Friday, November 29, 2013
"One Piece" by Eiichiro Oda is typically considered part of the "Big Three" of major shonen anime amongst Western fans, along with "Bleach" and "Naruto". In Japan, however, there is really no competition. The Soul Reapers and the Ninjas might make their money with their fandoms, but they're definitely both hiding within the shadow of the Pirate Juggernaut. And its really obvious why "One Piece" would be better: its more fun. "One Piece" is bright, its fun, its happy, it isn't a bottle of angst and brutal combat. Its a wacky pirate adventure involving a core crew of seven characters (though later nine) fighting their way across the ocean on a fantastic quest to become the greatest buccaneers of all time. Shonen anime can be consistent, fun, and lean without relying upon ridiculous never-ending arcs, bloated casts, and idiotic plot twists? The hell you say!
The lifeblood of "One Piece" is not high drama and huge wrestling-style brawls against increasingly absurdly powerful foes, its about high adventure on the high seas. The Straw Hat Pirate crew of the Going Merry under their childish captain Monkey D. Luffy travel island to island across a colorful ocean full of danger and excitement, but still a bright universe of cartoon-y fun. Though technically pirates, most of their job appears to be actually defeating more villainous and grotesque marauders who threaten the peaceful lives of villager and citizens of this exotic ocean universe. The ultimate goal is to reach the treasure cache of the late King of the Pirates, the 'One Piece", the capture of which will turn them into the greatest pirates of all time, and make Luffy the next Pirate King. "One Piece" is massive in scope - any story that's lasted this long could not hope but collect a huge cast of characters - but still solidly focused on its primary crew, the next island along the fabled 'Grand Line', a belt of riches that is the domain of only the toughest pirates in the sea, and the next bizarre villain who they must defeat.
Like any successful Japanese franchise, "One Piece" is a comic series, an anime, a series of theatrical films, a bundle of video games, a gaggle of novels, a restaurant, and a merchandising empire. To actually catch up with this entire franchise would take a dedicated course of study lasting four years, probably ending with a bachelor degree. So far I've just been watching the episodes that have been airing on Toonami for the last few months, and been reading the manga releases as they've come out to catch up with the story so far. I'm about up to volume 20 in the comics leaving a huge hole in my knowledge. But this isn't exactly a tightly-plotted dramatic saga where any missed moment will leave you completely helpless to follow the story. You could probably jump in at any point, and once you've figured out who the Straw Hat Pirates are and what their individual powers are, you'll be fine. There isn't really high drama in this show, and as far as I know, almost no characters have ever been killed.
The obvious defense a "Bleach" or "Naruto" fan would come up with to deface "One Piece" would be that its 'childish' and the character design is silly. "One Piece" goes out of its way to avoid the huge bloated wars that Tite Kubo summons together in order to write up an entire year of filler fights to keep his zombiefied cartoon and comic on the air and in print. Like any proper shonen anime/manga, "One Piece" is about the fighting, but usually its just against one enemy crew of villains, typically paired off to be nearly equal or weird enough to keep the Straw Hat Pirates busy for the next volume of manga. But it never feels like filler, like a tertiary villain has been created for no reason other than to justify the existence of a tertiary hero, as "Bleach" was so terribly terribly guilty of. Usually the villains have to be crafty or use underhanded tricks to fool the dimwitted Luffy, until he finally manages to get his wits together and punch them in the face with his mile-long rubber arm.
One the main "gimmicks" of "One Piece" is the existence of the Devil Fruits, a strange botanical oddity that gives its eaters super powers. Monkey D. Luffy would be just a very dumb kid with an infectious optimism if not for eating the Gum-Gum Fruit, which has turned him into a Bubblegum Person. That means he's the Japanese Plastic Man, with the powers to stretch his arms and limbs to incredible length, giving him extreme durability and strength. And like any proper shonen hero, his bubblegum body means he can eat incredible amounts of food. His other crew member, Tony Tony Chopper, a chibi reindeer physician, ate the Human-Human Fruit, so he's a reindeer with the power to act human and even grow a super-strong human form. Nico Robin, the sexy ship Archeologist, ate the Flower-Flower Fruit, which means she can summon new limbs on all surfaces and even her own body. There are also villains who can turn into smoke, break up their body into pieces, spit explosives, and capture their foes into wax sculptures. There's a huge amount of imagination behind "One Piece", with an endless array of weird combat styles to keep the reader's interest.
The structure of "One Piece"'s story reminds me a lot of a typical Dragon Quest game, actually. They're both very cute and cartoony stories, with no fear of being silly or making puns. But the main cast is like a Dragon Quest playable party, each memorable in their own way, but usually existing as a singular joke or personality. Sanji the cook is constantly in love with Robin and Nami. Nami is a liar and greedy. Tony Tony Chopper is adorable and defenseless against flattery. Luffy is basically Young Goku. Usopp is Krillin (and voiced by the same guy). They travel from island to island saving the locals from their problems, much like how a Dragon Quest team goes town to town defeating the current problem by fighting their way through a dungeon. No wonder why Japan has made "One Piece" the most popular manga and Dragon Quest is its most popular RPG series**. And maybe I'm not inventing connections here, "One Piece" does feel like "Dragon Ball" before the "Z", before it became all about endless power ups and successions of immensely powerful foes - not that it wasn't massive fun. And Dragon Quest is made by Akira Toriyama, and Eiichiro Oda is probably as close as Toriyama is ever going to get to a successor.
I can't say "One Piece" creates a world with consistent rules or meaning. Why would the majority of the world's population live in a belt of islands that is nearly impossible to navigate full of giant cute sea monsters? How come the Straw Hat Pirates seem completely unable to really connect together or flower any sort of romance between any of the men or women? Its not a perfect show, its not a perfect manga, its definitely more fluff than depth. But its fun, its cheerful, it feels fresh and creative. And its not "Bleach", so thank God for that.
* "Bleach" is "Bleach", we all know how I feel about that show. "Naruto" is just a different kind of "Dragon Ball Z"-wanna-be, only with a more obnoxious main character. "Soul Eater" is okay, but it doesn't feel special in any way. "Sword Art Online" is just ".hack//SIGN" made far more generic and lame. And after that its 2:30 AM in the morning, and I'm already asleep. In January things are going to really shake up because "Space Dandy", an anime series made by the director of "Cowboy Bebop" and "Samurai Champloo" is premiering here in America, and that's going to be a big deal.
** If only a new Dragon Quest game would ever get made!!! What, are we going to turn into an MMO and never come back? When is "Dragon Quest XI" even going to get announced?