Directors Creating The Liveliest Animation To Process Misfortune – The Parallels Between Mamoru Hosoda’s One Piece Baron Omatsuri And Takayuki Hirao’s Pompo The Cinephile

Directors Creating The Liveliest Animation To Process Misfortune – The Parallels Between Mamoru Hosoda’s One Piece Baron Omatsuri And Takayuki Hirao’s Pompo The Cinephile

Mamoru Hosoda and Takayuki Hirao, Pompo the Cinephile and One Piece Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island: two of the most brilliant anime filmmakers used their personal misfortunes to fuel very entertaining movies, processing their darker feelings through lively animation.

Eiga Daisuki Pompo-san, localized as Pompo the Cinéphile, was one of the most wildly entertaining anime movies in a 2021 chockful of wildly entertaining anime movies. That alone should serve as a recommendation, but if you’re looking for a more concrete pitch, Pompo happens to feel very similar to a highly regarded film by one of the most beloved directors of our times.

Given that Pompo was directed, written, and fully storyboarded by Takayuki Hirao, it would be sensible to assume that I’m referring to the works of his first mentor in the industry—Satoshi Kon, one of the greatest filmmakers who have ever blessed anime. While Kon’s influence on Hirao endures to this day, especially in his understanding of time and space as an artificial fabric to cut and sew at will, it’s not his movies that first come to mind while watching Pompo. It’s also not those by the other directors whom he openly cites as influences, nor those that he more quietly draws from.

In the end, the film that feels closest to Pompo is One Piece: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island, and by extension its director Mamoru Hosoda; works with no similarities at face value, with essentially no direct creative links between directors, and yet they share something rather profound.

To understand this parallel, we have to return to the beginning of this story, which in this case means the year 2000. By that point, a young Hosoda was already experiencing propulsive growth as a director at Toei Animation, evolving from a newbie episode director to an admired project leader in a crazy span of just a couple years. That caught the eye of important producers, hence why he found himself in a position to take his career to a whole new level by directing Howl’s Moving Castle at legendary studio Ghibli; precisely the company that he had failed to join prior to working with Toei, and one he would never have better luck with.

Ever since the start of the project, Hosoda clashed with a studio fundamentally built to appease the whims and needs of its two iconic leaders. While he managed to storyboard three whole acts of what would have been his take on the material, he constantly struggled to build a team and secure the assets he would need to live up to his vision, which kept negatively impacting the schedule. Hosoda was expected to be someone he wasn’t, someone that no one else can hope to mimic to begin with, in an environment that may not have been actively malicious but was rigged against him nonetheless; an uneven battle, as he has alluded to it himself.

By spring of 2002, Hosoda’s Howl was axed, and he found his way back to Toei thanks to friends like producer Hiromi Seki and director Takuya Igarashi. At a time when his career seemed to be crumbling down, where Hosoda was unsure which path to take, they offered him an opportunity to work on Ojamajo Doremi Dokkan—one that he took, unloading those feelings in one of the most evocative episodes of TV anime ever made. Episode #40, Doremi and the Witch who Gave Up on Being a Witch, places the titular character in a similar predicament: all her friends have found a goal they’re passionate about and can pursue in the future, but she feels aimless and grossly incompetent by their side, stuck in the crossroads of life. This simple but brilliantly executed metaphor that he would later revisit in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time came from a very personal place, at a time where Hosoda was also figuring out what to do with his life.

After directing that tremendous episode, Hosoda continued to work with Toei—and elsewhere under his well-known pen name Katsuyo Hashimoto—for a while, focusing on smaller-scale projects before being entrusted with his next major work. And major it was, as he was chosen to direct the sixth One Piece movie: the aforementioned Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island. While he was only brought into the project once the scenario had already been established, Hosoda quickly made it his own, reformulating the ideas that were already on the table into something that he could use to express his feelings at the time. If Doremi Dokkan #40 had been a crystallization of his uncertainty about the future, Baron Omatsuri became his outlet to unload grudges and fears, using the series’ focus on camaraderie to give form to his thoughts on what it means to lead a team—be it pirates or animators.

