One series that has an interesting history with TV specials, though, would most certainly be the juggernaut known as One Piece, based on the Shonen Jump manga by Eiichiro Oda. What most people might know of is the time from 2012 to 2018, as Toei produced nine One Piece TV specials during that time for Fuji TV's Premium Saturday time slot (literally one or two per year), either acting as recaps of iconic story arcs with brand new animation (Episode of East Blue, Episode of Nami, Episode of Skypeia, etc.), original stories meant to fill in gaps that the manga never covered (3D2Y, Adventure of Nebulandia, Episode of Luffy), or to simply promote an upcoming movie (Heart of Gold). However, these TV specials were actually the second batch for the series after a seven-year hiatus, because from 2000 to 2005 Toei had produced four other One Piece TV specials, and while those later ones from the 2010s mostly got licensed by FUNimation & officially released in English, that original TV special tetralogy has remained exclusive to Japan to this very day, though they were all fansubbed at the time; SP5 to 7 were also never licensed, admittedly. In comparison, even the older One Piece movies that never saw release in North America (i.e. Movies 1-7 & 9) at least eventually saw sub-only DVD releases in the UK in 2014! However, despite never being licensed, these TV specials do have official English titles either via data books released by Viz or simply via Toei Animation itself, and I'll be using those for this overview. The last time I actually covered One Piece here was way back in 2012, when I reviewed the 1998 anime pilot produced by Production I.G., but it can be argued that these first four TV specials are even more obscure & forgotten today than Defeat the Pirate Ganzack! is, especially since that pilot was acknowledged in Japan while promoting 2022's One Piece Film: Red, as both were directed by Goro Taniguchi. Are these old TV specials lost treasures worthy of the future Pirate King, or have they become the One Piece anime's own meta equivalent of the Blank Century for good reason?
The very first One Piece TV special ever made, Luffy Falls! Adventure in the Navel of the Sea aired on December 20, 2000, right at the start of a month-long hiatus the anime entered after Episode 52 aired the week prior. This is also the only TV special to be made before the Straw Hats actually enter the Grand Line, as it aired right as the stuff in Loguetown was coming to an end. SP1 was directed by long-time Toei stalwart Yukio Kaizawa (Hell Teacher Nube, Digimon Tamers), who had also storyboarded & directed some early episodes, while the writing was headed up by Hiroshi Hashimoto (Zatch Bell, Ghost Stories), who'd later write the scripts for the second & third One Piece movies. You'll also find Junki Takegami listed occasionally online for the first three TV specials, but he was simply in charge of series composition for the first 195 episodes of the anime, so he might have helped conceive of them, plot-wise, but he didn't write any of them himself. In a time where the One Piece anime has taken place within the Grand Line for literally over 1,010 episodes(!), it's actually rather quaint to go this far back into the timeline, back when all we as fans knew of was East Blue, so let's see how the OG One Piece TV special holds up nearly 23 years later.
The Straw Hat Pirates (Monkey D. Luffy, Roronoa Zoro, Nami, Usopp, & Sanji) are fishing for food when Luffy somehow manages to snag something so big that it pulls their ship, the Going Merry, towards it, rather than the other way around. Eventually, they come across Luffy's catch, a giant rock sticking out of the ocean with a treasure chest chained to it. Upon opening the chest they find nothing but a skull with a message written on the back from a "Captain Joke" about diving into "The Navel of the Sea" to find what they're looking for. Luckily, the Navel itself is literally right next to the rock, and eventually the Straw Hats discover that within the Navel is a giant crevice containing an entire island filled with residents. The island's denizens hate pirates of all kinds after Captain Joke & his crew ravaged the island looking for the Navel's treasure a decade ago, only for them to unleash the three giant "Beasts of God" that the residents now live in fear of, a life most of them have come to resign themselves to since... except for Hamu, the son of the village's chief who sacrificed her life to stop Captain Joke ten years ago. Hamu uses a strong upward air current to send messages in bottles in the vain hope that he'll find allies from the surface to truly put an end to Captain Joke, if he's even still alive.
