Netflix’s Live Action Spin on One Piece Sails Past ExpectationsPhoto Courtesy of Netflix TV Reviews Netflix
It’s hard to think of a style of adaptation more unloved than live action takes on anime and manga. Based on past evidence, there is a good reason for this skepticism. While there are a few exceptions, such as the Wachowski sisters’ wonderfully overstimulating technicolor marvel Speed Racer, Takashi Mike’s appropriately grisly spin on Blade of the Immortal, or Edge of Tomorrow, which most people don’t even know was based on a Japanese comic, the media landscape is littered with the detritus of failed attempts. Mere mention of Dragonball Evolution, Ghost in the Shell (2017), or Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop sends a collective shudder through countless nerd communities.
These unfortunate examples were overcome by the sheer volume of their source material, struggled to translate character designs initially envisioned for a different medium, and most importantly, failed to capture the spirit and thematic core that made the originals resonate. While showrunners Matt Owens and Steven Maeda’s take on the beloved manga One Piece doesn’t outright solve the first two problems, it smooths over these issues enough to nail the third. There are undoubtedly trade-offs, and it takes time to adjust to its visuals, but this Netflix adaptation successfully conveys the series’ sense of heart.
For those out of the loop, One Piece is a behemoth. Its manga spans over 1,000 chapters, and its anime sports a similarly daunting episode count. Since its debut in 1997, it’s sold the most volumes of any comic ever. As evidenced by the popularity of its source material, Netflix’s eight-episode spin on this material has a lot to live up to, and that’s not including its massive $18 million per episode budget.
Just like in the original, the Netflix show follows Monkey D. Luffy (Iñaki Godoy), an affable goofball and aspiring pirate captain. He’s out to find the One Piece, a legendary treasure trove left by the former pirate overlord Gold Roger, so that he can become the new King of the Pirates. Along the way, he meets and attempts to recruit bounty-hunting swordsman Roronoa Zoro (Mackenyu), skilled thief Nami (Emily Rudd), tall tale-telling marksman Usopp (Jacob Romero Gibson), and chef and martial artist Sanji (Taz Skylar). On their adventures through the East Blue sea, they are hunted by Marines and battle dangerous foes as they attempt to reach the Grand Line, where Gold Roger’s treasure is rumored to be hidden. While they butt heads at first, this burgeoning crew slowly finds common ground as they open up about their aspirations.
In terms of its aesthetics, this version of One Piece largely looks the part. Although it took an episode or two to warm up to how these character designs have been brought to life, they largely strike a balance between appearing faithful but not entirely jarring. Sure, it’s immediately apparent that many of these outfits were initially designed for a more stylized and non-literal medium, and I imagine newcomers will be scratching their heads at flourishes like the telepathic snails that are used as telephones, but the well-realized practical sets help tether us to the setting.
The main crew also makes this jump elegantly, thanks to its cast. Iñaki Godoy’s performance as Luffy embodies the character’s buoyant enthusiasm and thickheadedness excellently, but also teases out undercurrents of past pain and faint traces of doubt. The rest of the actors feel like natural fits as well; Gibson’s Usopp is a likable motor mouth, Rudd’s take on Nami communicates her initially guarded demeanor that hides a heavy secret, Skylar maintains Sanji’s weighty past while ditching some of his more grating behavior from the source material, and while Mackenyu’s Zoro feels a tad gruffer than his comic counterpart, his eventual softening and aestheticism make him another great pairing. It’s a joy to watch the crew’s dynamic develop, and it’s particularly affecting to witness how Luffy’s influence rubs off on his friends.
This adaptation also makes a wise decision in only biting off a small chunk of the source material. Specifically, it handles the “East Blue” arc, which spans the first 100 chapters of the manga and around 60 episodes of the anime. Although there are some casualties in chopping things down to eight episodes, such as less time spent with the communities that the Straw Hat pirates aid, many of these changes are clever. This version even occasionally feels more cohesive than the original, introducing certain players earlier to create compelling overarching drama and making numerous small changes in characterization that sometimes aid certain backstories.
Perhaps the most noticeable alteration is that much less emphasis is placed on its fight sequences. The original is a “battle-shonen,” a manga/anime sub-genre structured around intricate, multi-chapter brawls involving soliloquies, tactical exchanges, and the usage of special abilities. The fantastical nature of these battles would make their adaptation into live action prohibitively expensive or borderline impossible, so this series makes the wise choice to deemphasize these elements. This isn’t to say there aren’t any fights, as there are plenty of fatal duels, otherworldly powers, and characters dramatically announcing their special attacks. Every arc ends in some manner of climactic showdown, and they’re paired with fairly convincing choreography and special effects that make these sequences work for what they are. One sword fight in particular even perfectly conveys the maximalist vibes of the manga. But for those who mostly watched the anime because they wanted to see Luffy punch dudes, this version simply has less of that. However, the good news is that although it omits much of the fisticuffs, it still realizes this tale’s most essential underlying elements.
While it may sound kitschy out of context, first and foremost, this is a story about dreams. Big, stupid, unwieldy, and seemingly impossible dreams, the kind that comes across more like braggadocios boasts than genuine aspirations. Over its eight episodes, this series beautifully communicates these five crewmembers’ deeply held wants as we witness their pasts in a patchwork of well-executed flashbacks. Although each is initially skeptical of Luffy, his near-unbridled confidence in his goals helps them take their first step towards their own, the power of their newfound bonds coming across with aching sincerity. When discussing failed live action adaptations of anime, we often focus on the awkwardness of their aesthetics or basic failures in their construction. But I think one of the most indispensable missing ingredients is the unabashed earnestness that defines many of the best works in this space. This heartfelt quality is something that this series has in spades.
I’ll admit that, as someone who read the source material, it’s somewhat tricky for me to appraise how newcomers or those averse to anime aesthetics will feel about this One Piece adaptation. Even though it does a solid job at bringing these often-cartoonish character designs to life, it still takes a bit to get used to its aesthetic, and there are lapses where things admittedly look goofy even after this adjustment period. However, while it makes a few cuts to the original story, its most critical emotional beats retain their impact. It does justice to these characters, and the Straw Hat pirates are brought to life thanks to the compelling portrayal of their backstories and great performances.
It’s a series that captures the spirit of adventure and dream-chasing possibility that’s helped make its source material one of the most popular stories in recent memory. And in the process, we’ve been gifted something almost as rare as the fabled One Piece, a good live action adaptation of a manga.
All episodes of One Piece premiere Thursday, August 31st on Netflix.
Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant TV editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to watching the latest anime and prestige programming, he also loves videogames, movies, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.
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