Since Hosoda has been crystal clear about this, there’s no point in beating around the bush. As he has admitted in interviews like this one for AnimeStyle that you can read translated over here, Baron Omatsuri is analogous to his experience with Ghibli. In the movie, Luffy and his crew are fooled into a supposedly paradisiacal resort island where things quickly turn out not to be as advertised. Its inhabitants, led by the palm tree-haired Omatsuri, force them to compete in minigames; now that’s an idea from the original scenario that envisioned the movie as a comedic game show, but Hosoda twisted it so that the entire gig was rigged towards the locals since the start. If you’re aware of his background, his bitterness comes through amusingly clearly.

Things only get darker from that point. Omatsuri’s men, who are revealed to be a pirate crew as well, succeed at creating discord between Luffy’s friends by using those rigged minigames as a wedge between crewmates. As the characters gradually find out about the island and Omatsuri’s plan to bring his phantom crew back to life, the viewer begins realizing what all the stranded pirate captains represent. Although Baron Omatsuri is a film with bitter feelings that makes it clear that the director thought Ghibli treated him poorly, it’s by no means a shallow vindication of his actions, and that’s what makes it so interesting. Some superficial readings interpreted Omatsuri to represent Ghibli’s leaders as well, but Hosoda agreed that his role mapped to someone else—the movie’s villain was himself.

When you get down to it, each pirate captain represents a different reaction to having a team project you led suddenly fall apart. With Omatsuri, Hosoda is channeling the regrets he had over his attitude at the time: much like the captain who lived trapped in the past of the Red Arrow Pirates, incapable of moving on to the point of becoming bitter and hurtful, Hosoda’s obsession with living up to the promises he’d made to his team didn’t let him move forward. The director condemns this attitude, all while accepting that the sense of duty isn’t inherently coming from a wrong place, and even acknowledges that this type of obstinacy has a natural allure to it by almost having Luffy walk down that path in the latter stages of the film.

In contrast to that, the movie also gives an important role to the cowardly father leading the family crew of the Tearoom Pirates. When faced with Omatsuri’s trap, his decision was to run away and protect his family at all costs; essentially, the equivalent of ditching all responsibilities to shield his team as much as he could. Somewhere in between those extreme reactions, you can find Brief of the Short Moustache Pirates: someone who once abandoned his crew in the face of disaster to save himself, but unlike Omatsuri, this led to positive growth in his decision to prevent this from happening to others, and also to find new companions to rebuild around.

In the end, Luffy’s idealistic mantra to fight for his comrades doesn’t conjure a magical solution; after all, no matter how caring of a project leader you are, there will always be countless factors outside of your hands. The movie does, however, settle on what appears to be the healthiest way to move forward: forming a new group to tackle your challenges. Luffy ultimately defeats Omatsuri thanks to the sly tricks of the sole Short Moustache member and the youngest of the Tearoom Pirates, and most importantly, thanks to the once cowardly father stepping up to the challenge.

Once the flower that was manifesting Omatsuri’s zombie crew is slain, their real voices implore him to move on from them and find new companions—pointing at Luffy, surrounded by this new ragtag team, as someone who just succeeded at that. Hosoda went as far as suggesting that had his crew not barely survived, the natural outcome would have been for Luffy to team up with these new companions. Kind of a radical stance to take with a character who’d normally never give up on any of his crewmates, but representative of the conclusion Hosoda arrived at.

Given these painful feelings and experiences brewing underneath, and the inclusion of events as dark as torture and a fight to the death, you might be thinking that Baron Omatsuri is a bummer of an experience. And of course, you’d be spectacularly wrong. Between the thrilling pacing, the colorful aesthetic, the energetic animation, and the direction with a sense of humor even when things openly take a dark turn, Hosoda made sure that the moment-to-moment execution of the film was greatly enjoyable. For those unacquainted with his personal circumstances, even those with little to no idea about One Piece’s overarching ethos, Baron Omatsuri is still well worth the price of admission as a fun, intense adventure movie. The more acquainted you are with its context, the more you can get out of the experience, but the director would have betrayed his role if he made an extremely context-sensitive family film that bummed out his young audience.

