For over a decade, the manga series One Piece has delighted Japanese readers young and old, as well as the Americans fortunate enough to be clued into it. It is the best-selling manga series of all time, with over 185.6 million copies sold. Its author, Eichiro Oda, is the best-selling author in Japanese history, and in his native land, is more popular than J. K. Rowling. It has spawned an anime series with four hundred sixty-seven episodes to date, ten movies, thirty video games.
The series is epic in scope, with over 59 volumes out already and no end in site. Fortunately, the entire series can be viewed online in English translations from devoted fan volunteers. The anime is also recommended, but has the problem of being a much greater time commitment. To read the manga from the beginning to now takes about as long as it takes to read Atlas Shrugged, whereas the anime requires several times that.
In essence, the story is about pirates with superpowers in search of a legendary treasure known as the One Piece. To reach it, they must follow a stretch of ocean known as the Grand Line which nearly circumnavigates the globe. (No more direct route is available to them.) They have many adventures along the way. The series is divided into many arcs as the crew encounters new islands and enemies along the way, but each arc brings them closer to their destination and reveals more about the major forces in the world they will have to face later on. The series is full of battles, tragedy, and outrageous, unsubtle, typically Japanese humor.
The crew is lead by the indomitable and childlike Monkey D. Luffy, an immensely strong and stupidly courageous young pirate with a gigantic grin and bugging, strabismatic eyes. He is characterized by challenging any danger no matter how apparently insurmountable, of unrelenting faith in and loyalty to his crew even in the face of apparent betrayals, and an inability to pass by a bully or look upon oppression without challenging the oppressor and protecting the weak.
His crew is called the Strawhat crew because of the straw hat Luffy wears, which was given to him by Red-Hair Shanks, one of the greatest pirates of the modern age. At first his crew comprises only himself, but it grows steadily as the adventure proceeds. Each new member has a tragic past but also a spirit that drives him to greatness.
The wonderful thing about it is that as it goes on, it continually gets better. At first it seems light hearted and quirky, but as it proceeds the stories get longer, more complex, and more emotional until you realize that you have broken into tears over the latest long-prolonged triumph of the Strawhat crew (at least that is how it was with me). The author is able to tap deeply into human emotions, and even though the stories are somewhat formulaic, the emotions are so real that it’s impossible to stop reading.
For a story written over about 13 years, One Piece hangs together well. It appears to have been very carefully planned, even over a decade in advance. The author is particularly gifted with the use of foreshadowing. Elements have been hinted at which are explained for years, and characters have been mentioned years ago who even still have not even appeared yet. The way Oda tantalizes his readers is absolutely maddening. He has a way of advancing the story without really revealing anything, and of revealing things in a way that just heightens the mystery. One piece can be enjoyed by people of any age and is highly addictive.
One Piece has an idiosyncratic style of art that is influenced by, but very different from, the standard Japanese style. Oda draws from many different art styles. Characters range from the relatively realistic to gross caricatures to simple porky-pig like agglutinations of simple shapes. Two characters standing right next to one another can be drawn with very different styles. In addition, one often sees freakish quirks that I don’t recall ever seeing anywhere else. It is hard for me to comprehend the sort of mind that would decide, for example, of blessing one of his creations with two chin clefts, or foot-long earlobes. The fashion sense in the One Piece world is equally inexplicable. Everyone has his own sense of fashion: one meets characters who habitually dress like a Kabuki actor, or in a rat costume, or in a fishnet shirt and surgical mask, or like this.
From a literary standpoint, the most prevalent technique of One Piece is the allusion. Many of the characters of One Piece derive from mythology, literature, historical figures, and pop culture, often mixed together in amazing ways. For example, one of the crew is named Usopp, which is a pun on the Japanese word for ‘lie’ and on the name of Aesop, the ancient storyteller. Usopp is thus a lying storyteller, with a habit of relating his adventures in ways that make him sound much more courageous, and has, appropriately enough, the long nose of Pinnochio. Another character, Dr. Chopper, is an adorable reindeer, who, like Rudolph, was exiled by his herd because of his unusual nose (which is blue rather than glowing red). In addition, he has the power to transform into a powerful beast-man, and thus appropriately wears the tall top-hat reminiscent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This kind of logic is typical of everything in the One Piece world.
This technique makes the One Piece world, no matter how bizarre, seem somehow familiar and more real. With each new character, Oda invites us to draw associations to things we know from our world, and having done so, everything new about his world seems like something that is as it should be. As one reads One Piece, one meets the gorgons, real pirates like Edward Teach, Michael Jackson, Dr. Frank-n-furter Satan, and Popeye, just to name a few.
