It’s apparent early on in Netflix’s live action One Piece that it isn’t a clean adaptation of Eiichiro Oda’s manga series or the anime. While following many of the same steps, certain details are altered to the extent that One Piece readers will still have a different experience when they watch the new series. And perhaps the greatest change to be found here is in Koby, the sheepish teen who wishes to become a part of the Navy. The live-action series makes it very clear Koby is just as much Luffy’s foil as he is his friend.
In the manga, Koby’s role expands with time, as does his importance in the overall plot. He first appears in One Piece’s introductory “Romance Dawn” arc as someone that ends up meeting Luffy and, like most people who get in contact with the dude in the Straw Hat, becomes inspired by him. Thanks to a confidence boost from the pirate, Koby stands up to his former captors and then joins the Navy. (Albeit after Luffy roughs him up a little bit to show Koby’s future employers he’s not close with any pirates. It’s sort of a justifiable beatdown.)
From then on, Koby’s role in Luffy’s life (or even in the proximity of Luffy) is sparse until later in the story. Koby trains with the Navy under the eventual apprenticeship of Vice Admiral Garp while Luffy sails through the East Blue and into the Grand Line. When they meet up again, Luffy defeats him easily, but Koby still looks up to Luffy as an aspirational symbol. Luffy doing exactly what he wants to do will always be a reminder for Koby to follow his own dreams, even if those dreams lead to Luffy punching him in the face from time to time.
In the live action series, though, Koby goes from being a side character to a supporting one immediately. He’s damn near promoted to co-lead status. Of course, this coincides with the increased prominence of the Navy in the Netflix adaptation, and the transition of Garp from Koby’s mysterious mentor to season-long pseudo antagonist. They’re both hot on the heels of the Straw Hat Crew constantly, giving us much more time to watch Koby grow and become accustomed to the Navy’s strong-arm tactics.
Putting such an intense focus on Koby changes the framing of the Navy, too. In the early One Piece manga, they’re a powerful, but often very corruptible force (as we see with “Axe-Hand” Morgan’s intense vanity and greed, and the captain who later takes bribes from the vengeful Arlong.) Within this framing, Koby is a nice kid in an organization that’s prone to being flawed. Koby becoming the Navy’s clear “next generation” of sorts in the Netflix show gives a definitively more optimistic outlook, one that matches Luffy’s dreams of finding the One Piece and being King of the Pirates.
Changing the Navy from a domineering group into the flipside of pirating is far from subtext in the live-action series. Koby reminds Luffy to be a “good pirate,” while Luffy tells him to be the same in his role, their ambitions oppositional but now ethically correlative. And with Koby constantly on the chase, he has some inner turmoil to chew on from the onset, rather than just being a skinny nerd among jacked commando types.
This personal confusion about whether or not it’s right to be hunting Luffy (a pirate who saves people more often than not) solidifies a friendship that’s not as apparent in the source material. In the manga, Luffy is just happy to see Koby stand up for himself and follow his dreams. Meanwhile, the Netflix series almost bookends itself with Luffy and Koby interactions, signifying a bond that’s more outwardly amicable and less marked by Luffy’s chaotic ways. For instance, Koby doesn’t have to worry about Luffy walloping him or insulting him as much here, whereas manga Koby takes his lumps.
At this point, a continuation of the One Piece Netflix series isn’t assured, so we don’t know how much closer we’ll get to the crises of faith Koby experiences in the manga, where he reckons with the horrors of war. Nor do we know whether or not Koby will remain just as major of a character in a hypothetical season 2. But no matter where he ends up, it won’t be in the exact same place as the manga. Koby’s development into being the closest thing Luffy has to a Navy counterpart has changed the trajectory of both his character and the entire World Government.