When a series gets to the point where its episode count has surpassed one thousand installments, its supplemental feature films number almost twenty, and its (still ongoing) source material has been compiled in over one hundred volumes, the casual observers have been weeded out and what’s left of your audience is the true diehard fans.
For an anime show like “One Piece,” the densely populated pirate saga that’s been broadcasting since 1999, it’s pretty much impossible to simply tune in every once in a while and attempt to follow references to arcs and characters from years prior. The series’ newest film installment, “One Piece Film: Red,” has a similar effect, but is enough of a standalone interlude that someone who hasn’t kept up with the show for many years (i.e. this critic) can still find something to enjoy.
Director Gorō Taniguchi’s film begins, helpfully, with a recap of the series so far and the setup for most of the action: Straw Hat Pirate captain Monkey D. Luffy has sailed the seas in search of the mythical One Piece treasure, making hundreds of friends and enemies and mysterious acquaintances along the way on his quest to become the next Pirate King, etc., etc. You probably know at least this much even if you don’t watch the show.
When “Red” begins, the pirates and the navy (ocean cops, essentially) are in a sort of political standoff: On one hand, pirates steal stuff and break the law, as pirates do. On the other, the navy sort of sucks. Citizens across the New World find themselves on either side of this divide, and things are getting contentious.
Enter pop star Uta, the World’s Greatest Diva, known for her infectious earworms and her tendency to keep her identity a secret. The film opens on Uta’s first live in-person concert, where she plans to reveal her true identity. To everyone’s surprise, she turns out to be the daughter of pirate captain Red-Haired Shanks, one of the Four Emperors and Luffy’s childhood hero. Not only that, Uta and Luffy were friends when they were children, until Uta left the pirate crew to become a singer. Uta plans to use her concert (and her mysterious magical hologram powers) to bring the whole world together and end all suffering, a totally normal aspiration and definitely not something someone on the edge of becoming a supervillain would say.
Because the movie takes place during a concert, it’s a bit of a musical, with a total of eight pop and rock songs providing the background to the action onscreen. One of them gives Uta a magical girl transformation sequence, and another driving ballad soundtracks a climactic fight scene. (The J-pop singer known as Ado, who similarly keeps her real-life identity concealed, provided Uta’s singing voice.)
Anyone who enjoyed Mamoru Hosoda’s fantastic fairytale retelling “Belle” from last year will dig this. It’s also a clever bit of tie-in marketing that has helped the film top the Japanese box office: it’s the highest-grossing film of 2022 in Japan so far, the ninth highest-grossing of all time, and has ranked at number one for 11 consecutive weeks. The film was announced in commemoration for the one-thousandth “One Piece” episode in 2021, and its release corresponded with the 25th anniversary of the original manga and a number of tie-in episodes of the show. In other words, impossible to escape.
“Red” also accomplishes the dual task of keeping its story feeling self-contained amidst the expansiveness of the “One Piece” universe while also cramming in as many characters from the franchise as possible — so much so that at certain points it feels like a movie about characters showing up places while other characters say their names to remind the viewer of who they are and whether they’re good guys or bad guys. Ultimately, the crux of the movie hinges on heroes and villains begrudgingly working together to defeat a common threat and save the world they all live in — so, in a way, Uta gets what she wanted, just not in the way she anticipated.
There are genuinely touching bits of backstory that provide context to the complicated interplay of relationships between Luffy, Uta, and Shanks, introducing and then taking apart their three very different notions of what makes a family and what it means to take on the responsibility of another’s happiness. That it exists within the exhaustingly endless rolodex of side characters will be fun for the die-hards and maybe a little confusing for the rest. “One Piece Film: Red” sails a fine line, its story beats familiar enough for the newcomers, with details as bizarre and garish as a “One Piece” story could possibly get.
A Crunchyroll release, “One Piece Film: Red” will hit theaters on Friday, November 4.