Hit Japanese manga One Piece is coming to Netflix as a live-action series – a development that’s both exciting and worrisome for fans who are finding mixed success in a growing list of Hollywood adaptations.
The world’s best-selling manga series chronicling the coming-of-age adventures of Monkey D. Luffy, a young pirate with a heart of gold, has already been adapted into an anime TV series with over 900 episodes. There are also 13 animated films, One Piece video games, and merchandise galore.
Ready to offer her verdict is Nina Oiki, a gender and politics researcher at Tokyo’s Waseda University who’s been a One Piece fan since she was in elementary school. She read Eiichiro Oda’s manga when it first appeared in Shonen Jump magazine in 1997 and watched the animated series shortly after.
“I know some people are worried about what might happen with the Hollywood remake,” she said, noting how previous American attempts to portray Japanese comics and animated works have sometimes proved disappointing.
The 2017 Netflix film adaptation of Death Note, a manga and anime about a book that can kill people, was widely criticized as a flop. In December 2021, Netflix canceled Cowboy Bebop, its live-action adaptation of the space western manga and anime of the same name, after just one season.
The cross-fertilization of Hollywood and Japan goes back decades. In the 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott, there are numerous references to Japan, like an image of a geisha on a screen.
The film, in turn, influenced anime, including the anime Blade Runner: Black Lotus, which first aired in 2021.
Japanese pop culture expert Roland Kelts says it’s a “staggering moment for anime,” in part due to streaming on platforms like Netflix, which has helped bring entertainment to the limit.
Live-Action One Piece, expected later this year, follows the worldwide success of Demon Slayer, another manga that got its start in Shonen Jump and has been adapted into a film and anime series that were picked up by Netflix.
In February, The Pokémon Company announced Pokémon Concierge, a stop-motion anime collaboration with Netflix. Pokémon is the most valuable media franchise in the world with an estimated total revenue of $100 billion, according to a 2021 Statista report. Followed by Hello Kitty, the two Japanese products outperform Western offerings like Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh and Star Wars. Live-action Hollywood adaptations of other popular Japanese products — from Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 body-swap anime Your Name to the giant-robot Gundam franchise that began in 1979 — are also in the works.
Anime has low production costs compared to live-action films, and computer-generated heroes don’t get sick or injured or make offensive remarks off-screen like real actors sometimes do, making it a viable medium, said Kelts, author of “Japanamerica”, documenting the influence of Japanese pop culture in the United States.
“They are stylized and stateless characters. What I mean by that is that anime characters travel very, very well worldwide,” Kelts said. “The human celebs don’t always travel that well.”
Established bestsellers offer the benefit of a built-in following, but they also come under rigorous scrutiny. Some, like Ghost in the Shell, have been criticized for “whitewashing” the Asian original. The 1995 animated film was made into live-action Hollywood in 2017 amid complaints about casting white American actress Scarlett Johansson as the lead character — though Asia largely stayed out of the debate.
The live-action One Piece stars Mexican actor Iñaki Godoy (The Imperfects) as Luffy – whose nationality is canonically a mystery – alongside American actress Emily Rudd (The Romanoffs) as Nami and the Japanese-American Actor Mackenyu (“Fullmetal Alchemist: Revenge of Scar”, “Fullmetal Alchemist: Final Transmutation”) as Roronoa Zoro.
The main character’s integrative personality, which draws more and more companions to join his quest as the story progresses, underscores the kind of school, office, or workplace environment that people in modern society crave, Fan Oiki said.
“Luffy is the leader we all want,” she said. “Luffy is a hero, but not an exceptional hero. He’s one of us. He wants to be the Pirate King, not so he can rule, but so everyone can be free.”
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/yurikageyama