Fans had every right to approach Netflix and Tomorrow Studios’ ONE PIECE with trepidation. Live-action adaptations of anime and manga have had a troubled history of just being downright terrible, with some of them like Adam Wingard’s Death Note coming from Netflix themselves. Fans were on high alert from the moment the streamer announced an adaptation of Eiichiro Oda’s beloved ONE PIECE manga. However, as more information such as castings came to light and that first trailer dropped, I found myself doing something very much in the spirit of the Straw Hat Pirates: against all the odds, I dared to dream – and those dreams were answered.

For the unfamiliar, the basic gist of ONE PIECE is that it’s an action-adventure series following Monkey D. Luffy, (Iñaki Godoy) a joy-filled pirate who sets out to sea in search of his dream – finding a legendary treasure and becoming the next King of the Pirates. However, as a child, he accidentally ate a fruit that granted him stretchy powers, at the cost of his ability to swim. Along the way, he meets new allies with their own dreams, and fights anyone who would get in the way of them – whether they’re fellow pirates terrorising the seas, or the World Government trying to enforce law and order.

one piece

ONE PIECE should not be possible to adapt into live-action. At least, that’s what I first thought when hearing news of this project. The original manga has a very cartoony appearance and feel even when compared to other manga. This is perhaps even more obvious right now, with the anime recently showcasing the highly anticipated debut of Luffy’s “Gear 5” power that takes direct inspiration from cartoons like Looney Tunes. However, what co-showrunners Matt Owens and Steven Maeda clearly recognised is that more important than any stylistic leanings is a series’ heart, which this new adaptation embraces, allowing the transition to a more photorealistic medium.

In her book “The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film”, the writer Linda Seger observes that “films that are merely story lines also don’t do well with audiences. The best action-adventures or thrillers or drama or comedies will still contain a theme or underlying idea“. This quote encapsulates what makes this series work so well, and ultimately where the likes of Rupert Sanders’ 2017 “Ghost in the Shell” failed – it tried to emulate the shell of Oshii’s iconic anime, but failed to recognise the “ghost”, or theme.

Faced with the Herculean task of adapting the 95-chapter run that took the manga up to the end of the Arlong Park story into just eight hour-long episodes, the team at Tomorrow Studios clearly realised that ONE PIECE isn’t about the funny little man Gaimon who got stuck in a treasure box, or even about the dog Chouchou who stared down a lion to protect its late owner’s store (as much as I adore Chouchou): it’s about being free to chase your dreams. Narratively, the first season also serves as our introduction to the eventual members of the Straw Hat Pirates and their own goals. So, even if a particular storyline or character is fun, if they don’t serve either of those thematic or narrative goals, it was reasonable for them to be on the chopping block.

You can watch the final Trailer below:

One fortunate aspect of ONE PIECE‘s early chapters is that they take an almost episodic approach to introducing the core cast. In simple terms, Luffy travels from one island to the next and on each one, meetings someone with their own unique problem to solve (see: bad guy to punch). Behind all this, there’s the slow bubbling of hints about something going on with Nami, which culminates in the confrontation with Arlong. This coincidentally fits perfectly with the typical format of a television serial, which typically have an A plot alongside an overarching B plot.

Adapting a story into another medium doesn’t always mean just leaving out aspects of the source material to make space. It can sometimes also mean adding or changing something to better suit the new medium or specific story being told. While being widely praised for its overall faithfulness to the source material, Netflix’s ONE PIECE does make some inspired changes that help the transition into the new medium, and the series is better for them. One of my favourite examples that I thought worked exceptionally well was the decision to alter the battle against Captain Kuro (Alexander Maniatis). Instead of having an action set-piece on the beach like in the original manga, Emma Sullivan’s pair of episodes instead clearly took notice of the villain’s Freddy Krueger-inspired weapons and paid homage to slasher films by having a cat-and-mouse sequence play out entirely in Kaya’s mansion. Yes, it was a deviation from the source material, but it played to the strengths of both the sinister Kuro and cowardly Usopp (Jacob Romero Gibson). It was such an inspired choice that I think I might actually prefer this version!

In an interview with ScreenRant, Maeda acknowledged the challenge of adapting a weekly serialised comic into a fixed television season format that it was never designed for – the series needed a beginning, middle, and end that the manga just doesn’t have yet. He explained that weaving Arlong’s presence into the story earlier on was an important part of this, to help build him up as an overarching antagonist for the season. Another major change was bringing forward the introduction of Vice Admiral Garp, (Vincent Regan) a major figure in Luffy’s life who normally first appears much later in the story. Maeda elaborated that the decision was to ensure that there was a constant Marine presence on Luffy’s tail, which I thought also helped to cement the worldbuilding, as the manga can sometimes go through stretches of conflicts between pirates.

Vice Admiral Garp (played by Vincent Regan). Image: Netflix.Vice Admiral Garp (played by Vincent Regan). Image: Netflix

Maeda acknowledged that both changes initially saw opposition from the manga’s creator Eiichiro Oda, who also served as Executive Producer and had final sign-off on everything. Even if both changes weren’t present in the source material, I thought that both were inspired and beneficial to the story. Arlong’s increased presence helped build a more typical TV show structure, while Garp’s aided in the world-building for people not already familiar with the property.

