The Grand Odyssey That Is One Piece
If I were to tell you that the first and second all time comic book lifetime sales belonged to the iconic characters Superman and Batman respectively, you would probably nod at the news and reply, “That sounds about right”. And if I were to tell you that right behind them in third place and gaining on the latter is One Piece, you’d probably look at me confused and reply, “The swimsuit?!”.
One Piece is a manga series that has been running for a little over two decades now at over nine hundred and fifty installments and counting, and updated almost every week since in the legendary Japanese magazine Shonen Jump. It also has an anime adaptation that is on the verge of celebrating twenty continuous years on air with over nine hundred episodes and counting. Its about a young man named Monkey D. Luffy who ate a devil fruit, an enchanted meal in this universe in which someone gets powers in exchange for never being able to swim again in a world of pirates, who becomes a rubber man and wishes to become the king of the pirates. To become king of the pirates, he must find a legendary treasure only known as “The One Piece” known to be at a certain mysterious island only known as Raftel.
Sounds simple enough right? Protagonist wants a treasure to achieve his goal, and he just needs to find it. So how has something that seems so simple on paper lasted for over two decades, and has captured enough hearts across the world that it has now sold more than the likes of Spiderman, the X-Men, the Avengers, Wonder Woman, the Justice League, Peanuts, Archie Comics, Garfield, Dragon Ball, and other iconic comic book series? How does it end up in a league with Superman and Batman which got a six decades start on it when it first launched as a series and is on pace to bypass the latter in sales in a couple years, the former if it finds a way to last for another decade plus?One Piece may be the quietest phenomenon that even the states haven’t gotten a full grip on. Its running on ninety plus volumes now that outsell all the many successful standard comic book series and manga volumes available out there. Its anime adaptation is the top watched animated show in Japan which gets ratings that top animated shows over here would kill for, and it has been dubbed in several languages including English for the states. Its standalone animated films do great business at the box office and recently had yet another success at the box office with its latest film, One Piece: Stampede. Its even had video game adaptations for major game consoles.
Its merchandising has seen it get a seasonal theme park event at Japan’s Universal Studios location, and the characters have been used for ads that include everything from selling snacks to even job application website commercials. Its such a fabric of the country that a statue of the main protagonist was bid on by various cities to have located in their streets or parks.
In the magazine which publishes its new weekly installments, it has been the top ranked manga for readers on a consistent basis and has lasted through the full run of other popular series like Bleach and Naruto, and has not been taken down by the newer look series either such as My Hero Academia or Black Clover. It has been the constant king in anime, manga, and perhaps even arguably all modern-day Japanese pop culture, and it has a global footprint that can be found everywhere if you just look close enough.If I had to hit the nail on what exactly it is that has turned this series into such a phenomenon it would come simply down to this – this is not just an action genre Shonen geared at young men, it is a grand adventure, an odyssey, a journey that is bigger than the destination that Luffy is seeking to reach his treasure. As I mentioned earlier, on paper the concept is simple, you want to get to location X and there you’ll find the treasure that the series is named after. But what One Piece does is not to just gather up clichés of action and adventure stories and just rush through battles and get to the destination. What it does is takes us on a journey to get to that final destination, and as a reader or watcher we find ourselves engrossed in the journey as much as Luffy has been.
Yes, Luffy needs to reach a certain destination to get a certain treasure but the author and artist of the series, Eiichiro Oda, doesn’t make it that easy for him. To get to the One Piece one must amass a crew, grow a reputation as you travel the seas, avoid other dangerous pirates (some which you might have to align yourself with), avoid the corrupt world government which in itself has complicated inner politics surrounding it, hit certain destination points to be on the right course to Raftel, and by the time you’re closing in on the One Piece you have to get past what are known as Pirate Emperors or Yonkos, the most dangerous and powerful of all the rivals you’d have to deal with of which own and control various lands on your final path and have control over fleets of ships carrying thousands of subordinates.
As you can tell that’s a lot to get through and that’s not taking into account side quests and world shaping moments that Luffy will have no control over. Oda has created such a big and realistic fantastical world that includes power granting fruits, giants, samurais, mad scientists, massive sea creatures, and even fish men (More on them later).
