Mamoru Hosoda‘s films have been celebrated for his ambitious animation, clever down-to-earth storytelling and bold direction. Rumor has it, however, that Hosoda may have used one of his first projects to take aim at the king of Japanese animation, Hayao Miyazaki. Is the cruel malevolent antagonist of One Piece: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island inspired by Hosoda’s short stint at Studio Ghibli?
The film, based on the long-running shonen manga, involves The Straw Hats accepting an invitation to Baron Omatsuri’s private island wherein a theme park the size of a metropolis exists. After a series of brutal tests of strength, Luffy and his crew are subjected to torture, fed to a giant flower and have the life practically sucked out of them. Ultimately, the protagonists win and escape from the island, but some viewers questioned whether or not Luffy’s experiences with the Baron’s cruelty reflects director Mamoru Hosoda’s personal experiences at Studio Ghibli.
Hosoda, whose work includes the critically acclaimed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and Mirai, was at the time a young up and coming anime director in the year 2000 riding high off of the success of Digimon: The Movie, which he directed for Toei Animation. Things were soon to become even better for Hosoda when he was approached by Studio Ghibli to take the helm of its newest film, Howl’s Moving Castle.
Studio Ghibli is famous for keeping directorial duties in the family, so hiring an outsider such as Hosoda was a big deal. On top of being an out of the box decision, the film would be the follow up to Ghibli’s most successful film to date, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. In other words, the stakes were high for Hosoda. Ultimately, his stint in the director’s chair didn’t last long. Depending on which sources you believe, creative differences resulted in Hosoda either being let go or stepping down himself. Howl’s was ultimately directed by Miyazaki and released in 2004.
In 2005, Hosoda’s One Piece film was released. Hosoda’s take on the franchise was a unique excursion for the series, redesigning the characters in his his signature animation style. Another variation from the typical One Piece story was the somewhat darker tone, which led some fans to theorize that the film serves as an allegory for Hosoda’s time at Studio Ghibli.
The evidence is such: The Baron’s Omatsuri Island lures pirates to their doom through glitz and glamour, promising them fame and fortune for success. The grandiose design of Omatsuri Island reflects the larger-than-life reputation of Studio Ghibli, replete with whimsical creatures and sky-high towers. But through a series of increasingly difficult and torturous trials that push the pirates to their limits, the pirates are eventually broken. Even star of the show Luffy is given rough treatment far beyond anything that he had ever been subjected to.
It doesn’t help that Hosoda himself has remained mum on his intent. In a 2007 interview with Otaku U.S.A., Hosoda is directly asked, “the movie is an allegory for your time at Ghibli, right?” to which the director replies, “No comment.”
Regardless of the reasoning behind him stepping down from Howl’s Moving Castle, leaving the film mid-production negatively affected Hosoda at least in the short term. In 2018, Hosoda’s Mirai premiered at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight and went on to become the first non-Ghibli anime nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. At the premiere for the film in China, Hosoda told the South China Morning Post that the event changed his life.
“I even thought that maybe I wouldn’t have a chance to make another film. It was a huge setback. It’s not easy for me to come to this point; none of my films since has come easy.”
Perhaps the strongest evidence in support of the theory can be derived from the ultimate outcome of the film itself: though beaten and tortured, Luffy survives and is reunited with his friends, moving on to grander adventures than those he struggled through on Omatsuri Island. Following his own trials and tribulations in 2003, Hosoda became a hugely successful filmmaker on his own terms, mimicking the outcome of his pirate protagonist.
Is the cruel malevolent antagonist of One Piece: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island inspired by Hosoda's short stint at Studio Ghibli?