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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘One Piece’ creator hopes to defy ‘a history of failure’

Netflix held the fan screening of “One Piece,” at the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, Calif., on Aug. 24, 2023. The “One Piece” franchise is enormously popular, with more than 516 million books sold and numerous anime series and movies released.

By Charles Solomon

Today, an eight-part adaptation of Eiichiro Oda’s pirate comedy-adventure “One Piece” will make its Netflix debut. The stakes are high: Millions of fans want to see if the showrunners, Matt Owens and Steven Maeda (whom Oda describes as “‘One Piece’ superfans”), succeeded in converting the beloved manga and anime series to live-action. Although some viewers over 30 may not recognize the title, “One Piece” is one of the most popular entertainment franchises in the world.

Since July 1997, when it began appearing in the Japanese manga magazine Weekly Shonen Jump, “One Piece” collections have sold more than 516 million copies worldwide. An animated TV series notched its 1,000th episode this year, and there have been numerous TV specials, light novels and video games; fans discuss “One Piece” trivia on countless websites. The 15th theatrical feature, “One Piece Film: Red,” was the No. 1 box-office hit in Japan in 2022, outdrawing “Top Gun: Maverick.”

Oda is extremely private — he does not allow his face to be photographed, if he can help it — but he talked about “One Piece” in a rare interview from Los Angeles. Speaking through interpreter Taro Goto, he discussed the origins of “One Piece,” casting its hero for TV, and the film that changed his mind about live-action adaptation. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: When it comes to adapting a phenomenally popular manga and anime series such as “One Piece” to live action, what do you have to keep in mind?

A: A live-action adaptation of a manga doesn’t simply reenact the source material on a one-to-one basis: It involves really thinking about what fans love about the characters, the dynamics among them — and being faithful to those elements. A good live-action show doesn’t have to change the story too much. The most important thing is whether the actors can reproduce the characters in a way that will satisfy the people who read the manga. I think we did it well, so I hope audiences will accept it.

Q: You’ve said you wanted to be a manga artist since you were in elementary school. How did “One Piece” begin?

A: I set out to draw the manga I wanted to read when I was young. When I started, I had to draw things that didn’t exist to get attention. There were plenty of heroes who fight the demons and save the world; the market was saturated with that kind of story. I wanted to do something different but relatable. I understood that I had been supported and helped by a lot of people to get to where I was, so friendship became a central theme.

Q: The hero of the story is Monkey D. Luffy (it rhymes, appropriately, with “goofy”), who is determined to become King of the Pirates by finding a fabulous treasure known as the One Piece. Luffy is warmhearted, upbeat and ferociously devoted to his friends, but he’s no matinee idol. How did you design him?

A: I knew I wanted to write a pirate manga, and just drew from instinct the kind of young boy I imagined in the role. As the adventure continued, I realized that various kinds of pirates would appear, so I decided to give Luffy a face that would be very easy to draw. Later, when I had to give autographs and needed to sketch Luffy, it was easy to do.

Q: Something that sets “One Piece” apart from many adventure manga is the powerful, capable women in the story, including the archaeologist Robin and Nami, the navigator.

A: There are many strong women in the world of “One Piece” — women with intelligence like Robin, or with abilities like Nami. There are even attractive and strong women among the enemy pirates. In the manga I read as a kid, there was always a point where the heroine existed just to be rescued. That didn’t sit well with me; I didn’t want to create a story about women being kidnapped and saved. I depict women who know how to fight for themselves and don’t need to be saved. If a moment comes where they’re overpowered, their shipmates will help them out, and vice versa.

Q: As a boy, Luffy ate the accursed gum-gum fruit and it turned his body into rubber, allowing him to deliver fantastic stretchy kicks and punches in fights. Isn’t he better suited to animation than to live action?

A: When I first started, I didn’t think there was any point in drawing a manga that could be remade in live-action. But when I saw the movie “Shaolin Soccer,” it felt like a manga-esque world brought to life. I changed my mind. I realized times had changed, and there was technology available that could make a live-action “One Piece” happen. So I shifted to finding the right partner to bring the manga to life.

Q: Actors have portrayed Luffy and his crew in stage shows and even in a Kabuki play. But attempts to adapt popular anime into American live-action movies and series have generally been unsuccessful, as in the widely panned “Ghost in the Shell” (2017) and the short-lived “Cowboy Bebop” (2021). Did that worry you?

A: Various manga had been made into live action, but there was a history of failure; no one in Japan could name a successful example. Would fans of “One Piece” — and viewers who don’t know the manga — accept it? Perhaps it was time to search for the answer. Thankfully, Netflix agreed that they wouldn’t go out with the show until I agreed it was satisfactory. I read the scripts, gave notes and acted as a guard dog to ensure the material was being adapted in the correct way.

Q: Luffy is not the brightest doubloon in the dead man’s chest, but he’s an endearing character: He’s impulsive and happy-go-lucky until some villain threatens his friends or menaces someone weaker — then it’s a fight to the finish. Was he difficult to cast?

A: I thought the biggest challenge was going to be finding somebody to play Luffy — I didn’t expect to find anyone quite like Iñaki Godoy. When I first created Luffy, I drew the most energetic child I could imagine: a normal child on the outside, but not at all normal on the inside. Iñaki was just like the person I drew; he felt absolutely natural. Before I saw the first cut of the show, a lot of my notes were based on how the manga Luffy would act. But after seeing Iñaki’s performance, I was able to shift gears and give notes on how the live-action Luffy should act.

Q: The live-action “One Piece” uses more extensive dialogue than the manga or the animated series, which focus more on the visuals.

A: In a manga, the more dialogue you put in, the less space you have to draw, so I cut the words as much as possible. But when people actually talk, the conversations are different. In live-action dramas, there’s always a lot of dialogue. If the characters spoke in real life, their speeches would have the natural feel that’s in the scripts. I’m very happy about how that turned out.

Q: Over the past 26 years, you’ve drawn thousands of pages of the manga as well as magazine covers, book covers and posters. You still draw in ink on paper; have you ever considered switching to digital?

A: Everyone is drawing digitally now and it’s not that I’m not interested in it, but for some reason readers tend to take that work a little lightly. I enjoy the experience of drawing by hand, and I expect I’ll continue using hand drawing for the duration of “One Piece.”

Q: You’ve spoken with enthusiasm about the possibility of a second season of the live-action series, and “One Piece” collections continue to appear on bestseller lists around the world. When you started Luffy’s saga back in 1997, did you ever imagine it would run for more than 25 years?

A: I never thought “One Piece” would last this long: When I began, I imagined it might run for five years. But it was my first time doing something serialized, and I found that as I kept writing, the characters took on lives of their own. Before I knew it, they were writing the story for me, and it just kept going.

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