While it’s hard to call its visuals bright, especially as a muted palette takes over with the gradual reveal of the island’s secrets, Hosoda’s trademark kagenashi aesthetic feels so honest and transparent that it simply can’t leave you with muddled feelings. And, even if the colors aren’t always at peak brightness, his direction most assuredly is. The musicality of the direction is palpable even in bitter discussions, let alone in the more fun sequences. Among all followers of Kunihiko Ikuhara, Hosoda always stood out for his ability to marry that staged artificial storyboarding with very complex architecture, and this movie might very well have his funniest instances of characters getting lost in architectural marvels. All his usual tricks are geared towards boosting that immediate fun; his renowned doupoji shots, the recurring layouts he uses to peek into the daily lives of his characters, are accelerated for comical effect all across the movie, keeping up that very energetic pacing throughout.

The movie’s animation operates at a similarly high level of energy, starting with the character designs by the main animation director Sushio. While he was chosen as an inherently good fit for One Piece’s style and looseness it demands, there’s a distinct sharpness to his take on the series in motion, which he helped spread all across the film. The team he commanded featured all sorts of now illustrious names, one of the greatest to tackle the series to this day; and, in a thematically appropriate way, it was a crew featuring old allies that Hosoda had intended to team up with for Howl as well as new faces, missing some of his usual partners but making up for it with tons of talent. Even the rougher aspects like the overly ambitious usage of 3DCG—the contrast between the clean aesthetic and those monstrosities can be a real doozy—sometimes enabled dynamic, very inventive sequences. All its formal aspects are so dedicated to being viscerally satisfying that an often dark movie fueled by personal misfortune never comes close to feeling gloomy. If that’s not a filmmaking achievement, I don’t know what is.

Having read this far, you can likely guess what’s the deal with Pompo; indeed, another wildly entertaining ride, if anything brighter and more openly cheerful than Baron Omatsuri, but also fueled by the director’s career-changing misfortunes that inform the movie’s thesis… or lack of thereof. So, rather than ask what’s the deal with Pompo, perhaps we’re better off asking what’s up with its director.

If you’ve been following this site, the figure of Takayuki Hirao doesn’t need much of an introduction. Although he’s best known for the likes of Kara no Kyoukai / The Garden of Sinners: Paradox Spiral, Hirao already was the leading voice during ufotable’s earlier, much more experimental era. His ability to think outside the box, both as a director in the trenches and as a project leader, made him the perfect creator to have at the front of a young studio trying to find its personality. As a storyboarder, he had a dazzling sense of flow and control of the tempo, as well as the ingenuous mind to come up with new tricks no one had even considered before—something that applied to his leadership as series director as well. While he was the closest thing to a traditional director in titles like Manabi Straight, the project took the studio’s idea of a family-like environment without strict hierarchy to the extreme and had 4 different leaders for major aspects of the show; writing, aesthetic, layouts, and execution. Even in projects with a more traditionally assembled team, having Hirao in a position of power mean that something unique was bound to happen.

Even as the success of ufotable’s relationship with companies like Aniplex and Type-Moon made the studio settle into a much more orderly routine, Hirao’s relationship with them continued through wonderful works like Majocco Shimai no Yoyo to Nene, a radical departure from the intense post-processing that had already become synonymous with ufotable. Even in the instances where he would miss, a Hirao failure tended to be a pretty interesting attempt to make something new. Unfortunately for him, everything came crashing down during the production of the GOD EATER TV show. Hirao had repeatedly worked in the franchise, building a strong relationship with Bandai producers in the process, which made a project you might assume was just homework for such an idiosyncratic director into a very personal deal. He proceeded to storyboard the entirety of the show, having a hand in essentially all the scripts as well, all while being very specific about his vision as the series director. And when the unstoppable force of a collapsing schedule meets an immovable object like an obstinate director, things get ugly.

