Netflix’s One Piece Live-action Review: The best anime live-action yet?

One Piece Live-action review
Netflix’s One Piece Live-action poster (Image via Netflix)

Anime live actions have always been subject to great trepidation from fans, and Netflix’s One Piece Live-action was no different. The series garnered several opinions prior to its release, and while Netflix invested as much as possible into this venture, skepticism ran high amongst fans and critics alike.

Undoubtedly, Netflix has done its best in creating and promoting the One Piece Live-action. It was made in collaboration with Eiichiro Oda, and the mangaka had the final say in everything. After watching season 1, it became clear that while some plot points might not be what Oda wanted, none of it was completely unacceptable to him.

However, there is a considerable gap between effort and execution. While it did appear that Netflix had learned quite a lot from past failures and tried its very best to succeed in this endeavor, One Piece is one of the most popular anime-manga series in the world, and that results in its fans being the harshest critics in the community. So, did Netflix manage to finally create a “good anime Live-action?” Let’s dive a little deeper.

One Piece Live-action review: Did Netflix stick the landing or stumble as usual?

The Going Merry in Netflix's One Piece Live-action (Image via Netflix)
The Going Merry in Netflix's One Piece Live-action (Image via Netflix)

Netflix is infamous for “ruining” several anime series with their live-action remakes. The Death Note Live-action is particularly notorious for disappointing fans to tears; the rest are barely any upgrades from that, if any. As far as I can remember, the closest the fans have come to accepting a Live-action series would be the Cowboy Bebop Live-action, but acceptance doesn’t mean approval, let alone praise.

Some of the live-action adaptations that garnered praise would be The Way of the Househusband and perhaps Zom 100, neither of which can boast a fandom as large as the ones mentioned above. As such, they are not often considered when discussing live actions. However, the Rurouni Kenshin film series had gotten significant approval as well, particularly Rurouni Kenshin: The Final. Fun fact, Mackenyu (Roronoa Zoro in Netflix’s One Piece Live-action) was unanimously praised for his role as Yukishiro Enishi in the film.

However, none of these were Netflix-produced series, and the record for such series, as stated above, is unfortunately bleak. But, as we all know by now, Netflix’s One Piece Live-action has been unanimously praised by fans and critics alike for breaking the live-action curse. While different elements managed to offend different sets of fans, on the whole, season 1 managed to placate everyone to the degree that some are calling it the best anime live-action adaptation to date.

So, what went right? What went wrong? What could be better? The answer to all of these can be broken down into five elements: Production, plot and content, casting, direction, and creative liberties.

The production of Netflix’s One Piece Live-action: Money speaks

Arlong Park in Netflix's One Piece Live-action (Image via Netflix)
Arlong Park in Netflix's One Piece Live-action (Image via Netflix)

One of the chief reasons most anime live-action adaptations fail is because of the production requirements. From make-up to set design to CGI, any regular anime live-action requires much more effort and material than most of the biggest fantasy series.

The CGI of the Fullmetal Alchemist Live-action movies remains one of my chief problems with that venture. However, higher quality demands a high budget, and for a series like One Piece, that budget increases exponentially. Just the Devil Fruit powers themselves require an unfathomable amount of money to translate onto the silver screen.

On this front, Netflix did not falter as they assigned the One Piece Live-action a whopping 17.27 million USD per episode. For comparison, Game of Thrones season 8 cost 14.79 million USD per episode. The money was definitely put to good use. From getting a fitting cast to expensively crafted sets to better CGI, the production visibly benefitted from having that much money at hand.

However, money does not make a great production by itself. Netflix’s One Piece Live-action is developed by Matt Owens and Steven Maeda in collaboration with Tomorrow Studios, Kaiji Productions, and ,of course, Shueisha. It boasts a host of talented production officials, all of whom bring a modicum of dedication and hard work that result in an end product unparalleled in live-action history.

From Buggy’s make-up to Luffy’s Gum Gum Pistol to Syrup Village to Shells Town, everything was done, if not perfectly, then better than what could be expected from a live-action. My personal favorite remains the set design of the Baratie, a truly breathtaking rendition that will surely transport you to Zeff’s restaurant.

While having the money definitely helped, and my eyes inadvertently caught quite a few flaws in each episode, in the end, it is the devotion that the creators had towards Eiichiro Oda’s magnum opus that elevated the quality of Netflix’s One Piece Live-action beyond what is usually expected of anime live-action adaptations. However, a good production is a good base, and the recipe requires a lot more elements to shine.

