Exploring the Success of Netflix’s One Piece

The release of Netflix’s One Piece in 2023 was a massive transnational success, as it was the first time that Netflix released a live action adaptation of a Japanese anime that resonated with global audiences.
However, it was not the company’s first attempt. In 2017, Netflix released a live-action adaptation of Death Note, which is based on the hugely popular Japanese anime of the same name. Although the show was widely anticipated by many anime fans throughout the West, it ultimately received extremely negative reviews, only garnering a 36% “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes (Rotten Tomatoes, “Death Note,” p. 1). In 2021, Netflix released a live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop, also based on an extremely popular Japanese anime, which received a slightly better 45% on Rotten Tomatoes (Rotten Tomatoes, “Cowboy Bebop,” p. 1). As such, when Netflix announced it was preparing a live-action adaptation of One Piece, which is one of Japan’s most popular anime and long-running manga, many fans within the western anime subculture were skeptical.
However, One Piece eventually released to both critical and fan acclaim, receiving an 85% certified fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, with an even higher 95% audience approval rating (Rotten Tomatoes, “One Piece,” p. 1). But what made One Piece succeed as a form of transnational media, particularly when Netflix’s previous two attempts to adapt a beloved Japanese anime into a live-action series for western audiences had failed? The following paper explores the international success of One Piece by comparing its elements with the failed Death Note and Cowboy Bebop adaptations. The analysis reveals that the emphasis on character development and universally recognizable archetypal imagery in One Piece, as

opposed to an emphasis on authenticity and visual similarity with the source material, is ultimately what allowed the show to succeed when previous attempts to make a live-action adaptation of a popular anime had failed.
Cast Photo for Netflix’s One Piece (Source: Netflix)

Original manga depiction of One Piece (Source: Weekly Shonen Jump)

The Globalization of the Anime Subculture

The concept of subculture refers to a cultural subset within a broader cultural context that is distinguished by communal interests, preferences, and behaviours. The subculture of anime superfans is often referred to as otaku, which was originally a somewhat pejorative term akin to “nerd” or “geek” when referencing someone who was a big fan of anime (Eng, 2012). Behaviours associated with this subculture often include activities such as cosplay, attending conventions, writing fanfiction, and extending their fandom of anime beyond simply consuming it on television (Guo & Zeng, 2020). However, as anime has exploded in popularity over the past twenty years, otaku no longer has the universally negative connotation it once held, although there are still some instances when it is used pejoratively.

The international popularity of One Piece can be attributed to the rising global popularity of Japanese anime, which in turn are almost always based on Japanese manga. Anime refers to animation, while manga refers to printed material in comic book format. Although the first anime to appear in the West were shows like Astro Boy and Speed Racer in the 1960s and 1970s, the anime subculture began to develop in the 1980s and 1990s, when anime shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Sailor Moon, and Dragon Ball Z were translated and dubbed for release in English-speaking countries (Singh 3). The popularity of anime has continued ever since, with shows like Jujutsu Kaisen remaining popular today.

Global Cultivation

Although the anime subculture has grown in both popularity and prestige among western audiences over time, it was largely relegated to platforms largely intended for children before the era of streaming, such as appearing on Cartoon Network or sandwiched between other cartoons intended for a young audience. The cultivation of anime for modern mainstream audiences, including adult audiences, started to occur in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the advent of cross-border TV programming (Chalaby 223). For instance, the Disney-owned subsidiary DiC licensed the American rights to shows like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, while companies that operated in different mediums, such as Nintendo, saw massive success with the release of animated shows based on Pokémon, which also featured an anime art style.
The anime subculture grew further in popularity with the rise of video-on-demand services provided by sites like Crunchyroll (Chalaby 224), which increased access to Japanese anime, including anime that was not English-dubbed by western distributors or distributed on traditional television channels. Fans around the world could now access Japanese anime in its original format, electing to use subtitles if preferred.

