One Piece’s Treasure Hunters

When it comes to One Piece, the oft-repeated phrase “cultural phenomenon” goes from cliché to justified — even insufficient. Over the last twenty-six years, this series has conquered the massively profitable and influential manga and anime markets, and now — thanks to a new live-action adaptation on Netflix — it may extend that dominance even further. Which begs the question: what is One Piece?

In brief, it’s an action-adventure story about pirates with superpowers. It’s also a sprawling saga with a complex, lushly textured world populated by a robust cast of characters. And while the logline may suggest a maritime version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, One Piece is more akin to classic stories such as The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote and The Iliad. Eiichiro Oda — the sole writer and illustrator behind One Piece — references those clasic tales and countless others throughout his pirate epic, while weaving in his own unique mythology.

Prior to the events of the series, Gold Roger — recognized the world over as king of the pirates — is captured and executed. With his final breath, he tells the world about his hidden treasure, the One Piece, inspiring millions to become pirates in hope of finding his fortune. Around twenty years later, a teenage boy named Monkey D. Luffy becomes obsessed with Roger’s legend and aims to claim both the One Piece and Roger’s vacant pirate king throne. He assembles a crew and readies to sail, but after eating a magical fruit, his body is turned into rubber, and he loses his ability to swim — a liability for someone who lives on a boat.

What separates One Piece from its many competitors — in both manga (Japanese comic books and graphic novels) and anime (a style of animation originating in Japan) — is how effortlessly the series can maneuver through genres without ever feeling narratively incongruent. In addition to its mythic structure, which accounts for the series’ immense length (almost 1,100 issues and counting since 1997), the franchise is also a comedy that deftly and frequently switches tones. However, comedic mastery is only one skill in Oda’s vast bag of narrative tricks. The world of One Piece is staggering in its scope and ambition, with several complex and divergent political systems, races, cultures and geographical locations. It’s as if The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean had a baby that grew up watching X-Men.

This diverse medley of influences and tones might seem chaotic, but the series’ overwhelming success in the world of manga suggests otherwise. Manga are the world’s most lucrative comic books, with a global market of more than $12 billion in 2022, according to Grand View Research. Having sold more than 500 million copies, One Piece is not only the most successful manga of all time, it’s also the most successful comic book ever by a single author-illustrator. Given the MCU’s ascension and the emergence of anime as a financial juggernaut (Grand View Research puts the global anime market at $28.61 billion in 2022), one might assume One Piece had already been adapted to live action.

It has not. Netflix’s show — an eight-episode season derived from the first 100 issues of the manga series, collectively known as the East Blue saga — marks the inaugural live-action outing for One Piece. For the better part of a decade, Netflix has been making substantial investments in anime, creating a slew of original offerings that have become industry benchmarks beloved by diehard fans. And while Netflix’s bet on original anime has proven shrewd, its live-action adaptations of existing anime successes (e.g., Death Note, Bleach, Cowboy Bebop) have fared less well among connoisseurs. That makes the new One Piece series all the more important to Netflix — and to fans.

In fact, this adaptation marks a potential sea change in the IP’s popularity this side of the Pacific. Despite anime and manga’s massive popularity in the United States, One Piece has struggled to find its footing — unlike such comparable IPs as Naruto and Bleach. During the initial explosion of Western interest in anime in the early 2000s, the licensing company 4Kids — which helped shepherd Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! to superstardom in America — gained distribution rights to the One Piece anime.

On paper, 4Kids’ acquisition of One Piece‘s American distribution made sense. However, the dubbed animated series that 4Kids released — which attempted to localize and sanitize the content — alienated a generation of potential fans. So, even as Naruto and Bleach were becoming cornerstones of the millennial anime obsession, One Piece‘s reputation in the States was suffering.

But the tides have begun to turn, thanks in part to the series’ sheer longevity — and also to another firm, Funimation, which in 2007 redubbed the One Piece anime series that 4Kids had previously released. Netflix, after acquiring the rights to a live-action adaptation, put several seasons of the Funimation One Piece dub online, likely to prime the market for the forthcoming series. Netflix now offers fifteen seasons of Funimation’s dubbed episodes.

