I may have only recently joined the hordes of fans that Eiichiro Oda’s manga has amassed over the last 25 years, as I noted in my preview of the first episode of One Piece, but that didn’t lessen my excitement—or anxiety—for Netflix’s incredibly ambitious live-action adaptation of the fabled adventures of Monkey D. Luffy and the rest of the Straw Hat Pirates. One could almost blame the streaming service’s disastrous attempt to bring Cowboy Bebop to life in the real world of actual human flesh for the assumption that a decent Western adaptation of one of the craziest and wildest shonen fantasies in the industry was doomed from the start. But after binge-watching all eight of the chapters from this first season, I’m delighted to say that our concerns were unfounded and that all the evidence seems to point to the possibility that miracles do, at least, occasionally, occur in our world. Let the world know, friends: One Piece on Netflix is awesome. It’s excellent.
I can’t emphasize enough how much of the Going Merry crew’s casting is responsible for this show’s success. One Piece is a story that lives and dies on the strengths of its characters, and if we didn’t fall in love with this version of the Straw Hat Crew right away, things would have been very dire indeed. This is despite all of the (rightfully) lavish praise that has been bestowed upon the series’ flawless set designs and costume work, which flawlessly evoke Oda’s original vision while still feeling at least mostly plausible when applied to living human beings. But for some reason, the show pulled off an unexpected coup by casting actors who were so natural in their parts that it was hard not to fall in love.
In addition to carrying some of the most poignant moments in the season’s closing episodes, Emily Rudd does a fantastic job as the comparatively straight woman to the rest of the crew’s absurd shenanigans.
As a somewhat more realistic portrayal of Zoro, Mackenyu does a really good job. His most noteworthy achievement, though, may be how he replicates the coolness of swordfighting in two dimensions. Though they only have half as many episodes as the rest of the gang to establish themselves, Jacob Romero Gibson and Taz Skylar both make the most of their somewhat more restricted screentime, and their chemistry with the other Straw Hats proves to be just as infectious despite East Blue Arc’s hurried pace. Bravo to Morgan Davies and Vincent Regan for giving the Marine side of the narrative a much-needed face; as Koby and Vice Admiral Garp, they receive far more screen time than I anticipated. Not to mention Jeff Ward’s brilliant performance as Buggy the Clown, which easily tops all other versions of the character in my opinion.
But without a question, Iűaki Godoy is the true winner of this season—and the entire series. Goku might have been the first, but Luffy has essentially taken on the role of the poster child for all of the gloriously ridiculous Shinen Jump heroes of the past thirty years. It is an enormous undertaking to bring that unique blend of foolishness, hope, and raw, friendship-fueled power to life in a live action setting, and it has rarely worked well in Western productions. But Godoy makes it appear easy, giving each and every one of his lines such contagious charisma and energy that you think he could persuade dozens of people to accompany him on the most weird and perilous journeys imaginable to the ends of the planet. I can’t think of a higher complement than that: from now on, anytime I’m reading up on the manga, it will be difficult for me not to hear Luffy’s sentences in Godoy’s voice.
I also don’t want to minimize the amount of effort that was put in behind the scenes to make One Piece a success. Apart from the superb production design I just noted, an enormous amount of effort went into creating a tale that might even be logical. You’d think that trying to fit more than a hundred chapters of manga into eight hours of television would result in an extremely messy viewing experience, yet Once Piece manages to pull off another miracle. Even though the program doesn’t always make sense, Matt Owens, Steven Maeda, and the other members of the creative team make some wise decisions that allow us to travel from Windmill Village to Arlong Park while keeping the most significant East Blue Arc beats. Everything feels unified since Buggy, Garp, and Arlong himself are turned into the season’s main antagonists. Every episode cleverly uses the numerous flashbacks found in the manga to intercut the action and provide us with all the information we need to root for each new member of the Straw Hats Crew. I’ve spoken with a number of fans who had never heard of Once Piece before, and they seemed to follow along with ease, so it appears that the show is doing a respectable job of accommodating viewers who are unfamiliar with the genre.
Even though I’ve praised One Piece for hundreds of words, if the show is renewed for further seasons, there is still potential for development. For starters, a few episodes in the middle of the season suffer from the standard pacing and editing problems that beset almost every Netflix Original. Given what we just discussed about the pacing and condensing of the source material, it may sound crazy to suggest that many of these episodes would benefit from being cut shorter.
Additionally, the show’s cinematographers made a lot of decisions, and while I generally like how it looks, some of those decisions don’t work. For one thing, a lot of the strange conversational scenes rely too much on distorted fish-eye lens close-ups; some quite simple talks end up seeming like scenes taken directly out of Requiem for a Dream, which is probably not the intended effect. Even worse, I have no idea why almost every scene that is shot at night appears to be muddy rubbish. Hollywood cinematographers of today, I implore you to learn how to film scenes in the dark! Recall that seawater, not artificial illumination, is Luffy’s vulnerability.
Will I let a few small complaints about shoddy editing and uneven lighting to derail my enjoyable experience with Luffy and the Crew? Oh no. We’ve got friendship and anime on our side, so it will take more than a few growing pains in the first season to stop the Going Merry from taking off! It is one of the best live-action anime adaptations ever done, and Netflix would be foolish not to continue it for as many seasons as it takes to finish this quest. Against all chances, the streaming service has struck gold with this production.