Pirates. Tick, right? Can’t go wrong with pirates. Four-and-a-half billion Pirates Of The Caribbean smackers can’t be wrong. But how about samurai pirates? Now we’re cooking. Swashbuckling assassins, dicing up buck-toothed buccaneers with a swish of a sword and… sorry, what now? Superhero samurai pirates? With added sea monsters and fantasy beasties all over the shop? Look, we might have to budget this in Bitcoin…
It’s perhaps no wonder that Eiichiro Oda’s manga series One Piece – in print since 1997 – has become the best-selling of all time, with over 516million copies in circulation. And also that there’s such rabid expectation around Netflix’s eight-part live action adaptation. What is a surprise, considering the rote nature of so many manga-to-anime-to-live action transfers (and the numerous previous TV special and film animation adaptations), is that it so brilliantly captures the pace, colour and vitality of the series. Let’s call it the Last Of Us effect in full flow.
In slick and pacey opening passages, the show’s compulsive premise virtually leaps from the screen, exposition-free. The captured Gold Roger, king of the pirates, goes to his death declaring open season on his priceless mythological treasure, the One Piece. Amongst the legion of new pirates out to find it is Monkey D. Luffy (Iñaki Godoy), a Huckleberry Finn kind of treasure-hunter determined to become the next overlord on the high seas. To which end he cobbles together a rudimentary crew of Straw Hat Pirates resembling a list of fantasy video game starting characters: Mackenyu’s samurai pirate hunter Roronoa Zoro (nicknamed The Demon) and Nami (Emily Rudd), a thief who (somewhat handily) can also navigate ships. And off they set across the seven – well, in this world, four – seas, liberally populated with massive monster eels and shit, bound for cartoonish island-hopping adventure.
Cartoonish is, inevitably, the touchstone here. Key to the series’ appeal is the existence of Devil Fruit which, when eaten, give the character lifelong unique powers. Luffy’s body was turned into rubber – hence plenty of Elastigirl/Mister Fantastic/Inspector Gadget style long-limbed antics – while others can control monsters or separate their bodies into murderous individual chunks. And besides the fantasy creatures and Tolkienesque races they run into, the rival pirates and despotic government figures they come up against are classic comic book villains: the psychopathic clown Buggy and Axe-Hand Morgan make early appearances.
There’s just enough menace and violence involved to make these enemies convincingly chilling. Jeff Ward’s Buggy somehow manages to contain all the genuine psychotic threat of the last few cinema Jokers, without having to resort to anything as distracting, in this distinctly manga world, as realism. And for hour-long episodes, One Piece rattles along at a sprightly pace, stacking drama points like teetering towers that all tumble in synchronised perfection. If it’s teen-friendly romps that virtually binge themselves you’re after, climb aboard and strap in tight.
‘One Piece’ is streaming now on Netflix