Although this piece is not intended to be a formal review for a variety of reasons, it is still provided in video format above and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that, as always, my scripts are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
So for the past few months I’d been reading One Piece. You may have heard of it: the best-selling manga series of all-time, over 320 million copies in print, written by Eiichiro Oda and serialized in Weekly Shounen Jump since July of 1997. (Jeez, this manga’s almost as old as I am.) One Piece was always the member of the Big Three I had the most interest in, whether I chose to experience it through the manga or the anime. Bleach I’ve heard pretty much exclusively bad things about, and Naruto always seemed more like a “it had to be your first anime” kind of thing (not to definitively say that I won’t try out one or both eventually out of intellectual curiosity, but it won’t be for a long while).
In any case, one thing led to another, and here I am, having just recently caught up on the One Piece manga, and in the process of watching the anime films (though it is unlikely I will bother with the TV series for the foreseeable future), and that means that this video is pretty much just an excuse for me to gush about One Piece and regurgitate any random thoughts I’ve had over the course of reading it. As such, I will be doing very little expositional groundwork for viewers unfamiliar with One Piece, and will more or less just be naming characters, events, etc. off the cuff. If that sounds entertaining, great! If not, my apologies.
And just to clear the air, if you want to, yes, you could take this as my pseudo-review of One Piece, but the title does give away my ultimate opinion, that being One Piece is absolutely worth reading. Look into it if you have the time. Now to jump into specifics, well where else to start but Luffy, the captain of the Straw Hat Pirates?
Luffy is one of the most entertaining characters I’ve experienced in recent memory, and possibly ever. A friend of mine once described him as a “happy dumbass” (meant as an insult), and admittedly this is a reasonably accurate description, though in my case I don’t mean it as a negative. Luffy is entirely self-centered, unable or unwilling to retain anything not relevant to his immediate interests. He gives no heed to warnings, apparent danger, or little things like common sense. That said, he is far from a jerk, frequently driven to action by a need to help out his friends or even strangers in need, as long as he feels it is the right thing to do. Truly a man with the proper disposition to become the Pirate King. Luffy’s overconfident, near-oblivious personality is exactly what makes him so entertaining. It took me a handful of chapters to warm up to him, but once I did, I could watch this kid forever. Luffy encapsulates this childlike glee and wonder that makes him almost immediately likable and attention grabbing. He won’t skirt confrontation because it could be awkward or less-than-ideal or outright dangerous, he faces any problem head-on, with the utmost faith in both himself and his comrades.
You might infer from that description that Luffy is not one for planning or strategy, simply charging in and taking what comes, which I want to discredit, but I can’t. He does make use of a bare modicum of tactics, and develops new techniques as necessary over the course of the story when he finds himself confronted with truly insurmountable odds, but Hunter x Hunter this is not. Most fights do come down to simply overpowering the opponent in one way or another, not just for Luffy, but for every character, in the whole series. Zoro, the resident swordsman, hardly ever approaches battle with a mindset more complex than “slice even harder and faster”, and the same could be said of every other “strong” cast member, the chef Sanji, the cyborg Franky, the tragic Robin and to an extent the skeleton Brook, which is a reason I partially prefer the “weak” characters, the reindeer Chopper, the cat-thief Nami, and especially the long-nosed Usopp... but let’s momentarily put a pin in that thought because this is a good segue into talking about the fights themselves.
One Piece repeatedly excels at very very hype fights. It’s a long series, and Oda makes use of this length effectively to lay some runway and build up to major fights both emotionally and plot-ally (I gave up okay). This buildup can very occasionally feel overdrawn, as with the Dressrosa arc for instance, but 90-95 percent of the time, One Piece had my full attention during any fight scene, helped especially by an abundance of epic pose shots and great fight framing. I’m no manga connoisseur so I’m not sure how specific I could be with this, but I had no problem following the flow of the characters and beats of the action, even during frantic throwdowns with multiple combatants, which isn’t something I can say for every manga I’ve read. (This was made even easier by the first 700 or so chapters being digitally colored, and I wish the rest could’ve been as well.)
And with that short tangent traversed, let’s go back and take the pin out of that “weak” character thought. One Piece very early on establishes a character hierarchy between strong fighters that can easily hold their own in battle and weak ones that are initially little more than a distraction (though everyone significantly powers up over time). I actually found the weaker, fearful characters, like Usopp, generally more endearing than the strong, because, and I’ll focus on Usopp specifically here, since he was that much more likely to lose and far less confident in his abilities, he frequently goes through a mental struggle and apprehension about fighting, which in turn lets him feel a little more human and relatable than a stoic swordsman (not that Zoro is unentertaining in his own right, but as time went on, I found myself less enamored with his purely strength-centered character).
I must admit that One Piece maintains a relatively predictable story structure, in that every major arc goes through a cycle of introduce the conflict, set up the roles of our heroes, go into a lengthy and tragic flashback that informs us of the entire situation, then return to the present for the conflict to be resolved through some manner of violence. But, phrasing it that simply is not giving nearly enough credit to everything that One Piece does right. I just mentioned that over time all the characters power up in some way, and that ties into my next point: One Piece’s extreme commitment to long-term storytelling. Admittedly, in complete fairness, I am barely familiar with most other long-running shounen stories, so it’s possible that this is a common feature to all of them, but One Piece, time and again, left me extremely impressed with how well it made use of its long-form narrative.