As a reader or watcher, you feel like this world is alive and real because as Luffy progresses you watch things change in response to him in real time, and at times events that even he doesn’t take part in are shown to effect the story and complicate his journey. For instance, at the start of his journey Luffy is a lone seventeen-year-old boy with nothing but a small sailboat, a barrel, and a straw hat. By today’s point in the story being told, Luffy is pushing twenty, is referred to as a Pirate Emperor with a massive fleet of thousands ready to fight for him, has a crew who all have separate reputations and their own dreams to accomplish, is considered a threat to the world government, and his straw hat has become a feared symbol. You don’t get there without two decades of story arcs, character development, and impressive world building. And as the reader or watcher you have been on this journey with Luffy to grow from a nobody to one of the most feared pirates of the seas. And still the One Piece is no closer to his grasp, but we don’t care because we’re enjoying the journey too much to let it end just yet.Story arcs in One Piece have taken us through journeys that include a floating restaurant, a desert kingdom in the middle of a civil war, an island in the sky, a Venice-like village with water canals, a massive boat filled with Halloween type scares, an Amazonian village of women warriors, a Dante’s Inferno sort of prison, an underwater land with fish men, a beautiful island run by a false king, an Alice in Wonderland like island that resembles a cake, and a feudal Japan style land filled with samurais. And some of these places on the journey have been hinted for a long time such as the current destination in the series known as Wano, mentioned first a decade ago in our time and two years back in the story’s timeline. Currently we know that Luffy will have to go to an island of giants and an island of royals. This anticipation of knowing that eventually we’ll have to reach certain destinations allows us to feel like we’re just as much as part of the journey as Luffy and his crew his. And in turn we are just as excited as he is when Luffy finally gets his eyes on these places.
Characters development has also been core to the series’ success. Luffy’s main crew which include a samurai who fights with three swords, a lying coward who somehow find himself having to play the role of brave hero, a girl crazy cook with a secret royal background that refuses to use his hands in a fight, a weather controlling navigator that is addicted to money, a reindeer who wants to be a world famous doctor, an archeologist labeled a demon who has uncovered a conspiracy, a shipwright that happens to be a self-made cyborg, an undead musician who makes dead guy jokes, and a rebellious fish man all have their own character arcs and dreams to accomplish. We don’t just root for Luffy to achieve his goal to become pirate king, we want to see all of his crew find their own goals as well which range from finding an ocean that connects every ocean there is, to reuniting with an old friend, to uncovering hidden history.
The characters around Luffy and his main crew also leave an impression. The pirates Luffy comes across range from well-meaning freedom loving rebels to dangerous ones with plans that will get people killed. Even the corrupt world government is complicated as some inside the government even have their reservations about actions taken while others play along. From a justice obsessed fleet admiral who will even kill subordinates if need be to a vice admiral who begrudgingly respects and allies himself with Luffy on different occasions. There’s even an LGBTQ character, a revolutionary army, royals, and fish men who have to deal with the same kinds of bigotry and racism that minorities see in their own lives.I feel like even with all that I’ve shoved into this piece in my attempt to explain why this series is so successful, I still am missing things I can produce as great examples of world building and taking us on a journey. Things like the white disease whose sufferers are very alike to what AIDS victims had to deal with in the eighties, or the fact Luffy like anyone would has faced moments of self-doubt as to whether he can actually achieve his goal and suffered some devastating defeats along the way he’s had to rebound from. Or the introduction of what feel like filler characters who end up becoming incredibly important down the line and justify their existence in the story – such as a whale that hundreds of chapters later is the key to a new crew member joining or a tournament that ends up being the bridge for Luffy to find his fleet of subordinates.
The world building is just amazing and the more I delve into it, the more obvious as to why One Piece has been able to last and keep us on this long journey as fans have form fan clubs, podcasts, and such debating and talking about where the journey will go next and picking part panels of manga and episodes of the anime to try and find the next small hint that in hindsight was a big clue to future developments.
I don’t know when its finally going to end, I personally theorize we probably still have another decade or so, but whenever it does end, I hope this amazing journey I’ve been put through as both a reader of the manga and a watcher of the anime, has only made more imprints into the public consciousness. This grand odyssey deserves it.