Original blog post here.
Like a certain Greatest Living Author, One Piece is a child of the 90s. A long-running manga (since 1997) and slightly less long-running anime (since 1999), has gone on to loom large in the anime fandom.
Notably, it holds the record for being the single best-selling comic book series (published in printed volumes rather than single issues; that doesn’t downplay the achievement, only specifies the format) of all time, with about half a billion (with a B) copies sold.
For reference, the Asterix series (the second best-selling) has sold about a hundred million fewer copies in about 40 years more of being published. And Superman (the best-selling superhero comic) has sold about a hundred million more in about 60 more years, and with the presumable advantage of being published a smaller, cheaper single issues.
All of which is to say that One Piece is clearly a big deal.
Which is why I’m surprised by how little awareness I’ve had of it until about a month or so ago.
I’ve been subbed to Funimation‘s streaming service for the better part of the year, mostly so I could finally watch the entirety of the animes I remember from when I was younger: stuff like Lodoss War and Escaflowne and Tower of Druaga.
I’d say my knowledge of popular anime falls off a cliff after about 2010 or so. I think the last anime I was really kept up with while it was still current(ish) was Bleach, and even then, I think I dropped off at about the point where the female lead‘s hairclip came to life.
I, uh, I may be misremembering what exactly happened…
Okay, so I rewatched the episode, and what happens is that she has six, like, guardian angels, that live in her hairclips that first manifest when one the monsters is attacking her best friend.
Also, it happened much earlier in the series than I remembered — 13 episodes (out of 366) in and I’m sure I watched at least a hundred and change the first time around.
Anyway, back to One Piece.
Now, I do spend enough time on the Internet to be vaguely aware of what animes are currently popular. I know about Attack on Titan, for example, but I’ve never felt compelled to watch it.
And, incidentally, every single time (including when I was writing this sentence), I will misread/mistype it as “Attack on Titian“.
Benefits of a Classical education, and all…
Most simply, after clearly missing out for whatever reason on the original English version of One Piece — done by the widely-reviled 4Kids and I think airing on YTV here in Canada — and then not having access to the later Funimation dub and/or the original Japanese version licensed by Funimation, I was content to live my life with ever bothering to seek it out.
Which is, of course, the benefit of the streaming era. I don’t seek out that many shows or movies specifically, be it on Funimation, or HIDIVE, or Netflix, or whatever. I’ll basically be looking for something safe and familiar, see something new, go “Hey, that looks kinda cool”, or “Hey, Nicolas Cage is in this!” and check it out, or see something and go “Hey, people are talking about that and I’m not doing anything else, let’s check it out.”
Enter One Piece.
I was bored, I saw One Piece on Funimation’s front page, I thought “Hey, it’s pirates, I do pirates. Let’s check it out.”
And, yeah. I don’t hate it.
In the interest of being fully transparent and honest, I’ve only watched about 45 episodes of One Piece. Out of about a thousand.
Again, to put One Piece‘s longevity into prospective: that’s about two hundred more episodes than The Simpsons (airing since 1989; I’m assuming One Piece has a shorter off-season). To compare it to another ludicrously popular anime, Pokemon (airing since 1997; same year as the One Piece Manga, two years before the anime) has about 200 more episodes.
So, like, I’m not sure if 40 episodes is enough to make an accurate account of One Piece. On the other hand, it seems weird not be to able to get a sense of a show after 40 episodes.
Of course, plenty of popular and influential animes — the Pokemon‘s, the Bleach‘s, the Dragon Ball‘s — do get very long runs. Which likely contributes to their popularity and influence…
Honestly, my primary reaction to the fact that One Piece has a thousand episodes is “Wow, those lucky actors, One Piece is putting their kids through college.”
And, like, for all its faults, I can’t really, uh, fault it for providing people with steady work for the past twenty years.
So, with the caveat that One Piece‘s plot or tone or whatever might go completely off the rails in the intervening 900 and some episodes, here are my thoughts so far.
Now, to briefly describe what’s going on: Best Pirate Ever, Gold Roger (I haven’t gotten to the point where it explains why his name is properly ‘Gol D.’ and not ‘Gold’, but D. is apparently an important middle initial in the world of One Piece) buried all his treasure, the One Piece in the title somewhere on the Grand Line, basically the most pirate-y region of a world full of pirates, and now everyone’s looking for it.
Basically, superhero pirates are fighting other superhero pirates.
