Monday, July 06, 2009

"One Piece": Straw Hats off to Third and Fourth Voyage

For Toon Zone News

Sailing forth, undaunted by the near-infinite number of episodes to come, I am lured in by One Piece, as a sailor is lured by a siren. The One Piece: Second Voyage DVD boxset ended on a nail-biting cliff-hanger, but and now we're back to finish off season one (and begin season two as well!) with One Piece: Third Voyage and One Piece: Fourth Voyage.

For those less in the know than me, One Piece is an anime serial authentically translated from its manga origins. It regales with the tale of a young pirate who seeks to sail the dangerous Grand Line in search of the fabled One Piece. Possessing this treasure is said to rank you as "King of the Pirates". Along the way, Luffy picks up (and occasionally drops off) a menagerie of odd crewmates, the Straw Hats, each with a curious longing and particular ability. The first season establishes his core crew through its run of forty-seven episodes.

My research has only been recreational, but it appears to me that the differences between show and comic, in content and style, are few and far between. In the early stages of the story (yes, the Third Voyage starts at episode 27, and that is very early for One Piece) we are still exploring our central characters. This hero exploration doesn't end until half-way through the fourth box-set with Nami's arc.

What makes this show such a popular affair is hard to pin down. I doubt it is a widespread interest in pirates; aside from Pirates of the Caribbean (a film that owes its success more to a blend of Disney ride and Depp than the pirate genre), pirates don't tend to be popular in contemporary media. Yet somehow One Piece succeeds in breathing life into a genre that has shown very little measure of success since Jim Hawkins set sail for Treasure Island. I think the magic ingredients don't come from any single element. One Piece is a multiplicity of originality, great characters, action, drama and humour—and it's never quite clear where or how the story is going to go from episode to episode.

As much as I'd like to find an excuse to criticise Third Voyage (and thereby at least look like I am fulfilling my criteria as an objective and non-biased reviewer), but I really am hard pressed to find anything to complain about, and those things I did find are rectified in the fourth boxset. For instance, the go-happy theme tune that continues through the third boxset—which I've always disliked—disappears during the fourth. How can you fault a show that clearly not only performs, but reads minds?

Well, Third Voyage does suffer from an incidental and unfortunate dearth of Luffy, who spends a great deal of the set traveling from plot arena A to plot arena B. So the middle episodes of Third Voyage do feel a little empty—but a diamond remains a diamond no matter how you cut it. Moreover, Luffy's adventures at the beginning and end of this set carry more energy and zing that the bastard child of sugar and caffeine. One Piece is more than Luffy, but I doubt it would be quite as unique and memorable without him.

Third Voyage is a strong collection of episodes that delves deeper into the world and the central characters of One Piece. The back-story to Nami proves surprisingly tragic; the Fishmen are seemingly unbeatable as an adversary; and there are deep pockets of humour found everywhere. And who cannot but feel a surge of pleasure when Luffy takes his passion for his crew to the nth degree in some violent and often shockingly bloody manoeuvres?

Fourth Voyage manages to excel even Third. This final first season boxset carries a brilliant run of stories. Partly this is because the series begins to move away from the more formulaic stories it has featured. After the Fourth Voyage wraps up the Nami story-arc, we are given an unusual yet relevant array of single character episodes that not only give our heroes but the audience too a little time for recuperation. In fact, we even move away from the crew for the first time and focus on the antics and situation of other One Piece characters. I found this change both refreshing and enjoyable—particularly the escapades of Captain Buggy which at one point made me, dare I say it, "LOL".

The final adventure on the disk (and the beginning of second season) brings the crew to the last town before the Grand Line and again the formula is shattered somewhat by a whole menagerie of storylines, character moments and comedy. Furthermore, this arc avoids the battle-come-verbal sparring contest and—shock horror—Luffy doesn't save the day as usual. So there some very surprising twists as the show progresses into its second term that pretty much demolishing the only criticism I've been able to muster in fifty-three episodes.

The DVD packaging for all the Voyages remain consistent throughout, and again the marathon option is present so you can watch the show without credits and recaps. As with the previous two boxsets, there is a single commentary track on each boxset—both are highly enjoyable. Third Voyage's commentary is with the buoyant Eric Vale (Sanji) and the Fourth Voyage features the lovely Luci Christian (Nami). Both are hosted by ADR director Mike MacFarland. While mentioning the voices, a quick kudos to the whole of FUNimation's voice cast for One Piece who deliver their lines with little difficulty managing to bridge the show's dramatic spectrum.

As I'm sure 80% of those reading this knew before myself, One Piece is really the king of anime. It's a wide, open genre, but I don't think I've experienced such a consistent gem from the East. It can be funny, it can be very bloody (strutting in its naked, uncensored glory) and strangely poignant.

Hyperbole as my friend, this is the magnum opus of Eastern anime, neatly drawing from all the necessary attributes of drama to make a solid, unbeatable package. If you didn't know it already, this is a show that keeps going from strength to strength and one day may become a street corner substitute for the narcotics trade. Yes, gushing aside, it's that good. Go score yourself some One Piece.