On August 31st, Netflix released their 8-episode first season of One Piece, adapted from the 1,000+ chapter manga by Eiichiro Oda. As of this writing, One Piece ranks as the third-highest ever Netflix debut (behind Wednesday and Queen Charlotte). The show has also received a coveted second-season renewal.
Reviews put One Piece at 83% on Rotten Tomatoes and 67/100 on Metacritic, with audience scores much higher. I watched the episodes with a friend two days after Netflix launched them, and I largely agree with this rating. I found One Piece to be good: B+, 7.5/10, 3 out of 4 stars.
…So why am I writing an entire article about it?
So far, a B+ rating is stratospheric compared to other live-action anime adaptations. I’ve seen my share of beloved Japanese content get mangled by the Hollywood machine–Cowboy Bebop and Death Note being the most recent. Why, then, did One Piece, a pirate-fantasy epic about a boy made of rubber who lives in a world with no fashion or architectural cohesion, weather the crossing to critical and international success? Below, this article will trace Hollywood’s obsession with Japan, drawing a map to Netflix’s current treasure haul.
Two reasons: First, Hollywood has long been obsessed with Japanese media, from Sergio Leone
stealing remaking Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars, continuing with George Lucas lifting plot lines from The Hidden Fortress for Star Wars, to Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Carribean) remaking Hideo Nakata’s Ringu as The Ring. Manga/Anime seems to be next in line.
Second, Hollywood has been desperately searching for their next big Intellectual Property (IP) source. I’ve talked before about why blockbusters are largely adaptations or sequels, but studios basically need a pre-existing audience to balance the financial risk of a big swing. Though the past 20 years have been dominated by superhero movies, audiences have become increasingly fatigued by the genre.
Additionally, the only party actually benefitting from superhero movies is Disney, though Warner Bros. and Sony get a taste every few years. With tides shifting, studios believe the next IP trove lies in anime/manga. Netflix has pursued this idea the most assertively. Anime has long been a reliable source of residual income for the streaming giant, so using that viewer base to spread the word about a new adaptation make$ $en$e.
Those who helm anime-to-live-action adaptations face a horde of challenges, but one advantage they possess is the unique position to please both fans who want everything exactly the same as well as fans who want something new from the material. The One Piece anime is over 1,000 episodes, a quintessential victim of the anime industry’s policy of keeping the show on the air year-round instead of releasing material seasonally. As such, One Piece is littered with nonsense filler arcs and long stretches of heroes powering up against villains. A re-edit of the anime could easily halve the episode count, and even die-hard fans would barely notice.
Additionally, the One Piece manga began in 1997, and some of the original art style as well as the writing is creaky. Sanji, for instance, marks the comedic-relief creepy-pervert square on the Dated Trope Bingo card. I don’t necessarily mind that kind of humor, but the first arcs had SO MUCH OF IT. Many of the female characters, meanwhile, have anatomically concerning body proportions. Nami (and, later, Nico Robin) are expertly written, fascinating women. All too often, however, their characterization is overshadowed by their bust size.
Finally, animation has a ceiling cap when it comes to viewership. Part of this comes from Western television historically putting the medium into either the children’s-show or the college-bro box. Another part comes from older generations believing that Japanese anime is immature or lewd. The biggest factor, though, is that some anime have tough barriers of entry: clunky subtitles, subpar dubbing, bizarre release schedules, cultural and moral differences, the one actor who always happens to pierce your eardrums with their obnoxious voice just when your parents walk by.
A live-action adaptation gives One Piece the opportunity to reach more audiences than ever before with is wildly original story, characters and world. Case in point: the live-action series has already doubled the amount of people invested.
Not only did the One Piece Live Action employ a core five ensemble that respect the spirit of their characters, but the group’s chemistry is also off the charts. Their behind-the-scenes footage and publicity videos exude a friendly vibe that CANNOT be faked (Heartstopper is the only other recent example which comes to mind).
The amount of prep through which these members went is also massive. Sanji, for example, became flexible enough to do his West-Side-Story dropkick in real life WHILE training to become a chef.
The entire cast, meanwhile, has been involved in a year-long, gradual ramp up of social media presence. From answering lore questions on WIRED to posting thirst traps on TikTok, the One Piece Live Action ensemble was fully integrated and invested in the show’s success. After all, viewers want to like a show that has actors who passionately care about their material.
