One Piece is – by nature – having to bring to live-action television a lot of what I must parochially describe as ‘anime nonsense’, first and foremost how it’s only the named characters who have brightly coloured hair. This isn’t necessarily to damn the show irrevocably, just an observation that certain traits are bleeding from one medium to another. Most action scenes in live-action TV do not have the combatants bellow the names of their attacks, for example.
In a separate but related issue, One Piece seems unsure as to what age bracket it’s going for. A young man wondering if a girl “likes him-likes him” sits uneasily alongside some very promiscuous use of the term “shit”. The giveaway is that while a lot of people do get stabbed, you never actually see the blade going in, which even in these cartoony environs is still known to ratchet up the age rating.
However, like Pirates Of The Caribbean (which probably owes more inspiration to One Piece than the other way around), it’s a big noisy popcorn affair of the sort which full-grown adults needn’t really be ashamed of enjoying, ironically or not. So it’s silly, so what? It’s a show about pirates based on a cartoon, it’s not Dr. Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent Of Man. A certain amount of silliness is the order of the day here.
Unlike a lot of television, which takes advantage of a longer total runtime to get a bit more expansive, One Piece feels somewhat stuffed in the same way as a popcorn blockbuster because of its ensemble nature. It loves little more than to keep throwing in new characters at a rate of knots – for the first hour or so that’s to be expected, but the show keeps on doing it as if it’s all the first hour.
But thanks to the nature of brightly-coloured anime archetypes, this doesn’t get confusing. It’s not a Game Of Thrones situation where you’re squinting to try and remember what this person’s deal is. One Piece does this well enough they wouldn’t even need the colour-coded hair – the main cast includes no fewer than two traditional cocky, combat-ready anime pretty-boys, and never runs the risk you might mix them up.
Sad to say, there’s a couple of particularly duff performances in amongst this sprawling cast. In some cases this must be down to the awkwardness of trying to react properly to a green-screened world, but frequently lines, even ostensibly emotive lines, are delivered like someone’s holding up the script off-camera. Main man Luffy’s boyish enthusiasm for everything is at least convincing, but it’s still one-note.
Thankfully, this does not extend to the action scenes. That is something One Piece pointedly does properly, with reasonable shot lengths rather than incomprehensible rapidly-cut nightmares, and while it’s always clear that this was once a cartoon, that’s not to its detriment. A scrap kicks off and all of a sudden every cog’s turning, you forget about the stilted deliveries that were mere moments ago – which probably says something about what the cast were selected for.
Perversely, the weaker performances are almost invariably from sympathetic characters. The villains are at worst hammy, but they also provide the kind of moustache-twirling, nigh-histrionic evildoing that a production like this needs. One Piece would not benefit from subtle, nuanced bad guys, and happily it isn’t trying to include any. Even those with redeeming features of some kind are clearly – and often literally – wearing black hats.
Is this odd coming from any work whose main character is a proud and unrepentant pirate? The thing is there that, as Robert Webb once told us, “pirates are fun!”. This kind of tension is what pirate stories have always had to grapple with, but stories of good-hearted gentleman thieves, who were always explicitly the good guys, predate the age of sail by a long way. It’s surprisingly easy to draw a bright dividing line between good pirates and bad pirates.
And while it may not quite rise to being truly nuanced, One Piece does grapple with larger themes, albeit in the kind of paint-by-numbers way that won’t turn off its younger audience. Most prominent is the old dichotomy of liberty vs. order, but at one point there’s a remarkably well-handled look at internalised sexism, remarkable both that it’s in a show whose named female characters can be counted on one hand, and that it’s not helplessly clunky in the way the media’s handling of gender politics very often is.
How does this square with living in a world where a man eats a magic fruit that turns him into rubber so he stretches like Stretch Armstrong? Surprisingly well. Say it quietly, but this seems to be a recurrent part of the best anime and its derivative works – it can be wacky, and actively is, but can also take itself seriously, and doesn’t need to let either of these facets undermine the other. It’s a careful balance, and it’s the one One Piece strikes.
Given Netflix’s habit of cancelling even its most beloved shows two or three seasons in, the fans shouldn’t hold out much hope of a full adaptation. Notwithstanding the fact that the original’s still going on, it’s been running for over twenty years, and before long the live-action version’s youthful cast would end stumbling through the motions grey-haired and pot-bellied.
So One Piece fans are, in all likelihood, better off thinking of this version of it as an amusing novelty – what would have once been a one-off film adaptation. And God only knows that this is a better watch than most of the film spinoffs the world’s ever seen.
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A jolly-rogering adventure on the high seas which would be completely comfortable being described in such stock phrases - but is so full of whimsy it's anything but stock. The occasional ropy performance never comes close to ruining the fun.
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