Casting: One Piece characters brought to life

Romance Dawn trio in One Piece Live-action (Image via Netflix)
Romance Dawn trio in One Piece Live-action (Image via Netflix)

One Piece consists of some of the most beloved characters in the anime community, and finding the cast to fit its unique range of characters must have been a hurdle that the Netflix team crossed laboriously, but they did cross it successfully. In Oda’s own words, Iñaki Godoy is Luffy incarnate. True to that comment, he doesn’t so much play Luffy as he is Luffy, and he is backed by his four earliest crew members.

Mackenyu and Emily Rudd have the most screentime besides Iñaki, and they are comfortable in the skins of their characters to the point that it's impossible to distinguish them from Zoro and Nami, respectively. In comparison, Jacob Romero Gibson as Usopp and Taz Skyler as Sanji get less time to make an impression. Still, they use it fully to embody their characters better than even the harshest critic can expect.

Peter Gadiot as Shanks (image via Netflix)
Peter Gadiot as Shanks (image via Netflix)

The supporting characters also hold their own and boast excellent casting, especially Zeff Ward as Buggy the Clown and Peter Gadiot as Red-Haired Shanks. There is a full-bodied, lived-in reality to how each character is crafted and executed.

The Luffy we see in the Live-action is not the one Mayumi Tanaka has been voicing for the last 24 years. The characters here are not photographs but rather portraits of the ones we know; similar in all the ways that matter, but different enough to be called originals.

Plot: The most controversial part of Netflix’s One Piece Live-action

If anything about the One Piece Live-action has truly divided the critics, it is the plot of the series. Due to the limited runtime, any live-action series is forced to condense and modify the plot to fit the media better. Not everything can be translated from manga to anime and anime to live-action. Concessions and cuts must be made, and some foreign elements must be added to make a live-action more palatable to a wider audience, for most of whom this show would be their introduction to the series at large.

What a live-action must do, to this effect, is to create a storyline that, while retaining the core themes and plot points of a work, becomes something unique all on its own. In that regard, One Piece Live-action succeeds masterfully, adding and subtracting characters and scenes to make a believable universe almost similar to the one we know, but not quite.

Having read the manga and watched the anime, most fans would go into the work expecting to already know the plot quite intimately. However, the show will greatly surprise you because not only will you not see some of the twists coming, but certain changes made to the plot will make you question the feasibility of future storylines. A case in point is the removal of Hachi from Arlong Park, which places a fair few question marks on how the Sabaody and Fishman Island arcs will go.

While the absence of Hachi is understandable when weighing the importance of the Fishman against the production cost of an eight-limbed octopus with six swords, the addition of the overarching Marines plotline is less so. Monkey D. Garp, technically, did not need to appear so blatantly, and Koby or Helmeppo did not need to have such considerable roles to play in the whole of the story.

And this, more than anything, has divided the fandom. Personally, while I thoroughly enjoyed Vincent Reagan and Morgan Davies’ performances as Garp and Koby, respectively, I couldn’t help but feel that their plotline was forced into the narrative. At the very least, the recurring focus on the marines was done in keeping with the personalities of each character. However, it did dampen and somewhat hamper the flow of the main plot.

Direction, writing, and cinematography: True stars of the show

The aforementioned elements greatly contribute to making One Piece Live-action a beautiful piece of work, but the direction elevates it to true greatness. Just like a great crew can be defeated if they don’t have a good captain, a good production with a great story and a fitting cast can still falter if they don’t have a good director guiding them to bring out their very best.

Marc Jobst, Emma Sullivan, Tim Southam, and Josef Waldyka each directed two episodes, and Southam’s episode 5 has reigned as the fan-favorite as of now. The directors were heartily supported by the writing and cinematography, and each shot reeked of true passion and love for the series from everyone who was involved in it.

The cinematography, in particular, stands out as something memorable; a beautiful scene made more beautiful by the tone in which it is captured. The balance of light and shadows in episode 1 or the mix of angles in episodes 6 and 7 are sure to leave a strong impression even on the most skeptical of viewers. However, the dialogs could use some work.

Anime fans are used to feeling second-hand embarrassment from listening to overtly ornamental and hyperbolic dialogs from their favorite characters. While the writers of One Piece Live-action tried their best to reign those in, a few managed to make it into the final draft. On the flip side, the writers managed to show remarkable restraint in certain scenes and managed to let the understated words convey the true meaning of the dialogue.