A few years ago, a different friend of mine (the one with whom I trauma-bonded after seeing Batman Ninja) and I attempted to watch the Japanese live-action version of Fullmetal Alchemist, seeing as it was both hers and my favorite anime. We stopped after 20 minutes. What broke us was not the hideously wooden acting or cringeworthy special effects, but the utter lack of detailed sets.
The live-action Fullmetal Alchemist world wasn’t lived in; the actors were cosplaying in front of freshly painted backdrops. In the One Piece Live Action sets, the craftsmanship is solid and the colors are vivid, but, since the story takes place on islands or ships, copper is oxidized and the paint jobs are weathered by salt. We, the audience, don’t know how the One Piece world became this way, but we believe it. Every prop and setting has a history that the production team imbued with meaning, captained by the creative heads and informed by the source material.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the One Piece Live Action’s well-crafted production design helps the viewers trust the storytellers.
The fact that Nojiko’s electric-blue hair looks not only plausible, but also appropriate for her character is mind-boggling. Anime hair is often known for its disregard of human genetics, but previous live-action attempts have never looked right to me. That’s because my understanding didn’t go down to the roots.
The hair, makeup, and costume teams studied Oda’s Color Walk book series, in which One Piece‘s creator demonstrates how different characters and collections of characters look in relation to each other in various environments. From there, the hair team created hundreds of wigs, color-testing each to make sure they translated well on camera. Finally, they too considered the history and location of characters’ hair and what their surroundings would do to the locks. Nami’s wig, for instance is sun-kissed on the top layer and cross-stitched with darker oranges and reds underneath. The coloring gives Nami her anime look, but the layers allow her character to feel real, especially as the wind and sea ruffle her wig.
Separately, the costumers wove 35 straw hats for Luffy, using different kinds depending on the needs of his situation. Additionally, they oversized his signature red vest because they didn’t want it to properly fit him, which lends to his ruffled appearance.
The makeup effects, though, are the real finishing move. This season’s villains are a gang of fish-men, led by the cold-blooded Arlong. Their wet, unnatural appendages reminded me of the best Star Trek aliens. Choice after choice added up in these departments, culminating in rich visuals lavished upon the audience.
When adapting manga and anime to live action, one massive pitfall to which many creatives fall prey is assuming the material functions the same as superhero comics. Western properties like Batman and Spiderman tend to focus on moments frozen in time. These instances let the reader absorb detail, frame composition, and character shape. Manga, however, focuses on motion, lending strength to action, direction, and character expression. A good analogy would be to compare Western comics to a photo and Eastern comics to a “live” photo. (There are plenty of exceptions, of course, and both are valid approaches. To treat the two as identical, however, is a mistake.)
Here, the One Piece Live Action deftly navigates between honoring the style and telling a cohesive story. Of course, sharp editing only cuts through when forged with steely cinematography sheathed in careful direction.
The point is that, for the One Piece Live Action to come off as bleeding-edge cool, every department worked incredibly hard for to achieve a vision in which they believed. For that vision to translate to the audience while pleasing the fans, the show’s creator had to keep one thing in mind…
Lest one think I’m a gushing superfan, One Piece doesn’t even crack my top five. I’ve always been neutral towards the anime. I grew bored of the horrid pacing and numerous filler arcs, but I appreciated the characters, world, and (core) storyline.
The One Piece Live Action, then, deserves this extensive examination because it achieves what one of my old screenwriting teachers would call the mark of a stellar adaptation: It honors the bones.
What he meant with this phrase was that, when adapting a movie or television show, one should strive to respect the source material without slavishly recreating it. To perfectly translate an adaptation is to suffocate it, making it feel disappointingly wooden at best and mummified at worst. Conversely, fans of an original property will eviscerate creatives who adapt a story that throws out everything that made it interesting in the first place.
Examples of both extremes exist. Zach Snyder’s Watchmen movie used the graphic novel as a storyboard, which gave the film gorgeously faithful visuals but distant, cold direction. Meanwhile, not a week goes by where I don’t hear a complaint about the Percy Jackson movies because they completely changed characters’ behaviors and the story’s tone.
Going forward, the One Piece Live Action could still take some wrong turns (I imagine a certain adorable talking deer will make for some interesting challenges) and crash upon the shoals, but I’m excited to see what course they chart.
That alone means I trust their captain.
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