Netflix’s One Piece Review: A win for live action adaptations

If you find it daunting to dive into a series that's almost 1,100 chapters long then this is a good way to whet your appetite.

by Justin Choo

As one of the genuinely beloved series in the mangaverse, it’s understandable that fans were worried about the live-action adaptation of One Piece. 

And we’re all familiar with the misgivings by now. Visually, it feels too cartoonish to translate well, coupled with the ongoing worry that the show would end up as another production more concerned about preaching culture mores rather than retelling one of manga’s most beloved stories. But now that it’s out, it seems they needn’t have worried.

Close to the manga/anime? Yes and No

To set the record straight, Netflix’s One Piece is not a 1-to-1 adaptation, as some significant changes were made for pacing considerations. The manga and anime rightfully take their time to build the world of One Piece, but that would be too slow for a mainstream audience, whose concerns have to be on the minds of the showrunners. Keeping the story arcs close to the source material would have added a fair number of episodes–and budgetary needs–to the season.

He’s a terrible person, but by golly is Buggy the Clown not the most lovable villain on screens right now? | Image: Netflix

In that regard, I can understand why some memorable side characters were ignored. As much as they are critical in developing the subtleties behind One Piece’s tone, they do precious little once their ‘questlines’ are completed. Given that you’re effectively compressing 900 minutes of content (up to the conclusion of the Arlong Park) down to 400 minutes, I’d say the showrunners did what they could, as well as they could.

As for the characters, One Piece captures the optimism and drive of its 2D counterparts, who have a more human (and relatable) quality about them. Hats off, particularly to the art department, who probably have been sweating through the early phases trying to bring some of the trickier characters to life. The fact that the shark-like Arlong (McKinley Belcher) isn’t a disaster is already half the battle won. A special mention is in order for Buggy (Jeff Ward), not only for the fantastic costume design but also his ability to be menacing and comedic in the right moments.

Different can be good

You can pretty much sum up Luffy’s character in this one picture. | Image: Netflix

The Straw Hat crew are also a little different from their 2D counterparts: Iñaki Godoy’s Luffy is nowhere as unflappable as his source material, but at the same time, he is about as cheesy as you can realistically get short of being clinically insane (in the real world). 

Zorro (Mackenyu) and Nami (Emily Rudd) play the down-to-earth foils and complement each other well enough. Sonny Chiba’s sonny is not quite as intense with the whole honour schtick; then again, he’ll flutter more hearts with that staring-into-space head-turn. You do you, Mackenyu. Emily’s Nami, meanwhile, is a sullen survivor and consequently is more believable (at face value, at least) as someone with unresolved trauma. The differences here are slight, but it seems to work for live-action because we can’t have everyone acting like sociopaths at the same time, can we? Or maybe I really don’t understand how this whole pirating thing works. Argh.

They’re not acting, they’re living it up. The feelgood vibes are just irresistible. | Image: Netflix

Despite his limited screen time, the show stealer amongst the crew is undoubtedly Sanji (Taz Skylar) with his shit-eating grin and mild British accent. His origin story and volatile relationship with head chef Zeff (Craig Fairbrass)–who does a tasteful, bowdlerised poor man’s Gordon Ramsay–probably hit the tear ducts hardest in the live-action adaptation. One Piece creator Eiichiro Oda sure does love to sucker-punch his readers with tear-jerking haymakers under the cover of the story’s inherent goofiness. Unfortunately, not all the epic setups carried over to the Netflix version. It’s a shame that they diminished Usopp’s (Jacob Romero) origin story because the secret behind Usopp’s incessant lies would bring a lump to your throat–if they had stuck closely to the source.

Oda is a master of the pay-off, and it’s a bit early to tell if the live-action version will do him justice in this department. Just an example and spoiler alert–fans are starting to realise that Usopp’s tall tales eventually become fact as the series progresses. That’s the level of ingenuity that Oda is playing at with One Piece. 

Not gonna lie, they shortchanged Usopp in his own story. | Image: Netflix

I doubt it ever will, but I don’t think it matters in the end. The Netflix adaption is all about keeping things tight, which isn’t bad in hindsight. If you are new to One Piece, the Netflix version might be the perfect entry point for getting your feet wet without getting overwhelmed by the lore.

Watch or pass?

It’s safe to say that One Piece will still polarise viewers. If you are a hardcore fan expecting a faithful recreation, then it’s hard to say what might trigger you–take your pick of compromises made to squeeze all those arcs into eight episodes. If you’re new to the franchise, without the safe space of manga or anime, it requires you to suspend disbelief, and tolerances vary wildly from person to person.

Steven Ward’s Mihawk is a little more standoffish than the anime version, but equally as cool. | Image: Netflix

One of the trickiest bits to translate is Japanese kitsch; think surreal and ludicrous game shows like Silent Library or Japanese wrestlers selling an epic battle with a blow-up doll without breaking character. If there’s one thing that the Japanese have over the rest of the world, it is a godly level of enthusiasm and commitment to the bit, no matter how ungodly stupid it might sound.

Ironically, this aligns with Luffy’s raison d’etre of wanting to become the king of the pirates, which he emotes with such conviction. The premise is child-like to a fault, yet his conviction is disturbingly worldly-wise. His crew gives the impression that they think he’s so full of it, yet they go along for the ride because they are swayed by his unwavering commitment to the cause and his devotion to their well-being.

The stellar casting is one of the highlights. Garp (Vincent Regan), Koby (Morgan Davis) and Helmeppo (Aidan Scott) are just a few examples. | Image: Netflix

And that’s exactly the same gimmick that Netflix’s One Piece uses on you, imploring you to take a chance on it. If there’s anything clear about One Piece, the work is a love letter to the fans, warts and all. From lush sets to sincere performances, beyond the odd rubbery limb CGI and Luffy’s corny-beyond-corny lines, One Piece is full of heart. It is kind of fluffy that this is my best argument for the series. But it is what it is.

  • 7.5/10
    One Piece - 7.5/10

One Piece

The moral of the story here is if you do things out of love and with conviction, you develop your own real-life plot armour. You’ll need a heart of stone to hate One Piece.