This post contains spoilers for Netflix’s live-action adaptation of One Piece.
Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece, arguably the most popular manga of all time, is set in a world where islands dot a vast ocean filled with sea monsters, pirates, and supernaturally empowered heroes and villains. Violence between warring pirate crews is woven into the tapestry of this world, and when sailing the seas in search of adventure—or the titular “One Piece” treasure—danger lurks around every corner.
There are no practical, real-world restrictions to limit an artist’s imagination in manga, but Oda and his famously distinctive animation style has not only stretched the medium in his world-building and character concepts, but also in his wacky and inventive fight scenes. The long-running series started in 1997 and has to date published 1,091 chapter—1,076 of which have so far been collected into 106 volumes and 1,074 episodes of which have been adapted into anime—meaning that Oda has had to up the ante of those fight set pieces for 26 years, across manga, anime, and now live-action. Series showrunners Matt Owens and Steven Maeda have confirmed that Oda’s involvement was instrumental to adapting the series, and Emma Sullivan, who directed two episodes of the season, has even said that a single note from Oda would mean reshooting fight scenes from scratch. In an exclusive video featurette (recorded before the SAG-AFTRA strike), the cast, creators, and crew share stories and footage of their stunt and fight training. And in an exclusive interview, fight coordinator Koji Kawamoto and stunt coordinator Franz Spilhaus talked to Men’s Health about bringing those high-pressure sequences to life.
As with its predecessors, the new Netflix series followers Monkey D. Luffy (played by Iñaki Godoy), on his long-shot quest to gather a crew, find his way to the Grand Line (a dangerous band of water where the deadliest seafarers sail), find the famed and mysterious One Piece treasure, and become the King of the Pirates.
On his side is a crew, each with their own idiosyncratic fighting styles, and Luffy with his own “Gum Gum” powers. These supernatural abilities, gained from eating a rare, cursed fruit known as a Devil Fruit, allow him to stretch his body like rubber. On the other side are a litany of foes: pirate gangs led by fellow Devil Fruit eaters with unique abilities of their own, aquatic humanoids known as fish-men, and even the militaristic Marines charged with protecting civilians as the good guys of the sea. (Spoiler: They’re not always.)
With so many big ideas in play, there’s a pick’em of challenges to translating the story from one medium to another. Even a recent episode of the anime, which adapted a climactic fight scene from the manga, aroused much fanfare over how it pulled off the fight using Tom and Jerry-inspired animation. Bringing those otherworldly sequences into a live action world was going to be the franchise’s biggest challenge yet.
That challenge fell to fight coordinator Kawamoto and stunt coordinator Spilhaus. Kawamoto most recently worked as a fight choreographer for John Wick: Chapter 4, and Spilhaus has been a stunt coordinator on shows with themes familiar to One Piece, the pirate series Black Sails and the martial arts series Warrior. The two men had a near-impossible combination of tasks: bring the fights scenes off the page and into live-action while remaining true to the spirit of Oda’s original material but without attempting a futile one-to-one, frame-for-frame adaptation. Considering that the eight episodes of the live-action’s first season cover roughly the first 100 chapters of the manga, there was no shortage of battles to bring to life, and no shortage of pressure either.
Spilhaus says that the source material was nevertheless a helpful reference point for tackling iconic moments for Luffy and his crew, the Straw Hat Pirates, in new ways. He’d heard of One Piece before but that was mostly the extent of his familiarity. But the younger guys on his team knew all about it and helped shepherd him through the material. “Looking at the visuals in the manga, you get the idea of the show very quickly,” he says. “For me, it was about taking what I see in the anime and the manga and bringing it into real life in a way that doesn’t look comical but still pays homage to what you see in the anime. Our aim from the get-go was that we wanted to keep it grounded in the characters—to take their abilities and build on those. And then, whatever their special abilities are, bring those out on special occasions.”
Case-in-point: Roronoa Zoro (played by Japanese actor Mackenyu), one of the first characters to join Luffy’s crew. A pirate hunter with the goal of being the world’s greatest swordsman, Zoro is known for his trademark “three-sword style” fighting technique, where he wields a katana in each hand and gripps a third between his teeth. The full move happens only twice in the Netflix series, both in intense moments of battle. The first time he does the technique, Zoro’s abilities seem unmatched. But the second time, it’s against Dracule Mihawk, a famous pirate regarded as the best swordsman in the Grand Line. The vamp-like baddie fights Zoro with only a knife—and handily beats our hero. This sequence was a particularly challenging one to choreograph. “How somebody with such a small knife would fight somebody with three swords is something that we needed to think about and to show in a persuasive way,” Kawamoto says through a translator. “If audiences saw one character fighting with three swords versus another character with one small knife, people would think, That’s not possible,” he says. “Making that scene convincing was a challenge.”
The son of renowned martial artists and actor Sonny Chiba, Mackenyu was already a trained martial artist himself and exceptionally skilled with swords thanks to his role in another live-action manga adaptation, Rurouni Kenshin: The Final. Spilhaus wanted to get Zoro right, and it became clear to him that the best way to do that was to hand the character over to Mackenyu and Kawamoto. “We brought in Koji and I said, ‘I’m not a Japanese person and I want to pay homage to the Japanese; you guys need to be the ones to bring this style to life,'” recalls Spilhaus. “They knew exactly what they wanted to do, and they brought that out onscreen.”
