If you ask anyone who knows me, they’ll tell you that I’m not a very fast reader. I go through phases (usually when on holiday) of absolutely devouring any literature that’s to hand and then completely abandoning the written word for months on end. For example, I only read two books last year and I’m currently only on my second book this year. All of that is to give context to the gravity of the task I laid out before myself not long ago.
When the world came to a standstill in 2020 I decided that I would try and read, from start to finish (or at least the most recent chapter) all of One Piece, Eichiro Oda’s magnum opus manga (a Japanese comic). At this point the long-running comic had nearly 1,000 chapters to its name, having been in print since 1997. I’d been debating getting into it for a while but since we all had nothing but time on our hands back then, and since one of my favourite YouTubers was starting a review series on it, I thought that there’d be no better opportunity to see what all the fuss was about. Suffice to say that by the time I got to the 50-chapter mark, I was a convert, and by the time I was nearing the newer releases I couldn’t stop myself from flicking through the pages at an insane pace.
Having fully caught up on what is the biggest-selling manga in the world I was a bonafide super fan so you can understand why I was filled with equal parts excitement and dread when I sat down to watch Netflix’s new adaptation of this gargantuan tale. Excited because I’m always keen for more One Piece content, but dreading the fact that this might be another run-of-the-mill, awful manga adaptation. There have been more live-action manga adaptations that you can shake a stick at and nearly all of them have been, not just bad, but some of the worst things committed to film. First came Dragon Ball Evolution (this one hurt most because Dragon Ball is my favourite series of all time), then Ghost in the Shell. Even Fullmetal Alchemist got taken for a ride. Hell, Netflix themselves are responsible for some of the worst offenders like their awful Death Note and Cowboy Bebop projects. In my opinion, the only series to successfully transition to the real world unscathed is JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and that’s only because the producer spent 10 years planning it before getting the rights from the original author.
So, is One Piece any different? Did Netflix manage to catch lightning in a bottle, or is this just another failed attempt at bringing a beloved story to the small screen?
An Absolute Treasure
I’m overjoyed to report that Netflix did not, in fact, drop the ball on this one! It’s…good? Mostly? I mean, I don’t think it’ll win any awards or anything, but it is definitely head, shoulders, knees, and toes above the vast majority of other adaptations out there. So, what’s it all about? How much of the story does it cover? Is Chopper in it? The answer to that last one will disappoint everyone, sadly.
One Piece tells the story of Monkey D. Luffy and his crew as they set out to find a mythical treasure called, shockingly enough, the One Piece. The existence of which was confirmed by the former King of the Pirates, Gol D. Roger just before he was executed for his crimes. Now, as the Golden Age of Piracy is well underway, thousands of would-be swashbucklers from around the world are out to find Gol’s treasure and claim his legacy for themselves.
No pirate can get very far without his crew by his side, however, and Luffy is no different. In this adaptation we get to see the beginnings of the Straw Hat crew as they make their way to the Grand Line, the starting point of Gol D. Roger’s journey and the path they must take if they are to claim their prize. Over the course of eight episodes, we get to meet swordsman and first mate Roronoa Zoro, treasure hunter and navigator Nami, sharpshooter and pathological liar Usopp, and chef and all-around pervert Sanji. Each of these will be a lifelong member of the Straw Hat crew and absolutely indispensable advisors to Luffy as they make their way towards infamy.
But it’s not just the Straw Hats that we meet. We also get our first glimpses of Garp, the legendary naval Vice-Admiral (and persistent thorn in Luffy’s side), Dracule Mihawk, one of the fearsome Seven Pirate Warlords, Red Hair Shanks, Luffy’s mentor and idol, as well as Coby and Helmeppo, fresh-faced naval cadets and best boys. There’s also a tease at the end of the series for a villain that will become a recurring character later in the series.
It’s the way these characters interact with each other and the bonds they build together that create the enduring appeal of One Piece, and I’m using “appeal” in the loosest sense possible here. One Piece is a bona-fide media juggernaut. It is the second biggest-selling comic series in history (not manga, comic) with over 550 million copies sold since it began twenty-six years ago. For context, the current biggest-selling comic series is Superman with a little over 600 million copies sold. It’s worth pointing out that while Superman has sold more copies, it had a near 60-year head start! While our time with the crew is relatively short in this adaptation, we get a wonderful glimpse into what we can expect from each of them.
