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Why Netflix's 'One Piece' Adaptation Can't Quite Capture the Magic of the Original

By Allyson Johnson | TV | September 6, 2023 |

By Allyson Johnson | TV | September 6, 2023 |


The live-action adaptation of One Piece is a near success. Based on the long-running Japanese manga series of the same name by Eiichiro Oda—which first began in 1997 and has now been developed for television by Matt Owens and Steven Maeda years later—there’s a clear reverence for the source material. This warmth for Oda’s work and the palpable affection for the characters work hard to ensure that, at the very least, Netflix’s latest anime adaptation is an engaging, often entertaining experience. That said, despite the grandeur of the sets and the committed, pitch-perfect casting and performances by the lead actors, it never quite lives up to its best and most rousing moments, failing to maintain the necessary vigorous momentum.

There’s a reason why people have long believed the series to be unadaptable. For the uninitiated, Alexander was kind enough to put the work into explaining the legacy of the series at greater depth.

Oda’s work is rich with outlandish imagery, balanced with its dense, ever-growing lore that pushes at the boundaries in the same way the expressions of the characters leap off the page and threaten to spill over the panels. To enjoy One Piece—especially as a viewer who has never read the manga or watched the anime—is to commit fully to the absurdity of this world. The series follows the adventures of the Straw Hat Pirates, a group who explore increasingly dangerous oceans and lands in search of the “One Piece,” a treasure born from the legend that they believe will make their captain, Monkey D. Luffy (Iñaki Godoy), “King of the Pirates.”

Luffy is powered by the Gum-Gum Devil Fruit, a mystical fruit he ate as a child that has given him powerful, rubber-like abilities. Throughout the eight episodes, he is first joined by former bounty hunter Zoro (Mackenyu), who has his own dream of becoming the world’s best swordsman, and Nami (Emily Rudd), a skilled thief and navigator harboring a tragic past. The Straw Hat Pirates are rounded out with the cowardly Ussop (Jacob Romero Gibson), who dreams of being a strong warrior of the sea like his father, and chef Sanji (Taz Skylar), who seeks out different parts of the world to discover greater culture and cuisine.

One Piece is a series built on the formidable dreams of one character, Luffy, whose passion and enigmatic determination are infectious to those around him. The adaptation captures that essence, especially in the first six episodes as those he meets continue to be pulled into his charismatic orbit. The cast is an enormous part of the series’ charm, with Godoy, Gibson, and Skylar, in particular, delivering strong performances that perfectly encapsulate what makes their characters so iconic. Gibson brings a level of affability to his version of Ussop, while Skylar is truly revelatory as Sanji. But it’s Godoy upon whom the show truly hinges; his performance of Luffy brims with exuberance and playful warmth, even in sequences that force introspection onto a character who works best outside of those reflective impulses.

Mackenyu is strong and possesses tremendous physicality in his fight scenes, but Zoro’s characterization suffers from the writers’ pervasive need to saddle him with lines that play too hard into the hands of “cool guy” syndrome. Zoro is best when aloof, rather than delivering lines about needing to drink to talk about emotions.

Rudd is similarly strong but works best in the ensemble; her storyline in Episodes 7 and 8 is one of the greatest disappointments of the series. Where in the original series her Arlong Park storyline delivers one of the most heartbreaking sequences and a defining turning point that further unites the Straw Hats, here it’s rushed. Part of what makes that so frustrating is that if the writers had instead chosen to skim some of the supporting storylines, such as one with B characters Garp and Koby that do little to advance the plot, there would’ve been more time to develop Nami’s storyline and land an emotional gut punch that better suits the tragic story it’s telling.

Instead, the narrative is distracted as it tries to streamline a sprawling story, making it so that certain standoffs—such as the one between legendary swordsman Dracule Mihawk and Zoro—lose their impact, and emotional revelations, like Nami’s past, are tepid at best. An adaptation for a saga this size requires tinkering and layering in ways that better fit the hour-long television medium. But while One Piece hits all the basic narrative beats to introduce the core five and establish their burgeoning, loyal friendship, it loses the thread in crafting a story that builds to a satisfying cathartic moment.

It’s not just the writing that lets the series down. While the fight sequences are impressive and the camera work is dexterous in how it captures the fluidity of movement—particularly with Mackenyu and Skylar—the visuals are too muted for the story it’s telling. Despite Oda’s involvement in the series, there’s no doubt that the live-action adaptation needed some form of kinetic, energized styling to best honor the elastic visuals that Oda’s world promotes. From combat sequences being almost always shot at night, to skies and seas that needed to be vibrant blue but came out as muted grays, the series lacks imagination in its visuals and direction. One of the best creative decisions is how the score, composed by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, builds to its peak as the characters come together to achieve their dreams.

Oda’s work often depicts the results of defiant playfulness — a creator who seeks beyond the standard storytelling parameters and “serious” artwork in favor of styles and flourishes that engage with the surreal, the cartoonish, and the peculiar. One Piece on Netflix is the sanded-down version of the story, and while it’s perfectly serviceable and entertaining, it lacks the spark and the ingenuity that make the original such a fascinating and timeless piece of fiction.