By Matthew Moorcroft
- Directed by Goro Taniguchi
- Starring Mayumi Tanaka, Kaori Nazuka, Kazuya Nakai, Shuichi Ikeda
It’s been a long road to get here for One Piece fans. Out of the so-called “Big Three”, One Piece has always been the one that, while having a large cult following in North America, has never been able to reach the same heights in terms of popularity as Naruto or Bleach. This is due to a variety of factors – it’s more cartoony art style and horrendous 2000s era localization included – but while One Piece is something of a cultural powerhouse in it’s native Japan, it’s been nothing more then simply a footnote in the West, only really brought up in discussion from it’s admittedly hardcore fans who have sung it’s praises.
It’s no secret that I myself count myself among these hardcore fans. While Bleach was the first of the Big Three that I watched and loved, One Piece would be the one to steal my heart thanks to it’s incredible storytelling and dynamic, impeccable artwork. And while it’s taken over a decade, seeing One Piece finally flourish (somewhat) in the mainstream is incredibly exciting and fills me with hope about it’s future successes.
Red, it’s latest theatrical installment, is a somewhat unique affair among it’s big screen adventures in that it’s far more contained then you would expect for the franchise. Coming off the heels of Stampede, the biggest film in the series by a good margin, Red wisely scales down and instead tells an emotionally charged narrative about the effects of piracy on the common folk of the One Piece world – something that is usually lost in the shuffle in the grand narrative of it’s complicated story. And while it does eventually deliver on the massive action sequences you would come to expect from the franchise, it’s also the rare installment that seemingly has more on it’s mind then simply delivering good action sequences.
The key to this is Uta, it’s new major character who also turns out to be, in a twist that the marketing smartly left out, the lead antagonist of the feature and it’s secret weapon in the final scheme of things. Uta’s ability involves singing and music, and as such the movie almost plays out as a one-woman musical, with Uta screaming her heart out at opportune moments and reflecting on the traumatic events that have befell her while making sure to entertain. It’s idol culture taken to the extreme – everything is happy, everything is bubbly, and yet underneath the surface is a broken, poor soul who just wants everybody to free of the same pain that she feels.
Goro Taniguchi brings his impressive directorial efforts here, letting his own style seep through into the cracks. The musical sequences in particular are a psychedelic dream come true – the pop art inspirations and album cover tableaus make each of the song numbers memorable in their own right, particularly Fleeting Lullaby which is wild, thrasing, fast, and reflexive in a way that you wouldn’t expect from an idol song. And once the third act hits, Taniguchi leans into the surrealism fully and it’s a sight to behold on the big screen. If anything, Red deserves the full theatrical viewing to be fully appreciated, as it’s sound design is nothing short of immaculate particularly as you get further in.
And while it’s hard to beat Baron Omatsuri in the end, Red comes close thanks to it’s strong emotional pull. This is a tragic story for the series, one that isn’t afraid to a pull punches and really lay in the bitter taste at the end. And for that reason, it’s one of the franchise’s most daring installments for even attempting something like this. And for those fans who are only interested in the film for a possibility of Shanks backstory, those fans will also get a ton of mileage here as the film features his biggest role maybe ever and it’s well earned.
This may come across as simply the ramblings of a long term One Piece fan who simply just loves this series to death, but Red is sublime and one of the best installments of the entire franchise. It’s a must watch for fans, and for non-fans it’s not the best starting point but you could do a lot worse. If anything, it’s worth it for Uta and her songs which are some of the best of the year.