As it progresses through its many story arcs, One Piece introduces character after character after character, several of whom are set up to seem like real major players, and are then absent for hundreds of chapters, which equates to years in publishing time. Then... they come back, and it never feels as if these characters have been forgotten and shoehorned back in, or dredged up from irrelevance because we need a returning character for some reason; it all feels incredibly purposeful and meticulous. It leaves you with nothing but faith in Oda’s storytelling going forward, because previous elements have tied together so damn well that it is only logical to assume that the others will as well. This is all very cool, when I’m able to sit down and marathon nearly two decades worth of chapters over the span of a few months and it feels like such a cohesive whole, but I do worry about how well this approach will work now that I’m a weekly reader, whose memory of events will undoubtedly fray as years go on… but ultimately that’s nothing more than speculation. Come back to me on that in a couple years’ time.
By virtue of being so long, One Piece is also able to notch up the depth and breadth of its conflicts slowly over time. The series steps things up with noticeable but natural increases in scale with nearly every storyline, starting out as the tale of a lone boy on an impossible quest, and becoming a massive saga involving the fates of entire countries and governments, and that’s amazing. Like, my god.
A slight spoiler for One Piece follows, not something I’d consider major, but knowledge you might not want to know if you’re completely blind about the series. At one point in One Piece, there is a two-year timeskip, wherein two plot years pass from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next. This timeskip occurs for various reasons on both a meta and in-universe level, but the series has a common reputation for being worse or a lot worse post-timeskip, and this is an opinion I simply cannot agree with. In particular, the story of Fishman Island is commonly lambasted by fans for… I don’t, I don’t know actually. I mean, I can understand a little. This arc follows what can only be described as a metric sh*tton of stuff happening, there’s a lot of fighting with major consequences. So, anything that came next would seem almost inherently inferior, but I feel Fishman Island is unfairly singled out. In fact, I was very happy with Fishman Island! It struck me as the first time when One Piece tried to tackle legitimate social issues, and provide commentary on real-life events. Did it do so with the utmost grace or complete subtlety? No, but for a series that up to that point had had a lot of emotion and a lot of action but a lack of material that is really relevant in this way, I can’t say I was anything less than impressed.
Not to imply that One Piece always left me impressed. I do have a few axes to grind (or maybe more like butter knives) about some things that just didn’t sit right. Number one, no one is ever really in danger of death, whether they be a hero or a villain, you can rest assured that as long as they are a named character with any degree of depth, they will not die (as long as they don’t live in a flashback, since deaths in the past are commonly used to drive character motivations in the present). This rule applies to even the simplest of side characters, characters who seem to die and then come back for no other reason than to have them come back. I’m talking about people sacrificing themselves to buy time for the main cast, and then, after the Straw Hats have dealt with the whole problem and the villains are defeated, the “dead” character comes back, not being actually dead, even if their survival defies all reason.
Now if you’ve read or watched One Piece, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “but what about M*********?”, and to that I say, that’s once, once after hundreds of chapters and literally more than twenty story arcs, and then we go right back to the status quo afterward. I’m not saying I want it to be Akame ga Kill or anything, but what upsets me is that this complaint could have been easily alleviated simply by sticking to your narrative guns, sometimes literally, and leaving people dead. If you don’t want to kill off any of the Straw Hats, that’s fine, that’s understandable, but why couldn’t this guy die?
What did his survival add?
Number two, Oda has a habit of being much less creative with his female character designs than his male. Every woman in One Piece is either an ugly old hag or a bombshell with a cookie-cutter “X and two circles” body, mostly the same face with few if any alterations, and of course generally revealing outfits. To see what I mean, let’s compare and contrast some character designs of Alabasta, the first really huge One Piece story.
Here we have the women. See there’s a hag character like I mentioned, but the rest… you might think, “eh, it’s not the bad. Sure they have the same body type and rather similar faces but that’s just a typical anime thing, right?” Well, let’s check out the men. (Ignore the outfits and pay attention to the faces and body types.)
Hmm. I’d like to say this is an issue that Oda improves on over time, and he does to an extent, but only an extent. The image below features a major female character introduced in Chapter 612, and another introduced in 704, alongside Nami.
Then let’s crop out the bodies, give you only the faces…
Can you tell any of them apart? Now let’s try that with the respective male characters.
Yeah, that’s a slight problem. But, I’d be lying if I said this is only a One Piece problem. No, this is an ingrained design problem throughout animation and manga, one that even Pixar is guilty of. You can’t escape it. So knowing that, I can’t be too hard on One Piece specifically.
Now, to touch on the attire, as a rule of thumb I don’t generally mind women being practically topless if it’s either justified by the story being told (which happens but is a rarity) or the fanservice is egalitarian, which it very much is in One Piece, the men show off their chests all the time, but every so often things go just a little too far.
I highly doubt a trained gladiator would wear an armored bikini to a deathmatch, I’m sorry. That’s the limit of my suspension of disbelief.
And that’s all I got. I was loathe to label this a review because (aside from One Piece not being finished) I never meant for this short ramble to be an all-inclusive, in-depth look at everything that I think works with One Piece, and it isn’t. I glossed over quite a bit, barely or didn’t mention several key characters and plot highlights, and just generally painted a very incomplete picture of the series really. This was just kind of an outlet for me to talk about some random One Piece stuff, since it’s been occupying my mind more than a bit for the past few months.
To reiterate, at this time I have not seen even an episode of the TV series, though I have bothered to catch some of the movies, so while I could leave you with thoughts like “the Hosoda film is great!” or “the English dub is better than the Japanese!”, I will instead close with a short something I wrote while reading the Alabasta Arc, right around Chapter 210, that ultimately held true for the entire series, all 600+ chapters to come:
One Piece is pure unadulterated adventure. It doesn’t try and make some grandiose point about the nature of humanity, or moral ambiguity, or anything else of the sort, but I do not at all see that as a negative. It’s just a good time, pure and simple, and in that regard it is very damn effective.
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