London’s Cadogan Hall is arguably in the best possible location for a music venue, being only a two minute walk from one of the world’s busiest and most connected subway systems, yet also neatly tucked away in an intimate little street away from the hustle, bustle and bright lights of a restless city. As I made my way towards the cosy doors of the hall, I couldn’t help but notice a number of advertisements for upcoming performances such as renditions of Verdi’s classic opera Rigoletto and Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor. However, the show that I was there to see was something a bit more out of the ordinary for Cadogan Hall’s resident Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra: an orchestral celebration of Eichiro Oda’s world-famous One Piece manga and its anime adaptation.
I have to confess that I found the experience rather surreal at first, because although the venue has no dress code policy, I was rather amused by the people I found standing beside me as I waited in the foyer with other attendees before the start of the concert. While I imagine that the typical patron might be a smartly dressed classical music aficionado, a number of the people I spoke to were seeing a live orchestra for the first time, while others were proudly walking around dressed up as Monkey D. Luffy. To be honest, I found it incredibly touching that the love people have for a series like One Piece was powerful enough to convince them to embark on a voyage to a brand new world.
Not long after I had found my seat amongst the crowd of eager listeners, a large projector hanging above the show’s performers lit up as the series’ iconic introductory narrative played out. I was confused about the decision to air this explanation of the One Piece treasure in Japanese without any subtitles, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the series’ ardent fans know the words off by heart anyway!
The true celebration began as We Are! came to a close, with conductor Jean Thorel and the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra kicking into action with a rendition of Kaizoku-o ni narunda, which was accompanied by highlights from the series’ very first episode. The concert kicking off with heavy, powerful notes erupting from the collection of instruments on stage heralding Luffy’s introduction could easily be considered a fitting display of One Piece’s position in the anime industry, although I was left feeling that that the tone clashed with the visual clips, which fitting with our pirate protagonist, were bizarrely humorous in nature. The concert’s earlier tracks followed a similar route, with an emphasis on reintroducing the audience to the Straw Hat pirates. It was almost magical seeing the audience light up in laughter during the more whimsical moments where the likes of Sanji’s lecherous nature were given centre stage; creating a warm, nostalgic feeling as if one were re-watching old home videos of years gone by. One of my favourite moments though, was, just before the intermission, when the audience was invited to join in and sing along to series composer Kohei Tanaka’s performance of Binks no sake; where I soon found myself surrounded by people letting out a merry “yohohoho” (and fortunately, I can confirm that everyone singing made it out alive!).
In true One Piece fashion, the light-hearted whimsy continued to be a very strong positive, but also gave the performance the perfect opportunity to catch the audience off-guard with more heart-wrenching moments. This was perhaps best captured by the helpless and tragic tune of Z o osotta higeki, which played out to highlights of the Battle of Marineford; a particularly significant moment in the series’ timeline. Despite happily singing along to Binks no sake earlier on in the evening, a lot of the audience had their necks craned upwards and their eyes fixed on the monitor in what I can only describe as a respectful silence.
While I cannot find a fault with the performance of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and there were a handful of tracks that stood out to me in a significant way, there was a certain je ne sais quoi that made me question whether the composition of One Piece’s soundtrack was suitable for an orchestral recital. My only real complaint of the night however, would be that at times the visual display was out of sync with the orchestra’s performance; beginning and ending a few seconds before the music. While it was admittedly a minor detail, it did persist through a significant portion of the performance.
Ultimately however, while the series’ music took the centre stage, I was left with a strong impression that the night was less about celebrating a single aspect of One Piece but rather, to honour the franchise in a unique way. Seeing Luffy burst forth from the barrel in Alvida’s ship up to his adventures in the New World (an exclusive treat for UK concert-goers) was like watching a childhood friend grow up all over again This celebratory feel was perhaps best demonstrated by host Kohei Tanaka, whose cheery jokes and playful teases were wonderful signs that he was having just as much fun as the captivated audience, if not more. There was even a moment when, as if truly taken over by joyous atmosphere, he dared to try and sing over the orchestra (with admittedly mixed results).
Taking into account the troubled history that One Piece has had to endure in the United Kingdom, the night at Cadogan Hall really was a magical celebration not only for one of Japan’s most iconic contemporary works of animation, but also for the fans who have supported it for all these years.