With the popularity of One Piece, has Netflix hit the winning formula for live-action anime adaptations?

What began as a friendly pirate-based manga, Netflix’s One Piece features the eternally optimistic Monkey D. Luffy (pronounced Loofy), a young man with magical stretchy powers that gathers a crew of eccentric loners to crew his Straw Hat Pirate brigade and set out in search of the legendary One Piece pirate treasure.

The production quality of this series is excellent, from sets, costumes and make-up, it seems that every cent of its estimated US $138 million budget has been well used.

With a 95% viewer rating on Rotten Tomatoes and One Piece sitting at the top of Netflix’s global viewing stats in its second week in the top 10, it’s clear that Netflix has struck a winning adaptation formula, with a Mashable review declaring that “Netflix does the impossible”.

At first glance, One Piece could be seen as a blend of Harry Potter and the Pirates of the Caribbean, a mixture of fantasy and pirate aesthetics. One Piece’s postmodern take on the pirate genre has characters dressed in neat business suits, and contemporary t-shirts. But it is the general mix of the manga’s fun, action and drama that the series captures so well.

From Manga to Anime to Live-action

One Piece first appeared as a manga in 1997 and holds the distinction of being the world’s most published manga with over 100 compiled book volumes, with sales of over 500 million.

The manga’s initial success saw its first animated TV series produced by Toei Animation in Japan in 1999, with over 1,000 episodes now in circulation. There have been 11 feature-length animated movies, including 2022’s One Piece Film: Red, and 4 short films, all produced and initially released in Japan.

The first attempt to bring the One Piece anime to the west, stalled immediately. In 2004, an American company purchased the rights to the series, but dubbed and reedited the show to be more child friendly, resulting in a quick backlash from audiences. In 2007, the show was picked up by another company (now Crunchyroll) and packaged for DVD and broadcast in its original, uncut format.

In 2020, anime streaming service, Crunchyroll, released the anime across its platforms in Europe and the Middle-East.

While manga and anime such as Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon have long attracted a global audience, One Piece is aimed at a slightly older audience. Until now, it has not received the same kind of international attention (and marketing).

One Piece’s journey from manga, through anime to live-action has precedence across all genres in Japan, not just in children’s cartoons. From the sweet family drama of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or entry, Our Little Sister (2015) to Takashi Miike’s ultra-violent Ichi the Killer (2001), Kengo Hanazawa’s zombie hit, I Am A Hero (2015) and any number of high school based films such as Akira Nagai’s After the Rain (2018), the journey from manga to live-action is often keenly awaited by Japanese audiences.

Keeping it ‘real’

The adaptation of “sacred” Japanese manga and anime series have copped more than a little criticism from audiences, well beyond the dedicated otaku (enthusiasts). If you’re not sure how passionate fans can be, here’s one spirited review of the series, that he’s thoughtfully limited to just under one hour. At one point he breathlessly exhorts “Make no mistake, I am going to spend the vast majority of this video just absolutely slobbering over this!”

When Scarlet Johansson was chosen to play the lead role in the live-action version of Ghost in the Shell (2017), the opposition mobilised accusing the producers of whitewashing the film.

But it’s not just Western casting that gets the ire of fans and critics. The live-action remake of Kiki’s Delivery Service (2014), best known for the 1989 Studio Ghibli anime, was poorly received in both Japan and the West. The remake copped a Variety review claiming that it was marred by its “charmless heroine, leaden storytelling and dime-store production values”.

Casting the crew

Perhaps one of the keys to this series immediate success is its international casting.

Luffy is played with ineffable joy by Mexico’s Inaki Godoy, who captures the wild-eyed optimism of the original manga character. Australia’s Morgan Davies plays the cabin boy Koby, bringing a delightfully androgynous innocence to the role.

Spanish-English actor, Taz Skylar is the be-suited Sanji, who joins the Straw Hats as their cook.

American actor Jeff Ward excels as Buggy the Clown, perhaps the character most responsible for the story’s appeal to older audiences. Like Pennywise in Stephen King’s It, or Heath Ledger’s Joker, Buggy’s grotesqueness will fire up the coulrophobia (fear of clowns) in even the best of us.

The surprising inclusion of just one Japanese actor in the regular cast features Mackenyu as the sword-wielding Zoro (so much of One Piece borrows from other movies, folk-tales and popular culture). Mackenyu is a Japanese teen film star, and the son of the great Sonny Chiba, martial arts and action star (in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films).

The excellent casting in One Piece tops off the series’ ability to remain breathtakingly fun. Like Ryan Gosling’s over-the-top performance in Barbie, the entire cast of One Piece look like they’re having a blast, and the enthusiasm shows in their performances.

Secret to success?

So how did Netflix do it? How did they create an adaptation that captured the excitement of both the manga and anime and doesn’t, well, suck?

This series of One Piece stays true to its characters, supported by a strong cast and a healthy budget that allows high production standards and special effects.

Many of the props, including some of the boats, were actually built, so the actors aren’t just green-screening their performances. The result is a rollicking, swashbucklingly fun pirate adventure. The Netflix executives must be feeling as chipper as Luffy.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Peter C. Pugsley, University of Adelaide.

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Peter C. Pugsley does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.