Live-action adaptations of anime and manga have a bad rep, and there tends to be two main reasons. Usually the translation of the character designs and costumes looks horrendous, and usually the story gets changed and messed up so much that it’s unrecognizable from the original. There are a handful of exceptions. On the Japanese side, great adaptations like Alice in Borderland, Tokyo Revengers, and Rurouni Kenshin manage to translate original manga without losing their essence. Some American adaptations like Speed Racer and Alita Battle Angel do justice to their source materials, too. One Piece is not the first great live-action adaptation, but it’s definitely one of the better adaptations, and it does make up for Netflix’s dodgy history with live-action adaptations.
There are still some big flaws. While One Piece mostly nails adapting the character designs, the fishmen in Arlong’s crew look rough. That can be forgiven when compared to all the things One Piece does right, and the biggest strength of this adaptation is and always has been its cast. The actors behind the Straw Hats perfectly capture what makes the characters so memorable and, through them, the essence of the story Eiichiro Oda created over a quarter of a century ago. If you’re a fan of One Piece, this is the best love letter to the manga we could ask for. If you were unfamiliar with the property before the series, this gives a great look at why it is so popular, providing an epic, funny, heartfelt story of piracy and friendship while teasing an even grander adventure.
But before we get there, there’s still a fishmen problem to deal with. The Straw Hats march on Arlong Park (in broad daylight!) and start fighting. Of course, Usopp runs away, chased by a fishman, but he actually manages to trick him by playing dead, using the distraction to prepare his latest ultimate move, the “Exploding Star,” and burn the fishman alive. Sadly, the one time Usopp actually does something heroic, no one’s around to see him. Meanwhile, Sanji and Zoro steal the spotlight, their constant bickering in the middle of combat reminiscent of Legolas and Gimli — which is the highest praise I can give the character work on this show. They are hilarious together, arguing to see which one of them Luffy likes best, while still being badass warriors. They unfortunately get tricked into freeing Buggy under the pretext of extra help, but all the clown does is run away the moment his body’s put back together.
Nami and Luffy arrive at the map room and see the chains on the ground — which Nami says she was allowed to stop wearing when she was 12 as a birthday present. Luffy proceeds to beat the living hell out of Arlong, breaking his comically large shark-teeth-shaped sword and even Arlong’s actual teeth. He also destroys what the fishman truly loves — the map room and the entire building. While Luffy’s new finishing moves, the gatling, and the battle ax look fantastic, the fight itself is quite disappointing. There is never a sense that the fishmen are truly a more formidable opponent than any of the other pirates we’ve seen. Sure, Arlong’s a bit stronger, but that’s it. The fact that they are fishmen doesn’t ever come into play. It seems that in an effort to make them as practical as possible, One Piece just forgot to make the fishmen cool.
With the battle over, the crew celebrates. Sanji cooks a feast, while Usopp boasts about single-handedly beating all of Arlong’s men — which Luffy encourages, starting a cheer for Captain Usopp. But the celebration’s cut short with the arrival of the Marines, as we finally see the story lines converge. Garp orders Luffy’s crew arrested, but Koby finally steps up and refuses. He knows Arlong is responsible for terrorizing and destroying the village and the whole area, not the Straw Hats.
Frustrated, Garp has a heart-to-heart with Luffy, who says he never chose to disobey his grandpa and become a pirate — he’s always been one. The two fight, and now this is a proper boss fight. In a fairly drastic change from the original manga, it seems they saved the cool powers and stunts for the fight with Garp rather than Arlong. Garp’s not just stupidly strong; he’s also fast and capable of reading each of Luffy’s moves before he executes them. The kid cannot land a punch, which Garp says is proof that Luffy’s not ready for the Grand Line. Undaunted, Luffy just repeats that he will not give up on his dream. He will become the King of the Pirates no matter what, and as he says that, Garp flashes back to Roger and finally understands what Zeff was telling him at Baratie. It’s time for the young generation. The vice-admiral decides to just let the pirates go and arrest Arlong instead. He knew he was never going to make Luffy change his mind, because Garp knows his grandson — he just wanted to make sure Luffy knew himself too. It was all a cruel, painful test. With it, Garp officially gives Luffy his blessing to be a pirate.
The next day, Koby comes to see Luffy, not as a Marine, but as his friend. He wanted to be the one to show Luffy HIS OWN WANTED POSTER! It finally happened: He has a bounty of 30 million berry, the highest in the East Blue. “You’re a wanted man,” Koby warns Luffy, but Luffy’s beyond excited, “It’s what I always wanted,” he replies, screaming and jumping for joy. The two hug it out and say good-bye, now officially enemies.
We get a rather cool and emotional montage of everyone we’ve met reacting to the bounty, from the bartender woman in Luffy’s hometown, to Kaya (who immediately recognizes Usopp in the background of the poster), to Zeff (who hangs the poster on the “Employee of the Month” board), to Buggy, who vows revenge and seemingly teams up with Alvida to kill Luffy. Garp seems impressed by the bounty and recognizes the kid might actually be somewhat like him. We even see Mihawk, who hands over the wanted poster to none other than Shanks! It seems Red-Haired has been talking about Luffy to everyone he meets. The whole crew’s super-happy and proud of Luffy, and even though they are hung-over, Shanks orders the reserve booze to be taken out and invites Mihawk to celebrate with them and drink for Luffy, who is officially a pirate now.
It works out that Garp’s actually proud of Koby and Helmeppo for having a code and sticking by it. He says it may actually be the youth’s turn and decides to personally train the two cadets (which he says is punishment enough).
Fittingly, the season ends with the Straw Hats. Luffy surprises Nami by bringing three of Bell-mère’s tangerine trees onboard the Merry, and the rest of the crew surprises Luffy with an official sail with the Straw Hat pirates’ symbol, their Jolly Roger. As they finally embark on their journey to the Grand Line, Sanji suggests a cast-off ceremony. Each puts a leg on a barrel and shouts out their dream, as we see their young selves and how far they’ve come. “We Are!” plays again, as the real adventure begins and the show’s logo, the one from the manga, sends us off.
Except there’s an ending tag! Though we don’t get to Loguetown this season, we do see a Marine burning Luffy’s wanted poster with the two cigars he’s holding in his hand. It’s Smoker time, baby!
And with that, my duty is complete. One Piece has been a true joy to watch and to recap. Whether it returns for a second season or not, what matters is not the destination but the journey. We are all nakama now. Set sail!
X Marks the Spot
• While it’s cool that we saw more of Coco Village here, and it’s understandable why a big battle with tons of extras was avoided, it’s a bit disappointing that the entire village disappears before the battle begins. There’s not even villagers watching from a distance.
• I’ve talked about the more TV-MA nature of the adaptation, but even then it’s surprising we get an F-bomb in this episode.
• I haven’t really praised Morgan Davies as Koby enough, but Davies does a fantastic job throughout the season.
• In the newspaper Kaya reads, there’s a big story of the country of Vira being overtaken by a revolutionary army. Another example of One Piece planting seeds early.