The Great Age of Pirates
Eiichiro Oda, creator of the best-selling series in the history of manga, describes One Piece as the story he wanted to read as a boy.
On the surface, it’s an action-adventure-comedy manga that employs many of the same elements as other popular manga series like Dragon Ball or Naruto. Week after week, the main protagonists use their inventive mix of fighting styles and superpowers to combat enemies who have made the critical error of threatening well-meaning people and stepping on their dreams.
It follows the adventures of an unusual crew called the Straw Hat Pirates, which includes Luffy, the clumsy captain and rubber-man determined to become Pirate King; Zoro, a swordsman who wields three katana at once; Sanji, a cook who kicks his enemies (because a chef’s hands are sacred); Usopp, a cowardly marksman who outwits opponents with his quick wit and clever tricks; and several others who jump on board as their ship sails along.
If there’s a checklist hanging in the Shonen Jump office detailing the elements that make up the “shonen” genre, which Dragon Ball and Naruto also belong to, then I’m sure One Piece would get top marks across the board. However, a checklist of what’s typical for the genre would stop short of recognizing many of the things that set this epic apart from its contemporaries.
The beauty of One Piece isn’t in checking-off a shopping list of story elements, but in pushing the limits of just how much imagination and detail a human being can pour into twenty pages of art and storytelling week after week, for fifteen years and counting.
Oda has a talent for weaving disparate details together, collected from every cultural and historical source he can absorb, to create something new and exciting. This skill is most apparent in the colorful designs of his characters and the settings in which they are introduced.
The One Piece world is populated by a veritable cast of snowflakes: hundreds of characters with unique visual designs, personalities, and origins, working as pirates, marines, government officials, privateers, revolutionaries, and more. In one part of the story, the Straw Hats fight to save a kingdom reminiscent of ancient Egypt from a sinister secret society. In another, they race enemies based on angels, native Americans, and the rapper Eminem (yes, really) to a legendary lost city of gold hidden on an island inspired by Jack and the Beanstalk.
It’s challenging to introduce so many characters in settings and situations that showcase their carefully-crafted personalities appropriately. This challenge is made even more difficult by the locations of many of the story’s antagonists, in places so far removed from the story’s main setting that it just wouldn’t make any sense for them to show up.
The Straw Hats are relatively small fish sailing across an expansive sea, where they compete with untold numbers of more ruthless swashbucklers for dominance. You can’t expect all of the big fish in that sea to drop what they’re doing and rush out the door to welcome them to the neighborhood. They’ve got their own jobs to do!
One such job is to provide the reader with valuable insights into the complexity of the larger world, and the growing influence that the Straw Hat Pirates have within it. Oda spends the downtime between story arcs exploring the relationships between these secondary characters, opening a window for the reader to watch their personalities unfold in their interactions with one another.
For example, government officials meet up in side-stories between arcs to discuss politics and world affairs, and pirate captains are sometimes shown negotiating with one another in response to the actions of the government or their rivals. By taking a break from the action, the more subtle aspects of each character’s personality are allowed to shine through, and the reader is left with the impression that the world is so much more expansive and complex than the thin slice of it the heroes are sailing through at any given time.
Revealing important details through these secondary characters also eliminates the need for planting an unbelievably-knowledgeable character in the Straw Hat Pirates’ crew to conveniently explain everything that happens. Oda is a master at revealing exactly as much detail as the reader needs to be curious – but never confused – without putting the burden on any one person to know or say too much.
If the story never left the scene of the Straw Hats’ adventures, the reader might get the impression that their actions are the biggest thing going on in the world. Every time we’re given a peek at the characters they’ll be bumping into later in the story, it’s a reminder that no matter what victory the Straw Hats are celebrating today, there will always be bigger obstacles and more suspenseful stories coming their way.
Wherever these little glimpses of the greater world punctuate the main story, the reader gets the satisfaction and excitement that comes with discovering that, for everything that has happened already, the Straw Hat Pirates have a lot more of the world to see before they’re able to surpass the world’s strongest opponents and fulfill their dreams.
If you want to spend time wading through a vibrant world alongside a cast of characters who feel convincingly human and vulnerable despite their superhuman feats, One Piece is one great place to find that. With over 600 chapters spanning more than sixty volumes, it isn’t a quick read or a small time investment.
However, the overarching narrative is neatly divided into story arcs that are enjoyable adventures on their own. There’s no need to make a mad dash for the finish line (which probably won’t be in sight for another ten years anyway). If you make your way through it at your own pace, and take time to appreciate the care and detail that have been poured into crafting it week after week, the journey itself will be the reward.