For anyone new to the all-conquering cross-media juggernaut that is Eiichiro Oda's One Piece, its tenth feature length animated spin-off could seem like the greatest thing ever. It's hard not to enjoy One Piece, at least a little bit. Strong World encapsulates everything fun about the franchise - the cheerful spirit of wonder to it, with super-powered pirates chasing adventure across an endlessly inventive, wonderfully expressive technicolor fantasy world.
But the film is basically telling the exact same story both the numerous print volumes and several hundred episodes of the television series have told countless times already, and for those growing a little tired of shonen (think 'boy's own') manga and its refusal to do anything different the movie could well come over as frustratingly hollow.
Strong World sees yet another new villain pop up to plague Oda's nautical universe, the villainous captain Shiki (Naoto Takenaka hamming it up in his guest voice role), sworn to vengeance against the peaceful nations of the World Government for the loss of his legs. When Shiki runs into the rubber-limbed hero Monkey D. Luffy and his ship the Thousand Sunny, he takes a shine to Luffy's curvaceous navigator, Nami. Overcoming our heroes, Shiki kidnaps Nami in the hope she'll reciprocate his feelings, and dumps the rest of the crew on a floating archipelago crawling with genetically enhanced fauna to keep them out of the way of his master plan.
It's a great start, even for the jaded viewer. Cutting straight from Shiki's initial demonstration of his power to the crew of the Sunny fighting for survival against successively weirder members of the island menagerie means Oda's rock-solid design work and Toei's limber, sweeping animation (lots of curves and stretching) all but leaps off the screen. As ever, when the protagonist frequently demands to know what the hell is going on it's clear Oda isn't taking the story too seriously.
Indeed Strong World plays shonen manga's traditional air of self-mockery to the hilt, with every new shiny object, hideous monster or display of deadpan machismo in the face of terrible pain greeted with double-takes and shrill yelling all round. No matter how much of the franchise you've sat through there's still something decidedly entertaining about this - the cast's wide-eyed awe (and subsequent wide-eyed panic) feels perpetually childlike rather than childish. Even several years down the line Oda still manages to imbue even the simplest story with some sense that anything could happen.
The problem is, as the film rolls on you start to realise nothing will: at least nothing meaningful. Strong World hits every single plot beat in the shonen rulebook with frustrating predictability. The villain seems practically unstoppable, even though we've seen the protagonist barrel through every obstacle he's ever faced up until this point. The women on the team rarely get to contribute anything beyond anguished introspection and possibly dressing up in skimpy outfits for the audience's gratification.
At some point, the villain reveals himself to be even more powerful than had previously been suggested and beats the good guys to within an inch of their lives, whereupon they find the werewithal to defeat him pretty much through the spirit of friendship, male bonding and sheer force of will. And on, and on, none of it anything that hasn't been done to death years ago. No matter how accomplished the production values are, how inventive the art design or how good-hearted the film is on the whole if you've seen more than a handful of the big commercial names in the Japanese animation industry you've seen Strong World already.
There's plenty to enjoy, if you can turn your critical faculties off - few mainstream shows have the same matinee charm, where it's frequently a guilty pleasure just to see what the monster or villain of the week is. After ten films, Oda and director Munehisa Sakai have a solid understanding of how to scale that up to widescreen, and the key set pieces are a treat for anyone's inner child. The One Piece cast are a good deal more appealing than their peers, too - after so long writing them Oda rarely misses a beat with their trademark quirks and tics, simplistic or otherwise, and there's an odd restraint to them even when the action's at its loudest.
you scratch the surface, as it were, there's simply nothing there.
Strong World is a fun little ride, while it lasts, and for some it
will undoubtedly be just what they're looking for. Yet artistic flair
and professionalism can't make up for a complete lack of depth, any
lasting continuity or any real emotion beyond a juvenile yelp of
glee. Ten films in and One Piece might as well be back at the start,
and as such it only rates a cautious recommendation.
(One Piece Film - Strong World was screened as part of the 24th Leeds International Film Festival.)