But what of the libertarian themes in One Piece? A theme, repeated over and over in the theme songs, is the pursuit and achievement of dreams, and not just some collective dream of a perfectly-ordered society, but each crew member has his own individual dream to pursue on the way. Luffy wishes to find the One Piece, which would make him the pirate king; Zoro, the swordsman, wishes to become the greatest swordsman in the world; Sanji, the cook, wishes to find the legendary ocean All Blue, where the fish from all four oceans swim together. Cooperating as a crew enables each member to follow his own heart.
Like true entrepreneurs, the Strawhat crew have constructed their own society together, a society characterized at times by rivalry and strife, but also by fierce and unshakable loyalty. In the early arcs of the series, the crew members repeatedly get in trouble and are nearly defeated because they cooperate so poorly with one another that they interfere with their own ability to fight, but with each arc they improve until they know one another’s strengths and weaknesses perfectly and can fight together with perfect coordination.
The style of decision-making among the Strawhat crew could also be interpreted as a kind of spontaneous order like that of the free market because they do not have any clear hierarchy. Although Luffy is called the captain, he holds the crew together with his spirit, not his ability to make decisions. He acts by inspiration without much thought, like a zen Buddhist or a Franciscan, and is virtually incapable of making effective plans. Instead, the crew makes decisions by consensus or by listening to Nami, one of the more practical members.
In each arc there are many villains, but there is often one who dominates the arc and commands the others toward some heinous goal. Every villain is delightfully evil and chillingly cruel, yet they are all so different from one another. Each embodies a somewhat different aspect of coercion and thus has his own personality, goals, vices, and weaknesses.
In a chilling comment on government health care, Wapol, the gluttonous ruler of Drum Kingdom, orders the twenty best doctors of the kingdom to work only for him, just so that he could watch his subjects grovel at his feet in order to receive medical services.
In one extraordinary arc, Oda takes on the power of religion to legitimize coercion. In a dystopia truly worthy of Orwell or Kafka, the villainous conquer Enel, who hearkens back to the cruel power of Zeus as well as to Old Testament wrath, claims the status of god and demands worship as one. He has power over lightning and the ability to hear everything that goes on in his island; thus, anyone who speaks against him is immediately burnt to a crisp with a bolt from above.
Early in the series, most of the villains have been captains of other pirate gangs, but as the story advances it becomes clear that the overarching force of evil in their world, the biggest bully of them all, is the World Government itself. The World Government is presented in quite a realistic way: the lower-rank people in the Marines (the primary enforcement arm of the World Government) do good by fighting pirate crews and many people are very happy to see those pirates defeated, but as we meet higher and higher people in the Marines, we see more and more abuse until we ultimately see that evil dominates the upper ranks and that the primary purpose of the government’s actions is to perpetuate that evil.
Indeed, the World Government, we soon discover, is actually in league with pirates. Those pirates who become powerful enough to be a serious threat are offered the privileges and the title of Royal Shichibukai, one of the seven great privateers. A Shichibukai is allowed to beat up on other pirates and take their treasure as he wishes without fear of interference from the World Government, but is required to fight for the World Government if he should be called.
On top of this organization is the group known as the World Nobles. These people are so haughty that they consider themselves to have the rightful powers of life and death over commoners. They wear gas masks when they descend to places where commoners live so as to avoid breathing the same air as them. They can order anyone to be their slave, whom they keep in line with bomb collars that explode should they attempt to escape.
Like the governments of 1984, the World Government exercises political control of history. There is a Void Century eight hundred years ago for which all historical research is forbidden. Immediately after this century was the start of the World Government’s domination. Anyone who knows the true history is considered to be a grave threat to the World Government, and one of the Strawhat crew, Nico Robin, is a fugitive for being the last person alive able to read the language of the Poneglyphs, a series of monuments hidden around the world that reveal details of the Void Century.
The portrait of government in One Piece is virtually perfect—it is an organization that masquerades as legitimate and benevolent, but which ultimately strives to protect the privileged and expand its position. It conceals its true origins, is a master of propaganda, and abandons the pretense of law when dealing with anyone it considers a threat. It keeps certain technologies to itself in order to control transportation routes and communication channels. It spies on its own people It sadistically tortures prisoners for no reason in deep prisons. The only criticism I could make of this picture of government is that there appears not to be inflation in the One Piece world—a real government would not forgo the opportunity to tamper with money.
At the time of this writing, the Strawhat crew has arrived at a pivotal point in their journey. Having nearly reached Mariejois, the Holy Land and capital of the World Government, the crew finds itself against much tougher villains than they have before. I don’t want to give too much away, but the arc that follows defies every expectation. By the end, the crew has been dispersed and two years pass.
When it reunites, the Strawhat crew must pass underneath Mariejois to the island of the fishmen, from where they may continue their journey. The land of Mariejois is precisely half way along the grand line, virtually the exact opposite side of the world from their destination, and thus one might suspect that the adventure is roughly 1/2 over.
In conclusion, One Piece is beyond awesome and everyone should just go read it right now.