The Secret Formula of ‘One Piece’

Live-action manga adaptation has a chance to be Netflix’s tentpole franchise for a decade

Expectations for the live-action Netflix version of One Piece weren’t exactly high. Following disastrous attempts by the streaming platform to adapt Death Note and Cowboy Bebop, the whole live action anime adaptation project seemed like something Netflix might have called off altogether if they hadn’t already put in all the initial work for One Piece. So the genuine popularity of the show, racking up 140 million viewed hours in its first four days and now closing in on 400 million viewed hours was a big surprise.

Given that One Piece is one of the most popular media franchises on the planet, it probably shouldn’t be. The Japanese comic started in 1997 and quickly became a huge hit, now standing as the most popular comic in the world. Artist Eiichiro Oda created a world of piracy in extreme pastiche. You can summarize the fashion sense of One Piece as: imagine an article of clothing that anyone at any point in history who has lived on an island might have worn. Chances are that someone in One Piece dresses like this.

One Piece looks pretty ridiculous in cartoon form. And the Netflix version looks pretty ridiculous too. But remarkably, the Netflix house style of props that the show seems to have collected at random from thrift stores is an almost perfect fit for the One Piece vibe. Some characters look like they stepped out of an anime, others a pirate documentary. The quiet guy who’s standing next to Admiral Garp all the time could be from a thirties gangster movie. Much of the appeal of One Piece derives from how the story can be just about anything at any time, even if most of the time it’s just epic cartoony brawls.

Except this is the one thing the Netflix version of One Piece can’t really do, since there’s only so much money in the special effects budget for Monkey D. Luffy to stretch his body like rubber. So the live action One Piece has to settle for a lot more character building. Here is where costuming alone can’t get the job done, but the Netflix version of One Piece steps up once again with shockingly good casting–not something for which the streaming platform has a reputation.

Indeed, it’s not even well-known for this in the context of actors appearing in One Piece. Remember The Imperfects from last year? Probably not. No one does, but it was actually the first lead role for Iñaki Godoy, who plays Monkey D. Luffy. One Piece is a testament to how you have to cast for roles, and not just assume that actors have generic levels of acting talent that you can transfer basically anywhere. Luffy is a weird combination of boyishly attractive, outrageously sincere, yet incredibly annoying. Godoy perfectly sets a tone of optimistic charm that other characters find odd, even absurd, but is well-grounded to establish the norms of the setting.

What allows One Piece to hit this sweet spot so well is that the the director(s) have clearly asked the actors to take the whole farcical situation as seriously as possible and not make quips. Although how much instruction they may need for this is really an open-ended question. I wasn’t exaggerating when I wrote above that One Piece is the most popular comic series in the world. The younger cast members had almost certainly read it long before any Netflix executive came up with the crazy idea for a live action adaptation, and the older ones are consummate enough professionals to not be into the whole quippy form of storybuilding that seems to be the style these days.

One Piece also benefits a lot from the showrunners being contractually obligated to have to run everything they do by Eiichiro Oda. At first glance, this might be a surprise to fans of the comic and anime, because the structure of the Netflix version of One Piece differs significantly compared to the other two. And there are continuity errors to nitpick, to be sure, but by and large the show makes the adaptational changes to better fit the television format.

Speaking of nitpicks, I don’t generally like to call Netflix shows television…since they don’t actually air on TV. But in the case of One Piece the term is appropriate, because the series clearly structures its beats episodically rather than simply assuming the viewer is going to binge the whole thing at once. The first episode deals with Axe-Hand Morgan, the second Buggy the Clown, the third ends on a twist, and so on. The first episode also closes on a highlight reel of other events to expect from the rest of the season.

This sort of design is a weird kind of meta-anachronism which is, as you can guess, perfectly well in keeping with the rest of the show and its other strange throwbacks, not just to the styles the original One Piece incorporates into its own setting but One Piece’s own late-nineties shonen manga vibe. So much of what makes the show appealing are in small little flourishes that are really easy to miss because the design doesn’t deliberately draw attention to them. Ian McShane delivers the opening voiceover to establish the setting. Luffy mispronounces Buggy’s name by applying the nonstandard rule used for his own name to Buggy’s. The TV-14 production constantly uses the word “shit” really casually without even so much as flirting with any other curse words.

The in-jokes behind this kind of stuff aren’t going to be obvious to everyone, but they don’t have to be. An uninitiated viewer with no knowledge whatsoever of One Piece franchise can see all this strangely specific material and still keep watching, because even if it doesn’t make sense to us, it makes perfect sense to the characters in context. These are the kinds of compelling nuances no AI has yet come close to accomplishing in scripted entertainment, and it’s telling that there have been hints that Netflix is more interested in negotiating an end to the strikes than the major studios are.

Netflix only recently greenlit a second season of One Piece because for all its positives, a full version of the story has a lot of risks. As the devil fruit powers get more outrageous, the special effects budget is only going to get more out-of-control. The fan-favorite character Chopper, a reindeer-human hybrid, will likely cost a ton of money to get just right. Unless they just use a muppet. Which would actually be pretty on-brand. No robot could come up with ideas like this. Netflix need these actors, and they need these writers. And if they can get them, One Piece easily has the potential to be Netflix’s tentpole franchise for the rest of the decade.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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