Cultivation of the Netflix Audience

The burgeoning otaku culture appears to have captured the interest of Netflix, which identified that this cultural subgroup could be cultivated into a large streaming audience for anime content. Thus, Netflix’s original foray into anime began by licensing numerous anime properties originally developed for a local Japanese audience and streaming them for a global audience, including the original anime portrayals of Death Note, Cowboy Bebop, and One Piece. To make these properties more accessible to a global audience, Netflix included subtitles and/or dubbing for all anime in multiple languages. Not all anime are dubbed, as many non-Japanese otaku prefer to watch anime in the original Japanese language with subtitles in their native language, as the original audio track is often perceived as more authentic to the source material.
The proliferation of anime content on Netflix soon resulted in interest in these shows from Netflix subscribers who were previously unfamiliar with anime. Many shows started appearing on recommended lists of those who regularly watched animated shows, science fiction shows, or fantasy shows, as anime often draws heavily from science fiction and fantasy themes. Thus, Netflix was able to popularise Japanese anime to global audiences even further via the additional exposure to these properties on the site.
By the mid-2010s, Netflix began preparing live-action adaptations of the most popular anime, eventually releasing Death Note in 2017. However, Netflix’s version of Death Note received a poor reaction from both audiences and critics. Two of the most visible differences between the Netflix version and the original anime is that Netflix’s version takes place in Seattle, whereas the original takes place in Tokyo, and Netflix also used an all-American cast instead of a Japanese cast. For instance, the protagonist’s name is changed from “Light Yagami” to “Light Turner,” while another character is renamed from “Misa Aname” to “Mia Sutton” (Netflix, “Death Note,” 1). As such, many of the characters were whitewashed, which refers to replacing a person of color with a Caucasian actor (Wald 17). The original setting was also changed from Tokyo to Seattle, as Netflix believed the change in setting would be more relatable for western audiences.

The series attempted to remain faithful to the source material by translating iconic animated scenes into live- action, often using shot-for-shot recreations, but the adaptation failed to gain a dedicated audience.
Netflix’s second attempt to adapt a popular Japanese anime for an international audience was Cowboy Bebop. Unlike Death Note, which was a movie, Cowboy Bebop was a series, which allowed the producers to include more subthemes that were originally present in the anime. The protagonist was also played by John Cho, an Asian American actor. However, Cowboy Bebop also attempted to visually recreate the original anime by using shot-for-shot recreations of scenes that originally appeared in anime format. One reviewer for Polygon noted that the show maintained a “fastidious attention to the surface details of the original anime…but the exaggerated tone of the Netflix series feels like a decision by showrunner Andre Nemec to interpret the idea of what a cartoon would feel like in live action rather than create a more straightforward version” (Egan 1). Thus, Death Note largely failed because it was viewed as inauthentic to the source material by the audience, while Cowboy Bebop largely failed because of its attempt to simply translate what had already appeared in anime form into live action. Both critics and audiences concluded that Cowboy Bebop was stylish but lacked heart, with Egan noting that “the initial charm can’t disguise the fact that the singer only seems to know about half the lyrics, and the guitarist can’t carry a tune” (Egan 1).

Production and Promotion

Netflix’s One Piece, which originally aired in 2023, is based on the popular manga series created by Eiichiro Oda that was first published in 1997 (Singh 1). The manga went on to inspire a Japanese anime of the same name, which is still currently releasing new episodes. The story of One Piece takes place in a fictional pirate-themed world, where pirates are constantly at war with the World Government and the Marines that are sworn to protect the government. Both sides in this continuous war are corrupt. Unlike the

fictional universes of franchises like Star Wars and Marvel, the world of One Piece is designed to be morally complex (Singh 2).
The inception for the live action show began in 2017, with series creator Eiichiro Oda serving as the series’ executive producer. Filming was scheduled for 2020, although it was delayed due to the Covid pandemic. Filming resumed in 2022, with the show releasing on Netflix on August 31, 2023. Netflix promoted the show with a trailer released on YouTube. According to Parrot Analytics, Netflix targeted a largely male audience based on a brand affinity analysis revealing that fans of One Piece were most likely to be male, fans of animated programming, and between the ages of 13 – 22, and 30 – 39 (Parrot Analytics 1). The reason people aged 30 – 39 were more interested in the show than those between the ages of 23 – 29 is because of the “nostalgic affection for the original anime series” (Parrot Analytics 1). As such, promotional trailers for One Piece aired on Netflix content that already targeted these demographics, such as Castlevania and superhero-themed shows.

