If history tells us anything, it’s that Americans should stay the fuck away from live-action adaptations of anime. Dating back to 2009’s Dragon Ball Evolution, these reimaginings have ranged from mid to outright embarrassing, as American producers have stripped all the pizzazz and storytelling ingenuity that made the OGs so special in the first place. Last year’s pedestrian Netflix version of Cowboy Bebop is the most recent example. Or rather, it was. On August 31st, the video streaming service unloaded One Piece, and to the surprise of just about everyone, it’s damn good.
Based on Eiichiro Oda’s iconic manga of the same name, Netflix’s One Piece had history, and a whole lot of skeptics working against it when it went into production a few years ago. Upon its release, it was rewarded with an 85% Rotten Tomatoes score and plenty of positive feedback from fans online. It’s also been a monster success, topping Netflix’s English-language TV charts two weeks in a row.
Like its source material, the Netflix series follows the adventures of aspiring pirate king Monkey D. Luffy (Iñaki Godoy), swordsman Roronoa Zoro (Mackenyu), the thieving Nami (Emily Rudd), expert cook Sanji (Taz Skylar) and marksman Usopp (Jacob Romero Gibson) as they travel the seas in search of their dreams. While there are definitely some notable changes to the story, the folks behind the series consulted with Oda, which helped ensure that it carried all the adventurous, heartfelt vibes of the original.
That’s just one of the reasons One Piece is the best U.S. live-action adaptation of an anime, besting Dragon Ball Evolution, Ghost in the Shell, Death Note, Speed Racer and anime-adjacent flicks like The Last Airbender. For years, the anime-to-live-action pipeline felt cursed. Now let’s break down how Netflix beat it.
It Stayed True to the Characters
When it comes to adapting anime, sometimes the hardest thing to do is nothing at all, as evidenced by Dragon Ball Evolution, Death Note and Cowboy Bebop. In their attempts at taking on acclaimed shonen properties, 20th Century Fox and Netflix ended up bastardizing beloved characters by trying to make them more palatable to Western Audiences. In their eyes, this meant pigeonholing key figures into comic book tropes and soap opera archetypes.
In the case of Dragon Ball Evolution, this meant turning wild mountain boy Goku (Justin Chatwin) into Peter Parker — a super-powered, but typical high schooler who deals with things like bullies and teenage awkwardness. For Death Note, it meant turning Light Yagami — a class valedictorian who’s a tennis champion and perhaps the most popular kid in school — into Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a troubled teen who’s also got issues with bullies.
As bad as these are, Cowboy Bebop’s characterization of Vicious might be worse. In the anime, Vicious is pretty much the proverbial agent of chaos — a nihilistic goon who operates off impulse and icy cool. His backstory is hinted at, but there is no emotion — and that’s what makes him so compelling. By contrast, live-action Vicious (Alex Hassell) is the spoiled son of a crime syndicate boss, and his quest for validation is a worse version of Commodus’ arc in Gladiator.
Stripping the characters of their original attributes is lazy, and it takes away from what makes anime so interesting in the first place. Anime operates outside of coming-of-age cliches; Goku never went to school, and if he did, he would be too green to understand why he couldn’t simply karate chop fake Flash Thompson.
Netflix’s One Piece keeps things as they are. Luffy is a wide-eyed, but fierce adventurer, Nami is a sly thief with hidden motives, Roronoa Zoro is a stoic swordsman and… you get the idea.
It Keeps the Essence of the Story
ONE PIECE | Official Trailer | Netflixwww.youtube.com
Simply telling the story the way it was meant to be told shouldn’t be a huge deal, but looking at Dragon Ball Evolution, Death Note and Cowboy Bebop, you get an appreciation for the basics. Seriously, there’s probably an alternate universe where Netflix made Nami a cheerleader and Luffy’s trying to steal back his straw hat from the captain of the basketball team. Nope. Here, Netflix keeps things simple, even if knowing what to keep and what to remove is probably a little harder than it seems.
