Manga to Live-Action: Navigating the Queer Characters of ‘One Piece’ on Netflix

“Netflix does the impossible,” declared one reviewer. The translation of manga and anime’s cartoon-world charm into the CGI-augmented reality of live-action film has proved a notoriously unforgiving task, as Netflix’s own failed interpretations of the charismatic cult-horror Death Note and the extra-terrestrial neo-Western Cowboy Bebop testify.

“One Piece” series. Capture from Netflix.

However, ignoring the maxim that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” with their characteristically chest-out bravado, Netflix has resolved to take on Eiichiro Oda’s beloved One Piece as their next doomed-from-the-sail manga project. Except, the results have blown all expectations out of the series’ pirate-infested waters.

Debuted in 1997 as a serial in the Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine, One Piece takes place in an oceanic world of marines, pirates, and sea monsters, in which the death of the formidable Pirate King Gol D. Roger has triggered a search for the “One Piece”, his mythic bounty which promises to make of whomever finds it the next Pirate King. However, the dystopian World Government has meanwhile embarked on its own guerrilla mission to stomp the scourge of piracy out once-and-for-all, giving One Piece the omnipresent leverage of a Big Brother-esque mega-villain to contend with, should tensions ever start running dry.

“One Piece” series. Capture from Netflix.

Among those taking on the hunt for the One Piece – to the recurring ire of the World Government – is Monkey D. Luffy, an ambitious teenager who, with the help of the magical Gum Gum Fruit, has the ability to transform his body into a sort of super-stretch elastic band, à la Pixar’s Mrs. Incredible. He is accompanied, somewhat reluctantly, by Rorona Zoro – who wants nothing more than to be the world’s greatest swordsman – and the thief-turned-navigator Nami. Together, they form the Straw Hat Pirates, named after Luffy’s signature straw hat. On their adventures, they will come across a panoptic cast of allies and enemies, each protagonist being heart-warming enough to blow any live-action hero regurgitated by Disney over the last decade clean out the water, the adrenaline-drenched action capable of taking even Marvel’s fight scenes head-on.

Since 1999, the manga has also been the subject of an anime that has rivalled the source material in its popularity, hitting its milestone 1000th episode last year. Netflix was therefore fighting on two fronts by bringing One Piece to life, against both manga and anime loyalists. However, both camps have been subdued with surprising ease. One Piece’s casting – anchored by the infectious optimism of Iñaki Godoy’s Luffy – brings, if not the most nuanced portrayals of the manga’s characters, performances that at least manage to balance the simultaneous severity and campiness that the series demands. Meanwhile, the adaption’s world-building is truly world-beating: the CGI, despite the seemingly Sisyphean tasks of turning Godoy’s body into an elasticated weapon and bringing outlandish characters such as half-man, half-saw shark Arlong to life, never dips into the uncanny valley that could so quickly shoot such a project in the foot, and the set design, particularly aboard the series’ literal flagships like the Baratie and the Going Merry, is genuinely jaw-dropping.

“One Piece” series. Capture from Netflix.

Excellent costuming courtesy of the multi-award-winning Diana Cilliers and a nostalgically swash-bucking score by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli round off the more intimate details of One Piece’s Seven Seas to create an experience which, among the litany of positive reviews that have swamped the web since Netflix dropped the series, seem defined best by one crucial word: “fun”. Fans have, after releasing a collective sigh of release, rejoiced at the remarkable, against-all-odds successes of the adaptation, whose subsequent commercial success may signal the coming of similar projects in the near future.

Even queer fans of the manga have much to look forward to. Although the childish whimsy of Oda’s original means that romantic subplots are widely eschewed by the series – leaving little room for themes of sexuality to be explored – One Piece is no stranger to gender-diverse (okama, in Japanese) characters and representation. Bon Clay, one of Luffy’s closest friends in later arcs, clearly identifies as genderqueer or genderfluid, while the gloriously flamboyant (and enduringly popular) Emporio Ivankov, whose special power is the ability to flip between genders at will, calls himself the pirate Queen of the Kamabakka Kingdom and – per Oda’s own admission – drew heavy inspiration from trans icon Dr. Frank N. Furter, of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame. Elsewhere is the MTF samurai Kikunojo, the FTM warrior Yamato, and Izo, a male geisha. Even Luffy’s portrayal has been championed as a win for asexual or “graysexual” representation through the character’s constant aversion to any romantic distractions. Although Netflix has played it safe by avoiding these sensitive themes in the first series, the American streaming powerhouses have proven themselves more than willing to tackle the questions or queerness and how Netflix chooses to translate these specifically Japanese interpretations of queerness, often castrated by their home nation’s social conservatism, to a global audience will be interesting, and telling, to see.

And, although Netflix has played it safe so far by avoiding such sensitive subjects in the first series, their decision to cast trans actor and activist Morgan Davies in the role of Koby – the first of many a friend Luffy makes along his nautical odyssey – is hopefully a positive indicator of things to come. How Netflix now chooses to translate Oda’s specifically Japanese interpretations of sexuality and gender, often restricted by his home nation’s
social conservatism, to a global audience, will be interesting, and telling, to see.

“One Piece” series. Capture from Netflix.

So, One Piece is a glimmer of hope – and a queer hope, at that – for the millions of fans whose hearts have been touched by the manga and anime worldwide so far. Netflix has done an exceptional job at both remaining true to the source material and making Eiichiro Oda’s intricately crafted world as accessible as possible for potential new fans. If there’s one piece that we recommend you watch this week and keep an eye on moving into the future, it is One Piece.

One Piece debuted on Netflix on 31 September 2023 and is now available to watch on their platform here.

UPDATE 06.09.2023 In the first few days of its release, One Piece has risen to become the No. 1 ranked TV series in 84 different countries around the world. This surpasses a milestone set by season one of the streamer’s Addams Family adaptation Wednesday and season four of the sci-fi series Stranger Things. Both shows ranked No. 1 in 83 territories over their first weekends of release.

Article by Jude Jones

Jude Jones is a staff writer at GAY45. He is also an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge primarily researching the literary, visual, and academic cultures of HIV/AIDS in Britain, France, and the USA. He is also the deputy editor-in-chief of the Cambridge Language Collective.

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