The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
Pirates and Swordfights and Fish-People, oh my!
One Piece is one of those titles that I’ve been aware of for most of my life without ever knowing the first thing about what it actually is. I knew it was a popular manga and a popular anime, and that the franchise mascot was a smiling kid with a red shirt and a straw hat. And that really was the extent of it until very recently. Hell, until the hype started building for the live-action Netflix adaptation, I wasn’t even aware that this is a series about pirates, never mind that said smiling kid is a wannabe pirate with Elastigirl-style stretching powers by the name of Monkey D. Luffy (‘Luffy’ rhyming with ‘poofy’ rather than with “fluffy”, in defiance of God’s will).
But the trailers for the Netflix show made it look like a big colorful fantasy adventure that was right up my alley, and my buddy explained enough of the intricacies of the original series and its world and lore to pique my interest, so it was with genuine curiosity that I fired up the first episode of the live action series. None of that set-up prepared me for just how much I would love this show, these characters, and the gonzo world of pirates, wandering swordsmen, secret organizations, half-machine people, fish-people, sheep-people, people with super powers because they ate magic fruit, people with super powers because fuck you that’s why, and a seemingly infinite ocean with endless space for whatever mayhem you can imagine.
Jesus, no wonder this thing has been going strong for so long.
Quick primer for my fellow newcomers: One Piece began life in 1997 as a manga series written and drawn by Eiichiro Oda. Since then, there has been a long-running anime adaptation, along with strings of movies, specials, video games, and basically any form of media you can name. The comic is finally in its endgame, but the saga of the Straw Hat Pirates spans hundreds of comic volumes and over a thousand episodes of the animated series.
Set in a fantasy world that is almost completely covered in water, the story of One Piece kicks off with the execution of Pirate King Gol D. Roger at the hands of the tyrannical World Government. Before he dies, Roger declares that his greatest treasure, known as the One Piece, is up for grabs. All you have to do is find it. This kicks off a new age of piracy, as people race to the ocean in droves hoping to find this most inconceivable of all treasures.
22 years after Roger’s death, a hapless (but deceptively competent) young man enters the fray. Monkey D. Luffy (played here by Iñaki Godoy) is a happy-go-lucky doofus gifted and/or cursed with stretching abilities courtesy of a Devil Fruit (look it’s a whole…it’s a whole thing. The kid stretches like a rubber band, just go with it) and he’s determined to find the One Piece and be declared the new King of the Pirates.
Over the course of this first season, we watch Luffy go from treading water in a sinking dinghy to being an actual captain, assembling a fellowship of similar losers, outcasts, and dreamers to join him on his seemingly endless quest. There’s Zoro (Mackenyu), a taciturn bounty hunter determined to become the greatest swordsman alive; Nami (Emily Rudd), a mysterious thief and master navigator; Usopp (Jacob Romero Gibson), a motormouth fabulist with a knack for marksmanship who wants to prove his mettle, and Sanji (Taz Skylar), a smooth-talking chef on his own quest to uncover the ocean’s secrets.
But wait, there’s more. There’s also Koby (Morgan Davies), a cabin boy Luffy rescues who wants to become a Marine, and also on the Navy side there’s Helmeppo (Aidan Scott) and the fearsome Vice Admiral Garp (Vincent Regan), and then there’s all the pirates like the clown who can disassemble his body into pieces and the black cat folks who have super-speed for some reason and then there’s Red-Haired Shanks and his whole crew, and that’s not even getting into Arlong and his band of fishmen and their set-up and-
Look, it’s a busy show. After finishing all eight episodes, I went back and watched a bit of the first season of the anime, and it only served to highlight the sheer staggering density of this source material. The sheer effort that has gone into streamlining and editing this material to fit within a busy but fairly breezy eight hour season is a remarkable feat even before you start considering that the final product is actually successful. Very successful, in fact.
The breathless enthusiasm and unflagging energy go a long way to keeping a newcomer invested in each fresh bit of berserk worldbuilding and cheerfully nonsensical bit of design or action. One Piece moves with such absolute confidence and such unfaltering conviction that it’s easy to surrender to its excesses and its go-for-broke imagination. The show walks a delicate balance of grounding the cartoon physics and logic just enough in reality to allow for the possibility of even a bit of sincere dramatic weight, while also being a show in which essentially every character is capable of gravity-defying martial arts and some even go a step beyond that and fully just have superpowers. There’s a lived in practicality to the costumes and the sets, and that practicality sits side by side with a sequence in which Luffy inflates himself to the size of a parade float in order to catch a cannonball in his belly and send it flying back at an attacking ship.
It’s a split that’s also palpable in the cast and the various approaches they take to this material. The uniformly excellent young cast playing the Straw Hat crew are doing everything in their considerable power to bring as much sincerity and gravitas as they possibly can to every scene detailing the broken homes and haunted pasts and implacable feelings of yearning driving them to the sea.
Meanwhile, the various actors playing the villains and antagonists, particularly Jeff Ward as the rabid clown Buggy and Regan as the over-zealous Garp, are one and all going so far over the top it’s a wonder they don’t crack the ozone. Even before the physics-shattering action starts up, these performances keep One Piece firmly rooted in its origins as a demented cartoon, even as the younger cast members valiantly strive to bring the humanity front and center.
Striking a balance between these extremes and making it all feel like…one…piece…is Iñaki Godoy as Luffy. The task would seem impossible, but Godoy makes it look as easy as breathing, assuming that breathing comes easily. Apologies to asthmatics, but the simile stands.
Godoy somehow identifies an earnest and empathetic core to Luffy even in the most heightened and ridiculous moments of the series. Radiating joy and enthusiasm in his every second on screen, you fully believe that this bizarre creature would compel others to his cause and bend the rules of reality around his deeply felt sense of right and wrong. Godoy’s not a total newcomer (he had a prominent role in a previous Netflix series, The Irregulars) but One Piece should be a star-making turn given the difficulty of what he achieves, and how easy he makes it look.
The other major standout of the cast is Mackenyu as the sword-wielding Zoro (one R though, so he’s totally distinct from that other Zorro). Mackenyu also stole the show in Rurouni Kenshin: The Final as the villainous Enishi. In that film and this series, Mackenyu not only leaks charisma out of his pores, but he seems to have an intuitive understanding that the more relaxed he is in comparison to the mania around him, the more of an impression he makes. He knows how to use a silent scowl to nail a punchline better than any dialogue could, and he knows that striking the right pose can sell a badass moment more than even the choreography.
One Piece has martial arts battles, sea monsters, found families, the power of friendship enabling flawed people to overcome their traumas and live as their best selves, super-powered brawls, a goat-guy in one episode for some reason, the list goes on and on.
American efforts at anime adaptations have had a…mixed…reaction, let us say, and there will always be the question of why a property or story that’s been told perfectly well in one medium ‘needs’ to be ported over to another. Especially in the case of a series like One Piece, where the elasticity of comics and animation is a literal better fit for a main character who is indeed elastic.
I can’t speak to how longtime One Piece readers and viewers will respond to this (though the anecdotal response I’ve seen so far has been pretty delighted) but taking it on its own terms as a new original fantasy/adventure series, I was immediately hooked by the world and characters of One Piece. With endless invention and a surprising amount of sincere heart and humanity, it’s a daffy brew unlike any other major fantasy series going on right now.
Netflix, hurry up and pay your goddamn writers and your goddamn actors so they can start working on a second season already.