It’s been a nervous few years for One Piece fans. The live-action adaptation gears started turning years ago, and after long periods of silence, we finally saw our first glimpse of what a live-action One Piece would look like, in the form of casting announcements. The casting for the Straw Hat crew is borderline perfect, so that feeling of dread slowly morphed into a nervous excitement.
It was even more reassuring to see the sets that had been built for the series: a realistic replica of the Straw Hat ship, the Going Merry, and the huge sea restaurant Baratie had been recreated entirely. Clearly, the showrunners knew how important these aspects were for the series, and there was suddenly a reason to be optimistic. Then the first trailer dropped just a few weeks ago, and it wasn’t bad. Not amazing, but not bad at all. Was I actually excited to see Netflix’s live-action One Piece?
Fast-forward to now, and Netflix’s One Piece has been available to watch for a few days, and I’ve watched it all, along with most anime fans on the internet. This is definitely One Piece: the spirit is there, the vibe is so close, and it tells the story fans adore. But it also does that story a great disservice.
Let’s start with the first episode, which also happens to be one of the best in the series. Zoro’s introduction? Beautiful, and deserves a special nod as it is an original scene that was lightly hinted at in the main story. Nami has been added into this episode too, and her shenanigans? Great stuff – she’s proving why she’s known as the Cat Burglar. But small thematic components have been dropped in the name of runtime – or perhaps they just couldn’t figure out how to implement them.
For example, Helmeppo in the manga has a cartoonish butt-chin. It makes him look silly, and without ever mentioning it, it’s clear why the hyper-masculine and aggressive father Axe-Hand Morgan wears a metal chin-guard: he’s hiding the same butt-chin, an aspect of his appearance that ruins his intimidating persona, so he covers it up. Along with the axe hand itself, it paints a picture of utter insecurity: Morgan is desperate to make himself appear intimidating and powerful, and if you look close enough, the facade falls apart.
The same goes for Helmeppo. He’s a spoilt brat because his father is the wealthy Marine captain who leads the base they live on. This gives Helmeppo free rein to torment villagers and generally act like the brat he is. Helmeppo is the one man who doesn’t suffer torment from his father, and therefore has reason to see himself as superior to everyone else who lives on the island. But later, Morgan reveals that he’s never hit Helmeppo, not out of special treatment, but simply because his disappointment of a son was never worth his time. With his worldview and superiority complex shattered, Helmeppo joins the Marines along with Koby to make something of himself.
Without a cartoonish butt-chin on Helmeppo, the first example just doesn’t hold the same thematic weight. But worse, in the first scene we see that features both Morgan and Helmeppo, Morgan strikes his son. It’s here as evidence that Morgan is cold and uncaring, even for his family – let alone the Marines under his control – but it’s a sub-par version of the original, one that doesn’t give Helmeppo impetus to grow. So, naturally, he’s still acting like a brat, even when working on a Marine vessel with Koby.
Minor issues like this are pervasive throughout the series – tiny omissions that seem harmless enough on the surface, but significantly deaden the impact of emotional scenes and events. One section that doesn’t quite suffer the same fate, luckily, is the Baratie arc which features Sanji and Chef Zeff. Sanji’s backstory with Zeff is pretty much pitch-perfect, and does a good job of making you forget about Zoro’s underwhelming confrontation with Mihawk, of the hit-and-miss prosthetics and performances from some of the fishmen.
I could go episode-by-episode, breaking down everything I loved and hated, but I really don’t want to break down exactly why the Syrup Village section was awful – I’ve gone on for long enough as it is. Despite my almost incessant complaints, One Piece might be the best live-action adaptation any long-running anime series has received. It certainly does a much better job of telling the core story than any other I’ve seen, and it stays true to the moments that make the series so popular and beloved.
Make no mistake: this is the One Piece story. It might’ve had a few trims and alterations, but the core of the tale is here in full, and that’s more than what can be said of most live-action anime adaptations. I even found myself getting a bit emotional at a few scenes, but it left me with one burning question: if I didn’t already love One Piece, would I care about this?
Honestly, I don’t think I would. It’s the little moments that have stayed with me throughout One Piece, and they combine to make those hard-hitting scenes even more impactful. When the little moments get trimmed, nothing quite feels the same – not to mention, there aren’t many actors that can display the kind of emotional range that mangaka Eiichiro Oda wrings from contorting the faces of his characters. Without the absurdist artwork and distinct tone, live-action One Piece is just… okay. It’s fine. It’s not bad, but gosh, I really wish it were better.
If you’re new to One Piece and the live-action series has gotten you curious about the world and characters, then I implore you to pick up the manga (or even start watching the anime) and experience the full story. Eiichiro Oda has crafted an intricate, complicated, and enthralling world to get lost in. If your only experience with One Piece is this Netflix series, then you know as much about the wider world as a frog born in a well.