One Piece: Long Live The New Flesh

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Unless the rock you’re hiding under doesn’t have streaming, you know that Netflix did a live-action season of the famous anime/manga One Piece.  I found this a curious choice because of the cancellation of Cowboy Bebop.  Ditching a retro space adventure for an over-the-top tale of superhuman piracy felt like choosing a pretty heavy lift.

Of course, I had to check it out, if only for morbid curiosity.  To get me invested One Piece would also be a heavy lift.

One Piece is something I tried to get into several times, across several dubs, and through an issue or two of the manga.  Despite its popularity – and my own love of fun weirdness – It never reached me, and it’s hard to say whyOne Piece should have checked several of my boxes, but apparently left its pen elsewhere.

So, I sat down, watched a few episodes – and found myself really enjoying it.  I dare say I was charmed by it, enough I was disappointed when I had to stop watching.  What was it that made me appreciate this show but not other incarnations?  Beyond, you know, having over two decades of episodes and a wallet-endangering amount of manga?

I realized it was the fact it was live-action and the actors were into it.  There were other reasons, but over and over I kept coming back to the cast.

Iñaki Godoy’s take on Luffy, the ever-cheerful elastic protagonist is charming and sincere – you aren’t sure how much he’s acting.  Emily Rudd’s Nami is relatable, the sane woman among a demented piratical sausage fest.  Jeff Ward’s theatrical pirate Buggy the Clown steals every scene, a sort of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia take on the Joker.  Everyone in the cast does great, embracing their roles with a gusto that suggests a scenery-intensive diet.

I realized that, for me, One Piece worked better live action.  No offense to the fine voice actors associated with it, nor Oda’s manic creativity.  The manga and animated One Piece didn’t connect with me on a human level.  I suspect it was a mix of the art style and over-the-topness were a barrier to me feeling connected to the work.

The live-action One Piece was different.  Gody’s little expressions and accents made Luffy a person.  Mackenyu’s Zorro, the I-hunt-pirates-but-these-are-my-friends bounty hunter projected amusingly straight-faced deadly cool mixed cold befuddlement.  Jacob Romero cries a single tear in a scene that says more than his motormouth character Usopp could say with words.  These weirdos were alive and I was enjoying it.

There is something about a good actor whose voice, expressions, gestures, and postures let them become a character.  The cast seemed to be channeling the characters, making them flesh.  For me they became people.

I’ve often wondered how different media work when translated to others, but would argue animation is perhaps the easiest medium to transfer a creation to.  Seeing One Piece I’m left wondering if that’s always the case, and find myself rethinking assumptions about what form fits what kind of works.

I’m only a few episodes in.  The show has room to disappoint me – but the cast and characters certainly didn’t.

Steven Savage