Netflix’s One Piece. Before, there was a world where you would have been scoffed at for thinking such a project had a chance of being good. It’s fantastical. It’s ambitious. It’s One Piece, one of Shonen Jump’s best-selling titles that has been ongoing for nearly 30 years. Not to mention the fact that Hollywood has been trying to adapt manga and anime for decades and hasn’t been very successful with its attempts. Sure, there have been a few good exceptions (Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow, an adaptation of Yoshitoshi Abe’s All You Need Is Kill comes to mind) but the majority of these Western outgoings have been abysmal. However, after Netflix’s One Piece… perhaps anime fans will no longer flinch when they’re told their favorite series is getting a live-action adaptation. Fear not, this isn’t a repeat of what happened with Cowboy Bebop and Death Note.
Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece tells the story of Monkey D. Luffy, a pirate from the East Blue who is setting sail in search of the famed treasure of One Piece. Along the way, he finds like-minded comrades and together they form the Straw Hat Pirates and face off against other crews. The manga is, no exaggeration, one of the most beloved titles of the medium. Selling over 500 million copies worldwide and having over 1000 chapters published, there can be no denying that One Piece is a cultural phenomenon. Showrunners Matt Owens and Steven Maeda were always going to have to live up to the impossible expectations of millions of fans around the globe, which is perhaps why this series is as wonderfully realized as it is. Netflix’s One Piece is clearly made by people who understand and enjoy the source material. Even though it shouldn’t be, that’s rare.
This first season is brought together by directors Marc Jobst, Emma Sullivan, Tim Southam, and Josef Wladyka, each getting to helm two episodes for the streaming service. There are many things that this Netflix adaptation pulls off successfully: the thrilling action choreography, the vibrant costuming, and the vast set designs (the Going Merry, Miss Love Duck, and Baratie ships deserve praise), to name a few. However, the show’s greatest strength is its cast. If you’ve read One Piece or even just have a vague idea of what it is, then you know that the characters are lively, not just in their designs but in how they are written. Each having personalities and mannerisms so unique that trying to find actors who could fit the role seemed like a tall order. Even Oda himself has stated that he thought it would be difficult to find someone who could fully embody Luffy.
This makes Mexican actor Iñaki Godoy a rare find indeed because he is easily one of the best casting decisions recently made by Netflix. No one else could have embodied Luffy’s optimistic, simple, and humorous nature. It feels like he’s been literally ripped from the page and put on screen. Godoy is not the only great casting either, the Straw Hat Pirates are brought to life spectacularly by Mackenyu Maeda as the sword-wielding Roronoa Zoro, Emily Rudd as Nami the navigator, Jacob Romero Gibson as the sharpshooter Usopp, and Taz Skylar as Sanji the cook. All five actors make their characters feel so alive in such wonderfully unexpected ways. It’s surreal to watch certain scenes and think “That is Luffy!” or “That’s exactly what Zoro would do!” It’s through the cast’s rich chemistry that it becomes clear that this Netflix original series is truly something special.
In terms of adaptation, Netflix’s One Piece doesn’t adhere to the manga’s story page for page. Instead, the series smartly chooses to present the story in a way that is both conducive to the live-action medium it’s being told in, and appealing to new and old fans alike. It keeps the core character moments from the manga, as well as key story beats, but presents them in a new way. Sometimes the order of events may be slightly tweaked, so characters might meet earlier or later than they did in the manga. Events are also often condensed and edited down in a way that fits what is trying to be accomplished in this first 8- episode season, and possibly later seasons for that matter. Everything that is changed in the One Piece live-action adaptation is done so within the spirit of the manga.
While the tone and important character traits carry over well from the source material, what about the visuals? After all, One Piece may be a manga that is at its core about friendship, adventure, and the pursuit of personal freedom, but it’s also a series that features some very flashy and sometimes emotionally heavy action sequences. Moments that, while fully visualized in the manga, may be more difficult to pull off in live-action. So how does Netflix’s One Piece fair? Well, there’s definitely room for improvement, to say the least. Some of the visuals and VFX work can sometimes look suspicious and poorly rendered, though, this is often offset by how fun and ambitious the directing in these scenes can be. Presentation is everything, and how Netflix’s One Piece presents itself and its more fantastical elements makes it easy to forgive the flaws – what few there are.
Netflix’s One Piece live-action series is just a great watch. The live-action series perfectly captures the humor and heart of Oda’s manga. Whether you’re familiar with the original manga or not, there is something here for everyone to enjoy – a charismatic cast, a great adventure on the high seas, and a memorable, visually distinct group of misfits that’s easy to become invested in. Beyond all that, this could really be a watershed moment for live-action anime adaptations. Will Hollywood, or streamers to be more exact, learn the right lesson? Who would have guessed that if you put a team of passionate creatives behind a project and give them time and resources, the final product could actually turn out spectacularly? Or will they once again see a success and come away with the wrong idea? Time will tell, but let’s hope for the former.