The casting, acting, and attention to detail are where this adaptation really shines. Special mention has to go out to Mackenyu (Zoro) and Jeff Ward (Buggy the Clown). I don’t think anyone brings their respective characters to life better than them. Mackenyu does a wonderful job of bringing across Zoro’s stoic indifference that masks his absolute faith and belief in his captain, while Ward as Buggy really breathes new life into the character. In the manga and anime Buggy very much gives off a vibe of being an early villain, someone who’s only a threat to our heroes because they haven’t quite found their footing yet. In the adaptation, however, Buggy is a terrifying menace who genuinely seems like he’s capable of terrible deeds. There’s more than a touch of Heath Ledger’s Joker in there but, you know what? I’m here for it.
Now that’s not to say that the rest of the cast aren’t great either. Emily Rudd does a fantastic job as Nami when she gets her chance to shine towards the end of this series. She almost perfectly captures Nami’s sense of desperation and loneliness as she confronts her past and the chemistry between her and Iñaki Godoy’s Luffy is a joy to watch.
Something that I initially found a little off-putting was the wardrobe and choice of character costumes. Each character, major, minor, or incidental is sporting the exact clothing they wear in the manga and anime. I found it a little jarring to see real pirates, people we expect to see in ragged, rough-and-tumble rags, dressed in vibrant colours with outrageous styles and cuts. Distracting as it can be, once you get over the fact that this is a world where the main character is made of rubber and there are fishmen hanging around, the wardrobe choices simply fade from your mind’s eye. If anything, you come to really appreciate the weird fashion because it shows that this adaptation was made with faithfulness to the source material as its top priority. Oda himself was even given the role of Executive Producer, being shown scripts for his approval well in advance of filming.
Some Stormy Seas
As brilliant as I think One Piece is, I did find a few faults. For one, while there is a huge number of practical effects, there’s a very obvious tinge of what I call “Green-Screen Lighting”. It’s clear a lot of the time that these characters aren’t on a grand voyage across the seas, they’re on a facsimile of a ship in a massive bathtub. As with the wardrobe, this isn’t a huge issue, but it does lower the quality of the show ever so slightly.
Secondly, I think this adaptation suffers from “exposition whiplash” (Jesus, I’m full of the makey-uppy buzzwords today). In the first 150 chapters or so of One Piece (yes, I’m aware that that’s longer than most manga run for in their entirety) there’s so much to set up and so many characters to introduce that you really only get a whistle-stop tour of each location and side-character so we can focus on the core crew. Ordinarily, you’d spend a good bit of time on each of the Straw Hats’ “home island” in order to round out their back story a bit more but if that was going to be adapted to this series, we’d have ended up with about 30 hour long episodes, as opposed to the eight we got. In the end, what we have is a story that feels pretty rushed and very concerned with getting the real meat of the story started. That’s fine and all, but…
The real story doesn’t even start. Hell, the exposition still isn’t finished! I’m not going to spoil anything, but the Straw Hats have one island left before they reach the Grand Line and that’s where the adventure truly begins in my opinion. It also introduces some crucial recurring characters that expand the scope of the world even more. If it was up to me, I would have ended the adaptation after the events of this island, so we have a satisfying resolution to the East Blue Saga as well as an enticing cliffhanger for the seasons to (hopefully) come. Anyone who’s watched the anime or read the manga will know what I’m talking about here and I’d love to know if there are many who agree or disagree with my sentiment.
Finally, and this is really nit-picky, Arlong just doesn’t look right. McKinley Belcher III’s acting is great, the costuming looks good, but the overall package just doesn’t sell. Something about the proportions of his body and the way the prostheses on his hands look don’t sit right with me. This isn’t to say that all the fishmen look off. Kuroobi and Chew look fantastic despite having, presumably, the same prosthetic and make-up team as Arlong. The saw-faced menace of the East Blue just doesn’t do it for me.
I’m Going to be King of the Pirates!
While it’s not perfect and, in isolation, I don’t think it would set the world on fire, the live-action One Piece adaptation is a fantastic realisation of an even more wonderful world. If you’ve ever been curious about One Piece as a series or if you’re just in the mood for a feel-good romp in the Golden Age of Piracy, I cannot recommend it enough. If you’ve already watched the live-action and want even more One Piece you can find the subtitled Japanese release on Crunchyroll every week for as little as €4.99 a month, or you can read the manga fortnightly on the Shonen Jump app for less than €3 per month. Unfortunately, if you want to find the English release of the anime you’ll have to get access to the American Funimation catalogue. Sadly, there’s Very Probably No (VPN) way of accessing that from Ireland. I guess we can only sit back and wait until this PIRATE adventure comes to our shores.