There is no denying that Hirao was asking a lot from his team. Detailed designs with multitoned shading that demanded special treatment from the painting staff, as well as heavy action with his always involved camerawork, add up to a cocktail that you should wish to no animation team. On top of that, his insistence on handling everything himself dealt a preemptive critical hit to the schedule; having failed to write all scripts before a reasonable deadline, everything lagged behind schedule since the start. Had ufotable been at their best, though, chances are that the studio would have weathered the storm. Had they not just finished the second cours of Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works, a title with understandably higher priority that already pushed them to their limit, things might have worked out for Hirao. He would most likely still be working with them, alongside his wife and frequent color design collaborator Emi Chiba. It’s easy to see how a timeline like that might pan out, but it’s not the one we live in.

Hirao took the downfall very personally. In another interview in the latest issue of AnimeStyle, he admitted just how bad the environment at the team had gotten, with his peers questioning his humanity and sanity as GOD EATER fell apart. Truth to be told, Hirao had always had a reputation for not considering the feasibility of his wild ideas, but by being at an extraordinarily sturdy studio, he had gotten away with mostly just amused sighing. Once things got truly dire, that became open animosity, which combined with the show’s failure to receive critical nor commercial acclaim left Hirao in a position where he felt he had to leave his workplace.

You won’t be surprised to hear that this left Hirao completely devastated, though fortunately for him, this is where things begin to look up. With barely any time to brood over what had happened, he got a call from one of his oldest friends in the industry: Tetsuro Araki, of Death Note and Attack on Titan fame. The two of them had coincided in the early stages of their career at Madhouse, quickly becoming good friends and as tight of a collaborator as they could be while growing to be busy figures at different studios. Araki, who according to his friend had also been thrust into a position of reconsidering his responsibilities as a project leader and the effect his demanding vision may have on the staff, allowed Hirao to rebuild his confidence by storyboarding climactic episodes across the second and third seasons of Attack on Titan.

In the midst of this—2017 to be precise—a reinvigorated Hirao received an interesting proposal. For as much damage as GOD EATER’s production had done to his career, his mad dedication granted him some goodwill as well. Yusuke Tomizawa, the producer for the games at Bandai, approached Hirao to recommend him a Pixiv manga series that he felt would be up his alley; of course, that was none other than Pompo. Once he decided to tackle the project for real, every other piece fell into place as if the project was fated to be. Hirao was at the time working on a novel with Shingo Adachi illustrations and published by Kadokawa, who went on to become Pompo’s designer and main financer respectively. Another old pal of his from his time at Madhouse and later at ufotable projects like Majocco, Ryoichiro Matsuo, just happened to found studio CLAP with perfect timing to handle this project. A beautiful series of coincidences with a very funny punchline: Bandai ended up having nothing to do with the movie, but Tomizawa still sits right on top of the movie’s special thanks credits, and is proud to list his curious assistance on his Twitter profile as well.

Much like Hosoda’s work after his disastrous experience at Ghibli, Hirao’s take on Pompo is very much a product of the director’s circumstances. Despite being an adaptation, he quickly realized that the comic simply didn’t have enough material for a feature-length film, which gave him the perfect opportunity to unleash his bottled-up feelings. As a result, Pompo is a delightful mess; it’s optimistic and empowering as often as it’s blindly bleak and self-harming, which sums up Hirao’s attitude towards the creative process at the moment. The movie’s narrative, which follows gloomy-looking assistant producer Gene and his charismatic producer Pompo as the former stumbles into an opportunity to direct his own work, leaves plenty of room for those contradictory feelings.

The mantra that Hirao has settled on, one that he says that only leaving ufotable allowed him to properly formulate, is that he wants to create works where the minority gets back at the majority. Or, to put it somewhat more precisely, works that celebrate the success of outcasts and social misfits without eroding their unique identities. This is echoed beautifully in one of the climactic scenes, where Gene states that movies saved him—just as Hirao said happened to him in his youth—and in order for this to happen to others, he’ll make movies that those who have fallen on the waysides can see themselves in as well, as the visuals flash through all sorts of chronically disenfranchised communities. The final acts of the movie blur the lines between Gene and the movie he’s making, and in doing so, they directly channel Hirao’s well-meaning dreams as well.