First & foremost, it should go without saying that all of these four TV specials are 100% original stories, so their goal is to be as non-intrusive to the actual plot of One Piece & instead just deliver enjoyable, self-contained plots. In that regard, Adventure in the Navel of the Sea is honestly a pretty damn good one, as while the overall story itself is rather straightforward & simple, Hiroshi Hashimoto made sure to have a good balance of reliable plot beats that fans would expect & little touches to help give this TV special its own unique feel. For example, you know that the Going Merry can't really be massively damaged at all this early on, so it's inevitable fall into the Navel is what defeats the first Beast of God, a gigantic (& fittingly squishy) octopus. There's also the expected splitting up of the crew because of circumstances, with Luffy & Zoro finding themselves with Hamu & his friend Meroie (who explain the backstory of their village & Captain Joke), while Nami & Usopp find themselves following a mysterious talking bat (who you can easily guess the real identity of) who encourages them to enter the temple where the Navel's treasure lies; Sanji, for the most part, is taken out of action after fighting the first Beast.
However, it's those little details that help make this a fun watch. Zoro, for example, is without any of his usual three swords, so he has to fight off the second Beast (a giant crawfish) using old & rusted swords that easily break. That being said, this special isn't really all that focused on action (Zoro's fight is mostly off screen), instead focusing on the adventure & comedy aspects more, like Nami, Usopp, & Sanji having to deal with the forces of natural gravity after their submersible escapes the water & enters the crevice of the Navel itself, or Nami & Usopp (followed by Luffy & Hamu later) trying to escape the third Beast (a giant sea urchin) that chases them throughout the maze-like temple. There's also a nice focus on Hamu's own personal story & journey, so much so that he's the one that winds up having to deal with Captain Joke, now a living skeleton (predating Brook by roughly six years, though Oda had conceived of Brook, at least conceptually, by the time of this TV special), instead of Luffy; a rare time when the Straw Hats are essentially support, instead of being the heroes directly. Beyond that, though, this can still be looked at as your standard One Piece "filler" story, with its ~50 minute run time being equivalent to about two episodes worth of content, even being given three sets of eyecatches (i.e. two for each "half", plus one in the exact middle), but it's at least a strong showing for being the anime's first TV special, with a fun & enjoyable little concept & plot, well executed original cast (though Meroie is a bit bland, admittedly), & overall solid execution.
The second TV special, Out Into the Ocean! A Father's Great Big Dream, wouldn't happen until April 6, 2003, a little over two whole years after the first. Unlike last time, this TV special actually acted as its own break for the anime, airing in the week between Episodes 149 (March 23) & 150 (April 13), right in the middle of the stuff in Jaya (i.e. early Skypeia Arc). This time around we have Munehisa Sakai (Zombie Land Saga, Sailor Moon Crystal) directing things, who'd later be series director for Episodes 244 to 372 of the anime, as well as later direct Strong World, the 10th movie from 2009. For writing we now have Yoshiyuki Suga (B't X Neo, Kenichi the Mightiest Disciple), who would write 145 episodes of the anime from the mid-100s through the late 600s, as well as writing the scripts for the fourth & fifth movies. So let's see how things fared the second time around for the One Piece TV specials.
The Straw Hat Pirates (now with Tony Tony Chopper & Nico Robin having joined their crew) come across a seemingly uninhabited island that has no magnetic field, but quickly discover a group of five who claim to be a family who have been vacationing on the island for the past month. In reality, though, the five are actually mutineers from the pirate ship of Commander Zap, second in command of the Bayan Pirates, with young girl Amanda having convinced two of Zap's crew (Bonnie & Max) to leave with her & her two siblings (Milia & Holy) and head to the island themselves. This is because Amanda supposedly knows of a treasure on the island, one that her professional treasure hunter father left her the location of before passing away. However, Zap & his crew later find the island, kidnap Amanda & (accidentally) Luffy, and take them to Captain Bayan himself. Now the chase is on to find the treasure Amanda's father left for his children to find.
|I try to keep my screencaps clean of subs,|
but sometimes the best image is the best image.
