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Netflix One Piece - First Thoughts

Netflix One Piece - First Thoughts

Posted on 01 Sep 2023

So finally the much-anticipated Netflix adaptation of One Piece has arrived, a risky proposition given that this has been developed by the same team behind the terrible Cowboy Bebop live action series that even the original author turned his nose up at. The challenge is even more daunting considering the insanity of the core show, the eccentric characters and outlandish outfits. This could end up looking like a cosplay at a jumble sale.

I’ve not been an avid reader of One Piece, so for me at least there’s little to ruin here. Unlike Battle Angel, Cowboy Bebop and Bleach, I have no expectations going in.

The first episode of the show actually works pretty well. All the main players are well cast, especially Mackenyu Arata as the triple sword wielding Zoro who steals every scene he’s in and provides some superb fight scenes. After a little screen time, even Inaki Godoy won me over as Luffy, his cheeky enthusiasm capturing the essence of the character as well as can be expected for such a cartoonish character in live action. Adrian Scott as Helmeppo adds some classic British villainy, he brings with him a very punchable face and clearly enjoys his time chewing the scenery, vein and cowardly in a manner that reminded me of Peter Ustinov’s King John from Disney’s Robin Hood. Emily Rudd felt a bit miscast as Naomi, she’s very… American and unlike the others, doesn't quite feel part of the world she's inhabiting. Still, that ought to give fans in the US an anchor character and as time went on she became a little less jarring.

Zoro
Zoro - easily my favourite character in the show

One of the aspects I did like about the show was that, competent as they are, neither Luffy nor Nami are unbeatable in combat. It would have been easy to take the usual route of having them take on endless opponents with ease, but during their escape scene it’s made clear that they would be overwhelmed by marines without the intervention of Zoro, and that further adds a level of vulnerability that makes you actively root for the characters and provide a sense of danger you just don’t usually get with modern shows. Hell, Ahsoka stands on a ship in space and takes out an attacking vessel with her lightsaber while doing a flip, a concept so fundamentally ludicrous on so many levels that I was genuinely surprised to see Nami forced to her knees in combat and in need of help. This is where we are with modern fantasy and sci-fi - a show about a rubber pirate is more grounded than Star Wars. 

Special mention has to go to the director, Marc Jobst and cinematographers Nicole Herschel Whitaker and Michael Wood - the series looks gorgeous, with a rich colour palette and solid use of depth of field, they’ve managed to take a wacky and cartoonish world and make it look both colourful and grounded. It’s lightyears ahead of Disney’s Ahsoka in that respect and proof that the visuals were a strong consideration when putting this together. 

You have to give the show a little slack for attempting to make a pirate ship covered in love hearts and firing pink glitter infused cannonballs even remotely credible, and it does walk the line between a CBeebies production and a Tarantino flick - the violence is pretty graphic, one clownish character getting chopped in half and the camera not shying away from the internal organs being clearly visible as the body falls. Tonally it’s all over the shop, but that kind of works here. What’s important is that the peril feels real and there are genuine stakes accompanied by some wonderfully grim humour (Arata again with a dry delivery that actually made me laugh out loud).

Oh, Ian McShane as the narrator is pure genius. Whoever thought of that needs a pat on the back.

The team behind One Piece actually had the humility to apologise for their epic misfire of Cowboy Bebop, and it seems that they’ve learned their lessons well. Ardant fans of One Piece will likely find many nits to pick with the show, but taken as its own thing, it clearly establishes a plot, characters, motivations and a worldview that makes sense unto itself. It’s a solid effort from Netflix and as much as I was dreading the show, I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. I’d certainly recommend checking it out and seeing for yourself - perhaps not all anime adaptations are doomed to utter failure after all.

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