Wednesday, 19 August 2009

One Piece: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island

Why watch a film of slight consequence in an ever-rolling shonen maxi-fiction? Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island is directed by Mamoru Hosoda, an ascending star of Japanese animation, responsible for the award winning The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and the upcoming reality bender Summer Wars. Secret Island is simultaneously notable for ratcheting a feverish disquiet in fixed genre fictioning, whilst also playing as an extended allegory for Hosoda's brief, unhappy, stint at Studio Ghibli - Hosoda was originally contracted as the director of Howl's Moving Castle, leaving in the midst of production to be replaced by a fresh-out-of-retirement Hayao Miyazaki.

Secret Island isn't the first time Hosoda has dabbled in brand either, his Digimon movie shorts Digimon Adventure and Our War Game attracted a great deal of positive attention, a success instrumental in landing him the Ghibli gig. Hosoda's stab at One Piece is equally arresting. Animation is wild and playful, adeptly shifting between minimalist naturalism and impossible physiology fights. Rather than discard genre mechanics and expectation, Hosoda accentuates them, transforming them from threat accelerates into tense psychological alarm. Shonen Jump movie tradition dictates that friends must be imperilled to bring out the best in the hero, here pals are not merely roughed up, they are lost in situations that bring out the worst in them, fraying long-standing loyalties and links.

On an adventure time out, a close-knit pirate crew journey to Festival Island, expecting recuperation. Instead they find an overripe monument to 19th century European architecture, staffed by a cultish crew of sycophants and their leader Baron Omatsuri. Before allowing the visiting pirates to sample the amenities, the Baron has the crew engage in frivolous competitions that quickly mutate from simplistic whimsy into acute punishment. The visiting crew are repeatedly allocated insufficient resources, whilst the ageing home team are gifted all manner of expensive hyper-technology.

Reading the hirsute Baron as a Miyazaki analog, you find a lonely old man clinging to extensions of his past. Rather than allow fresh new blood to invigorate his island, the Baron would instead prefer to destroy the visitors, wringing pleasure out of their discomfort. The island tempts the best of the best to enquire, then bowdlerises them, telling them they aren't up to muster. Baron clings fiercely to his own crew, pouring resource onto them so that they may ruin any competition. Baron protects what is left of his fellows, quite willing to tempt his own destruction in doing so. There's even an empty headed child wandering the island, made blind to his flaws and among the dearest to Baron. Are we to read him as Goro Miyazaki, the ill-equipped heir apparent to the Ghibli empire? With this in mind, it would be easy to take Secret Island as a one-note revenge piece, with Hosoda coming to bury his former employers, but the film is keenly balanced on a sense of understanding for the tormentors. Baron Omatsuri isn't evil. He's just stranded.

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