Sunday 15 October 2023

One Piece: Season 1

Monkey D. Luffy is pursuing his dream: of one day finding the One Piece, the mightiest treasure in all the world, and declaring himself King of the Pirates. There is a slight problem with this goal: he has no ship, no crew, no reputation and very limited pirating skills. What he does have is the ability to stretch his body, thanks to the magical effects of the Gum-Gum Fruit he ill-advisedly ate as a boy. When Luffy meets skilled thief and navigator Nami, and the pirate-hunter Roronoa Zoro, who wants to become the greatest swordsman in history, he is finally able to set about achieving his ambition.

One Piece is a live action Netflix adaptation of the biggest-selling manga of all time. Eiichiro Oda's original comic series has shifted over half a billion copies, meaning it is bearing down on the Harry Potter series' position as the biggest-selling fantasy work of all time with a vengeance. The comic has accumulated over a thousand issues in its quarter-century of publication and is still not finished, although Oda has confirmed that it has entered its final story arc.

This TV show has to overcome several significant problems: the lack of good manga/anime-to-live action adaptations; the enormous amount of material to adapt; and the source material's incredibly unique tone, which makes adapting it an almost ludicrous prospect.

Fortunately, the original creator is on board to help out. Oda acted as a consultant and producer on the show, approved (and even revised) scripts, and approved casting. The same studio that made the Cowboy Bebop adaptation (which I broadly enjoyed, but had some issues with) was behind this, but listening to fan criticisms about divergences from the source material, they decided to both be more faithful to that material and have the original creator more closely involved.

The result, rather easily, is the best manga-to-live action show we've seen yet. The show matches the original's zany energy and is able to deliver its tricky tonal shifts from comedy to action to something darker to the screen successfully. Iñaki Godoy has the tough job of playing Monkey D. Luffy but nails the role, portraying Monkey's optimism and ambition but also his sense of friendship and his rare bursts of anger when confronted by evil and oppression. Emily Rudd's Nami is an excellent co-lead, an unreliable ally with her own agenda (driven by past trauma) but who does appreciate her friends and allies. Rounding out the central trio is Mackenyu as Roronoa Zoro. This is probably the most "stock anime" character in the show, the young swordsman with a taciturn attitude, a love of alcohol and the ambition to become the greatest warrior in the world, but also a strong sense of honour and fair play which is sometimes out of keeping with his cynicism. Mackenyu's deadpan live delivery and impressive action skills make him one of the most impressive members of the cast.

Two other key members of Monkey's crew also join the proceedings mid-season, with Jacob Romero Gibson playing Usopp, and Taz Skylar playing Sanji. Both are solid, although Usopp is perhaps a little let down by the writing (it's hard to sympathise with a grown-ass man constantly crying wolf about pirate attacks only to be let down by his friends when a real one takes place) and Sanji by joining the fray relatively late in the day. Hopefully both are developed better in Season 2.

The show also develops an extensive cast of additional allies, enemies and characters-of-uncertain allegiance. The season may be only eight episodes long, but they cover the same ground as the first forty-five episodes of the anime, and the first ninety-five issues of the manga. That means a fair bit of compression, but it also keeps the story moving at quite a crack, with little filler or downtime. Each episode (or two-episode sub-arc) builds on the last whilst also telling its own story, creating a somewhat old-fashioned mix of serialised subplots and stand-alone main plots. Each episode therefore needs to be structured more like a feature film than a TV episode, introducing and resolving storylines, introducing new characters and villains, establishing credible motivations and make it all entertaining.

It's certainly helped by the outrageous budget: a lot of recent genre TV has been blighted by horrible, plastic-looking CGI and rushed effects work. There's a couple of moments in One Piece that could be tightened up (including a very awkward CGI kick for Sanji in the season finale, although it's also quite funny) but overall the effects work is incredibly good, adding to the feeling of each episode being its own miniature epic of a storyline.

There are downsides to the series. The enormous number of names, magical concepts, locations and ideas being fired at the viewer can be hard to keep up with, but you don't necessarily want to tap any of the wikis or guides to the franchise for fear of spoilers. The geography could be perhaps a bit better depicted (the show has a fabulous map in its end credits, but sadly this does not appear to be available separately). Morgan Davies' portrayal of Koby is perhaps a tad too intense given the tone of the rest of the show. Several important characters very abruptly disappear from the story (like the axe-hand guy), although with our heroes travelling hundreds of miles from location to location by ship, that at least is realistic. Maybe each episode is so jammed full that it's not actually the best show for bingeing: I had to take breaks between episodes. One Piece is a veritable banquet of story: richly enjoyable, but it can also be filling..

Most of these are less than quibbles. The first season of One Piece (****½) is energetic, well-acted, impressively-written and flips between comedy, drama and pathos with assurance. The production values are outrageous, and the actors all seem to get the assignment, no matter how daft their costumes or dubious their hairstyles. I suspect the anime and manga are about to get a whole ton of new fans as well, and hopefully Netflix can find a way of delivering the already-confirmed second season in a reasonable timeframe. One Piece is available to watch globally on Netflix right now.

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