Analytic analysis of One Piece demographics. Source: Parrot Analytics

Form and Content

Netflix’s One Piece was released as an eight-episode season, with plans to air the second season within the following year. The protagonist of the series is a young pirate named Monkey D. Luffy, who is on a quest to become the King of the Pirates (Singh 1). When he was a child, he ate a devil fruit, which gave him the power to stretch his body as if he were made of rubber. Devil fruits are forbidden, but those who eat them gain superhuman powers. The Netflix series opens with the execution of Gold Roger, who was the previous King of the Pirates. During the execution ceremony, Gold Roger challenges the gathered crowd to find his hidden treasure, otherwise known as the “One Piece,” as whoever finds the treasure will become the next King of the Pirates. Thus, Luffy is inspired to set sail on his own, determined to be the first person to find the One Piece.

As the Netflix series progresses, Luffy and his crew become involved in a series of encounters with both the Marines and other pirates as they pursue the One Piece. Season One ends with Luffy finally gaining enough notoriety to be issued an official “Wanted” poster by the Marines. Luffy views this as a great honor, as it signifies that he is well on his way to becoming one of the most famous pirates who ever lived.


Marketing cover recreation of One Piece, vol. 11 (Campione 1)

For marketing, Netflix used a two-pillared strategy of establishing authenticity for the otaku subculture and generating interest via audience participation. In total, Netflix released “more than 70 assets across 18 months,” such as promotional stills and posters, with many recreating cover art from the original manga. This established credibility among the otaku subculture, who is familiar with the source material. By focusing on authenticity, the marketing team was able to instill trust among the otaku fandom, which in turn encouraged many otakus to be unofficial brand ambassadors for the upcoming show.
Second, Netflix asked fans to submit their own photo using a template of the iconic wanted posters that feature in the manga and show. Several of the photos would be selected for inclusion during a credits scene in one of the shows. This encouraged audience participation, furthering interest in the show.

Tracking of the Global Audience

The release of One Piece in 2023 saw Netflix achieve both critical and commercial success. The first season received 85% on Rotten Tomatoes, while according to Deadline, the show reached number one on the global Netflix charts in 46 countries (Campione 1) and 140 million hours viewed by over 18 million viewers within the first week of release (Peters 1). Additional analytics used to track engagement were comparisons between audience scores and the overall number of audience reviews when compared with other popular Netflix series. For instance, Netflix’s most popular show in the US, Stranger Things, has a 90% audience score, while One Piece has a 95% audience score (Tassi 1). Similarly, Wednesday has an 85% audience score, while Squid Game has a score of 84% (Tassi 1). Only two shows surpass One Piece in regard to global audience score, which are Warrior Nun at 97%, and Heartstopper at 96% (Tassi 1).
However, both shows have under 3,500 reviews, which indicates they have not reached a massive audience. One Piece has well over 10,000 reviews, revealing the scope of demand for the show worldwide. When combined with the consistently high audience score of 95%, these analytics inform Netflix that the show has clearly resonated with audiences around the globe.

Comparison with Traditional Television Models

The reason Netflix uses robust analytics to track the success of its shows is because it uses a streaming model, which is different from the television model that relies on Nielsen ratings. Nielsen ratings track which percentage of the television-viewing audience is watching a show at any given time. Shows with larger audiences attract more advertisers, which is the main incentive for generating a large audience.
Streaming services are different because their goal is to attract subscribers, not advertisers. If ratings are high for a show, the ratings will indicate that customers are more likely to remain subscribed to the platform if they know there is another season in production. To this end, Netflix has announced that a second season of One Piece is currently in production, which will most likely be released in 2025.