Adding in scenes or elements not present in the source material is often frowned upon, but with the right writer, they can help further the exploration of a show’s characters or themes. One such moment that stands out in ONE PIECE is a conversation between Garp and Zeff (Craig Fairbrass), the peg-legged owner of the restaurant ship Baratie. These characters never meet in the manga, and on the surface their conversation is little more than idle chitchat, but their discussion about the up-and-coming new generation of pirates plants the seeds for a theme that becomes important to both Garp’s personally and the series as a whole. Although some fans may bemoan its inclusion considering actual scenes from the manga were cut, its inclusion felt like a natural progression of Garp’s expanded role that felt true to his character.

Of course, the narrative isn’t the only important part of an adaptation. With ONE PIECE already being a smash-hit manga and anime, fans will have decades-old attachments to the characters, and will want them to see them faithfully depicted as well. If we look at the failed anime adaptations of old, Dragon Ball Evolution‘s high school senior has nothing in common with the simple natured yet kind child from Akira Toriyama’s manga beyond sharing the name Goku, while Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell gave The Major an unnecessarily complicated backstory that sought to justify the casting of Caucasian actress Scarlett Johansson, while also keeping the character’s origin as Japanese. Instead, it just mired the film in controversary.

However, then adapting ONE PIECE, Maeda noted that one of Oda’s strictest mandates was that character origins couldn’t be changed. I think that this was important to the series’ success, because just like with real people, a character’s past defines them. Luffy receiving the straw hat from Shanks is one of the franchise’s most iconic images, Sanji was taught to always feed those who are hungry when Zeff gave him all their food while stranded, and Zoro’s promise to Kuina is what drives him forward. These inform the characters’ actions throughout the story, and are all aspects that existing fans are familiar with.

It’s not just the writing that’s true to the characters, either. Casting directors Libby Goldstein and Junie Lowry-Johnson deserve acclaim for assembling a cast that both have the talent to embody these characters, but also look like they might have just jumped straight out of the pages of the manga. Jacob Romero Gibson’s Usopp and Craig Fairbrass’ Chef Zeff are particular standouts for me, but having previously seen him in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, I always knew that Jeff Ward was the perfect choice for Buggy the Clown – a performance which saw him named TVLine’s Performer of the Week.

Vice Admiral Garp (played by Vincent Regan). Image: Casey Crafford/Netflix.Dracule Mihawk (played by Steven Ward). Image: Netflix

With so many comic book adaptations almost acting embarrassed by the visuals of their source material, with even Bryan Singer’s seminal X-Men taking a jab at the comics’ original yellow costumes, it was refreshing to see ONE PIECE fully embrace even the outfits from the original manga. From small details like Garp still having a dog-themed hat, to Dracule Mihawk looking like a dedicated cosplayer. I was initially concerned that being this faithful even to the characters’ outfits and unnatural hair colours might have been too goofy, but it quickly just becomes the series’ unique vibe.

From the writing, the acting, and the aesthetics, the cast of ONE PIECE carries a feeling of familiarity that few adaptations have captured so well. One of the biggest fears that fans had was that the series would fail to do justice to some of the manga’s most iconic and emotional moments, but with all of these elements in tandem, the series absolutely nailed its biggest test: Nami’s “Help Me” moment. You can tell the pressure was on when even Crunchyroll, the anime’s official streaming partner, uploaded a clip of the scene before the live-action series’ premiere. As I watched Emily Rudd’s Nami turn to look at Luffy with tear-filled eyes and meekly utter those words to Iñaki Godoy’s Luffy, I was stunned. They nailed it.

There’s one last piece that I believe was vital to the success of this adaptation: Eiichiro Oda. This might sound at odds with the very nature of adaptations, but having the original creator on board was critical on two fronts: the first being that Oda is such a master of worldbuilding that he has a tendency to throw in casual references to things that may only become relevant literally a decade later (or longer), so he can advise on whether changing something may inadvertently ruin some future plan. However, most crucially: his presence inspired confidence in the fans.

Watch Eiichiro Oda Meet Iñaki Godoy below:

It’s no surprise that ONE PIECE fans show near religious reverence to the creator of the series they love, with some fans even humorously referring to him as “Goda”. Manga creators are famously camera shy, but Netflix spared no expense in making sure that Oda was always front and centre of the series’ marketing, no doubt hoping to avoid a repeat of Cowboy Bebop, with the original creator Shinichiro Watanabe later expressing “It was clearly not Cowboy Bebop“. The streamer even shared a message from Oda that explicitly stated “They’ve [Netflix] promised that we won’t launch it [the series] until I’m satisfied“. Oda’s on-hands role as Executive Producer was also emphasised in cast and crew interviews alike, where it was noted that he had final say on everything from the scripts to the casting. With fans having so much goodwill towards Oda, knowing that his stamp of approval is all over the show and hearing him talk so positively about it has inspired confidence in an audience normally prone to pessimism.

Of course, the real test of anime adaptation isn’t just whether it passes muster with existing fans of the source material, but how well it does with brand new viewers. Netflix aren’t particularly known for sharing viewing data, but anecdotally, it looks to be doing well. The series has been in #1 show in most countries during launch weekend (reaching highs of the #2 in my native UK), and I watched the series with my Mum and she loved it – which is obviously more important.

With Netflix and Tomorrow Studios showing so much reverence towards both ONE PIECE and its creator, the end result is a series that is remarkably faithful to the source material while also fitting into the stylings of a new medium, truly setting a new high standard for live-action anime adaptations. I can only hope that it performs well enough for a renewal – I am personally very curious to see how Tomorrow Studios will approach adapting Tony Tony Chopper…

ONE PIECE is streaming now on Netflix.