Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Eichiro Oda’s One Piece is a manga juggernaut. 26 years into its run with over 500 million sales, it is the best-selling manga of all time with a rabid fanbase across the world. Films in the franchise regularly break the box office domestically in Japan and millions of viewers tune in weekly to watch the adventures of Monkey D. Luffy and his Straw Hat Pirates in the series’ decades-running anime adaptation.
So when, five years ago, Netflix announced that they had acquired the rights to produce a live-action adaptation of this titan of shonen manga, many fans were left more than skeptical. This skepticism only grew when, in 2021, their first foray into live-action anime, Cowboy Bebop, was panned by critics, audiences, and ardent fans of anime across the globe. How then does Bebop’s Tomorrow Studios follow up their oft-derided freshman foray into the world of anime adaptation?
I will admit that I am what one would call a One Piece superfan. I have read through the manga at least twice, and its 100+ volumes adorn my bookshelves with accompanying statues. My wardrobe is full of shirts bearing the Straw Hat Jolly Roger and the crew that sails it. I’m saving up for a tattoo of the Jolly Roger of the Whitebeard Pirates, a faction in the series. I have emphatically recommended the manga to any friend whose ear I can bend. So when I learned of Netflix’s acquisition of the series, and even more so when Bebop bombed, I had written the show off in my mind as another drop in the bucket of bad attempts to translate the quirks and cliches of Japan’s premiere media export into live action. My bias cannot be overemphasized. So imagine the shock on my face when, to this superfan, Netflix’s first season of One Piece delivered. Not perfectly, but still.
Our show opens with narration provided to us by Ian McShane informing us of the setting. This is a world of pirates, of their grand exploits and nefarious deeds. Then we get the inciting incident for the overarching plot that makes up the manga’s driving force, the search for Gold Roger’s legendary treasure hidden somewhere in the world, the One Piece.
It’s no secret that One Piece, Eichiro Oda’s freshman serialization started all those years ago, is written more often than not at the whims of the author’s imagination. Despite this, however, the series is lauded with praise for its intricate worldbuilding and attention to detail, with characters who at first seem like one-off gags returning years later to play a pivotal role in the series’ climactic moments. Many of the manga’s show-stealing, beloved characters were created on the spot because Oda simply decided it would be a fun thing to do. How, then, does a showrunner wrangle this frantic, serialized-by-the-seat-of-its-pants series into a format that is not only digestible for new viewers but keeps it fresh for those seeking a new look at their beloved Straw Hats? By completely restructuring the series’ story.
The entire plot of One Piece’s first story saga, the East Blue Saga, has been rewritten, both carefully and not, with twenty-five years of hindsight to fit into eight episodes of prestige television. Despite carrying many of the same thematic and emotional beats as the manga, with many lines taken directly from Viz Media’s English translation, the narrative of the saga plays out both familiarly and not. Events that happen far in the future have been retrofitted into this saga such as a plotline about Garp hunting down Iñaki Godoy’s Monkey D. Luffy after he, with the help of Mackenyu’s Roronora Zoro and Emily Rudd’s Cat-Burglar Nami, steals a map to the Grand Line, a place revered as “the pirate graveyard,” giving it a placement that makes quite a bit more sense considering Garp’s motivations.
There is also the drastic change to the saga’s villains. McKinley Belcher III’s Arlong, a standout villain in the series, is given an expanded role, whilst Milton Schorr’s Don Kreig is relegated to a cameo. Special mention should be given to Jeff Ward’s interpretation of Buggy the Clown, one of the manga’s most enduring villains who has also been given a much more expanded role in the plot this time around. Ward steals the show every time he’s on screen, a black hole of scenery that immediately grabs your attention. This restructuring of the saga’s villains bleeds into the plot. Arcs like Orange Town, Syrup Village, and the Baratie have been given a new coat of narrative paint, a coat that breathes life into arcs that, to some, are full of moments both memorable and, if we’re being frank, not. Though not perfect, I found this revision of the saga’s plot to be, in many ways, just that: a revision. It takes a story that was originally episodic and ties it all together in a neat narrative bow, giving a three-act structure to a story that originally did not.
A well-structured plot is nothing, however, without the script and performances to back it up. It’s in these departments that One Piece sparkles, particularly in the performances. Iñaki Godoy’s performance as Monkey D. Luffy is, despite all odds, an absolute showstopper. He manages to embody the boyish spirit and bullheaded charm of a cartoon character whilst never slipping into the unbelievable despite his character’s unreal powers that allow him to stretch his body like rubber at will. The same can be said of the rest of our core cast of characters. They feel almost like the characters were ripped straight from Oda’s illustrations with an attention to detail that borders on insanity. Even the wig worn by Emily Rudd as she plays Nami, one that seemed garish in the trailers, manages to feel perfectly fitting.
This same attention to detail has been given to the sets and effects, with the show opting for practical effects whenever possible. Lavish sets have been built for the series’ key locations, with a special shout-out to the set of the seafaring restaurant, Baratie, and prosthetics have been used whenever possible for characters like Arlong, a character that could have by all rights been CGI, to ground the series in its heightened, snail-phone having reality. When the series needs to use CGI for its more fantastical effects, like Luffy’s stretchy body or a giant sea monster, great care has seemingly been taken to make sure those effects shine. A man made out of rubber would look horrifying and uncanny in real life, but the show commits fully to the bit, and with that commitment, it manages to make its fantastical elements ring with the bells of earnestness not felt in previous live-action attempts.
The script, however, suffers from one flaw that, depending on your preference, may be a major one or a minor one. Netflix’s interpretation of Oda’s story, unlike the anime that came before it, is paced like a bullet. The series hops locations with wild abandon, and though it’s propulsive it may feel jarring to those uninitiated in the world. It feels at times like there’s an episode or two of runtime that has been excised with laser precision from throughout the show’s runtime.
Therein lies the issue with reviewing a series as risky as this. I, a self-proclaimed superfan, cannot truly know what it would be like to view this series as someone with no background with the source material. Though I may try in vain to put myself in those hypothetical shoes, they will just never fit me. I watched the first half with my stepmother, though, and as a One Piece newbie she took a shine to the series.
So I will say this: If you are a veteran fan of One Piece and you go into this new interpretation of the story with an open mind you may find yourself pleasantly surprised. Though many pieces of the puzzle have been rearranged, it is somehow the same image. I feel though that I can say, with some confidence, that for those uninitiated this series might just be the perfect gateway drug into one of Japan’s longest-running manga.
Netflix’s attempt to adapt manga juggernaut One Piece delivers due to a deep understanding of the source material, an understanding lacking from many previous attempts to bring manga and anime to the world of live-action. If you’re willing to immerse yourself in this weird world of pirates and plunder you may just find yourself a gem. One that is rough and perhaps a bit unpolished in a few areas, but one that shines all the same.
Streamed By: Netflix