Let's just get the conclusion out of the way first: This TV special is excellent, and I think it actually could have even been worthy of being a full-on movie, though just a month prior to this Movie 4 debuted, which was the first feature-length film. The main reason I feel that way about A Father's Great Big Dream really just comes down to the strong thematics of the story itself, which are such a strong aspect of the entire TV special that action plays almost no real part at all here, as both Zap & Bayan are literally defeated in one go each via a 7-on-1 beat down, something that I don't think has ever happened to a villain in the actual series. We'll get to the villains in a moment, but I just absolutely loved the theme of family that makes up the entirety of this TV special. Naturally, there's a bit of that with the Straw Hats, but the real appeal is with the bond the forms between Bonnie, Max, & the kids. What initially just starts as a simple "we hate our job, so let's leave with the kids that our boss is relying on" concept for Bonnie & Max does grow into an earnest & honest care for Amanda, Milia, & Holy, right down to Max being willing to fight Zap just to rescue Amanda during the climax. He gets his butt handed to him, naturally, but Max's conviction to fight for the kids truly felt earned, and it really does play into Amanda initially lying to the Straw Hats that they're a family, only for the lie to become a reality by the end. Amanda & her siblings also feel real in their goal of discovering what exactly their father left for them to find, and the reveal itself at the very end is actually really cool & perfectly fitting for the world of One Piece.
As for our villains, while Zap at least has a good look to him Bayan is obviously the main attraction, with his gimmick being that he's a conductor who can lead his crew into a singing performance that allows him to control people against their will. This results in the only real action sequence of the TV special, where Luffy is forced to fight his crew against his will on the Going Merry. This sequence is admittedly really cool, because you can tell that Sanji & Zoro really don't want to hurt him (Zoro even flips his sword around, which is a nice touch), while Luffy's unrestricted actions give him the edge, all without (almost) anyone needing to use any of their special moves; Robin does try one special move, but since Luffy's rubber it doesn't work. Naturally, there's also a bunch of comedy to be found here, as well, like Luffy being asleep or groggy for the first half due to Sanji mixing sleep medicine into his food to calm him down ("it was only a little bit"), followed by Luffy literally eating all of the Bayan Pirates' food once he wakes up because they had no idea he has a black hole of a stomach. Like I said, A Father's Great Big Dream is a story that honestly could have worked as a full-on movie, though it would require expanding things out a bit more, likely in giving Bonnie & Max a bit more development, making Zap & Bayan more of an actual threat to the Straw Hats, & even actually showing Max's attempt at fighting Zap for dramatic effect. In fact, had Movie 4 not come out & been the first feature-length entry, this TV special could have easily been given a bigger budget & nicer animation to be the fourth theatrically-shown One Piece story with minimal changes, as Movies 1 to 3 were only slightly longer than these early TV specials (they were double-bills with some of Digimon's movies). While the first TV special is an enjoyable time to be had, this TV special is an absolute must watch for any One Piece fan, in my opinion.
The third TV special, Save! The Last Big Stage, aired on December 14, 2003 (very quick turnaround this time!), appearing at the end of another month-long hiatus for the anime, a week prior to the show's return with Episode 175, right as the Skypeia Arc was entering its climax. Directing this time around was Junji Shimizu (Mazinger Z: Infinity, Fresh Pretty Cure [Eps 1-15]), who had actually already finished a run as series director for Episodes 131 to 159 of the anime, as well as having directed the first three movies, before eventually also directing the ninth in 2008; movies, in general, are Shimizu's forte. For writing we have the late Michiru Shimada (Little Busters!, Little Witch Academia), who would go on to write over 41% of the anime's first 201 episodes, as well as write the very first movie in 2000, but unfortunately passed away in late 2017 of undisclosed causes; she was only 58. So far these TV specials have been batting really damn well, so hopefully SP3 can follow through & keep the momentum going.
The Straw Hat Pirates are checking out a festival when they see & hear word of a play, "The Navy Captain Marine", happening later that day performed by the legendary "Randolph Troupe", with this play actually being the final performance for Randolph himself, who's retiring. As the Straw Hats irresponsibly make their way through Randolph Theater, a giant ship that the troupe uses as their home & stage so that they can travel from island to island, they come across Randolph & his crew rehearsing for the day's show... only for three of the crew to quit right then & there, due to them being fed up with working for a "third-rate troupe". Luckily for Randolph, the Straw Hats volunteer to help out with the performance... only for them to almost ruin the first arc because of their antics, before Randolph manages to save it all with his inspiring performance. However, two things happen during intermission before the second act: Randolph, an ex-Marine Lieutenant whose family was killed by pirates, discovers that he's working with pirates for his final play, while a Marine troop led by Commander Governor, an old subordinate of Randolph's, arrives to arrest Randolph, claiming that he's been using his troupe as a front for selling stolen Marine weaponry to pirates... and they discover the weapons on his ship to prove it. Randolph, though, knows that he's innocent & will do whatever he can to make sure that his final performance can reach its finale, and the Straw Hats will do whatever they can to make sure he succeeds in that.
