What would you say is the most successful comic book series in history? If you’re thinking Tintin you’re not even close. (Curiously enough, even the now largely forgotten Lucky Luke scores higher.) If you’re thinking Peanuts, you’re getting warmer. And if you named Asterix, good try but that’s only number two. No, the hands-down winner, with total sales exceeding 516 million, is a Japanese manga called One Piece.
One Piece? Me neither. It’s quite unusual these days to chance upon a massive cultural phenomenon — the series has been going since 1997, with 1,093 chapters so far — of which one has never once even heard. But this, I suspect, will be the experience of most viewers approaching the Netflix adaptation.
It’s unusual these days to chance upon a massive cultural phenomenon that one has never heard of
The series is set in a fantasy world ruled by a world government and policed by implacable, yet curiously camp marines. Their arch-enemies are the swarms of pirates who infest the high seas, many of them in search of a mysterious lost treasure called “one piece.” Our hero is one of the few good pirates, a character called Monkey D. Luffy recognizable by his trademark straw hat and the fact that he is made of rubber, having inadvertently consumed a “devil fruit.”
As so often with Asian TV and comics, your main barrier is going to be the issue of tone. On the upside, the unfamiliar cultural reference points mean that you’ll be in no danger of going “I’ve seen all this before,” as you might with the overfamiliar tropes of western TV drama. But on the downside you may find the sudden, unexpected shifts between whimsy, cuteness, awkward humor, earnestness and Grand-Guignol horror a bit unsettling, as though you are in one of those dream/nightmares where you’re not quite sure of the rules, or how much you are enjoying it.
To start off with, I wasn’t sure about Luffy (Inaki Godoy) — so insufferably cheerful, so irritatingly stretchy and bouncy, so relentlessly, irksomely optimistic that one day he will be King of the Pirates. And his reluctant crew, Nami (Emily Rudd) and Roronoa Zoro (Mackenyu), seem initially quite colorless and one-dimensional.
Then there are all these oddities, which can grate through their inexplicable bizarreness. Why has effeminate, blond marine cadet Koby (Morgan Davies) been styled to look like the young David Hockney on his first day at art school: bleached hair, round glasses and all? Why do marine officers wear those cute animal hats normally worn only by tiny babies? Why must all the names resemble the English on a badly translated Japanese T-shirt?
Once you settle in, though — I’m on episode seven and can’t bear the thought of having to wait for the next season — it’s hugely addictive. And there are all sorts of treats to draw you in further: the baroque flashback sequences, which let you know how the various characters acquired their hang-ups; the lavish but lo-fi design aesthetic (appropriate to a world devoid of electronic technology) less reliant on blue-screen special effects than on elaborate sets that might have been created for a mega-expensive stage production of Peter Pan; the deliciously wicked array of truly horrid baddie pirates just waiting for their comeuppance, such as fish-man Arlong (McKinley Belcher III — an unusual name is almost de rigueur to get cast in this series) with his sawfish nose, shark’s dorsal fin and burning sense of racial injustice.
My favorite character thus far is Dracule Mihawk (Steven John Ward), with his feathered floppy hat, leather tunic worn with chest bared to reveal an incongruous cross, and gigantic, improbable broadsword that he wields as deftly as if it were a rapier. Unimaginably powerful, impossibly cool and sexy — an eclectic mash-up of Zorro, Spanish Inquisition-era iconography and comic-book superhero-dom — he embodies manga’s magpie tendency towards pillaging western cultural clichés and transforming them into something else altogether.
Then there’s Sanji (Taz Skylar), the three Michelin star-level chef with the ace martial-arts skills. Where did he come from? Well, it’s a long story, involving a shipwreck and being stranded, Pincher Martin-style, on a rocky outcrop with Zeff (Craig Fairbrass), the feared pirate-turned-one-legged chef and proprietor of the floating restaurant Baratie. The only imperfection in this charming and oddly moving storyline is that Fairbrass (who is English) has been told to pronounce “oregano” in the way Americans do, despite the fact that the British invented the English language.
Perhaps my descriptions have put you off. I would concede that One Piece is not for everyone. But if you’re up for a bit of innocent escapism, picaresque plotlines, arresting visual spectacle, superbly choreographed fight scenes, colorful characters and head-scratching strangeness, then I cannot recommend it enough. Oh, and Luffy the straw-hat pirate really grows on you. Nothing gets him down; he’s always smiling and positive; he just knows he’s going to prevail, eventually, against that pesky world government. Just the hero we need for our times.