Cast: Inaki Godoy, Emily Rudd, Mackenyu, Peter Gadiot, Taz Skylar, Jacob Gibson, Morgan Davies, Jeff Ward
Writers: Eiichiro Oda, Steven Maeda, Tom Hyndman, Lindsay Gelfand, Matt Owens
Director(s): Marc Jobst, Tim Southam, Emma Sullivan, Josef Kubota Wladyka
Available on: Netflix
The story starts at a large public square, where Gold Roger, the king of the pirates, is about to be executed in a bid to discourage piracy. However, his last words instead usher in a golden age of pirates. “I found everything the world has to offer. Free yourselves. Take yourselves to the seas! My treasure is yours to find,” he says. The enormous crowd that has gathered for Rogers’ execution scatters, the lure of pirated loot giving them a manic edge. The marines, charged with ensuring law and order, look on helplessly and furiously as everyone scrambles to find the Grand Line, where all of Gold Rogers’ plunder is apparently located.
If you aren’t familiar with the manga series, here’s a hint of what’s in store with the eight-episode, live action adaptation of One Piece. Within the first 20 minutes of the first episode, one ship has blown up, a man has been sliced in two, and we’ve been made aware of Monkey D. Luffy (Inaki Godoy) secret power: He’s stretchy (unless he’s in seawater), and that, as Mister Fantastic can tell you, can be a useful quality when you’re trying to outwit bloodthirsty bad guys.
Luffy, a teenager in a straw hat, wants to become the king of the pirates, even though he isn’t cut out of the same cloth as some of the other wanted pirates of One Piece. His motivation is not to plunder as much as to seek freedom — a sense of righteousness underpins his pursuit. He is trying to put together a crew who will help him on his quest, and stumbles upon Roronoa Zoro (Mackenyu), a pirate hunter; Nami (Emily Rudd), a navigator and strategist with a somewhat mysterious past; Usopp (Jacob Gibson), an aspiring sea warrior with a penchant for making up exaggerated stories; and Sanji (Taz Skylar), a warrior chef, and additionally, a relentless flirt. Each of them roll their eyes at Luffy’s quest to become a righteous pirate, till they are charmed over to his side, and come to be known as “straw hats”.
The live action adaptation of the beloved manga series by the same name manages to stay buoyant while sifting through the original material, even though it lacks the original’s goofiness. Fans of the anime will notice that the camp aesthetic of the anime translates awkwardly to Netflix’s self-serious aesthetic. The worldbuilding, crumbling under the pressure to condense the plot of anime show’s arcs, is far less detailed. The exaggerated and amusing sensibilities of the anime series are replaced instead with an earnestness that can feel cloying. Still, the show is funny, emotionally endearing, well-structured and faithful to the manga.
Why then is it not more…fun?
In its first season, One Piece focuses on introducing Luffy’s crew, their pasts and their dreams. They evade both the marines who are on their tail, and villainous pirates who kill indiscriminately even as they bleed towns dry of their resources. The adaptation sails because of the tenderness with which it crafts the moral sensibilities of Luffy’s crew, all of whom have compelling chemistry with one another. There are also rich back stories that help anchor their ambitions.
Perhaps because Netflix confused goofiness with intellectual frivolity, the earnestness that is packed into One Piece threatens to sink the show and overwhelm its tone in its darker moments. The show complicates the question of morality by showing the marines to rely on pirate warlords while pirates like Shanks (Peter Gadiot), Luffy’s mentor, come across as honourable. At one point, Shanks loses a limb while protecting Luffy, because that's what captains do, even if they are pirates.
However, there are sequences that unfold awkwardly, like when we are introduced to a pirate clown who is terrorising a town where people are coerced into laughing at his jokes; or when we investigate Nami’s past, featuring a village that has been taken over by vengeful fishman pirates. Trauma leaks into the storylines, weighing One Piece down. Fortunately, there’s Luffy’s moral clarity and unflinching faith in his crew guiding the show. However, you miss the levity that makes the original so compulsively watchable.
The show is likely to be renewed for a second season, provided it garners the viewership numbers Netflix has been insistently working towards since their annual earnings made for some very concerning numbers last year. As far as the future adventures of the Straw Hats is concerned, this is only the beginning; a mere introduction to the ambitious journeys each member is imagining for themselves. The ship, ‘The Going Merry’, sails towards the Grand Line, where the ultimate loot is, with the map safe in their possession. For now.