Meanwhile, Crunchyroll, the leading anime niche streaming service, offers twenty-four seasons of the One Piece anime series (including all of Funimation’s dubbed episodes plus more recent releases that are as of yet only subtitled). In August, newly released episodes of the anime series were so popular that the viewing traffic crashed Crunchyroll’s servers two weeks in a row.

Although One Piece has faced an uphill battle in America, in Japan the IP has a level of cultural ubiquity that few series attain. From themed restaurants, ice skating spectaculars and stage shows to dozens of video games and a host of statues constructed in the series’ honor, One Piece is deeply interwoven into Japanese pop culture. Since 2000, it has spawned fifteen animated feature films.

Despite all this, creator Oda refrained from bringing One Piece into the live-action world for two decades. Simply put, if Japanese fans seem obsessed with One Piece their devotion pales in comparison to the fanatical dedication its creator has for his property.

Aside from being intensely competitive, the manga industry is incredibly grueling for Japanese comic creators, known as mangaka. In contrast to American comics, which publish monthly, manga publishers release a new chapter every week. The strain of writing and producing a weekly comic book requires that mangaka sacrifice sleep, leisure and even health to keep their series in circulation. It’s common for them to take long breaks, sometimes lasting years, for the sake of their health. And while dedication is common, few mangaka show a level of resolve like Oda’s.

For more than a quarter of a century, as One Piece has exploded in popularity, Oda has taken just a handful of breaks. In an attempt to keep the quality of his masterwork as consistent as possible, he says he’s resigned himself to four hours of sleep a night; he even delayed his honeymoon for several years. When one considers Oda’s personal sacrifices for One Piece, his hesitation to sign off on a live-action series becomes more understandable.

Given the series’ more fantastical elements, the process of translating One Piece from the manga page to live action was always going to be a challenge. Ever since he agreed to this adaptation in 2016, Oda has been deeply involved as an executive producer, working with coshowrunners, executive producers and writers Steven Maeda (Lost, CSI: Miami) and Matt Owens (Luke Cage and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as well as executive producers Marty Adelstein and Becky Clements of Tomorrow Studios.

Everyone on the team worked to ensure the show retained as much of the original manga’s magic as possible. In May, Oda posted a note to fans via Netflix’s Twitter account that said, in part, “Considering my expected life span, I believe this is the last chance to bring One Piece to the entire world. If we’re going to do it, I want to be able to supervise things while I’m still active. … The entire cast and crew, spanning various countries, are brimming with love for One Piece!!”

Even though a show like One Piece can live or die based on its visual effects, everyone knew the series’ true strength would depend on its cast. A multitude of characters, both primary and peripheral, round out the roster, but the five central characters are known as the Straw Hat Pirates.

Fans get to watch the irre-pressibly optimistic captain, Monkey D. Luffy, assemble his crew from the ground up. Oda was instrumental in selecting the talent, which is led by Mexican actor Iñaki Godoy (Netlix’s The Imperfects and Who Killed Sara?) as Luffy. Mackenyu, a well-established actor in Japan (and the son of martial arts movie legend Sonny Chiba), plays first mate Roronoa Zoro, and Emily Rudd (Dynasty, Hunters) embodies the quick-witted navigator, Nami.

With this trio, viewers begin to follow the Straw Hat crew as they add other adventurers — a suave and rascally cook named Sanji (Taz Skylar, The Lazarus Project) and Usopp, a playful trickster (Jacob Romero, Rap Sh!t ). As Luffy and his friends venture across the seas, they encounter villainous pirates, corrupt marines and a vast array of quirky characters.

At its core, One Piece is an adventure story that revels in the classical idea of romance. In one moment, the show illustrates the barbarism that human beings are capable of, and in the very next, it reminds us of the boundless compassion and beauty of the human experience. And if you’re wondering what the One Piece treasure actually is, only Oda knows … for now.

 This article originally appeared in emmy magazine #10, 2023 under the title, “Treasure Hunters.”

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