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Netflix One Piece Series Review

Netflix One Piece Series Review

Posted on 03 Sep 2023

There has been much anticipation ahead of Tomorrow Studios attempt to bring Eiichiro Oda's larger-than-life pirate opus One Piece into live action, not least because the studio was also responsible for the lamentable mess that was Cowboy Bebop last year. In an interview with Variety, Executive Producer Marty Adelstein recognised that fans want to see a faithful adaptation and not some "Westernised" version of a beloved property.

And (straw) hats off to them, they've really taken that to heart with One Piece. It's a lavish production with some excellent visuals - not top tier but excellent for TV nonetheless - but what's really made the difference here is the acting talent involved. 

Following Monkey D. Luffy as he begins his journey to become "King of the Pirates", the show opens with the execution of Gold Roger (or Gol D. Roger as it is appears in the manga) and his proclamation that his treasure, the One Piece, is there for the taking. Narrated by Ian McShane, it takes what should be a triumphant moment for the marines and instead becomes the catalyst for a world rife with piracy as greedy souls take to the seas to chase dreams of untold riches. The irony certainly isn't lost on either Roger nor his captor, Vice Admiral Garp (wonderfully played by Vincent Regan) who realises his mistake almost instantly.

You can see a more detailed dive into episode 1 with my First Thoughts article.

As with all adaptations, there's some adjusting to make as a viewer to what's presented on screen, and I'm fortunate enough to be familiar with One Piece but not a follower of it, having read little of the manga and watched none of the anime. Those who love this franchise (and there are legions of you) will likely find some changes jarring, but try to keep in mind that everything on screen has been scrutinised and approved by Oda himself, with Netflix promising him they wouldn't release it until they had the nod from him. To that end, any changes, race swaps, design differences or narrative alterations have been given the blessing of the creator. To that end, I'm fine with any and all changes to suit live action.

One Piece
Special effects are impressive for a streaming production

So lets take it one piece at a time shall we (see what I did there?). Starting with the production values, it's clear that Netflix have lavished money on the show, showing an understanding of the potential market given the global appeal of the property. All the CGI is pretty well done, straddling the line between cartoonish (Luffy's rubber powers) to believably menacing and convincing with the deep sea monsters and various locales visited throughout. Every location has a sort of absurdist reality to it, in a similar vein to What We Do In The Shadows. In fact part of the draw for the show is seeing some of the beautiful set design that makes the world so vibrant and interesting.

Into this world we drop our characters. By the end of the show I'd warmed to all the roster, including Emily Rudd's Nami, whose backstory is expanded in the final two episodes. One Piece makes a point of the old guard giving way to new blood, and as such we have two groups of actors with very different goals; Vincent Regan (Garp), Craig Fairbrass (Chef Zeff), Peter Gadiot (Shanks) and Steven John Ward (Dracule Mihawk) all lend their gravitas to proceedings, each of them being absolutely superb in their respective roles as authority figure, father figures and the true terror of the world respectively. 

Taking their first steps into this dangerous landscape are the young leads - Emily Rudd as Nami takes a little while to warm up but shines in her spotlight episodes, Inaki Godoy brings a manic energy to his role (reminding me of David Tenant's early Doctor Who performance being goofy and awkwardly menacing) and Jacob Romero Gibson providing likeable comic relief. The stand outs though are Mackenyu Arata as the dry, world-weary sword master Zoro and his foil Taz Skylar as the silver-tongued and quick-witted brawling chef Sanji.

One Piece Crew
Mackenyu Arata (Zoro), Emily Rudd(Nami) and Taz Skylar(Sanji) 

Creating the iconic camaraderie of the Straw Hat Pirates was always going to be tough, but blow me down if Netflix hasn't managed to bring together a cast with genuine chemistry. The witty rejoinders almost always hit their target, each actor genuinely seems to be having fun with the material and there's a real zip and flare to the conversations. Yes, it is at times a bit Scooby Gang, but that's the energy of the original series coming through.

Koby (Morgan Davies) and Helmeppo (Aiden Scott) are initially two of the weaker characters, but even they come into their own - Scott in particular soon graduates from Draco Malfoy knock-off to a more rounded character by the end, learning some lessons from his earnest crewmate and showing growth by the end of the show.

Of course we have the baddies to evaluate - you can't have a good action series without them - and I have to say I'm impressed here too. Alexander Maniatis is incredibly creepy as butler/pirate Klahadore, with the gender-swapped Sham (Bianca Oosthuizen) strangely sexy as a villainous catgirl in a silly outfit. I think it's the sly looks that add the charm. Jeff Ward's Buggy the bro-Clown was a favourite, instantly channeling malevolence and proving that clowns are always creepy. The makeup artist did an amazing job here. Finally the Fishmen led by Arlong were uniformly great. McKinley Belcher III does some fantastic acting under all that make-up, his smooth charm oozing through the fishy foundation to create a genuinely charismatic presence on-screen.   

In all the threats felt real and were all enjoyably diabolical as the best villains should be.

Buggy the Clown
Jeff Ward's perfect rendition of Buggy the Clown

As the story progressed there were moments of genuine emotion, such as Sanji saying goodbye to Zeff (a touching "Fuck you old man" that quickly turns into tearful appreciation of saving his life and providing meaning to it), the tragic backstory to Zoro's quest to become the greatest swordsman in the world and Nami's true motivations. There's a sense of weight to decisions taken and the fallout of them that makes One Piece feel like a complete drama and not a cosplay performance.

Are there any major negatives? Well, no, not really. You might think some of the costumes look absurd, but then it couldn't be One Piece if they weren't. Just occasionally the focal point of a shot will be annoying - the wrong part of the shot being in focus, or background details being fuzzy for no discernible reason, but that's getting into the realms of technical film making and my own preferences for directing. It's not bad, I'd have just done it differently.

What we're left with is a Goonies style adventure with some outlandish (yet iconic) design work. The scripts are tight, the action scenes stylish and the cast gel. It left me wanting more, though given the current status of Hollywood and the usual negativity that pervades the internet these days, whether or not we'll get it is open to interpretation.

Oda seems to be delighted with the show, and I can't blame him. It's a faithful adaptation with a lot of heart and a sense of adventure that's really alluring. I'd like to think that fans of One Piece will see the time and effort that has gone into it as a thoroughly respectful attempt to bring it to the screen in a manner befitting the quality of the source material. Clearly the cast all loved their characters and that it's made for them as much as a wider audience. 

If in doubt, climb aboard. It's made me a fan of a series I've neglected far too long, though it's never too late to change!

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