When Netflix first announced they would be doing a live-action adaptation of the manga juggernaut One Piece, fans around the world collectively groaned. After Netflix adapted (and subsequently botched) the classic show Cowboy Bebop, nobody wanted them to touch anime again with a twelve-foot pole. Live-action anime adaptations as a whole have been historically poorly received. From Dragonball Evolution to Ghost in the Shell, deciding to adapt anime into live-action is walking on thin ice with the six hundred pound weight of fan expectations. There have been successes, though far fewer in number. The Wachowskis’ take on Speed Racer holds middling review scores, but many fans consider it to be a hidden gem. Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel managed to surpass the initial concerns over Alita’s design and go on to be generally well regarded. Neither film is a masterpiece, but I can’t stress enough that even being okay has traditionally been an achievement in this space. This pattern, and the most recent failings of the Cowboy Bebop adaptation, loomed over One Piece like the shadow of death.
For the uninitiated, let me run you through the basics. One Piece follows the story of Monkey D. Luffy, a bright-eyed up-and-coming pirate, and his ragtag crew on their quest to find the treasure of the legendary pirate king Gold Roger. That treasure is hidden at the end of a dangerous stretch of sea called The Grand Line, and in order to even get there Luffy needs to assemble said crew and reach the one location where ships can safely enter. Along the way, he comes into conflict with both the Navy and other pirates such as “Saw-Tooth” Arlong, who takes the role of main antagonist for the Netflix series. Tough as his enemies are, Luffy is a tenacious guy with a trick up his sleeve. You see, Luffy’s body has the properties of rubber thanks to consuming a devil fruit, a naturally occurring fruit that grants unnatural abilities to the first person that takes a bite. This fruit is one of many and they act as the primary superpowers of the series. Fruit users are said to be despised by the sea itself, as anyone that consumes a devil fruit loses their ability to swim, and can’t use their powers when even partially submerged in seawater. This is a lot to bring into the real world, but the production crew felt they could pull it off.
I think it’s worth noting that I was one of the skeptics. I’ve been reading/watching One Piece since I was in middle school. There were stretches of time where I wasn’t following it, I didn’t start reading weekly until around a year and a half ago, but I never got bored with it. I’ve always loved the series and while I’ve only indulged in a few anime adaptations, I’m acutely aware of their reputation and didn’t want one of my favorite series to suffer a similar fate. I was also one of those people that started getting hopeful early on and got swept up in the hype after the first trailer. I was, in fact, one of those people who had a watch party with their friends as soon as possible. This show had me both excited and nervous for release day.
Netflix decided to adapt the first handful of arcs in the story, where the initial four crewmates are recruited consisting of the first one hundred chapters of the manga, in a comparatively short eight episode run. Even with each episode being about an hour long, a hundred chapters is a tall order. Every fan knew some stuff would have to be cut for time. Adaptations always have to make cuts, but eight hours seemed particularly short for the material being covered. However, hope began to rise when we initially got to see the real sets that were being built to replicate some of the series’ iconic locations including the floating restaurant Baratie and the fishman stronghold Arlong Park. Ships were being constructed in their entirety with full commitment to source material, costumes were accurate to the manga, and even the aforementioned fishmen, humanoids with attributes from various sea life, were lovingly realized with prosthetics and make-up.
It became clear from interviews with the showrunners and cast that they were truly passionate about bringing these beloved characters and stories to the silver screen. Once people found out that One Piece’s author Eiichiro Oda was directly involved with the production, the jaded assumptions began to cautiously turn around. When the first teaser trailer dropped, people couldn’t help it anymore: they got excited. Many held onto their wariness, they knew that they shouldn’t get overly invested from a teaser and some photos of the sets and cast, but most couldn’t. The full trailer dropped, accompanied by a heartfelt letter directly from Oda, and the hype was then in full swing. Could this finally be the cursebreaker? Could this be the series that would end the bad run of live-action anime?
On August 31st 2023, One Piece finally released on Netflix. To say it succeeded would be an understatement. It became the most watched show on the platform in multiple countries, and at time of writing boasts an impressive 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 95% audience score, and 8.4 on IMDb. Maybe you think that’s nothing special, and if you aren’t generally an anime fan it probably seems that way. Or maybe you think “Well, yeah. Isn’t One Piece a massive series with tons of adoring fans? Of course it did well.” Here’s the thing, I said earlier that being just okay is an accomplishment among these adaptations, and Cowboy Bebop drives that point home. Cowboy Bebop is a cult classic series from the 80s. It’s on basically every “Greatest Anime of All Time” list, and is a series that gets recommended frequently to anime newcomers. If any adaptation could be carried by fans, it was going to be Cowboy Bebop. The Netflix adaptation managed only 6.7 on IMDb, and 45% on Rotten Tomatoes with a 60% audience score. Of course there’s nuance in there, but that’s startlingly low for a very expensive series based on a very well-liked anime. Fans are notoriously difficult to please. Hell, fans were the ones with the most complaints about One Piece. From Vice Admiral Garp’s B-plot throughout the series to the removal of Don Krieg’s siege of Baratie, fans were unsure how they felt about the changes made to the live-action version. And yet, much like Luffy himself, it persevered.
There’s a lot of speculation on what makes this adaptation work so well. Some attribute it to Oda being there every step of the way and having the crew listen when he made suggestions or pushed for reshoots. Others say it’s the willingness to embrace the cartoon-y nature of the source material, while others still point to the vast majority of the cast and crew being fans of the manga. I think most agree it’s all of the above and then some. Though I think the most important parts are Oda’s enthusiasm for the project and the willingness to stick to the goofy look and spirit of the world being adapted. The desire for live-action series to be more “realistic” tends to strip anime adaptations of the things people enjoyed. Having this team go all in on the wacky world and characters before them solidified this series as truly One Piece, not just a generic show painted to look like it. From building the ships as sets, to having characters like goat-man Merry appear just like the manga, and with the endless easter eggs to other characters and events everything about this production pointed to the hard work the team put in to translate Oda’s world to ours. Did I mention the snail phone muppets? They decided to make the snail phones into actual practical effects! If that doesn’t scream dedication I genuinely don’t know what does.
While everyone was busy making video essays and tweets about it, debating the changes and excitedly speculating on future arcs, Netflix confirmed that they want a second season. This was the announcement that made most people declare that One Piece had officially broken the curse of anime adaptations. It was well received, drew massive amounts of viewers, and got a second season. In fact, an interview with the producers of the show revealed that they’re hoping for twelve seasons, with plenty of ideas for six. An idea that has gotten fans going crazy with speculations and fan castings including a large push for Jamie Lee Curtis to play the eccentric Dr. Kureha in season two, which she’s indicated she’s interested in. It may not last, it would be a genuine surprise if this adaptation manages to cover even half of this massive story, but anime fans finally have a live-action adaptation that is unashamedly anime. Frankly, I think we’re all the better for it. See you on the Grand Line.