Eiichiro Oda began his world famous manga epic in 1997. Twenty-five years, over one hundred volumes, over a thousand chapters, over a thousand anime episodes, a dozen specials, a few dozen games, and fifteen movies later, One Piece will go down in history as one of the largest and longest franchises ever. I’ve seen all the movies, but none of them have impacted my heart quite as severely as the latest of them, One Piece Film: Red.
The movies used to be produced every year, up until the tenth one, Strong World. After that, they seem to have been spaced out by two or three years. Red seems to be, in many ways, not only a celebration of how far the franchise has come, but also a magnum opus, a last hurrah for the One Piece movies, a final herald of the oncoming conclusion of this long-running and much-beloved franchise. Oda has voiced his projection that the manga will end in 2024, and I imagine the anime may last one more year beyond that, to cover the material. When you’ve been following one story for as long as this one has lasted, having only one or two more years to go seems awfully soon. Since the movies slowed production, it does not take much to envision how Red may well indeed be the last of them, and it reaches all the way back to the beginning, into the very heart of the franchise, its deepest roots, while also making a certain promise for the future, for the great change in the world that can only come with the story’s end.
All of that is simply context, and there is a lot of context for fully enjoying every detail that went into this movie. If Spider-Man: No Way Home is daunting in the way of a giant, for how the full enjoyment of it requires having followed the several franchises which intersect within it, then Red is daunting in the way of Godzilla. Understanding this movie, let alone geeking out over it, requires having watched several hundred hours of runtime, following the franchise from the start, all the way through to relatively recent events.
This movie is a gift to the fans, and only the fans will love it quite the way we do.
The plot follows reunion of Monkey D. Luffy, captain of the Straw Hat Pirates, with a childhood friend. Her name is Uta – the Japanese word for “song” – and she is the daughter of his personal hero and inspiration, Shanks. She’s a singer of extraordinary quality, and referred to herself as the musician of their pirate crew, a detail which leaves me wondering just how long Oda has been planning this, given that a musician was the first sort of crew member Luffy wanted to recruit, back when the story first began. Twelve years after their parting, Luffy and the Straw Hat Pirates are among the attendees at her first ever live concert, sitting right up front as she makes her debut to the entire world. But the joy of the occasion soon turns into horror as Uta’s madness makes itself known.
Uta has grown up remote enough to be unaware of much of the world, but found a means to send her voice out into it, and to hear her fans responding. They have cried to her about all that is wrong with the world, their hardships and suffering, and have looked to her as a light that can save them. She took this and hatched a scheme to “save” them all in a very different way than they mean, for when she sings in a live performance, she can transport people’s souls into a dream world which she controls, where everything is beautiful and free from hardship. She takes it into her head, then, to rescue everyone from their suffering by taking them into her dream world forever, leaving their bodies behind to die as their souls live forever in eternal revelry.
Uta’s intentions are rooted in the best and most golden of intentions, to save everyone. But that gold is dross, those intentions leading straight to Hell, and she is, in truth, doing something so horrific that it defies description. Where almost every other antagonist in the franchise clearly wants power, gold, and such, Uta may be the first villain in One Piece who can be taken seriously as a misguided, would-be hero of insane proportions. When people do not respond to her intended rapture with the fervor she expects, she goes further and further over the edge, uncomprehending and unwilling to bend even an inch in her zeal to save them, whether they want it or not. Her bright and shining dream soon transforms into the worst and darkest of hells. With untold numbers of the world’s population on the line, it takes the alignment of many of the world’s biggest and most powerful names acting in concert to finally overcome her power.
There is something deeply poignant, and pointed, about all of that.
All the great powers of the world combining against one woman, and they are all but helpless to stop a song.
The common mistake of people to dream of leaving their problems behind, to gain a paradise where they can indulge in unending pleasures of the moment, is a hollow, drunken dream which ignores the value of our troubles, our trials, and even our losses.
The artist who sings and dances and becomes a celebrity in the spotlight, so very lonely despite being adored from a distance and obsessed over by many who do not actually know them in the slightest, but who worship the dazzling light around them.