Similar to its very concept, Save! The Last Big Stage is neatly comprised of four "acts", as it were. "Act 1" is about the Straw Hats finding out about the performance, volunteering their assistance, and the natural result of them quickly turning a serious drama into a comedic farce. Usopp is a narrator who treats it like kubuki and wants to play a more direct role. Nami thinks her being killed off early is because of a rewrite meant to spite her. Chopper plays the camel Nami rides in on, & has no other "real" role, to his dismay. Robin overacts to high hell by singing all of her lines as though it's a musical, in a rare moment of absurd comedy from her. Sanji can't bring himself to kill off Nami's character, instead fawning over her, so a proper actor has to do it. Luffy finds a monkey suit (approriate) & inserts himself into the play without reason by dancing a silly dance. Finally, Zoro's only job is to help switch stage sets, only to do so early when he hears a ruckus on the stage. It's an absolute delight to watch, to be sure. "Act 2" then brings the actual plot into play, with a short scuffle between Luffy & Rudolph that's left unfinished (sorry, Rudolph, but Luffy is WAAAAAAY beyond you now, for a rematch), we learn of Rudolph's backstory, & see the introduction of the Marines. "Act 3" properly introduces our villain (Governor) & sets up the Straw Hats deciding to literally protect the Rudolph Theater so that Rudolph can perform his retirement, all while Governor has his forces fire at the Theater itself. Finally, "Act 4" sees our climax & resolution, naturally delivering Rudolph's final lesson, which is that he shouldn't simply hate all pirates, but rather should fight back against those with unrepentant hearts, whether they be pirate, Marine, or otherwise.
In terms of our original cast for this TV special, the main attraction really is Rudolph & Governor, who are literally the only ones that even get named during the story itself; Rudolph's crew are only named via the credits. Rudolph is a very likable guy who's truly passionate about inspiring the general populace to stand up against injustice via his portrayal of Captain Marine, and his backstory gives a straightforward enough reason for him to hate all pirates, which makes the Straw Hats a perfect counterpoint, due to their good natures. In comparison, Governor is the perfect opposite of Rudolph, an unrepentant man who wants nothing more than to be at the highest possible position in the Marines, more than willing to use others, work with pirates, and intimidate anyone in his way to achieve his goal. However, Governor has no real power to himself, only status, which makes it easy for people like Rudolph & Luffy to fluster him & reveal his flaws, and even by the end some of his own men simply up & leave him, having had enough of his attitude. In a series where, even by this point, villains were always shown to have some sort of trump card or Devil Fruit power to back up their bravado, Governor actually feels kind of fresh by being all bark & no bite, and the TV special does do a good job in showing him slowly lose control of it all over time; I mean, even Bayan at least had his conducting "powers". It's also just neat to have a story where the Straw Hats take on "normal" Marines, i.e. non-powered troops, something that admittedly doesn't happen that often in the main series. Overall, Save! The Last Big Stage is a good fun time to be had, and while it's nowhere near as outstanding as the TV special before it, I would still say that it's second-best, so far. Now to see if it can hold on to that ranking position!
Finally, the fourth TV special, One Piece Historical Drama Series: Luffy's Detective Story, aired on December 18, 2005, two whole years after the last one, and once again happening during yet another month-long break for the anime, though just like SP1 this aired the week following the last normal episode, in this case #253, i.e. during the transition from Water 7 to Enies Lobby; this is also the first One Piece TV special to be produced in widescreen. Unlike the previous three specials, though, SP4 would actually go on to make an impact on the anime itself, as the jidaigeki-style alternate universe this introduced would return a handful of times, namely for Episodes 291 & 292 in December 2006 & January 2007, Episode 303 in April 2007 (it was the literal April Fools' Day episode!), & finally Episodes 406 & 407 in June 2009. For director we look to have the pair of Munehisa Sakai & Konosuke Uda (DAYS, Hinomaru Sumo), the latter of which was nearing the end of his run as the OG series director for One Piece, which lasted for the first 278 episodes (a run second only to Hiroaki Miyamoto's 351-episode run from mid-2008 to early 2015), & he'd also direct movies 4, 7, & 8, as well as SP10: Adventure of Nebulandia in 2015 & SP13: Episode of Skypeia in 2018 (overseeing Tetsuya Endo); meanwhile, Yoshiyuki Suga would return to write. With this being the only TV special to actually have a "legacy" of some sort, let's finish things off & see if SP4 is worthy of that.
