Promotional Image for the One Piece Premier Show at Universal Studios Japan

What Does an 80-Minute ‘One Piece’ Theme Park Stunt Show Look Like? Let Me Tell You.

I had a grand ol' time.

2022 is One Piece‘s 25th birthday, which means it’s been a huge year for the series. Still, for the last fifteen years, Universal Studios Japan has kept a summer tradition: a One Piece stunt show, which runs from the beginning of July to the beginning of October. It only happens once at day, after dark. Apparently, the story and contents of the show change every year. But, like the series itself, it always focuses on the exploits of Luffy and the Straw Hat Crew. Just with real people dressed up as the characters.

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That’s about as much as I knew when I walked into Universal Studios Japan, muttering, “One Piece stunt show, oh my god One Piece stunt show,” under my breath. I’m lucky enough to have a number of theme park stunt shows planted firmly in my cozy nest of childhood nostalgia. I was fully ready for pyrotechnics, not-very-believable punches, and people falling into water from impressive heights. I was even more fully thrilled that those people would be dressed up as Luffy, Zoro, and Sanji.

Hilariously to me, as someone who’s been to Universal Studios Hollywood, the One Piece show took over the set of the Waterworld stunt show (which, let’s face it, is a bit outdated in its IP reference, anyway). I very quickly learned two other bits of crucial information, one of which canceled out the potential backlash from the other. The One Piece Premier Show costs extra (4000 yen for a middle-of-the-road “A” seat). But it’s also eighty minutes long. EIGHTY. MINUTES. LONG. That’s almost as long as several One Piece films, goddammit! I gleefully shoved my money in their faces.

Much to my surprise and glee, it was totally worth it.

The Premier Show had an original story, which attempted to tie itself in the vaguest way possible to One Piece Film: Red by saying the Straw Hats stopped on this island “on the way to Elegia.” Much like a One Piece movie, the show introduced new villains “the Age-Age Super Navy,” which acted and looked very much like a pirate crew, except they were somehow the Navy. It also, of course, introduced a Central Tragic Child. Two, in fact! They made a promise to each other that they would become Navy admirals who were as cool as Aokiji (pun intended).

Again, much like most One Piece movies (with the gigantic exception of Red), these new one-off characters were … uh … forgettable. The “Age-Age Dance,” however, was not, and it will remain firmly wedged in my head until the day I die. It is actually highly likely that I will Age-Age on my deathbed. (“Age! Age! Age! Age! Mawasu, mawasu…”)

That’s all standard fare for a One Piece fan engaging with a bit of One Piece media that exists outside of series canon. That entire stadium full of people were there to see our favorite friend Luffy. I realized as I settled in my seat before the show that any voice for Luffy other than the unparalleled Megumi Tanaka would seriously distance me from the illusion the show was attempting to make. Fortunately, the team behind the show had realized this, as well. The actors in the show were essentially getting “dubbed” in real-time. Every single character who appeared in the stunt show was voiced by their voice actor in the anime. Excellent move. Loved it.

With the voices taken care of, the fun became to see how the show translated these beloved characters to the stage. Special shoutouts have to go to the actors behind Luffy and Sanji, who sold the everliving shit out of those performances. The Luffy actor absolutely nailed Luffy’s sudden movements and very particular angles. And the Sanji actor never said no to a flip. At one point, he broke into a breakdance to impress some ladies. Very good. Well played.

Obviously, some Straw Hats are easier to translate to a live performance than others. Distance to the performers really worked to their favor in this regard. Brook’s face was a mask, and I think Jinbe’s mask was only for the lower portion of the actor’s face. Franky’s and Usopp’s noses were prosthetics (obviously). I’m pretty sure the actor playing Franky had his own arms trapped somewhere within the impressive complex of Franky’s arm prosthetics. And I am delighted to inform you that Franky had working Nipple Lights.

This brings me to Chopper. Oh my god, Chopper. As both a reindeer and someone with a Devil Fruit that causes transformations, Chopper was obviously going to be the most difficult to translate to a live setting. The base “Brain Point” costume really accentuated Chopper’s head, and he seemed unable to move his hooves from their kind of “dog begging” position. It was the cutest thing in the world, and I was obsessed with it. Whenever Chopper transformed, you would hear him announce the transformation as the actor ran backstage and another emerged in a different costume. Heavy Point, Kung Fu Point, and Horn Point all made appearances. It was grand.

At one point, Chopper was clearly just a giant doll that Usopp was dragging around. This made me and the group of ladies setting next to me completely lose our shit laughing. (Jinbe, too, got the doll treatment at one point, but he was handcuffed and being held captive in the narrative, so it took me a while to notice.)

The Premier Show also seized upon opportunities to allow characters to have flashbacks, thereby treating us to familiar scenes from the series. We saw, of course, Shanks giving his hat to Luffy. We also caught Zoro and Kuina’s promise to become the best swordsmen, and Jinbe’s promise to Luffy at the end of Whole Cake Island not to die. (Promises between friends was a big motif in the show, as you might have guessed.)

As well done as the show was—and I think it was very well done—what really made it special to me was the excitement of the crowd. On multiple occasions while interfacing with pop culture in Japan, I’ve been thrown into reflection about how Japanese audiences are infinitely less self-conscious in this particular kind of setting than American ones. And also, in the words of a friend I made in Osaka who isn’t even a fan of the series, One Piece is “like god” in Japan. Everyone knows these characters. The result is that about 95% of the audience would do the “SUPERRRRRR!” pose along with Franky, without even needing to be asked to.

As the show closed, the Straw Hats came out for pictures and their curtain call. My side was first, but when Luffy jumped up on a block at the far side of the stadium, he turned around and waved to us again. And everyone waved back. Very sincerely. And just as animatedly as Luffy was waving to us. We waved until the Straw Hats had completely left the stage.

That exchange deeply moved me. I don’t know if I can fully explain why. It was the kind of abandonment of self-consciousness and “adult logic” that I haven’t felt since I was a small child, when I would see a character I loved and interact with them like they really were that character. We all just just wanted to say goodbye to our dear friend Luffy. And Luffy wanted to say goodbye back. And that’s some quintessential One Piece vibes right there.

(featured image: Universal)


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Image of Kirsten Carey
Kirsten Carey
Kirsten (she/her) is a contributing writer at the Mary Sue specializing in anime and gaming. In the last decade, she's also written for Channel Frederator (and its offshoots), Screen Rant, and more. In the other half of her professional life, she's also a musician, which includes leading a very weird rock band named Throwaway. When not talking about One Piece or The Legend of Zelda, she's talking about her cats, Momo and Jimbei.
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