- Netflix’s live-action One Piece has successfully broken the curse of creating live-action adaptations of popular anime/manga series.
- The decision to make One Piece a TV series rather than a movie allowed for ideal pacing and the inclusion of important story arcs.
- The smart casting choices in One Piece, with actors representing the ethnicities and nationalities of the original characters, contributed to the authenticity and inclusivity of the adaptation.
For years, the anime community was convinced that making live-action adaptations of popular manga/anime series was a doomed proposition. Plenty of live-action movies from the West and even a few from Japan highlighted the many deep-seated flaws in making such products, creating the live-action “curse” that refused to go away—until author Eiichiro Oda and Netflix teamed up to create the first truly great live-action anime adaptation, One Piece.
By all accounts, Netflix’s live-action One Piece is a resounding success, with critics and viewers alike heaping praise upon the series. It racked up hundreds of millions of streaming hours around the globe with astonishing speed, and fans are already eager for much more, starting with the upcoming Season 2. A variety of factors went into One Piece breaking the live-action curse, such as Mr. Oda’s personal involvement and high-quality special effects, but three main factors are the real secret to this adaptation’s success, all of which set a good example for future live-action adaptations and remakes.
Netflix’s One Piece Has Brisk, Efficient Pacing
Critically, Netflix’s live-action One Piece is a TV series rather than a feature-length movie, which worked to One Piece‘s advantage in several ways, including pacing. No producer can fit 100+ episodes’ worth of story into a single movie even if that movie only focuses on the most essential plot points and characters, but the opposite approach isn’t much better, either. Producers could just focus on one short story arc or conflict in the original anime to have a proper beginning, middle, and end, but then the movie feels underwhelming to anime fans and newcomers alike. One example is the live-action Bleach movie from 2018, which condensed the anime’s substitute Soul Reaper arc into one movie and ignored 90% of the anime. Protagonist Ichigo Kurosaki’s first defeat at Byakuya Kuchiki’s hands served as the movie’s climax, but longtime Bleach fans knew that was just the beginning, and new viewers would feel underwhelmed.
By contrast, Netflix’s One Piece reaches a comfortable middle ground because it’s an eight-episode TV show, meaning it has brisk pacing without rushing or skipping any key scenes or plot developments. The live-action anime is a slightly condensed version of the manga and anime’s East Blue saga, and it only needed to trim the fat and tighten up the fights to create ideal pacing. No major sacrifices were made unless fans count the omission of the Loguetown story arc, but that arc was borderline filler and wouldn’t have worked well as the live-action version’s conclusion for Season 1.
The story arcs for Romance Dawn, Orange Town, Syrup Village, the Baratie restaurant ship, and Arlong Park were all present and fully intact, without dragging or rushing. None of them could have worked as a standalone movie, and no two-hour or even three-hour movie could cram them all in. Making One Piece a TV show was the right call, and evidently, future live-action adaptations should follow suit, granted they can secure the right producers and funding. It almost seems the new rule is “make it a TV show or don’t bother” for live-action adaptations of anything longer than 1–3 manga volumes. The original shonen “big three” are all like that, as are Fullmetal Alchemist and Death Note. Turning All You Need Is Kill into Edge of Tomorrow was one thing, but a proper anime series needs more room to expand without becoming either bloated or rushed.
Netflix’s One Piece Season 1 Feels Complete Without Being Complete
Turning the One Piece anime into a live-action TV show rather than a movie also had the benefit of giving this adaptation a proper conclusion for Season 1. Even when movie trilogies are planned, such as The Lord of the Rings, each installment must have a satisfying, climactic conclusion, with the third installment having a good ending for both itself and the whole trilogy. However, standalone live-action anime movies may struggle in that regard. The Bleach movie, for example, ended on an underwhelming note because it didn’t have room for all of Ichigo’s and Byakuya’s fights, just the first one. Even if a sequel arrived to finish the Soul Society arc, the first movie still feels underwhelming on its own, especially where its ending is concerned. Similarly, the first of the two live-action Fullmetal Alchemist movies had a strange and unsatisfying final fight that no anime fan could easily accept since one movie doesn’t have enough room to finish the real story, and neither is a pair of movies.
Netflix’s One Piece outdid them all with its strong conclusion in several ways. As a proper TV series, it had room to build up to its conclusion and create a proper payoff, such as giving fans time to truly get to know protagonist Monkey D. Luffy and his friends and build up some proper stakes. Arlong was more than a movie villain—he was a saga villain, and Luffy’s victory over Arlong made all eight episodes of One Piece worth the watch. Aside from fight scenes, Netflix’s One Piece had a strong ending because it was clearly the end of just one self-contained phase of Luffy’s journey with his Straw Hat crew. Other live-action anime movies also tried to create that vibe, but one movie alone doesn’t provide the room to do so, such as Bleach hinting at the Soul Society arc. One Piece made it clear that one leg of Luffy’s journey had ended, and the Grand Line, which was sufficiently foreshadowed, beckoned as the next great adventure.
Netflix’s One Piece Has Smart Casting
One of the most sensitive issues for live-action adaptations is the casting, and most live-action anime productions before One Piece infamously fell flat in that regard. Whitewashing was the single most contentious issue, such as in Ghost in the Shell, which only made a token effort to explain why heroine Motoko Kusanagi looked the way she did. 2017’s Death Note had similar issues, with the original protagonist Light Yagami, a Japanese teenager, becoming Westernized Light Turner. True, 2017’s Death Note did relocate the story to Seattle to help explain this, but fans still didn’t like it. Oddly, the Fullmetal Alchemist movies did the opposite, casting Japanese actors to portray characters who were obviously meant to be representative of Germans. It wasn’t a good look, either.
Fortunately, Netflix’s One Piece resolved this delicate issue with smart casting choices, aided by Eiichiro Oda’s own views on what nationalities and ethnicities his characters are. One Piece may take place in a fictional shonen world, but it still has real-life analogs, and Mr. Oda already decided where in the real world his characters would come from, which may dictate their appearances and thus their casting. Luffy—originally envisioned as Latin American—was portrayed by Mexican actor Iñaki Godoy, while Nami and Sanji have Caucasian actors, with their characters “supposed” to be Swedish and French, respectively. Roronoa Zoro, who was envisioned to be a Japanese native, was portrayed by Japanese actor Mackenyu.
Most importantly of all, Usopp’s vague “African” origin was redefined in One Piece, with Jamaican actor Jacob Gibson tastefully portraying Usopp as a person of color with no trace of hurtful stereotypes or overgeneralizations. In addition, the live-action version of One Piece features many more characters portrayed by people of color, making Usopp far less of a token character. He now lives in a world where plenty of people look just like him, making him feel more at home no matter what island he visits with the Straw Hat crew.