In similar fashion, though, Hirao’s unhealthy approach to the creative process becomes an inescapable presence in the film. While the original work is somewhat tongue in cheek about its jadedness, Hirao tackles it completely seriously, pondering whether the creative process really is synonymous with sacrificing parts of your life—relationships, time, even health—and an inherently lonely process. And to him, it really appears to be. Gene’s journey and that of his characters is self-destructive; the director knows that, the film is perfectly aware of it as well, and yet neither have it in themselves to fully condemn it. Their worldview is challenged, but unlike Hosoda’s Baron Omatsuri that had enough time to come up with a definitive answer, all Hirao can offer is a neat clash of ideas.

This is best illustrated through Alan, a fully original character separated from the world of film whom Hirao came up with to reach more viewers. Earlier in the film, Pompo states that she recruited Gene because he had no life to his eyes, as only people who haven’t led a fulfilling life can channel their escapist needs to create engrossing worlds of fiction. Alan stands in contrast to that, being a popular kid who grew up to quickly snag an important position at a bank—and yet, his life lacks something. In one of his most quietly significant scenes, he tells Gene that his eyes, fixated on the creative process as they are, sparkle with life. In a recent discussion with Yuichiro Oguro, Hirao admitted that he can’t bring himself to fully support either position, and that even if that lonely view of the creative process is what he sees for himself, he thinks that Pompo’s self-harming, overworking attitudes are the last thing the anime industry leads right now. Jokingly, they agreed that had he made this film later in his life, it would definitely have a warmer tone in that regard.

Now, for as dark as the thematic implications of the movie can be, Pompo is an almost mathematically refreshing movie to watch. The truth is that, despite being highly regarded for his snazzy editing, Hirao had lost confidence in it, wondering if he was turning into a gimmicky, shallow director. Having only noticed all the praise his direction on works like Paradox Spiral got after becoming freelance, and being entrusted with a movie like Pompo that celebrates the artifice of film and the power of editing, he unleashed all his tricks in a more pointed way than ever.

Even before this film, Hirao had been a strong proponent of editing as a transformative stage in animation that rarely gets any attention—not from his peers, let alone audiences. He values it enough to have a dedicated editor across all his works: Tsuyoshi Imai, with whom he worked as early as the storyboarding stage. In a way, Pompo became a movie that required less from its nominal editing stage because it was already visualized with precise editing in mind.

The seamless flow and smart cutting are enjoyable in and of themselves, but the editing on a macro level is just as deliberate. The character of Pompo is a strong believer in movies that last around 90 minutes, as it was hard for her child self to stay put for longer when her grandpa forced her to watch a film. And so, Hirao took that to mind; despite having overdone it with his original material to the point that he had nearly 2 hours worth of script, he trimmed it so that 90 minutes to the second pass between Gene’s first appearance and the last shot of the film, where he proclaims his biggest triumph was making a movie of Pompo’s desired length. That tightness and that control of the tempo make Pompo one of the most frictionless movies I’ve seen, which is no easy feat considering that it deals with some heavy subjects.

In the end, Baron Omatsuri and Pompo are two very entertaining movies that require none of this context. Both are the product of directors who understand what makes film a viscerally satisfying experience, arguably among their best works when it comes to that sheer entertainment factor. And yet, both are also inherently tied to those painful experiences they had, which makes for a fascinating duality. As similar as their situations are, they clearly come at different stages of processing those dark feelings: despite the bitter memories it builds upon, Baron Omatsuri is all about moving on in a healthy way, while Pompo is a movie without an answer and where self-destructive tendencies aren’t fully refuted. As of writing this, Hirao is currently working on an original anime with the same theme of uplifting outcasts, so it’s quite possible that we’ll see him follow a similar arc—that’s what the director himself has prophesized after all!

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5 months ago

Man. If editting/cutting film involved literally cutting it with a big freaking sword, I’d stop procrastinating on experimenting with DaVinci resolve.
Also, that’s quite a diplomatic way of describing Hosoda’s time at Ghibli since other people I heard about it from were much more blunt about it.

4 months ago

This is not a comparison I would ever have thought to draw but you laid it out in a really compelling way. I think not a lot of people know much about Hirao’s history (myself included) so this was a fascinating learn, and definitely something to keep in mind when I rewatch Pompo to experience it from yet another perspective!