Other than mapping out Zoro’s unique fighting style, there was the question of Luffy’s Gum-Gum powers, which allow him to stretch his body like Stretch Amstrong. And the high-flying kicks that are Sanji’s (Taz Skylar) signature. And even the bo staff skills that Nami (Emily Rudd) executes. The answer? Lots and lots of reps. Spilhaus says that Skylar trained for “eight hours most days” to get to where he needed to be for Sanji’s kick-based fighting style. “After Taz had action rehearsal, he would then stay on set for three or four more hours just to practice and train,” says Kawamoto. “That’s something I’ve never really seen before.” Spilahus adds that Skylar “was adamant that he didn’t want anyone else to do his gags [signature stunts] for him,” so he ended up doing all his own stunts. Kawamoto filled in for Mackenyu in only one shot, during the Mihawk fight. Rudd trained so hard that she got tendinitis in her wrist. Instead of taking a break, she had production make her a lighter-weight staff to use. Jacob Romero Gibson, who plays sharpshooter Usopp, didn’t need nearly as much training considering that his weapon of choice is a slingshot, but often hung around training to keep fostering a crew-like mentality between the cast.
Kawamoto says the One Piece cast’s passionate approach to training is rare. “When I worked on John Wick, Keanu and [Hiroyuki] Sanada-san were eager to practice,” he says, citing another example of when the actors’ dedication shows onscreen, “but usually actors will practice for an hour or two and then just go home.”
The effort paid off, especially when it came time to film the season finale’s big battle. To set the scene: Luffy and crew are out to defeat the villainous fish-man Arlong, who is holding Nami’s home village hostage. Arlong’s crew hangs in a scenic courtyard park with carnival-like games and even a ramshackle Tiki bar, all flanking a massive tower where the big bad conducts his business. As Luffy and Nami head inside to take down Arlong, it falls to Sanji and Zoro to take out the fish-men around the park. What follows is a tremendously impressive fight sequence that’s easily the standout set piece of the season.
It was the most challenging sequence to execute for the team, with seemingly dozens of extras and “lots of moving parts,” says Spilhaus. “I think we had nine cranes for all the wire rigs we used all around the set, kilometers of tech line, stunt riggers in the bushes and the trees and all over the place. We broke it down into bite-sized pieces and did a lot of rehearsal time on location.” Slated close to the end of the show’s filming schedule, the shoot day ended up happing during winter. It was brutal to film, with Spilhaus guessing that water temperatures clocked in at around five degrees Celsius—or “proper chilly,” as he puts it. “I’ve worked on lots of big shows, but this was just non-stop and on multiple locations,” says Spilhaus. “This was on another level.”
For as much practical work as the stunt team did, the show’s fantastical elements, like Luffy’s powers, still required some VFX. Deciding when to opt into or out of the technology was primarily executed on a case-by-case basis. “We wanted to try and give it a go,” says Spilhaus of being as practical as possible. “We would start from a small gag and build it and see how far we could get, then often tweak the gag to get it to work as a live shot.” He recalls having extensive safety conversations with individual stunt members to determine what would or wouldn’t be safe and tried to do as much as possible before kicking things over to the VFX team. “We didn’t want to continually fall back onto that space,” says Spilhaus. “We really want the viewer to know that this is as live-action as you can get.”
Kawamoto adds that the determining factors of whether or not to use VFX came down to what would look most realistic in the final product. “What would be the most interesting visual for us or the viewers to see?” he asks rhetorically. “Depending on the idea, if necessary, we would go towards CGI.”
Even when using VFX, some sequences require crafty practical execution. In the second episode, Luffy, Nami, and Zoro run afoul of a pirate named Buggy the Clown. He has his own Demon Fruit powers, which allow him to disassemble parts of his body, float them around, and use them as weapons. Imagine a clown shoe, foot still inside, flying through mid-air right at you. Naturally, rendering that on-set can be tricky. Spilhaus jokingly mentions that he “dumped” the daunting job off to his assistant coordinator, Darrell Mclean, while he focused on the Mihawk fight. The eventual solution was to have guys run around in green suits holding random body parts, and to remove the besuited figures in post-production later. “The first R&D shots were so hilarious to watch,” Spilhaus says gleefully. “It was a voyage of discovery for us and the VFX team because we actually didn’t know how we were going to do it. I think the VFX guy still dreams about Buggy in his sleep.”
For a long time, the possibility of One Piece becoming a live-action reality seemed like a pipe dream. Live-action anime adaptations are notoriously tricky. But thanks to the efforts of Kawamoto, Spilhaus, and their teams, One Piece has already set itself apart through action that feels inherently true to the madcap creativity of Oda’s seminal work. If the series continues to rake in positive reviews and stoke fan excitement, the cast and crew will be embarking on an epic journey—with the wildest battles yet to come.
William Goodman is a freelancer writer, focused on all things pop culture, tech, gadgets, and style. He’s based in Washington, DC and his work can also be found at Robb Report, Complex, and GQ. He’s yet to meet a jacket or cardigan he didn’t love. In his free time, he’s probably on Twitter (@goodmanw) or at the movies.