Most of the characters (including, perhaps not surprisingly, our hero) with special powers get their powers from things called Devil Fruit, magic fruits (duh) that grant people superpowers in exchange for losing the ability to swim — there doesn’t seem to be any specific limitation to what powers Devil Fruits in general grant, but every individual one seems to grant one specific power.
Ostensibly, the plot of One Piece follows Luffy and his crew looking for the One Piece, but mostly consists of them having a series of fairly self-contained adventurers that don’t ultimately get them much closer to, you know, finding the One Piece.
I don’t know, maybe that changes at some point further along the series.
The first time I tried getting into One Piece, I couldn’t, because the character designs really, really turned me off. They’re not necessarily ugly per se, but most of the characters are sufficiently cartoony, exaggerated, and stylised that they all end up inevitably feeling weird and uncanny.
That being said, the art overall isn’t bad. I have been loving the designs of the backgrounds in most scenes for reasons I can’t really quantify in words.
They’re just pretty, okay?
Still, I’m sort of coming around on the character designs.
The cartoonish designs serve the usually cartoonish nature of the action. A lot of the time, One Piece feels an awful lot like a Looney Tunes cartoon. A lot of the characters have ridiculous powers and do ridiculous things with those powers.
Luffy is basically Stretch Armstrong (please don’t tell me I’m sufficiently older than you that you don’t get that reference; ugh, this is TAing all over again).
The secondary main character fights with three swords at once, which includes holding one with his teeth. This, is apparently, one of the supreme styles of swordsmanship in the One Piece world. Yeah, I don’t know, either.
One of the, like, Pirate Kings is basically a vampire (in terms of aesthetic, if not to any functional degree) and has swords whose hilts are giant, bejewelled crosses.
For the most part, the fighting and action are ridiculous in nature and tone. That being said, One Piece can get shockingly violent. For reference, it’s got a 14-plus rating on Funimation.
That’s not to say the violence itself is ever at the level of something like Lodoss War, Escaflowne, or Inuyasha. Or even the Marvel movies, for that matter. But it does feel shocking, because it feels so out of place in a show that usually feels like a cartoon. It does go from Bugs Bunny to ‘Huh. That’s a lot of blood.’ pretty fast.
Again, it’s not all that graphic in vacuum, but it’s worthy noting if you’ve got small children or a sensitive disposition.
Honestly, I’m not a fan of these more violence instances. Not because the violence itself upsets or offends me, but because it feels like it doesn’t fit with the established tone of the series.
In terms of plot, I want to say it reminds me of Dragon Ball. Though, to be fair, I don’t actually remember much of what happened in Dragon Ball — that’s also on Funimation; maybe I should check in on that, too…
Basically, both One Piece and Dragon Ball are about the main characters hunting down some great treasure — which, incidentally, are the source of the names of the shows. The Dragon Balls grant wishes and the One Piece is the greatest pirate ever’s hidden treasure.
The character archetypes are all pretty familiar. I feel like if you’ve watch any given major anime aimed at the same demographic since at least the original Dragon Ball, you’re going to recognise the archetypes. The cast of One Piece is indeed familiar, but at least the art style is unique enough to make stand out on a visual level.
Sidebar: basically every single female character is drawn to be a total babe. Take that as you will.
The characters are pretty reminiscent of the main bunch from Dragon Ball and Z: the spirited idiot of a main character, the female lead, the badass, the coward, the guy who’s perfectly competent in his own right but exists largely to get outclassed by the bad guys so the main character can save the day.
At the expense of spoiling a 20-year-old plot twist, there’s also the second major female character, who originally started out as a bad guy before turning face and joining the crew. I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but One Piece looms large enough in Pop Culture that even I recognise her and know that she becomes one of the main characters even before starting to watch. The fact that she’s gorgeous also, I imagine, contributed to her popularity with the fanbase.
Incidentally, that won’t happen for another 80 or so episodes from where I am now…
And then some characters I know nothing about at this point eventually join the crew. I think there’s a skeleton at some point?
Which ties back into the Dragon Ball-ness of One Piece: the overarching end goal that drives the plot in general, interrupted by episodic adventures that don’t really resolve anything or get them any closer to that end goal. Except when they do…
Unfortunately, I have yet to find any of them sufficiently likeable or sympathetic at this point to feel compelled to keep watching. But, again, I’m only about one half of one percent into the series, that’s plenty of time for character development.
To a certain extent, you could probably view One Piece less as one big narrative and more as a series of largely self-contained narratives that don’t really overlap — again, unless the series goes in a completely new direction at some point I haven’t go to yet.
