Whether it be your favorite form of media in the world or that annoying thing your friends keep trying to get you into, anime presents itself as a unique class of film. Expressive, detailed art and animation, writing so dramatic it often borders on ridiculous and criminally catchy soundtracks are just some of the staples of your typical anime experience.
Still, almost any fan of the stuff will be quick to tell you that a lot of anime is strange. Animation allows for bombastic character designs and personalities that simply wouldn’t feel natural in the real world, often accompanied by scenarios and situations as bizarre as the characters navigating them. And there is perhaps no anime as iconic for its strangeness as Eiichiro Oda’s “One Piece,” a series known for its imaginative world, absurd attention to detail and the inconceivable 25-plus years it’s been running for.
Adapting such a lovingly developed, fantastical world into live action would be no small task for any team. So when Netflix, who had already produced critically panned adaptations of beloved anime like “Death Note” and “Cowboy Bebop,” announced an upcoming live-action adaptation of the first saga of “One Piece,” many people were more than a little skeptical.
Nevertheless, the news that trickled out as the show’s late August release approached seemed to be hopeful, with the cast expressing their deep love for the series and a strong desire to do the source material justice. And when the time finally came for audiences to experience Netflix’s take on the story so many had grown to love, expectations were understandably high — perhaps too high for the ambitious project to reach.
Yet, against all odds, Netflix’s “One Piece” is both faithful to the original series while also possessing great merit of its own. Perhaps it’s fitting that a story about following one’s dreams and overcoming impossible odds somehow managed to receive one of the first truly exceptional live-action anime adaptations, and exceptional it most certainly is. Iñaki Godoy’s take on main character Monkey D. Luffy has a youthful sense of wonder and innocence that connects the audience to him as he explores the incredible world around him. His enthusiasm is infectious to both viewers and his quickly growing pirate crew alike, and he’s given plenty of more tense, quiet moments to explore the nuances of his character (many of which aren’t even present in the original story).
This greater emphasis on character motivations and dynamics can be felt all over the Netflix show, with a healthy mix of colorful banter and emotional beats interspersed throughout. The backstories of the crew members are carefully interwoven with the ongoing narrative, naturally drawing parallels between the current story and the characters’ increasingly tragic pasts. A great example of these narrative parallels in full effect is during Luffy’s fight with Buggy. Buggy recognizing Luffy’s straw hat acts as a means of connecting the story to Luffy’s past with the hat’s original owner, Shanks. Through this, the show reveals what drives Luffy to be King of the Pirates and why he cares for both the hat and his friends so dearly. Buggy isn’t just an obstacle to overcome, but a catalyst through which the show reveals Luffy’s values and desires.
Seeing the crew slowly come to understand and appreciate Luffy is made all the more rewarding thanks to this focus on his character. The viewer is given such a comprehensive view of who Luffy is that the weight of moments like Nami repairing his hat or Roronoa Zoro agreeing with the wisdom Luffy received from Shanks are fully realized. With both Nami and Zoro not only being cold to Luffy but outright hostile at the start, these tender moments of camaraderie and vulnerability are doubly impactful.
Complementing the colorful characters, the set design goes above and beyond on numerous occasions as well, presenting new adventures and scenarios for the cast to navigate. When Netflix’s “One Piece” isn’t introducing entirely original locations like Buggy’s sadistic circus tent or Monkey D. Garp’s foreboding office, it’s enhancing the atmosphere of existing locations like Kaya’s mansion or Arlong Park through props and lighting. The original series typically takes place almost exclusively outside in broad daylight, especially during its fights. In the Netflix show, however, scenes like Kuro’s bloodthirsty search for Kaya or Nami’s breakdown in Arlong Park are portrayed with appropriately grim lighting, highlighting how these moments of betrayal and horror are literally the characters’ “darkest” moments.
There are a plethora of creative decisions made by Netflix’s “One Piece” worthy of analysis, many of which are likely to raise some eyebrows. The story of “One Piece” is so detailed, complicated and full of moving parts to create a world that feels as fantastical as it does alive. The team behind this project could have easily played it safe and tried to follow the original story beat for beat, but that likely would have resulted in a far less interesting and cohesive result. So while the product that was ultimately released may stray quite far from its source material at times, it nevertheless captures the passion and magic of the original while also breathing new life into its characters and world.