As I mentioned in my preview of One Piece‘s first episode, I’ve only recently been converted into the massive flock of fans that Eiichiro Oda‘s manga has grown over the last quarter-century, but that didn’t make me any less excited—or nervous—for Netflix‘s extremely ambitious live-action adaptation of the legendary saga of Monkey D. Luffy and the rest of the Straw Hat Pirates. After the streaming service’s botched attempt at making Cowboy Bebop work in the realm of actual human meat space, one could hardly be blamed for assuming that a good Western adaptation of one of the industry’s weirdest and wildest shonen fantasies was a doomed effort from the start. After binging all eight of this inaugural season’s chapters, though, I am happy to report that our fears were misguided and that all signs seem to point to us living in a universe in which miracles can, at least occasionally, occur. Let it be known, mateys: Netflix‘s One Piece is good. It’s really good.
I cannot stress enough how much of this show’s success should be credited to the casting of the Going Merry crew. For all of the (rightly deserved) praise that has been heaped onto the series’ pitch-perfect set designs and costume work—which perfectly evoke Oda’s original vision while still feeling at least mostly plausible when applied to living human beings—One Piece is a story that lives and dies on the strengths of its characters, and if we didn’t immediately fall in love with this iteration of the Straw Hat Crew, things would have been very dire indeed. Somehow, though, the show managed to exceed expectations by finding performers that fit so well into their respective roles that it is virtually impossible not to fall in love with them.
Emily Rudd does an excellent job playing the relatively straight woman to the rest of the crew’s ridiculous antics, and she also carries some of the most emotional scenes of the season’s final episodes. Mackenyu acquits himself quite well as slightly more grounded interpretation of Zoro, with his most impressive feat perhaps being how he makes fighting with a sword clenched between his teeth look exactly as cool as it does in 2D. Both Jacob Romero Gibson and Taz Skylar make the most of their somewhat more limited screentime since they only get half as many episodes as the rest of the gang to make their mark, and their chemistry with the other Straw Hats proves to be just as infectious despite the hurried pace of East Blue Arc. Kudos to Morgan Davies and Vincent Regan, who get much more screentime than I thought they would as Koby and Vice Admirable Garp, and they provide a much-needed face to the Marine side of the story. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jeff Ward‘s scene-stealing turn as Buggy the Clown, which may take the cake as my favorite version of the character, hands down.
Without a doubt, though, this season (and the series, really) belongs to Iñaki Godoy. Goku may have come first, but Luffy has essentially become the poster boy for every gloriously ridiculous Shonen Jump hero of the last thirty years, and making that particular combination of idiocy, optimism, and raw, friendship-fueled power work in live action is a Herculean task that has rarely translated well in Western productions. Godoy makes it look easy, though, imbuing every single one of his lines with so much infectious charm and vitality that you believe that he could convince dozens of people to follow him to the ends of the earth on the most bizarre and dangerous adventures imaginable. From here on out, whenever I’m catching up on the manga, it will be a struggle not to hear Luffy’s lines in Godoy’s voice, and I can’t think of a better compliment to make than that.
I don’t want to undersell the hard work that went on behind the scenes to make One Piece work, either. In addition to the excellent production design that I mentioned earlier, a hell of a lot of work was put into making this story something that could even be coherent. You’d think cramming over a hundred chapters of manga into a scant eight hours of television would make for a complete mess of a viewing experience, but once again, Once Piece defies the odds. While the show doesn’t always stitch everything together seamlessly, Matt Owens, Steven Maeda, and the rest of the creative team make some smart choices to get us moving from Windmill Village to Arlong Park with the most important beats of the East Blue Arc intact. Making Buggy, Garp, and Arlong himself into villains that carry the entire season along keeps everything feeling cohesive. Each episode makes smart use of the manga’s many flashbacks to break up the action with all of the necessary backstory to get us invested in each new addition to the Straw Hats Crew. I’ve checked in with several viewers who’d barely even heard of Once Piece before checking out this series, and they seemed to have no problem following along, so the show is doing a solid enough job of making things work for newbies.
Now, I’ve spent many hundreds of words singing the praises of One Piece, but there is still room for improvement should the show get renewed for more seasons. For one, a couple of episodes in the middle of the season struggle with the usual issues of editing and pacing that plague practically every Netflix Original. It might sound insane to say, given what we just talked about with the pacing and condensing of the source material, but many of these episodes would benefit from being shorter.
Also, the cinematographers certainly made a lot of…choices for this show, and while I love the way it looks 90% of the time, some of those choices don’t work. There’s an overreliance on distorted fish-eye lens close-ups for a lot of dialogue scenes that look weird, for one; it makes some fairly basic conversations look like scenes ripped straight out of Requiem for a Dream, which I don’t think was the intention. Worse yet, nearly every scene shot at night looks like muddy garbage, and I do not understand why. I am begging you, modern Hollywood cinematographers, to learn how to shoot things that take place in the dark! Remember, Luffy’s weakness is seawater, not artificial lighting.
Am I going to let some minor quibbles about sloppy editing and inconsistent lighting ruin my good time with Luffy and the Crew? Hell no. We’ve got the power of friendship and anime on our side, and it’ll take more than some first-season growing pains to keep the Going Merry from sailing right along! Against all odds, Netflix has managed to strike gold and produce one of the greatest live-action anime adaptations ever made, and they would be fools not to renew it for however many seasons it takes to see this adventure through to the end.