Creative liberties: A blessing in disguise

Zeff Ward as Buggy (Image via Netflix)
Zeff Ward as Buggy (Image via Netflix)

At the risk of repetition, it must be reiterated that translating a manga or an anime to live-action scene by scene, frame by frame, is not only impractical but downright foolish and futile. The team of Netflix’s One Piece Live-action took the more prudent course of action and took quite a few creative liberties in the show, some were necessary, while others, I suspect, were done mostly out of fun.

The two most noticeable changes were the removal of Usopp’s long nose and Sanji’s curly eyebrows. Given that they are two main characters who will be spending a lot of time on screen in the upcoming seasons, an investment could have been made to translate these features via make-up or CGI, especially since Buggy’s nose did not hinder Zeff Ward’s acting prowess in the slightest.

Sanji’s eyebrows, particularly, are a significant piece of the larger puzzle of his life and character. However, since these changes passed Oda’s approval, they must be in line with whatever way the plot is meant to go in future seasons. One key aspect that stood out amongst the creative liberties that One Piece Live-action took is the placement of backstories.

While Nami, Sanji, and Usopp’s backstories were not changed or misplaced to a considerable degree, both Luffy and Zoro had their stories shifted. In Luffy’s case, it elaborated upon quite extensively. Interspersing Zoro’s past with his attempts to climb out of a well with the starry sky as the backdrop was a significant improvement from how the manga tells that story.

The changes in Orange Town and Arlong Park were mostly done due to a shortage of time and budget. While Luffy fans might be disappointed in Don Kreig not showing up at the Baratie and Zoro and Sanji fans might be disappointed by the removal of their individual battles at Arlong Park, in the long run, these changes are salvageable and take little away from the progression of the plot.

On the flip side, One Piece Live-action takes a few liberties that can't be chalked up to convenience or efficiency and must be cataloged as creative choices made by the team as part of the story. Some of them, such as Zoro being referred to as the First Mate, are fairly minor. But others, such as showing an unknown lady at Roger’s execution whom the fandom has quite decidedly dubbed as Crocodile, can herald Oda confirming a few radical fan theories.

Final thoughts

The aftermath of Zoro's fight with Mihawk (Image via Netflix)
The aftermath of Zoro's fight with Mihawk (Image via Netflix)

What makes a good live-action? As is the fate of all adaptations, whenever we talk of live-actions, we tend to grade the adaptation as a live-action first and as an independent work second. A key reason why anime live-actions are of such precarious repute is that they are always viewed as anime live-actions, compared to their source material, and found severely lacking in all aspects.

All of the above-mentioned components come together such that when One Piece Live-action is weighed against its source material, it not only holds its own but proves itself to be a completely different beast altogether. We must consider that One Piece Live-action will become the entry point to the series for a significant number of fans. When they come to this show, they do not come to meet it as the new avatar of an old friend but a stranger they may have heard of, or someone they have not met yet.

Arlong shows up at the Baratie (Image via Netflix)
Arlong shows up at the Baratie (Image via Netflix)

And when these newcomers see One Piece Live-action, they criticize it as they do any other show, they like it as they do any other series on Netflix, and they dislike it in the same vein as well. They do not judge it as an anime live-action, they judge it as a work of art. What is more pleasantly baffling, after two episodes, I found myself doing the same.

Across the fandom, fans with differing opinions have agreed that One Piece Live-action has managed to set itself apart, not from others of its kind, but from its source. And here lies why I would consider One Piece Live-action as the best anime live-action that I have seen to date. Because it is truly an adaptation, the team adapts the story to fit a new media with new advantages and limitations.

Could it be better? Undoubtedly. Did it disappoint fans in several aspects? Unquestionably. The show definitely made many staunch fans miffed about its doctoring of the story, made others cringe with a certain lack of attention to detail, and were we rating it as just another show, most of us would hardly grant it anything slightly above an average grade.

Young Luffy in Netflix's One Piece Live-action (Image via Netflix)
Young Luffy in Netflix's One Piece Live-action (Image via Netflix)

But I think that displays One Piece Live-action’s quality more than anything else, that it merits a certifiable consideration as just a work of art, without any stigma or shadow of something to emulate. Is it a good Live-action? Most certainly, as testified by so many critics and its Netflix ranking.

But perhaps what is greater is that it is an enjoyable show. Whether it exceeded any expectation is certainly a subjective question, but it at least pleased fans enough that we are all waiting for a second season with not only anticipation but impatience.

Be sure to keep up with more anime updates and manga news. Related links are given below:

One Piece Live-Action complete cast list

One Piece Live-action episode details

One Piece arcs

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Edited by Priya Majumdar
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