Impact of the Platformization on Content Creation

The platformization of One Piece on Netflix for a global audience involved a blending of culturally recognizable tropes that originate from the source anime. For instance, the pirate theme and the military tropes associated with the Marines are culturally familiar in many Western societies. However, the architecture, food, and clothing all draw from Eastern culture. These are seamlessly integrated as a unified culture in the world of One Piece. By retaining this unique blend of cultural elements, the show is more appealing to a global audience while also retaining its authenticity to the source material.
The show also features an international cast, including Mexican-born actor Inaki Godoy as Monkey D. Luffy, Japanese-born actor Mackenyu Arata as Zoro, and American-born actors Emily Rudd and Jacob Romero as Nami and Usopp (Netflix, “One Piece,” 1). One Piece takes place in a fictional world, so there were no controversies regarding the ethnicities of the actors chosen for the main cast because none of the characters in the original manga have established ethnicities. However, the characters remain authentic to the original portrayals via their costume choices and personality characteristics. For instance, Luffy is confident and optimistic, always smiling and seeing the positive in everyone, which is authentic to his portrayal in the original manga. Zoro is stoic and fearless, while Nami is cunning and emotional. Therefore, the authenticity of the Netflix series in comparison to the original manga stems from the writing and characterization, as opposed to attempting to visually recreate the original manga in live action form.
In addition, the Netflix series also limits the first season to the first narrative arc of the manga. Death Note attempted to adapt an entire manga into a two-hour film, resulting in a narrative that felt rushed and disjointed, while Cowboy Bebop tried to retell the multiple arcs from the original manga in a single season, resulting in plot threads that seemed erroneous to the central plot. In contrast, One Piece portrays an abbreviated version of the first narrative arc of the original manga, focusing primarily on key plot elements

without sacrificing moments of character development. As such, this narrative choice appears to have contributed to its success because it is paced appropriately.
The third element that contributes to the success of Netflix’s adaptation of One Piece is the globally recognizable themes of pirates. Although the series portrays a romanticized depiction of western piracy, including associated imagery like the Jolly Roger flag, the portrayal of pirates in the Netflix series remains authentic to the portrayal of pirates in the original manga. Pirate-themed media has also increased in popularity in the 21st century, largely propelled by the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. As such, pirate-themed media is now popular around the globe, which minimizes the challenge of explaining the general premise to the audience. The entire premise of the show can be boiled down to “pirate-themed fantasy,” which makes the premise immediately understandable to anyone who might be looking for a show to watch on Netflix. This was more challenging with Death Note and Cowboy Bebop, as those shows did not heavily rely on immediately recognizable thematic tropes.

Critical Reflection on the Cultural Implications

Beyond the authenticity to the source material and its inclusion of culturally recognizable tropes, the main appeal of the show to a global audience is its universal themes of friendship and pursuing one’s dream. The show sees the growing bond between Luffy and his crew, with each crew member dedicating themselves to the Straw Hat Pirates once Luffy proves his worth. Each crew member also has a specific dream they want to pursue, such as Luffy wanting to be the King of the Pirates, and Zoro dreaming of becoming the greatest swordfighter. The universal themes of friendship and pursuing one’s dream are at the heart of the show, which in turn is at the heart of the manga. Eiichiro Oda’s initial vision of a band of friends in pursuit of their dream is universally appealing because it speaks to all cultures, rather than a single culture.

Viewer Feedback and Community Engagement

The 95% audience score and various panels at anime conventions reveal that the show has received highly favorable feedback. Many reviews note One Piece succeeds as a transnational media because it faithfully adapts the source material in character, theme, and spirit, but does not attempt to visually recreate manga and anime into live action form. The show relies on tropes that are already recognizable to global audiences, and it paces the source material in a manner that is appropriate for a season comprised of eight one-hour episodes. The global acceptance of pirate-themed media, the lighthearted tone, and the season-long format each contributed to what Stolz refers to as “culture tailored for the binge” (p. 148), as they each contributed to the show’s global popularity across transnational audiences.

Methodological Reflection

The research methodology for this paper includes quantitative data (demographic data, review scores, and audience viewership) alongside qualitative data (review commentaries). The quantitative data is sound regarding the overall sentiment surrounding One Piece, as the show is definitively more successful than previous live action adaptations of anime properties. The qualitative analysis regarding the reasons for the show’s success is more subjective, but the source material comes from established media publications such as Deadline. Scholarly journals were also consulted for the history of anime on television. As such, the strength of the research material is that the sources are either peer-reviewed or considered reliable within the industry. The weakness of the sources is that there is some subjective analysis regarding the interpretation of the show’s success, although this is inevitable when analyzing artistic mediums and audience reactions due to the subjective nature of examining the quality of art.


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