FEATURE: Is It Even Possible to Make a Live-Action One Piece?

Let's explore the inherent hurdles of bringing One Piece into our own world!



Hello everyone, and welcome to Why It Works. As you may know, this has been a year of discovery for me when it comes to One Piece, as I spent the first half of the year gleefully gobbling my way through the entire anime production. I’m not the only one having a One Piece-themed year; with persistent news emerging about Netflix’s live-action One Piece production, it’s looking like the property will soon be introduced to a vast new audience. Of course, having actually read and watched so much One Piece, I’m left with the same question many fans are asking: How the heck do you translate the appeal of One Piece into live-action?


One Piece


Live-action adaptations of anime are pretty common, though the results are often dubious. There have been Japanese film adaptations of a wide array of anime and manga, ranging from the easily translated personal drama of something like Solanin to the CG flourishes of the Bleach and Fullmetal Alchemist adaptations. Frequently, these films act as “greatest hits collections” of anime highlights, storming through fan-favorite setpieces but rarely appealing beyond the built-in audience of the original material’s fans. They can be fun artifacts but they’re not designed to vastly expand a franchise’s audience, nor truly match the highlights of their source material.


For One Piece, it seems like Netflix is going all-in on their production and attempting to craft a version of One Piece that can appeal even beyond animation fans. It’s a sympathetic ambition; One Piece is executing drama on a scale unrivaled by live-action television, and given the recent successes of other long-form fantasy dramas, the allure of converting a general global audience into One Piece fans must be tantalizing indeed. That said, One Piece offers unique challenges of adaptation, even beyond those of your usual live-action anime adaptation. Today, I’d like to explore just a few of those challenges and hopefully illustrate what makes One Piece so inseparable from its chosen medium.


One Piece


Challenge One: The Characters


Many of the most difficult challenges of One Piece adaptation are wrapped up in its character designs, with Luffy, in particular, standing as a massive adaptive hurdle. One of One Piece’s most unique qualities is that it leans further into visual farce and cartoonish exaggeration than most action manga. Luffy’s power embodies this quality; his rubbery body is a source of persistent visual comedy and his carefree stretching and bouncing naturally evoke his fundamental playfulness of spirit. Luffy’s unusually simplified visual design (think of his dot eyes or general lack of shading and linework) makes for a natural fit with his power, disarming any sense of body horror discomfort in his wild contortions. Both Luffy’s design and powers embody comic art’s unique ability to stretch the human form while still maintaining its fundamental identity and maybe even draw some comedy out of the process.


I’m sure you can already see the problem here. Everything that makes Luffy’s design so appropriate for comic or animated art also makes it entirely unsuitable for live-action animation. Is it even possible to translate the gum-gum power to live-action without creating some horrifying, visually grotesque result? When a live-action actor stretches his limbs to infinity, will we be able to disregard our impression of his bones and muscles cracking and contorting along the way? Live-action Luffy feels a bit like live-action Coyote and Roadrunner, with any theoretical humor being undercut by the visceral brutality of the violence.


One Piece


Luffy isn’t the only character who’d be tough to convey in live-action. Is Buggy going to be another body horror nightmare or will they retain the comic’s full-block shadows where his innards are supposed to be? What does your ideal live-action Usopp look like? Come to think of it, can you imagine a CG Chopper that you’d actually want to hang out with, and not run from screaming? If anything, later Oda designs get even wilder than his originals, to say nothing of how he uses exaggerated scale or design differences to illustrate strength and character. The very qualities that make One Piece such a visually dynamic comic also make it a true nightmare for a “realistic” adaptation; at worst, I fear a One Piece cast that evokes those “photorealistic Pokemon and Simpsons” images.


Challenge Two: The Comedy


Like One Piece’s character designs, the story’s comedy is frequently based on principles of comic and animated art that don’t have clear parallels in live-action. That Coyote and Roadrunner example is still appropriate here — when you translate cartoonish slapstick into live-action violence you lose the sense of silliness and distance from reality that makes the slapstick funny. Will the live-action adaptation attempt to translate the comic’s physical comedy and persistent visual punchlines? After all, much of the effectiveness of Oda’s comedy is not found in the base concepts of his setups but in how well he visually articulates an offhand punchline. Without Oda’s mastery of expression work and comic pacing, it feels like One Piece’s comic appeal could easily be lost in translation.


One Piece


Fortunately, I believe this is an area where an adaptation could attempt some dramatic changes without losing the appeal of the material. While Oda’s visual punchlines are brilliant, the conversational interplay of the Straw Hats is just as funny and could actually come through more clearly in a script initially written for an English-language audience. One of the greatest strengths of One Piece’s current dub is how well it captures the conversational flow of the Straw Hats during their many arguments. A live-action adaptation could easily match that flow while also building welcome chemistry between the main actors. If done right, One Piece’s adaptation wouldn’t have the exact same execution of comedy but could still maintain the story’s comic spirit.


Challenge Three: The Scale


One Piece doesn’t take place in a city, forest, or any other easily replicable venue; it takes place on an ocean, its drama spanning dozens of distinct islands and its battles incorporating a wide variety of battleships, castles, and other visual monuments. Turning this property into a live-action production is already an economic gamble, but to truly do One Piece justice, that production would require a staggering budget and sprawling set, coupled with the plain reality that filming on water complicates everything. Like its character designs, One Piece’s dramatic scale and diversity of venues reflects the fundamental advantages of comic art, where creating a set requires nothing more than drawing it into existence. How would a live-action production evoke the scale of locations like Drum Island or Little Garden, to say nothing of the story’s increasingly ambitious future locales?


The answer to that question is, I suspect, “We’ll worry about that if we get there.” Although One Piece’s future adventures promise endless strains on this show’s production, the story’s initial East Blue sequence seems just within range of visual articulation. Frankly, the fact that Oda hadn’t entirely solidified his narrative and visual ambitions this early is actually a boon for the live-action show; the East Blue’s villages are largely interchangeable, meaning the staff can focus on a few key locations like Luffy’s home, the Baratie, and Arlong Park. If this first season is a success, Alabasta might well enjoy a luxuriously realized second season — if not, the problem likely solves itself.


One Piece


Overall, while I see significant hurdles in adapting One Piece to live-action, I still can’t help but feel excited by the possibilities. The one central, glaring concern is the translation of Oda’s character and power designs into live-action. It’s such a tough problem that I frankly can’t see a solution and can only hope that the production staff has something brilliant in mind. That aside, all of One Piece’s adaptive hurdles seem ultimately resolvable, while the dramatic potential of a long-term One Piece adaptation seems absolutely staggering. I feel like we have fair reason for skepticism but I’m dearly hoping this production proves me wrong!




Nick Creamer has been writing about cartoons for too many years now and is always ready to cry about Madoka. You can find more of his work at his blog Wrong Every Time, or follow him on Twitter.


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