And, thinking about it, maybe that’s a helpful approach. Seek out the “good” story arcs, watch those, and jettison everything else, maybe?
The 45 episodes I’ve watched so far have contained about five or so individual stories, largely introducing the main character and his crew, then expositing to us their (almost universally tragic) backstories in detail.
Honestly, we didn’t need to take 45 episodes to get to this point.
One Piece feels like it’s getting hit with the thing that everyone back in the day made fun of Dragon Ball Z for, the whole ‘The Sun is going to explode in five minutes; characters spend the next eight episodes talking at each other’ thing.
It’s not even poorly paced. Even the exposition-heavy episodes move along pretty quickly and tightly. They just don’t actually accomplish anything.
There are a lot of episodes where it feels like nothing happens.
Though, all things considered, the individual episodes where nothing happens aren’t actually that bad. They at least have pretty decent individual arcs and entertaining scenes.
It’s the stretches of eight episodes that don’t meaningfully further the plot that really press my cider.
And then they just keep coming.
By the end of the ‘climactic’ showdown with the first major bad guy, I wanted Luffy to punch him into the sun not because he was a despicable villain, but because I just wanted the storyline to be over.
We get more information about the characters’ motives, backstories, and that time they saw a blimp than we’re ever going to need and it feels like we’re no closer to a resolution this episode than we were eight episodes ago.
When we do get action and fight scenes, they’re pretty cool. The characters do pretty neat things with pretty neat powers (we’ve discussed that). But they are invariably interrupted by characters shouting their motivations at us for the next three episodes.
But, like, I’m a writer. I’d like to think I know a thing or two about storytelling. I get it. Especially for a series that’s 1000 episodes long, it can’t just be non-stop action and dudes punching dudes into the sun.
Relentless action without exposition does just as little to drive the plot forward and is just as hard to sit through at relentless exposition without action.
Though, for what it’s worth, one of my favourite episodes so far is one where basically nothing happens. The episode after they (finally) beat the first major bad guy — you know, the aforementioned sawfish who can stab people with his face — there’s basically an ‘Everybody Celebrates’ episode.
It’s mostly talk and a few more flashbacks, but there’s some pretty good character work in it. Plus, it’s admittedly rather cathartic to see everyone celebrating because 1) the bad guy was a real piece of work and 2) it took us almost fifty episodes to get here.
This is all coming across as pretty negative. I’m not sure I mean it that way.
I’m not trying to be negative, I’m trying to be honest.
It’s been frustrating, but I don’t think One Piece has ever been bad. I don’t think it’s convinced me to sit through 950 more episodes, but I’m not saying ‘Don’t watch this’.
Like, if my only two choices were ‘I love One Piece‘ or ‘I hate One Piece‘, I’d go with ‘love.’
I’m saying ‘This show demands a big time commitment, only give it as much of your time as you’re willing to.’
I suspect it would be easier for me if I’d be watching it from the beginning, or least closer to the beginning than 20 years after the fact, or least when I was younger.
I mean, hey, I started watching Wrestling when I was in middle school and I still keep up with Raw and Smackdown (which both have more than a thousand episodes) most weeks, even though they’re no closer to a resolution than One Piece seems to be.
Despite all the apparent to the contrary, I don’t have enough negative emotions towards One Piece to say that you shouldn’t watch it, or that you shouldn’t keep watching it if you’ve been there from day one — honestly, even though it’s largely a matter of circumstance and luck, that’s probably the best way to get into One Piece.
Though “been into it from the start” isn’t really “getting into” it…
It’s a quandary, I suppose.
All in all, I’d say I’m pretty noncommittal when it comes to One Piece. I certainly don’t hate it, but I don’t think it’s done anything to convince me to sit through the past 20 years to catch up.
Though, that is true of any long-running anime.
Maybe I’m just an old and boring and jaded adult who’s no longer capable of having fun at this point, but I just can’t commit to a show with 1000 episodes and counting.
Look, just give it a try, and watch as much as you’re willing to commit to it. I’m sure there are lists of all the essential One Piece episodes out there somewhere. In fact, Googling ‘essential One Piece episodes’ yields 34 million results.
There are plenty ways to catch up and keep up with One Piece and I’m not sure how many of them actually require watching 1000 episodes. If you’re willing to commit to it, go for it.
Do whatever floats your boat.
“Floats your boat”?
See, it’s funny because they’re pirates and pirates have boats.
Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman
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