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With over 345 million copies sold worldwide across 75 collected volumes, Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece is the best-selling manga in history. While One Piece is often compared to other long-running series in Weekly Shounen Jump with long-running anime adaptations, such as Naruto, Bleach, and Dragon Ball Z, One Piece seems to have the best critical reception of any of these series and more adult fans, especially in comparison to Naruto or Bleach. All of this in spite of the anime series never becoming as big of a hit in the West as the others I named thanks to the poorly handled 4-kids release. The critical and commercial success of this series suggests that something makes it distinct from similarly battle-oriented shounen manga, and that difference is what I’ll be diving into today.
Perhaps the biggest thing that sets One Piece apart from other long-running manga is its structure. From the very beginning, artist Eiichiro Oda said that he planned out the ending and general structure of the series, and while he didn’t originally intend for it to be extremely long, he’s never really deviated from the course that he intended the series to take. Rather, the series was made longer as Oda kept coming up with new ways to flesh out the story and expand it into more of an epic journey.
Moreover, the nature of the story lends itself perfectly to being incredibly long. One Piece is an adventure series in which its characters traverse the oceans of an entire planet, stopping on each island along the way. These islands never go to waste, as each one has its own complete story, and often times the story of an individual island could match an entire series in length and scope. Because the goals of the characters and the narrative are explicitly tied to exploring the world and having adventures, and because all of their long-term goals are very broad things like “become the world’s strongest swordsman,” or, “chart every ocean in the world,” it feels natural for these characters to involve themselves in such a massive journey, and there is never the sense that any of them are being distracted from their ultimate goals.
The lofty goals of these characters are easy to buy into because Oda does such a great job of crafting empathetic backstories for each of them. We perfectly understand Sanji’s passion for cooking and feeding those in need when we learn about his past of dealing with starvation and accidentally killing his mentor’s dream because of it. We understand Nami’s attachment to money when we see how her adoptive mother was killed when she only had enough to pay for Nami’s safety. These backstories are very simple but perfectly effective at giving these characters a reason to turn into the incredible badasses that they are as adults. Because of this, it feels earned when these characters are able to be as unstoppably strong and motivated as they all are.
Eiichiro Oda’s artwork is consistently high-quality right from the beginning, and only grows in personality and complexity as the series goes on. Oda has an understanding of how panels flow and what makes individual panels look cool that few other artists have. Luffy’s power, which is to stretch any part of his body, lends itself naturally to cool perspective tricks that make his attacks really flashy and badass. Zoro’s three-sword-style is something that only the trickery of a non-moving comic can make plausible. Sanji’s long legs and kicks are handled in a similar fashion to Luffy’s stretching limbs, as they seem to be almost magically capable. Between them all, Oda isn’t just using manga as a means to portray unrealistic things, but is capitalizing specifically on things that look good in this medium.
Moreover, Oda never seems to be content to allow events to just stop and start. Everything in the series has a natural flow to it from page to page and arc to arc. There’s always a reason for the characters to move from one place to another, so nothing feels random, even when it’s totally obvious that some elements exist for no purpose other than to move the characters. Still, it’s interesting to see all the ways that Oda transitions between scenes. Some of my favorite examples are this moment where he gets Luffy and Usopp into a scene together by having Luffy drop down from a tree, instead of just walking up and talking to him, or this one where Usopp rolls down a long hill and is stopped by Zoro and Luffy kicking him in the face, instead of just walking down to the dock. It’s like every step of the way, Oda is trying to think of the most inventive and interesting way to get his characters to move.
This factor plays a huge role in making One Piece difficult to put down. While the transitions are good in the early part of the series, I think after the first one hundred chapters, when Luffy’s crew moves into the Grand Line, is really where the series starts to show its stuff. In the span of sixty chapters, Luffy’s crew moves deftly between five different arcs of various sizes, which are all tied together in the larger Alabasta Saga. Over the course of these, we get a bunch of interesting side-stories, while gradually setting up the larger central narrative, so that by the time the crew gets to Alabasta, it already feels like a really big deal, and almost a climax just in itself. Likewise, the Skypiea arc which comes afterward is famous for being an epic, self-contained story in its own right, that is just part of the larger adventure.
I won’t be getting too deep into the themes of One Piece in this post, because the focus here is to talk about just what makes the series work, but in general it deals with following your dreams, never giving up, and fighting with conviction. These themes are common to this kind of story, and I wouldn’t say that One Piece presents them in an unconventional way, though it is interesting how the series never gives any sensation that the characters might ever fail. In many series this poses a problem, as it can be hard to feel any tension when there’s no fear of failure, but in One Piece it’s very clear that the main characters are supposed to be unstoppable. The story focuses more on how these character inspire the people they encounter to better themselves and to fight for their dreams, and shows us how the main characters progress and become more and more badass as their fights teach them new things about themselves. In combat, the focus is less on who will win or lose, and more on presenting cool and fun techniques.
The world of One Piece feels incredibly detailed and lived-in. Even though it’s deliberately constructed to feature constantly random and wacky things, it remains cohesive by having elements of internal logic, and a consistent style of art and presentation. Every island that the characters visit has a distinct feeling of culture and personality which makes it come to life, and there are just enough restful moments that it never feels like the crew are rushing past an island before we can get to know it. After a certain point, Oda even starts using the cover pages of each chapter to tell side stories about villains whom Luffy’s crew defeated in the past, often giving them more character and showing the aftereffects that the crew’s actions have left on the world around them, which makes it feel that much more realized in turn.
One Piece is not a perfect series, and besides the fact that everyone has their own tastes and might not be interested in a combat-heavy adventure manga full of wacky characters and settings, there are some things that could easily turn people off. For one, the incredible length of the series will be a bar for entry to many, though I would argue that the length of One Piece ultimately works in its favor from a storytelling perspective. Bigger than that though is the issue of the dialog being pretty mediocre. Most of the characters have really similar voices, with almost everyone yelling and calling each-other an idiot or bragging about how great they are during battle, whether they’re a good guy or bad guy, and at certain points it can get pretty tedious. I’ve always felt that the parts where Luffy and friends get into their final battle with the arc’s main villain are the weakest, with the most fun bits being when the crew is travelling, getting to know the island, and learning the backstories of new characters. However, the issues I had with the series were outweighed by the things that I liked, and I do consider it worth reading for any fans of large-scale action-adventure stories and fantastical fantasy settings. Clearly the series has been a massive success in spite of its flaws, and will likely be remembered as a classic for many years to come, if it isn’t considered one already.