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One Piece (2023) First Impressions
The track record of popular anime/manga series being adapted into live action film and tv shows is a checkered one at best. The odds are that of a lottery when an overseas production team puts its hand to the plough and do their “remakes”. So when news spread that this iconic, long-running manga story was being adapted by Netflix, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm for it. A tiny bit of curiosity perhaps but not a lot of confidence. Still the official trailer gave me the impression that it might not be quite as appallingly awful as Cowboy Bebop was and might even *shock, horror* capture the essence of the source material. Moreover the technology is certainly available in this day and age to do the series justice.
It might be a bit of a stretch to say to say that I belong to a One Piece family. But it’s not far off. My offspring follow the manga conscientiously and they’re all up to date with both the manga and the anime. I’ve seen over 300 episodes of the anime and I think the other half is far more ahead of the game than I am. All that to say, we pretty much know the characters and the lore. And maybe I might have something worthwhile to say.
My initial thoughts about this adaptation after watching 4 episodes is that it’s a solid effort. It’s not mind blowing but does a better than serviceable job in adhering to the spirit of the original. And considering the terrible remakes on Netflix of late, this is surprisingly faithful even to the point of holding to biological essentialism. The casting has to be absolutely one of the highlights. The main characters like Luffy, Zoro, Nami and Usopp are well cast. Everyone in my clan loves the actor, Mackenyu, donning the bandana as Zoro. He couldn’t be more perfect for the role. More than that he seems to know his way around a katana. Or three. Inaki Godoy is rather good as Luffy, capturing his boyish enthusiasm and occasional cluelessness about the realities of life. I’m also of the view that the youngster Morgan Davies that plays Koby seemed to have stepped right out of the anime too.
The first couple of episodes does a decent job setting up the universe and paralleling events that occur there with Luffy’s backstory. He is after all the leader of this band of outlaws and he’s in search of the elusive One Piece, the treasure of the once notorious pirate Gold D Roger who set the world alight by urging treasure hunters everywhere to search for it. Much to the chagrin of the World Government and their seafaring enforcers, the Marines. This ushers in a new golden age of piracy which sees every kind of Captain Kidd, Blackbeard and Mary Read wannabe trying to evade the long arm of the law. When he’s finally of age and a certain level of maturity, Luffy is off to have his own sea adventures in the manner of his hero Shanks. With nothing but his ambition to be king of the pirates and his special ability he heads off for the merciless Grand Line without a map or a crew. Little Luffy was a mischievous brat who happened upon a devil fruit, ate it and his entire body turned into rubber. But he’s only one among many devil fruit eaters endowed with special abilities.
Along the way he stumbles upon young Koby who is a slave to the pirate Alvida who rules with an iron fist. Luffy rescues Koby and they both eventually end up at Shells Town where they encounter the bounty hunter Roronoa Zoro and the thief Nami. One thing after another they break into Axehand Morgan’s castle and steal his safe for the map to the Grand Line.
The next two episodes grind to almost a halt as the team lands in Syrup Village a shipbuilding port in the Gecko Islands because Nami’s leaky boat can’t hold out much longer. There they intend to procure another ship but find themselves having to contend with more nasty types and the inevitable showdown ensues. On top of that are the marines led by Vice Admiral Garp hot on their heels. There Nami, Luffy and Zoro pick up their next member Usopp as well as their first ship Going Merry.
One Piece at its core is a superhero-martial arts story where the characters sail around from place to place recharging, making new friends and battling powerful villains to level up. In that regard it’s not unlike a video game. I suspect that Eiichiro Oda was partly inspired by Marvel’s superhero Reed Richards when he designed the original concept of Luffy. In the anime he’s my favourite because he keeps me reliably amused. Furthermore the series demonstrates that it is well-acquainted with the golden age of piracy. As the Straw Hats’ notoriety reach newer heights, the greater the bounty on their “wanted” posters. It has a strongly libertarian streak running right through it and the pirates are the epitome of that spirit of freedom, for good or ill. Not all are ambassadors of goodwill like the Straw Hat crew and certainly not the dubious World Government which is the arbiter of law and order in those turbulent waters. Part of what the Straw Hats do is help inhabitants of these islands and villages regain their autonomy from minor and major tyrants taking a leaf out of the book of twentieth century dictators.
The decision to make the look and feel of this enterprise quirky in the manner of Tim Burton pays off here. Though Eiichiro Oda draws on historical events and figures, the One Piece universe is still a fantastical world where good versus evil is centrestage to some familiar locations with populated by a parade of mythological races, bizarre personalities with the most unlikely abilities. There’s a sense that Alice has fallen down the rabbit hole one more time and it’s a brave new world that seems inviting on the surface but harbours a foreboding savagery in its underbelly.
Aside from the pacing, my other nitpick with this is the lack of spectacular rubber Luffy moves. While they’ve kept his personality more or less intact, his fight scenes don’t seem as exuberant or hilarious as they are in the anime. This is always my biggest beef with adaptations — the humour and action sequences don’t always transfer over well. That said, Luffy’s most important asset as it were, is his ability to inspire loyalty and affection everywhere he goes. Despite being on the naive side, he also has an uncanny ability to surround himself with the right kind of people and see past the facade. It is an achievement in and of itself that he is able to bring an arrogant loner like Zoro and an untrusting cynic like Nami into the fold despite all their protestations. The fact that the live action is able to bring that crucial factor to the forefront does check off a very important box.
Obviously the fact that the mangaka onboard is a producer on this is why this project hasn’t been a disaster. The most illogical thing they could do in the current climate is to disrespect a beloved IP and antagonize generations of fans worldwide in order to appeal to a politically correct crowd. No production house in their right minds would do that, surely? Unless of course they’re not interested in making money.
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Edited: To make some corrections to names