Hit Japanese manga “One Piece” is coming to Netflix as a live-action series – a development that’s both exciting and unsettling for fans who’ve seen mixed success in a growing list of Hollywood adaptations.
Chronicling the coming-of-age adventures of Monkey D. Luffy, a young pirate with a heart of gold, the world’s best-selling manga series has already been adapted into an animated TV series with over 900 episodes. There are also 13 animated films, One Piece video games, and merchandise galore.
Ready to pass her verdict, Nina Oeki, a gender and politics researcher at Waseda University in Tokyo, who has been a fan of “One Piece” since she was in elementary school. I read the manga created by Eiichiro Oda when it first appeared in Shonen Jump in 1997, and watched the animated show that followed shortly after.
“I know some people are worried about what might happen with the Hollywood remake,” she said, noting that previous American attempts to portray Japanese comics and animation have sometimes been 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 failure. In December 2021, Netflix canceled “Cowboy Bebop,” its live-action adaptation of the Western manga and anime of the same name, after only one season.
Cross pollination between Hollywood and Japan goes back decades. References to Japan, such as the image of a geisha on screen, are abundant in the 1982 science fiction film “Blade Runner” by Ridley Scott.
The movie, in turn, influenced the anime, including “Blade Runner: Black Lotus,” which first aired in 2021.
It’s an “amazing moment for anime,” says Japanese pop culture expert Roland Kelts, in part because streaming on platforms like Netflix helped make the entertainment limitless.
The live-action “One Piece,” expected later this year, follows on the heels of the worldwide success of “Demon Slayer,” another manga that started in Shonen Jump and was made into a movie and anime series that has been picked up by Netflix.
In February, The Pokémon Company announced “Pokémon Concierge,” a stop-motion anime collaboration with Netflix. Pokémon is the world’s most valuable media franchise with an estimated $100 billion in sales of all time, according to Statista’s 2021 report. After Hello Kitty, the two Japanese products have overtaken Western shows like Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and Star Wars. Hollywood live-action adaptations of other popular Japanese productions are also underway – from Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 anime “Your Name” to the giant robots “Gundam” franchise that started in 1979.
The cost of producing animation is low compared to live-action films, and computer-generated heroes don’t get sick, injured, or make offensive remarks off-screen the way real-life actors sometimes do, making it a marketable medium, said Kelts, author of “Japanamerica,” which documents the impact of Japanese Pop Culture in the United States.
They are stylized and stateless characters. What I mean by that is that anime characters travel the world very well,” Kelts said. “Human celebrities don’t always travel well.”
This bestseller offers the benefit of a built-in fan base, but it also comes with rigorous vetting. Some, such as “Ghost in the Shell”, have been criticized for “whitewashing” the Asian origin. The 1995 animated film was turned into a live-action in Hollywood in 2017 amid complaints about the casting of white American actor Scarlett Johansson as the main character – though Asia has largely stayed out of the debate.
“One Piece” stars Mexican actor Iñaki Godoy (“The Imperfects”) as Luffy — whose nationality is a mystery — alongside American actor Emily Rudd (“The Romanoffs”) as Nami and Japanese-American actor Mackenyu (“Fullmetal Alchemist: Revenge of Scar,” “Fullmetal Alchemist: Final Transformation”) as Roronoa Zoro.
Oeke said that the overarching personality of the main character, who attracts more and more companions to join his quest throughout the story, highlights the kind of school, office, or workplace environment that people crave in modern-day society.
“Luffy is that leader we all want,” she said. “Luffy is a hero, but not an extraordinary hero. He is one of us. He wants to be the King of the Pirates, but not so that he can rule, but so that everyone is free.”
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/yurikageyama