For a long time I put off watching the anime of One Piece because, although it sounded fun, it was just too damn long and the thought of watching three hundred plus episodes was a bit daunting. However I soon gave in and became quickly addicted, devouring the now four hundred instalments in fairly quick succession. Then, while suffering from withdrawal from a nightly dose of my favourite pirates – and against my bank balance’s better judgement – I decided to pick up the manga. Fifty-four volumes later and I can now barely wait for the next part to come out here in the UK.
Monkey D. Luffy is a young lad who aims to become the King of the Pirates by gathering together his own crew and locating the most prized treasure of the legendary pirate, Gol D. Roger. The manga follows the adventures of Luffy’s newly-formed troupe – the Straw Hat Pirates – as they traverse the treacherous waters of the world’s toughest sea: The Grand Line.
One Piece draws the majority of its charm from the full-on wackiness of it all; Luffy’s world is big, bold and – most importantly – bloody good fun! The narrative’s comedic content shines throughout with exaggerated reactions, manzai-style exchanges between characters and the sheer absurdity of some situations. On many an occasion I find myself not just smirking, but heartily laughing out loud in the office – something that’s horrifically embarrassing if someone happens to wander past the door.
In addition to the humour, mangaka Eiichirou Oda has carefully thought out the One Piece universe. Aside from planting the seeds for later events throughout the early part of the story, the world itself is clever in its very design. The Grand Line by nature of being a mysterious and treacherous sea with its own rules when it comes to both the climate and ecological system of its various islets immediately allows for even the most outrageous of situations to seem plausible. Floating islands? Yep. Zombies? Sure, why not! Dinosaurs? Great, here, have a volcanic landmass with huge trees and a complete lack of human beings. While it may seem preposterous, let’s face it, the idea of a remote area inaccessible to people and populated by giant extinct lizards is hardly an overly outlandish idea – Jurassic Park and its sequels anyone? That isn’t to say that some plot points don’t seem a little too far-fetched even for this fantastical world, but the narrative’s inherently enjoyable nature makes any small niggles fade into obscurity, particularly when the reader finds themselves thoroughly immersed in the Straw Hat’s adventures.
One of my favourite things about the One Piece manga is the variety of extras it offers up; for example the title page stories are a nice touch in particular. Spanning a varying number of chapters, this mini-series of tales showing what happens to some of the previous characters entertains as well as highlights just how well thought out the world of Luffy and the gang is. Some plotlines such as “Little Buggy’s Big Adventure” and “Coby and Helmeppo’s Chronicle of Toil” made it into the anime, whereas others such as “Hachi’s Stroll on the Ocean Floor” and the “Baroque Works Reunion” fill in small gaps within the main narrative. Aside from these, most volumes of the manga include a Q&A section with the author. While this isn’t a new concept by any stretch of the imagination, Oda (or Odacchi to his SBS question corner fans) is such a genuinely funny guy that I actually find myself looking forward to the next instalment just to see how he responds to the latest flake that sends in a postcard.
Eiichirou Oda has a very bold drawing style full of thick, definite lines. His clear-cut imagery naturally works well for the audacious shounen series, and exudes a level of confidence that Luffy would be proud of. Though the content is generally larger than, Oda still retains an impressive level of detail throughout with proficient use of hatching to create an aged look for ancient cities or simply to add texture to barrels, cloth or paving. Though not the most breathtakingly stunning visuals ever to grace the printed page, the wacky character designs work perfectly in tandem with the narrative’s fun and brash nature. Plenty of action lines and exaggerated facial expressions – such as angry pointed teeth or eyeballs leaping two feet out of their sockets – enhance the kick-ass combat and comedic aspect of the Straw Hat’s adventures.
Oda also manages to infuse his sense of humour into the imagery in more ways than one, from adding a comedic drunk into the background of an action scene to creating his own ‘Doskoi Panda’ brand name and foisting it upon various people throughout the series. Though, without a doubt, his greatest visual gag that continues the panda theme, comes in the form of Panda Man. This joke character appears countless times in the crowd in a variety of guises; one chapter he may be a pirate, the next a zombie, then a marine in another. While this adds to the manga’s entertainment value by providing an in-volume pirate version of “Where’s Wally” (Where’s Waldo for all you Americans out there) it also encourages the reader to really look at the artwork, thus allowing them to get maximum enjoyment out of One Piece’s world.
Love or hate them, the Straw Hat Pirates all grab the readers in their own ways. While they have their quirks that could easily lead them to be pigeonholed, none of them feel flat. Each character has his or her own painful past and hidden depths, which more often than not burst forth with a gargantuan splash, scattering various bits of sea life in its wake. Though Oda constructs the back-stories to ensure that more than a few tug at every available heartstring, what truly makes the reader fall in love with this rag-tag bunch of awesome pirates are the various exchanges between the protagonists. Whether it’s Zoro and Sanji’s mutual disdain for each other’s existence, the ero-cook’s obsession with his female companions, or Luffy’s carefree friendship with resident wuss Usopp, the shipmates’ numerous interactions mean that quickly enough, it becomes impossible to imagine just what the crew would be like if one member weren’t there.
One Piece boasts a humungous supporting cast and (straw) hats off to Odacchi, his vivid and creative imagination allows him to give each creation his or her own set of unique quirks. Though most of these personalities only appear in one arc at most, their eccentricities etch themselves into your memory. From more prominent antagonists such as the lovably outrageous Bon Clay in all his cross-dressing ballet-dancing glory, and the insane spaghetti-lobed Enel to one-shot baddies that only appear in only a chapter or two like Wanze, whose uhh… freaky method of producing noodles from his nostrils is enough to put you off ramen for life.
Yes, this is a long manga, and it’s still going with no signs of stopping in the foreseeable future, but do not dismiss One Piece on this basis alone. This is possibly the most FUN manga that I have yet to encounter, and should you allow yourself to get swept away with Luffy, you could well find yourself laughing at his antics, punching the air with every great victory, and welling up at the painful sides of their lives. So go on, give it a shot; stow away on the Going Merry, sing along to “Binks’ Sake”, and traverse the treacherous waters of the Grand Line for yourself.