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Sailing the Live-Action Seas: ‘One Piece Live-Action’ on Netflix and the Pursuit of Fidelity: Review

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In the realm of adaptation, the leap from anime and manga to live-action is notorious for its inherent challenges, akin to the intricacies faced by video game adaptations. Yet, intriguingly, the year 2023 emerges as a standout moment for both forms, with ‘One Piece Live-Action’ set to make a significant impact

“The Last of Us,” a critically praised drama that follows the somber, character-driven strategy of the 2013 computer game, had its television debut on HBO in January. The show received raving reviews, strong viewership, and multiple Emmy nominations. Similarly, a few months later, the “Super Mario Bros.” movie found success at the box office, if not with critics.

Netflix appears to have recognized this emerging trend, as the global streaming service is gearing up to launch “One Piece,” a series adapted from Eiichiro Oda’s long-running manga. Such adaptations have a mixed history, with notorious flops like “Ghost in the Shell” and “Dragonball Evolution,” alongside projects such as “Death Note” and “Cowboy Bebop” that met with mixed reception. Despite this, Netflix, with its substantial resources and global reach, is well-positioned to reintroduce a cultural export like “One Piece” to a new and diverse audience. However, Netflix is no stranger to dealing with possessive fans, cautious stakeholders, and the unique challenges of adapting animated works. Fortunately, “The Last of Us” provides a promising precedent.

In anticipation of this venture, Netflix is well-prepared. Eiichiro Oda has publicly endorsed the series, which co-showrunners Matt Owens and Steven Maeda have developed into eight hour-long episodes based on the first 100 chapters of the manga. Subscribers can either prepare for the series or dive into the 15 seasons of the “One Piece” anime already available for streaming, capitalizing on the enthusiastic fanbase, as demonstrated at this summer’s Tudum fan event. “One Piece” is poised for commercial success and aims to satisfy loyal fans who value faithfulness to the source material. However, although paying tribute to its inspiration and acting as a primer for newbies, this adaptation struggles to authentically recreate a universe intended for two-dimensional animation.

“One Piece” is a maritime fantasy that pits pirate crews seeking a mythical treasure, hidden in “one piece,” against marines upholding law and order. The series follows teenager Monkey D. Luffy’s (Iñaki Godoy) quest to become the Pirate King as he assembles a crew, each with their unique dreams and aspirations. The world in which their adventures unfold is best described as fantastical, where characters encounter fishmen, snail phones, and even a shape-shifting clown (Jeff Ward). Luffy’s signature ability, gained from consuming a magical Gum Gum Fruit, allows him to stretch his body like rubber. The crew sails on a ship adorned with a giant goat skull on the bow.

Under the guidance of pilot director Marc Jobst, production designer Richard Bridgland, costume designer Diana Cilliers, and a dedicated crew, this visual chaos is artfully crafted into a vibrant mix of CGI and practical effects. Hand-to-hand combat scenes are impressively choreographed, and a prologue featuring the former Pirate King Gold Roger (Michael Dorman) showcases the story’s epic scale. At its best, “One Piece” is a colorful delight infused with childlike enthusiasm that mirrors its straightforward coming-of-age narrative.

However, as often as these efforts captivate viewers, they also emphasize the challenge of adapting “One Piece” to live action, given its inherently cartoonish nature. It’s a daunting task to make a human-sawtooth shark hybrid in an open Hawaiian shirt look natural, and even among the main cast, an acting style that is sometimes stiff yet exuberant prevails. While Godoy’s performance is often charming, moments where he emulates Luffy’s trademark pose feel somewhat prolonged, almost like mimicking a static image. This creates an uncanny effect and raises a fundamental question: what does this live-action version of “One Piece” offer that the original cannot when it strives to approximate the source material, regardless of how close or far it gets?

While “One Piece” reminds us of the checkered history of anime adaptations, it also falls in line with Netflix’s successful strategy of adapting existing intellectual properties, as seen with shows like “Wednesday,” “The Witcher,” “The Sandman,” and “The Umbrella Academy.” These series, while immensely popular, often tend to maintain a certain formulaic quality that is binge-friendly and unchallenging to viewers, ultimately prioritizing preservation over novelty. However, for Luffy and his crew, all goals are valid as long as they are pursued with unwavering determination.

All eight episodes of “One Piece” are now available for streaming on Netflix.

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