Usually with Manga Mondays I like to keep a couple tentative weeks ahead in different manga series so I’m not flailing around trying to figure out what I’m going to write about. For the past month, I haven’t been able to do this. Somehow I’ve managed to become absorbed into not only a series entirely, but also a completely different fandom.
In my defense, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. But I should have known better, read the signs. There is no way that a manga becomes a national icon without any reason.
In Japan, this series is everywhere. More prevalent than Totoro or any claim that Ghibli has. Stronger than the ever lingering shadow of days gone by, like Doraemon. Yet when it started featuring in Shonen Jump here in the States, I just didn’t give a shit about it. I think I was too young to understand the pull, but now I have such a connection that I can’t. I can’t what? I just can’t anything. No series has made me smile more, no series has so quickly reduced me to a simpering pile of sobs. Today I review my old friend, but new love: Eiichiro Oda’s phenomenon, One Piece.
I’m sure that most of you have at least heard of this series, or at least heard of the mangling 4Kids did with its dub. One Piece is a super-secret treasure left by the now deceased ‘King of the Pirates’, Gol D. Roger, for the new generation of pirates to find. No one knows what it is, but it seems to be common knowledge that not only will the One Piece make whoever finds it the next king of the pirates, but will also grant the finder unbelievable power. Enter Luffy (full name: Monkey D. Luffy), the 17 year old derp whose one dream is to find the fabled treasure. That and meet once more with his ideal, Red Haired Shanks, who saved him from drowning when he was but a wee babe.
Luffy (and just about every other pirate in this verse) also has a special gift. He has been cursed/blessed with the powers of a devil fruit: a special fruit that grants the one who eats it special body-altering powers, but also saps away their ability to swim. Luffy’s is the gum-gum fruit—his body is essentially rubber—but I’m not kidding when I say that despite how lame that sounds, it’s incredibly powerful and suited for him. …This isn’t to say that it still isn’t about the lamest fruit in the series. But Luffy’s a lame kid, and that’s what makes him so goshdarn likable.
When I say he’s a derp, he’s a total derp. He doesn’t think before jumping into action most of the times. He always gets distracted by food. He likes shiny things a bunch. However, he also has a strong sense of morals and, surprisingly, responsibility. He’s so imperfect that it physically hurts my heart at times. But the great thing is that he doesn’t hide this and his crew accepts him because of his flaws, not despite them. Speaking of which, let’s go into the members of the Straw Hats (or at least the earlier ones because I’m not giving any [huge] spoilers with this review).
First to join is pirate hunter, Roronoa Zoro. Of course the first member pirate Luffy tries to recruit into his crew is a pirate hunter. Of course. But Zoro doesn’t seem to have a problem with it as long as Luffy continues to help him on his quest to become the strongest swordsman in all of the Blues (think hemispheres, except there are 4 of them). Zoro comes off as being the steely seriousness to counteract Luffy’s carefree nature, but we soon find out that he’s just as derpy as Luffy, but in a different way.
No, the real purveyor of logic on this ship belongs to their navigator, Nami. This orange-haired thief only has eyes for how to make off with the largest amount of loot, but has a strict sense of devotion to her friends. Even if she does smack them around sometimes, but on a boat with a group of abnormally strong men someone has to keep them in check. Nami doesn’t have any powers besides her cunning and smarts, but that is more than enough most of the time to keep her on par with the others.
Next is the crew member that takes the obligatory spot of “womanizer/woman-lover” in this shonen, the chef, Sanji. If you’ve heard any of the dub like me, you’ll probably have that terrible New York accent in your head whenever you read his lines, luckily it doesn’t hinder the character at all. Being a chef, he takes it upon himself to only fight with his legs and feet. Being a womanizer, he is always distracted by Nami and whatever other woman they come across. This actually does come back to bite him in the ass as he is totally destroyed by a female opponent in one arc because he can’t bring himself to fight against a female. His eternal rival ends up being Zoro and it’s the cutest hate-bromance ever.
Lastly—rather, the last member I’m going to introduce here—is Usopp. Knowers of the Japanese language should be able to pull something out immediately from his name: uso which means lie. And what do you know? This guy is the personification of the boy who cries wolf. No, seriously. His first character arc is about him running through his town announcing about how pirates are coming but it’s never true (until it happens). At his worst, Usopp is a liar and a coward. At his best he’s a tactical genius and the best damn cheerleader you’ve ever seen. He’s in the same boat as Nami, though: he’s just a normal human living on a boat along with these super-humans. Yet, as Oda continuously proves, regular humans are capable of great things too.
