars screening and Q&A that I learned about both his direction of the One Piece film and his abrupt exit from Ghibli. The Wolf Children screening had a wonderfully awkward moment where an earnest gent from something called the Anthropomorphic Research Society (or something like that) haltingly asked the director that, since characters with animal features were in so many of his works, was he a fan of “kemono stories?” Hosoda got this bemused little smile on; he knew he was being asked if he was a furry, but wasn't going to just tip his hand with a straight answer.

It was also at the Q&A for Summer Wars that a fan stood up and noted the similarities between the then-new movie and Digimon: Our War Game, a 2000 movie that Hosoda had directed based on the toys and video games and comics and card games and other crap. Hosoda smirked at this and affirmed that one pretty obviously inspired the other. Bam! I knew I had to see the Digimon movie, and eventually I did. I even wrote a bit about it here, but I recently revisited it and found myself enjoying its quirks more the second time around.

Unlike Summer Wars, this Digimon film doesn't pose any big ideas about family and connectivity. It's a fun, jaunty story of a computer hacker Digimon that runs amok, so our heroes and their Digimon pals have to follow it into cyberspace and neutralize it before it launches nuclear missiles. But Hosoda's approach—aided by the aforementioned master animator Yamashita—really elevates the material. After all, Digimon was made to sell junky toys to kids, unlike my favorite anime shows, which are dense, sprawling, thought-provoking human drama that's also meant to sell junky toys to kids. It's the sequences in cyberspace, action-packed, saturated, and outlined in red, that really evoke comparisons to Summer Wars. Even the questionable charms of Saban's “movie-ization” of three separate Digimon films to create a bankable feature struck me as more droll this time around. The thing is run through with really dated one-liners, including an AOL “50 hours free!” joke, and has that dumb kids cartoon conceit of constantly having cheerful BGM blaring. Occasionally, the BGM makes way for jarring, shoehorned-in tunes from the likes of the Barenaked Ladies and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, making me wonder if there's an unseen character wandering in and out of the room with a humongous Lasonic boombox. The dub dialogue is filled with weird, goofy jokes that the characters don't react to, because they're not jokes in the original version. Despite that, the character animation is really neat—there's a natural humor on display that's both charming and obvious, and it shines right through the corny gags. It all wraps up with the running joke of a song “Allstar,” which is fine. After all, for several years it was the law to include “Allstar” on the soundtrack to your family movie—a law that wasn't officially overturned until 2011, when President Obama signed the order banning all future Shrek movies. And in Japan? Digimon: Our War Game ran as a double feature with the first One Piece movie.

Having a look at that Digimon movie, predictably enough, led me straight back to Summer Wars. That's another film that I find has improved with age. The “Oz” conceit—an internet-like network where all personal and professional data is stored, complete with snappy graphical interface—is still kinda goofy, but Hosoda's depiction of a messy, sprawling family reunion is both pastoral and funny as hell. The many branches of 90-year-old matriarch Sakae Jinnouchi's family show up to celebrate her birthday and wonder over the engagement of her great-granddaughter Natsuki to Kenji, her math nerd schoolmate. This engagement is news to Kenji, too, and as a result he spends a sleepless night restlessly solving a huge, bizarre math problem that accidentally gives a rogue AI the keys to “Oz”—and control over a whole lot of global systems and communication networks.

A lesser movie would fall into nice, safe action set pieces, but Summer Wars never forgets that it's about family. The story and characters were largely borne out of collaboration between Hosoda and his character designer for the film, the great Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. Real-life weird family dynamics played a role in the planning; one of the two men is from the “main” part of the family, who have the biggest house and host all of the big family gatherings, and the other is from a “branch,” which periodically feuds with the main family. Natsuki's family in Summer Wars has elements of both, with a grand old household haunted by a couple of black sheep family members. The humongous ensemble makes Summer Wars feel like an animated Juzo Itami film, and I have to say that my favorite dumb little detail isn't the Red Sox jersey that Yumi, Natsuki's baseball-crazy aunt wears, it's the parade of classic 70s Japanese keiretsu tank tops worn by Mansuke here.

In the end, Kenji and company thwart the rogue AI, nicknamed Love Machine, not because they're smarter (they're not) or faster (they're not) but because they're better at connecting. Love Machine has a lot of power to disrupt, wreaking having on water lines and traffic patterns, but once the family keys in to the danger they're facing, they marshal a hilarious amount of resources to push back. This is where my favorite part of the movie pops up: ol' Grandma Sanae's old tyme social engineering, where she digs up seventy-five years worth of telephone contacts, going all the way back to the schoolyard bully she punched in the face in 1936.

Another fun surprise about Summer Wars is revealed in Dr. Condry's book The Soul of Anime, where he mentions that Hosoda completed all 500 pages of storyboards for Summer Wars at Denny's, working in hugely long 12 and 16-hour shifts. That's an awful lot of Grand Slam Breakfasts. Condry's tome is a fun read despite being fairly academic, even though it does visit some well-worn subjects. (Example: “Are fansubs ethical?” I'm still not sure, but let's read these 150,000 rec.arts.anime postings from 20 years ago.) My favorite detail about Hosoda comes late in the introduction, where Condry, sitting in at a story meeting at Madhouse, expresses frustration over the fact that Hosoda doesn't seem to be taking his audience into account when making films—not just the international audience, which Condry admits is kind of dumb and self-centered for him to ask Hosoda about, but the Japanese audience as well. When he asked Hosoda why, the director seemed a bit surprised. “I don't think about the audience at all,” Hosoda replied. He doesn't need to worry about his audience, you see; he trusts them to find the truth in his films, even if he doesn't always see it himself.

Maybe that's why Hosoda didn't last at Studio Ghibli. When you read interviews with Miyazaki and Takahata, it becomes evident that both men have really refined their artistic process, and make films a certain way. Their approach to storytelling is refined to the point that the audience doesn't have to think too hard about what they're seeing. In Ghibli's films, Mahomet will always go to the hill; Hosoda's movies are a bit more dynamic and willing to let the hill come to Mahomet, to use a cool proverb really awkwardly. Just one question remains: Is Mamoru Hosoda a furry? Maybe his next movie will have some more clues.

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