This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the TV show being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Adapting a manga or anime successfully is still a hill that Hollywood is trying to climb, but even if doing so was mastered, adapting Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece is a tall order. In many ways, One Piece is the manga equivalent of The Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time — particularly in the belief that it cannot be filmed. However, just like those legendary epics, it turns out that it was absolutely possible to put the series to film. The adaptation for Netflix by Tomorrow Studios is a resounding success at the task it set out to do — though that success has caveats.
A great cast, working very fast
One Piece is the story of Monkey D. Luffy, a starry-eyed dreamer whose appetite for adventure is matched only by his literal appetite. Luffy sets out to sea, inspired by tales of pirates and treasure, to seek the titular One Piece treasure left behind by the “King of the Pirates” and take the nebulous title for himself. The first season follows the early chapters of the manga as Luffy recruits his pirate crew by stumbling from one dangerous situation to the next.
Compared to the source material, One Piece moves through these early adventures at a brisk pace to fit the tight eight episode season. Fans will almost immediately notice deviations from both the manga and anime, but they’ll also see many Easter eggs and teases of future episodes. This pacing does come with a price, as Straw Hats that join later in the season get less to work with. That particularly impacts Sanji (Taz Skylar), the chef who joins the crew last.
Regardless of screen time, the electric casting is the biggest strength of One Piece. Iñaki Godoy as Luffy has proven to be the manga equivalent of Christopher Reeve’s Superman performance. I genuinely feel for anyone who ever has to inhabit the role in the future. Godoy has infectious enthusiasm that serves as the load bearing wall for the series. His co-stars aren’t slouches either, particularly Mackenyu and Emily Rudd as Zoro and Nami, respectively. Both begrudgingly join up with Luffy before the end of Episode 1, letting the series build up the dynamic between the three the entire runtime.
Mackenyu really stands out. This is not his first anime adaptation rodeo but playing Roronoa Zoro is easily the most comfortable he’s been in a role like this. Recurring cast members also put in high class work across the board, which is good as several characters have seen their roles expanded to give One Piece more diverse locations for scenes. Buggy the Clown (Jeff Ward) is a crowd pleasing heel that is given a lot more presence to cut through the tension while crucially not overstaying his welcome.
Adapting One Piece has benefits and costs
The biggest increase of importance is Marine cadets Koby and Helmeppo (Morgan Davies and Aidan Scott). The two play to type well, Davies as the unsure but pure of heart Koby is a great match to Scott’s stuck up Helmeppo—they have excellent sibling energy. Their plotline is probably the most controversial as it runs parallel to Luffy and the gang for the length of the season in order to more directly compare the world of pirates to the law. While the two are fun, it’s in service to the part of the plot with the least fulfilling pay off — in fact, it may be a full on anticlimax.
The conclusion of this part of the story is true to the characters, but it also has the effect of defanging the shades of gray explored earlier. This is almost certainly thanks to one creative decision to move forward a reveal from much later in the original — a choice meant to create drama but has the opposite effect by the end.
Moves like that reflect the uphill battle that One Piece has in regards to adaptation. The source material is extremely dense, with plot points and characters coming and going, sometimes for hundreds of chapters. Tomorrow Studios will only ever get so many episodes to adapt that material and while Netflix seems pretty committed right now, the platform is infamously fickle. It makes sense to take actions that might lend more context at any point. Case in point is the season’s final boss, Arlong (McKinley Belcher III) and the Fishmen.
The Fishmen work well as a metaphor for marginalized races and One Piece brings that metaphor to the surface by highlighting his crew’s street gang aesthetic at every turn, with a highlight being a hip hop infused suite for the crew. Belcher’s Arlong has much more Magneto in him than his manga counterpart, which helps make him more than a cruel monster, but the truncated run time of the season doesn’t get to explore that enough to fully flesh out. It would not be surprising to see the less media literate (and being honest, white) members of the audience misinterpret Arlong as just a “thug,” if not completely misunderstand the story arc to be one much more conservative than it is.
Dense source material is not exclusively a weakness, because One Piece has been able to create some dazzling sets with that inspiration. So much of One Piece is physical, from ships and buildings to more of Oda’s more fanciful ideas, and all of it looks like you can reach out and touch it. That helps sell even the things that don’t look as good. Devil Fruit powers and other super human abilities are reasonably CG-based effects, and while a lot of effort has been put into their creation, effects still look rough in spots. Even so, this is a worthwhile trade off for the set design. There’s a clear sense of pride in all this hard work, as evidenced by nighttime scenes likely used to assist with effects still being well lit so the audience can see everything — a noble feat worthy of praise all by itself.
“The great pirate era” has arrived
These strengths work incredibly well in spite of some limitations — maybe even because of them. As a result, One Piece is brisk but engaging. The swashbuckling never stops and it’s extremely easy to get caught up in the fun, putting the adaptation right in line with its manga and anime counterparts. While it would be great for a second season to seek to improve in some aspects, that the series has the potential to do so at all is nothing short of a triumph. One Piece has finally proven that making quality anime adaptations is possible and worthwhile.
Featured image courtesy of Netflix
'One Piece' Season 1 - 7.5/10