That’s the first thing I really like about this series: everyone is essentially on equal footing. Essentially. That is to say that even though an opponent has a devil fruit or some other supernatural power doesn’t automatically mean that the normal people are going to lose the battle. Luffy and Zoro may have the power to just hack through their opponents, but Usopp and Nami have the brains to outwit them. A battle in this series never feels like it’s guaranteed to go a certain way and sometimes the audience is surprised. If I can be surprised when the protagonist wins, especially in a shonen series, I think that’s the mark of a good writer.
Secondly, I really appreciate how all types from all genders and sexes are treated in this series. The men aren’t all burley and/or good looking. The women aren’y tiny waifs in need of protection. If you’ve seen any art for this series, you may be disagreeing with me a bit here. Nami is always drawn as unnaturally thin with huge boobs, she must be somewhat objectified and I would be lying if I said that part of the point of her character wasn’t to be fanservice. But she’s so much more than fan service: she an actual character with flaws and personality. And, believe it or not, her looks barely come into play at all. Oda does have a problem with drawing most of his women this way, however. In the later chapters, he does start to introduce a wider variety of female figures and to my surprise they actually end up being more than joke characters. Of course, even the joke characters end up being not-joke characters after a while.
To illustrate both of these points, let me tell you the story of my favorite character (or one of them, anyway), Bon Clay. Bon Clay started out not only as a joke character, but almost an uncomfortable joke character ever. You see, Bon Clay is an okama: a transsexual. So, he’s all done up in hilariously bad make-up and a tutu and talking about how being an okama is so great all the time and it almost gets to that point where the joke isn’t really a joke and the author is just making the character a
punching bag. However, even though Bon Clay gets defeated (well, he was an enemy after all) he still helps Luffy’s crew out because they managed to become friends despite the huge battle they were just in. And the fact that he’s an okama never comes up again. Not because it goes away—he still proudly proclaims about how great it is to be an okama—but because it doesn’t change the person at all. He’s just accepted without having to change himself and he becomes the best character in the series (okay, maybe not that last part). What I’m trying to say here is that in One Piece you can’t count any of the characters out. They’re all important because they all end up having a lasting impact on the lives of Luffy and his crew and Oda treats them as such.
Lastly, before this review gets any longer, I like this series because it’s somehow so different from other shonen, but still the same. At its very, very basic level, One Piece is about an adventure on a pirate ship to find treasure. And fighting. But it’s so much more than that and that’s why I think I didn’t really care for the series until now. It’s a story that speaks to this generation of new adults about searching for something unknown and failing. It speaks of how failing isn’t the end of the world and you can pull yourself back together, stronger and better prepared. How not to change yourself in the face of adversity. But I think the one thing that sets this series apart from every other series is how Luffy interacts with his crew. Not only him, but how every pirate crew interacts with each other.
Nakama nakama nakama nakama nakama!
This series made popular the word nakama (“close group of friends”) and this idea of nakama is the glittering ray that sets it apart and above. Of course, in every shonen series there’s the main group of friends and they fight crime or whatever it is they do, but it ends up where it’s an unspoken bond of sorts. However, in One Piece everything is because of this nakama and due to this nakama. This is explicitly stated over and over again. Luffy admits that he would be nothing without his friends and would do anything for them. Zoro and Sanji, while they fight like cats and dogs, always restrain themselves because they’re nakama. Nakama are the people who you can trust everything to and who have your back. What Oda is saying, if I may extrapolate a bit, is that much more than power or dreams, you need people you can rely on to make it through life. In this age of isolation, this message rings clearer than ever. Everyone needs a nakama and without one pushing you to be better, you’ll never reach your best. It’s just not something you can do alone.
Well, now that I’ve talked your ear off, I’m pretty sure you don’t need me to tell you that I recommend you read this. Right now. If you haven’t read any yet or just want to start again there are about 660 chapters out (that’s around 60 physical volumes!) so it’s kind of a daunting task. But, it’s so so very worth it. The story is great and the characters are fabulous. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, but you’ll come out with a greater respect for your friends.