While some things are condensed and rearranged, the storyline of Netflix’s One Piece is largely faithful to the anime. Here, the crew of Luffy, Nami, Zoro, Sanji and Usopp connect under circumstances extremely similar to the original series, and their adventures — and their motivations — stay close, too. In the manga and in the anime, Luffy wants to be King of the Pirates, Nami wants to free her village and Zoro wants to be the world’s greatest swordsman — and all of this is true in the Netflix version, and the character motives keep the soul of One Piece intact.
This means there’s all the swashbuckling adventure and character-building of the OG. You get to see the tragedies that made each member of the Straw Hat Pirates into who they are, and, as was the case for the original, it’s an engrossing tale of friendship and adventure.
They Nailed the Main Character
ONE PIECE | Eiichiro Oda Meets Iñaki Godoy | Netflixwww.youtube.com
With his combination of bulletproof optimism and naïveté, Monkey D. Luffy is a hard character to embody. That level of earnestness isn’t something you can half-ass — you’ve got to really commit. The Imperfects star Iñaki Godoy more than pulls it off. For the role, he uses his encouraging smile and lively facial expressions to convey wonder and a genuine sense of excitement at every step. He’s able to be a fiercely determined warrior, an empathetic friend or an outright goofball, depending on the scene. It’s a perfect match for a series that oscillates between silliness and life-or-death conflicts.
Most casting for U.S.-produced anime productions aren’t awful — John Cho was a fine Spike Spiegel, if a good bit older than his anime counterpart — but it’s been rare they truly match the essence of the folks they portray. By choosing Godoy to hold down the role of the main character, producers got it right. It’s no wonder Oda was impressed.
It Matches the Aesthetic — and the tone — of the Original
Screengrab from ‘One Piece,’ Netflix.
When putting together a live-action anime or superhero flick, you’ve got to decide whether you want a “realistic” aesthetic like The Dark Knight franchise, or something fantastical like The Avengers. Sometimes, a transition to something more grounded works, as it did in the TDK series. But in other cases, in something like Dragon Ball Evolution, it can lose its charm (among other things). For One Piece, Netflix made no substantive compromises; the live-action show is every bit as colorful. No one is trying to whittle characters and props down to whatever their real-world equivalents would be. There’s no forced stoicism or more functional superhero outfits; if this were X-Men, Wolverine would be dripping yellow and blue. This one embraces camp, and there’s no awkward in-between effort to try to satisfy everyone, making it a project that emits conviction. It knows what it wants to be, so you’re not left with any confusing tonal shifts.
Its Storytelling Is Efficient
Screengrab from ‘One Piece,’ Netflix.
On one hand, trying to tell 40ish episodes worth of stories into eight is a daunting task, but when you consider that people have tried to do the same thing in single movies, it doesn’t seem that bad. Netflix’s One Piece proves the advantages of playing out a story over the course of a series. This one’s got enough time to build a lush world for the characters while also getting to the heart of the story. For this first season, we get fleshed-out origin stories for each of the Straw Hat Pirates while also getting a sense of the pirating universe. We also get a climactic battle. While it gives off the impression of a series with a lot more to tell, there’s a real sense of completion, and few aspects of it feel like a rushed affair.
What This Means for U.S.-Produced Live-Action Anime Going Forward
Screengrab from ‘Death Note,’ Netflix.
Most obviously speaking, the success of One Piece means the folks at Netflix — and everywhere else — now have a proof of concept for successful anime adaptations. It’s not exactly rocket science; stay true to the source material. Their take on One Piece succeeded because they didn’t try to make it into something it wasn’t. By sticking to the truth of the original, they were able to cast the right actors and focus on the right storylines for a project that captured nearly everything that made the original series so entertaining.
It’s a good thing they’ve figured it out, too, because they’re currently working on a new live-action Death Note series. This one is being produced by Stranger Things creators, The Duffer Brothers, so with any luck, it should be a lot better than the platform’s first attempt at adapting the series. It’s not hard to imagine the Shinigami Realm looking like the Upside Down. If they can infuse the best parts of Stranger Things with Death Note, One Piece might be eclipsed in the not-so-distant future.
Peter is a writer and editor who covers music, movies, and all things dope.
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