"Chief" Straw Hat Luffy is a detective who helps keep the peace in the land of Grand Zipang, though his inability to actually pay for his meals at the local restaurant brings nothing but grief to the proprietor, O-nami. However, circumstances change when the Clown Clan, a gang of ruffians lead by the kabuki-clad Buggy, starts making trouble in town & even kidnaps O-nami in an attempt to get at Luffy. Even after dealing with that situation, though, a night patrol with his assistant Usopp results in Luffy coming across Vivi, a woman on the run from the Clown Clan who refuses to reveal anything about herself but her name. Meanwhile, Buggy manages to hire a wandering monk named Zoro to fight for them against Luffy, in return for free food.
The idea of reinterpreting an iconic anime in a different style, even if only an episode or a TV special, is one that I think isn't done often enough, because it's a concept that does allow for a lot of fun to be had, and Luffy's Detective Story is a perfect example of why. While the characters themselves are more or less the same as they always are from the perspective of character traits & personalities, it's really cool to see them in wholly different contexts. Luffy is still a fun loving & happy-go-lucky young man, but now he's a police officer who (despite his looks & demeanor) is very keen & observative, which is why he's good at his job; in other words, he's an Edo era equivalent to Ryo-san from Kochikame, only with rubber-based powers. Usopp, in turn, is Luffy's reliable (& slightly ninja-esque) stalwart, though his ability actually fight is mostly non-existent; certainly won't stop him from lying about how tough he is, though. (O-)Nami is still obsessed with money, but now it's because she doesn't want her restaurant to go out of business, while Sanji is her cook that'll do pretty much anything she wants him to do, because he adores her. Chopper is a diminutive doctor, but is also willing to stand up to Buggy & act as a witness against him, when the rest of the townsfolk are afraid to admit to his criminal deeds. Zoro is a wanderer (the poor fool...) who knows right from wrong, so even when he takes the job from Buggy to fight Luffy, when he sees an opening to have Luffy take out Buggy's crew then he takes it. Finally, Buggy is more or less the same as he always was from the beginning of One Piece, but now he dresses like a kabuki & makes sure to do things in a very "flashy" fashion, befitting his overly dramatic reinterpretation. There's also Vivi & Robin, the latter only making a handful of appearances, but their involvement here mostly matches their roles from the Alabasta Arc, only now with Robin serving to protect Vivi from the shadows, instead of hampering her.
The end result of all of this is an always amusing two-part TV special, the first half dealing with introducing most of the cast in their new forms while also detailing Luffy's first encounters with Buggy, while the second half deals with Vivi's story. The TV special also does a good job with including tons of cameos from characters from throughout One Piece, many of which either say nothing or only get a line or two, while some others get a little more. Best of all, though, is that this alternate universe concept allows for characters who would normally never be seen together actually interact & come together, which is always neat. For example, Buggy hires two mercenaries to help him fight Luffy in the first half: Gedatsu (from Skypeia) & Hatchi (from Arlong Park, & later Fish-Man Island). Meanwhile, at one point Luffy takes Vivi to a spot where he loves to fish, which allows the kids who make up the Usopp Pirates & Rika (from all the way back at the start of the main series, with Captain Morgan) to appear as Luffy's friends. The TV special's jidaigeki aesthetic also allows for some more minor alterations to the characters, like Luffy now using a jutte to fight (turning his Gum Gun Pistol into Gum Gum Jutte) or Zoro being a monk altering the name of his special attack 36-Pound Phoenix into 108-Pound Phoenix, due to that number's importance in various East Asian religions & martial arts. It's easy to see why the world of Great Zipang would go on to be revisited by the main One Piece anime every now & then over the course of the next four years, because Luffy's Detective Story is a lot of fun & the team behind this very obviously had a great time reinterpreting the cast in new (though still familiar) ways. Just a shame that it's now been a little over 14 years since the last one of these jidaigeki One Piece stories was actually made, though...
