One Piece — the long-running manga and ongoing anime from the mind of Eiichiro Oda — is a joyfully weird, ecstatically singular masterpiece politically bent toward liberation and care. It’s exactly the kind of anime that seems impossible to translate into the hard-edged live-action storytelling that dominates America’s mainstream film and TV. One Piece takes place in a seafaring universe of pirates, monsters, and fish-men. It is a world in which the physics that control the human body are outright broken, in which characters naturally have hair the color of sea moss and glinting sapphires, in which skyscraper-size dragons double as warlords, in which friendship is more explored than romance, in which the globe is swallowed by the ocean. There is much to consider in adapting a setting so radically different from our own, but one question bubbled up just before I hit play on one of Netflix’s most expensive shows to date: What are they going to do with the snails?
Fans will understand my concern, and others will need a primer: One Piece the anime comprises more than a thousand episodes and counting, and the live-action version leans immediately into the giddy, adventurous nature of its predecessor. When the infamous pirate Gold Roger is taken into custody and condemned to death by the World Government and their militaristic Navy, he commands those in the audience of his state-sanctioned murder to find the infamous treasure that gives this story its name. His request inspires the sweet-natured Monkey D. Luffy (played as an adult by Iñaki Godoy) to, years later, become King of the Pirates and capture the One Piece. This is not your average hero’s tale but something more emotionally rich: Luffy desires to liberate those subjugated by the World Government and assemble a crew that functions as a family. He isn’t imagining riches for himself but a better society. Just as crucially, he has eaten a particularly rare and important Devil Fruit — a melon-size purple-and-green food rippling with texture — that gives the eater their own unique power set. As a result, Luffy is able to stretch and move like rubber, bouncing bullets off himself and committing great feats of strength that defy his lanky frame — like a Looney Tunes character brought into the realm of flesh, blood, and gravity. The live-action effect is difficult to pull off, even in a fantastical story as heightened as this one. Which brings me back to the snails.
In One Piece, snails — some palm-size, others as big as a small cat — are used for communication, surveillance, and sometimes even projection. They’re living, breathing, eating telephones that facilitate telepathic conversations over far distances. In the live-action adaptation, we first see a snail transponder on the desk of the vice–grand admiral of the Navy, Garp (Vincent Regan), as he makes a call to the gargantuan sword-wielding pirate Mihawk (Steven John Ward). To the credit of showrunners Matt Owens and Steven Maeda, this One Piece embraces the strangeness of an idea born in the manga and refrains from overexplaining anything. The snails have accessories to match the person who owns them; for Garp’s, that includes some white facial hair and a dashing ivory-and-navy coat. If that isn’t cute enough, the snails also make a trilling kind of dialing noise (purupurupuru) that builds to a staccato statement that sounds like gotcha. (Take a minute out of your day to witness it.)
In simply accepting these small yet crucial oddities, Netflix’s One Piece proves its willingness to hold on to what makes the original property so fantastic. The first two episodes have a few melodic moments, but I could feel the show struggling to get into gear, to find its own more peculiar rhythms. It stretches and buckles against the physical constraints of realism, as most live-action fantasy does, but something changes in episodes three and four. A touch more filmmaking ingenuity gives the blocking of all its powerful bodies room to breathe — especially evident in the flashbacks featuring new crew members and the battles faced by Luffy’s friends, giving each individual moments to shine. In these action sequences, the show, while never reaching the vivid heights of the anime itself, still finds its direction bristling with enough humor and heart and narrative wildness, sketching out an exception that proves the rule that anime can’t be translated. One Piece does what I thought impossible: It works.
It helps that the crew is perfectly cast. Emily Rudd plays the thief Nami with a raw understanding of the emotional fallout of subjugation. She’s a bo-staff-wielding, levelheaded powerhouse who longs to apply her preternatural skills as a navigator to create the First World’s map, providing much-needed balance for Luffy’s flights of fancy. Where Nami is blunt, Zoro (a fierce yet silken Mackenyu) has a slippery quality, edged by undeniable coolness. The man carries a third sword in his mouth; you’ve got to have swag and scintillating control to pull that off. Usopp (Jacob Romero), teller of tall tales and shooter of slings, brings a bumbling, wanting quality to the group. Sanji becomes the crew’s magnificent chef by episode five, looks great in a suit, and kicks an unholy amount of ass with balletic grace. He’s a famous simp, but actor Taz Skylar, MVP of the season, doesn’t play him as a cad — he’s a hottie with heart. (My only complaint is the hair: Take off that wig or get a better one.)
Then there’s Godoy as Luffy, a tightrope walk of a role. There just aren’t characters like him in white-colonial media — men whose kindness is essential to their being and for whom friendship is tantamount. Luffy is as much a political insurgent as he is a goof and grinning trickster, though never an empty-headed fool. His crew is united under an essential truth he holds dear, about worlds stuck under the heel of fascist powers: Liberation is joy. But while the core cast works splendidly, some in their orbit feel lacking. Garp could use a little more bite, in part because the series fast-tracks Luffy’s plot and makes it seem like Garp has nothing better to do than hunt him down. Peter Gadiot’s Shanks, a crucial character for Luffy’s backstory, comes across as tepid rather than a man who can flip from jolly to imposing with the blink of an eye. Thankfully, the series pays more attention to its principal villain, Arlong (McKinley Belcher III), a member of the fish-men species who desires to enslave humanity just as his own people were. Arlong cuts a grotesque figure with gruel-gray skin, a long nose punctuated by spikes, sharp teeth, and webbing. The world-building around him is essential to allowing this One Piece to stand on its own, pleasing committed fans and bringing in new ones.
There is a lackadaisical wonder to each of these characters’ presentations — their costuming, makeup and hair, and even the production design of their respective environments are idiosyncratic while still feeling part of the same story. A long, braided mustache juts just so from a face, remixing the general look of pirates as depicted in pop culture. Arlong’s island, the base of his operations, is lush with bright tangerine trees, a stark contrast to the darker, largely wood-paneled scenes on ships. The color scheme is extensive — running from wildflower orange to ocean cerulean to arterial-blood red. Sometimes a sepia sheen dulls the splendor, zapping action of its fluidity, revealing One Piece to be a successful but still imperfect document. But then its elasticity and vivacity comes roaring back, like when Zoro decides to aid in a fight instead of ghosting the crew’s asses and effortlessly slides along the dusty ground using one of his three swords, slicing through the legs of Marines and then jumping to kick one foe and slash two others. I yelped with satisfaction. I do not want these characters to obey the laws of motion. Never once was I confused as to where a character was in the space or how their physicality and fight choreography spoke to their inner selves.
It’s important to note how much ground this first season covers. By the end of episode four, Luffy and his crew get their dream ship and leave Syrup Village, which doesn’t happen until around episode 18 in the anime. In episode eight, there’s a significant turn in Garp and Luffy’s relationship that doesn’t occur in the anime until after 200 episodes. That this charged approach works so damn well — the bounding storytelling set across countless ships and crews and islands, each with their own unique culture and sometimes even species — is not just a testament to the beautiful characterization Oda has crafted over the years but to the sheer potency of casting a mix of hot actors who have chemistry with one another and the material. I gobbled up these episodes and left them yearning to see what the show will do next. Who knows if the series will have the opportunity to adapt the events of 1,073 episodes and beyond. But given what it’s already achieved, I want to see One Piece get the chance.
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