The youthful figure upon whom the world casts all their troubles, and who honestly believes that they must save everyone right now in some grand, dramatic way which overturns everything that exists in the world, and are so maddened by this drive that they try to shove it forcefully down everyone’s throats, overriding every protest, ignoring every plea to stop, even when they themselves already know that everything they have believed is a lie.
Yes, there are some extremely pointed and relevant themes in this movie.
A friend of mind recently began making his way through the anime, and he commented to me how so much of it speaks to him of what’s going on in the real world. Which makes complete sense to me, of course, as the stories we tell naturally reflect the world around us. But when he gets this far, and sees this movie, he will see yet another powerful, harrowing echo of the world around us, and one which leaves a magnificent emotional crater in our hearts. Or at least it did in mine.
All of this would have fallen entirely flat if they had botched the music, but that may be the single most outstanding feature of the movie. As well it should be, considering the songs Uta sings collectively take up about half an hour in a movie that is just short of two hours long. So, with roughly a quarter of the runtime dominated by Uta’s performances, they had to get that part, especially, right. And they did.
The songs themselves are masterpieces, I would say. Not only do each of them perfectly fit what is happening – the mood, the events, and Uta’s state of mind – but they stand as a magnificent statement made by this generation which faces such widespread madness. Most movies which have the characters singing tend to feature songs which either require knowing the movie to know the true meaning of it, or are so out of place that they were clearly just shoe-horned in. But these songs are masterworks of poetry set to music. They’re phenomenal all on their own, both riveting and breathtakingly beautiful to the ear. I say that both for the original versions of the songs, by the artist known as Ado, and the English translations, which, though they are not featured in the English release of the film, have been produced and performed by Uta’s English voice actress, Amanda Lee, aka AmaLee. (I highly recommend giving them a listen in both languages!)
Seriously, I have nothing but the highest compliments for this musical work. I bow to the passion, hard work, and skill of everyone involved.
As for how each of these songs in integrated into the movie, suffice to say things are not at all dull when the music is playing. A great deal is always happening to this soundtrack, including action which, as this is a movie instead of the anime, is very rapid and does not get slowed down at all. Pandemonium is unleashed upon the eye, as these songs sweep up the world and everyone in it. A song of beginning, a song of power, a song of anger, a song of insanity, a song of despair, a song of longing, and a song of goodbyes all play out much like anime music videos. It’s a unique sort of style that commands our attention, as we hear the notes and the words, take in the meaning, and our minds try to keep up with everything happening on the screen. It’s magnificent work, and masterfully animated.
Speaking of, the music may be the highlight of the movie, but almost every other aspect is exceptionally well done, too, as one might expect of a studio with such an amazingly successful series. The animation and style are fantastic, for certain. The themes are powerful and the plot is fairly well-paced. Most of the drama centers on Luffy, Uta, and Shanks, while other characters dominate the action-packed fights, uncover vital information, scheme and plan, and so forth. Many of the characters get moments to shine, but these three are at center stage in some very tender, heart-wrenching moments.
Which actually brings me to the one real criticism I have of the movie. For the plot to work, they had to have Shanks, his crew, and, most of all, the man to whom they entrusted Uta all make some extremely stupid decisions. There might have been some rational thinking in leaving Uta behind at a moment when the Navy was going to blame them for a catastrophe and hound them like never before, but they did it in the worst possible way. Would it have killed them to promise to return for her at some point, even if it was years down the road? This was not helped when the man they entrusted her to told a terrible lie, a lie that made Shanks look like a most despicable villain who used and abandoned her, a lie that deeply wounded and scarred Uta for life in her mind and her heart. To top that off, apparently this man had a chance to destroy something which he had just seen annihilate his entire kingdom, and he refused to do so, thus leaving it free to fall into Uta’s unstable hands, to her certain ruin and the near-ruining of the entire world.
Now, requiring characters to make stupid mistakes for no clear reason just so the plot can happen is nothing new or unique, but it’s still annoying, especially when the character in question is already well-liked and has been quite intelligent up to this point.
Barring that little flaw, however, I found One Piece Film: Red to be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, anime-related or otherwise. It’s thrilling, gripping, and deeply emotional on numerous levels. Nearly every aspect of it is crafted with the greatest and most professional of skill, and I found it most enjoyable indeed.
I love it.
Rating: 9 stars out of 10.
Grade: solid A.
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