|Even Pandaman is here!|
One last thing to bring up would be the unique production credits for these TV specials, outside of the directors & writers. For example, each TV special has its own unique opening theme, matching the then-current OP that the anime itself was using at the time. Therefore, SP1 has "Believe" by Folder5 (OP2), SP2 has "Hikari he" by The Babystars (OP3), SP3 has "Bon Voyage!" by Bon-Bon Blanco (OP4), & SP4 has "Kokoro no Chizu" by BOYSTYLE (OP5), all of which are absolute bangers & remain iconic theme songs for One Piece to this very day; personally, "Kokoro no Chizu" is my favorite of these. As for the ending themes, SP1 uses "Run! Run! Run!" by Maki Otsuki (ED2 for the anime), while SP2, SP3, & SP4 all use "Family" by The Straw Hat Pirates (i.e. it's sung by the cast), a song not used by the main series. As for the voices for the characters only seen in these specials, we have Akio Ohtsuka in a pre-Blackbeard role (Captain Joke), Ikue Ohtani in a pre-Chopper role (Meroie), Minami Takayama (Hamu), Kouichi Nagano (Max), Mami Kingetsu (Bonnie), the late Tomoko Kawakami (Amanda), Reiko Kiuchi (Holy), Taeko Kawata (Milia), Takeshi Kusao (Zap), Issei Futamata playing two consecutive villains (Bayan & Governor), & Keiichi Sonobe in a post-Igaram/pre-Silvers Reyleigh role (Randolph). Beyond the seiyuu I mentioned who play notable roles in the main series, some of the people mentioned also played minor or story arc-specific characters in the main series, though there are also some who surprisingly have never had a role in One Piece beyond these TV specials, like Takayama & Kawata. As for Issei Futamata, he was up there with Norio Wakamoto in regards to an iconic seiyuu who had never played a role in the main One Piece anime (only a non-canon offshoot, like the pilot film or a TV special), though Futamata has since been given a notable canon role in the form of Building Snake, Red Hair Shanks' navigator. However, he's so far only actually voiced Snake in 2022's One Piece Film: Red, having apparently never spoken a word previously. Yeah, there's no doubt Oda is saving certain iconic seiyuu for specific roles as we enter the series' (apparently) "final" arc, so I look forward to seeing who Oda has in mind for Wakamoto.
As you can tell from this overview, I feel that the first four One Piece TV specials are all great, and there isn't an underwhelming one in the bunch. Adventure in the Navel of the Sea is simple but very enjoyable little romp that has some extra novelty now by being a pre-Grand Line story. A Father's Great Big Dream is, by far, the best of these four & is such a strong package that I feel it really should have been expanded into a movie story. Save! The Last Big Stage is an interesting one because of it's four-act structure & a villain who has no real unique power behind him. Finally, Luffy's Detective Story is so good that it'd become a minor recurring "filler" in the main series, one that really should be brought back, especially since there are now so many other characters that I think fans would love to see reimagined in the jidaigeki style, like Donquixote Doflamingo, Jinbei, or even the residents of Wano (as obvious a pick they would be). While none of these have ever seen official English release, so you have to rely on old fansubs that were obsessed with silly ideas like "the word 'nakama' has too strong a meaning to it to just translate as 'friends' or 'comrades'", Toei has actually released all four of these TV specials on home video in Japan, with all of the jidaigeki stuff actually getting compiled into their own release in 2015; that being said, the best these four have gotten so far are DVD. Still, any fan of One Piece should make the effort & give all four of these TV specials a watch, as they're all a good time.
Naturally, with One Piece being such a successful & popular franchise it's not a subject that I can really come back to on this blog, but there are some other odds & ends I can probably check out in the future, like maybe the next three TV specials (which also never saw official English release... so far, at least) or even the movies that have yet to see release in North America. No promises, of course, but there's no denying that One Piece is such a fun series, & it's hard to keep away from it.
Anime © Eiichiro Oda/Shueisha・Fuji TV・Toei Animation