Netflix's Live-Action 'One Piece' Stays True to the Source Material: TV Review

Netflix’s Live-Action ‘One Piece’ Stays True to the Source Material: TV Review

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The realm of adapting anime and manga into live-action productions has often been fraught with challenges, comparable to the trials faced by video game adaptations. However, 2023 appears to be a noteworthy year for both genres. HBO launched “The Last of Us” in January, a hit series that tackled the somber, character-driven aspects of a zombie apocalypse, echoing the 2013 game’s tone. With rave reviews, high ratings, and multiple Emmy nominations, “The Last of Us” defied a long-standing trend of adaptation disappointments. A few months later, “The Super Mario Bros.” movie found success at the box office, if not with critics.

Taking note of this trend, Netflix embarked on its own ambitious adaptation journey with “One Piece,” a series based on Eiichiro Oda’s long-running manga. These adaptations have a mixed history, something Netflix knows all too well, given previous flops like “Ghost in the Shell” and “Dragonball Evolution.” Despite these challenges, Netflix, with its vast resources and global reach, aims to reimagine “One Piece” for a new and diverse audience. However, it recognizes the difficulties posed by passionate fans, cautious stakeholders, and the unique qualities of animation. Nevertheless, the success of “The Last of Us” provides a glimmer of hope for this venture.

Netflix is well-prepared for the “One Piece” adaptation. Eiichiro Oda has given his approval, and co-showrunners Matt Owens and Steven Maeda have developed eight hour-long episodes based on the first 100 chapters of the manga. Subscribers can delve into the existing 15 seasons of the “One Piece” anime, capitalizing on the excitement generated by the show and its cast at this year’s Tudum fan event. “One Piece” appears poised for commercial success, catering to loyal fans who value faithfulness to the source material. However, while this adaptation serves as both an homage and an introduction for newcomers, it struggles to break free from the limitations of translating a two-dimensional world into live action.

“One Piece” unfolds in a fantastical nautical world where pirate crews seek a mythical treasure hidden in “one piece,” pitted against marines upholding law and order. The protagonist, Monkey D. Luffy (Iñaki Godoy), dreams of becoming the Pirate King. Throughout the season, he assembles a diverse crew with their own ambitions, from the swordsman Roronoa Zoro (Mackenyu) to the globe-mapping thief Nami (Emily Rudd) and the legendary ingredient-seeking chef Sanji (Taz Skyler). The world is a vivid, cartoonish realm filled with unique creatures and abilities, like Luffy’s rubber-like elasticity and a ship adorned with a giant goat skull.

The creative team, including pilot director Marc Jobst, production designer Richard Bridgland, and costume designer Diana Cilliers, expertly blend CGI and practical effects to bring this visually chaotic world to life. Hand-to-hand combat scenes are impressively choreographed, and a prologue featuring the former Pirate King Gold Roger (Michael Dorman) captures the epic scale of the story. At its best, “One Piece” is a colorful delight with a youthful sense of adventure.

However, these efforts often underscore the challenge of translating “One Piece” into live action. It’s jarring to see human-shark hybrids in Hawaiian shirts casually entering a restaurant. Even among the main cast, there’s a stiff yet enthusiastic acting style, occasionally verging on the uncanny. If the best outcome is an approximation of the original, what does this live-action “One Piece” offer that the original cannot?

“One Piece” may evoke memories of past anime adaptations, but it also falls in line with Netflix’s successful genre series like “Wednesday,” “The Witcher,” “The Sandman,” and “The Umbrella Academy,” which often rely on existing intellectual property. These shows, while immensely popular, tend to offer a frictionless viewing experience that caters to binge-watching but may lack true novelty. Nonetheless, “One Piece” aims for preservation rather than novelty, a sentiment championed by its protagonist, Luffy—to never give up on one’s goals, no matter how challenging the journey may be.

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