For series of this length, there’s a fairly intriguing piece of conjecture that I occasionally enjoy trotting around. According to the theory, no matter how awesome the original premise, no matter how charming the cast of characters, no matter how competent the studio, every long series will tank after about 75 episodes. As evidence, a myriad of lengthy anime can be cited that begin excellently and then slowly degenerate into recycled material and filler. Kenshin was excellent until some genius decided to deviate from the manga. Kodomo no Omocha was brilliant until the series drowned itself in the utterly craptastic New York arc. Naruto was actually fairly fun until Gaara and his whiny, sniveling flashbacks slowed the series down to a monotonous crawl. Prince of Tennis, Slam Dunk, Galaxy Angel... I could rant on this phenomenon for hours, and probably will someday.
Of course, my theory has an annoying, irrefutable, and ultimately fatal hole in its logic. Even when I’m at my most eloquent, I inevitably find myself forced to tag “…except One Piece” onto the end of every sentence. According to the hypothesis, the series should have died off episodes upon episodes ago, and yet continues to succeed well beyond any possible expectations. Just as other shows of similar length are running out of creative steam and tormenting their fans with shamelessly shitty schlock, One Piece draws from a seemingly infinite well of creativity to deliver time and time again. Put simply, One Piece seems almost limitless in its capacity for entertainment.
Granted, the storyline is not without its weak moments. There are scattered filler episodes that really don’t belong, and the dragon puzzle arc is some of the most boring material that I’ve ever willingly watched. However, although during these moments the show seems like it might finally go the way of Inuyasha, the creators always bounce back to deliver more of what everyone loves. The Arabasta arc, which has just recently concluded, is one of the best segments of the entire series.
This fact alone leads to the inevitable question of what separates the show from lesser works. What makes the series as good as it is? Why has the series succeeded where so many others have failed? Essentially, what is driving the show to remain so engaging for such a ridiculous amount of time?
The answer, I believe, draws not from what the story is about, but how the story is approached. With fight scenes, simplistic humor, and the ever-present emphasis on the importance of friendship, the anime contains many of the expected trappings of the shounen genre. However, a characteristic seemingly unique to One Piece is the distinct air of genuineness that the show seems to permeate.
With other shows of similar length, I’m often struck by the distinct feeling that the show has exactly one thing on its mind: money. Oftentimes, an anime with an established audience will simply stop coming up with new material, and start recycling what they’ve already made. In this creative void, the show will rigorously follow its formula beyond any semblance of what is entertaining. Thus, the studio is able to pump every possible cent from its cash cow until nothing is left but the lifeless husk of what the show used to be. At this point, ratings dip, and the studio cancels it at a completely arbitrary point, neglecting even the slightest of closure and basically spitting in their fans’ faces.
With One Piece, however, the feeling is crucially different. While watching the anime, one gets the impression that Eiichiro Oda, the author of the original manga, was focused not on money, but something much more substantial: having fun. Every element of the storyline, from the delightfully absurd jokes to the most serious of plot points, seems to be there because the manga creator enjoyed putting them there. This, I believe, is the reason why One Piece has remained fresh for so long. For some unfathomable reason, the creator enjoys pumping out volume after volume of golden material. Furthermore, as opposed to many other manga to anime conversions, the studio is actually faithful with its material. The result is a storyline that, despite some inevitable inconsistency, is one of the best of its kind: an unnaturally enjoyable romp across the seas of a thoroughly original world.
Animation, while fairly nice, is not completely free of the penny-pinching shortcuts that typically plague shows of this length. Backgrounds are often rather ugly and hastily drawn, and anything drawn at a distance tends to be a little too oversimplified. The show also sports some truly ugly character designs that take a good deal of time to get used to, and a good deal longer to actually appreciate.
The fight scenes are almost certainly the highlight of the animation, which seem to involve a lot more money than the rest of the show. The action is usually very well timed, and character movements are suitably lithe and convincing (and by that, I mean as convincing as a person made of rubber could possibly be). A lot of fight scenes in other anime tend to overuse repeated footage, but One Piece doesn’t seem to have this problem.
Overall, One Piece’s visuals are pleasant, but certainly not groundbreaking.
Music starts out on a fairly shitty note, with one of the lamest OP’s I’ve heard that I can remember. After the first episodes, the anime begins to cycle through the opening and ending songs at a fairly quick pace, and soon there are too many of them to actually keep track of. However, just about every song is a fairly mediocre J-Pop track, and none of them are actually good enough to really get excited over.
Background music doesn’t really stand out, but never becomes noticeably repetitive or distracting, either. Voice acting tends to be fairly good, although there are exceptions to this (in particular, that one dog from the Buggy arc comes to mind).
Love them or hate them, few people would disagree with the statement that each and every character of One Piece is decidedly unique. From the bizarre character designs to the off-kilter personalities to the extensive back-stories, there isn’t a whole lot here that can be seen somewhere else.
The question of actual appeal, however, is a slightly different issue. For the actual protagonists, many, many people (including myself) are going to have an initially difficult time liking characters like Usopp. Also, a good deal of the supporting cast in the early episodes has the tendency to be excruciatingly annoying (Buggy the Clown, Kobe, Guy in the Box).
However, whether the show is actually improving at development or whether it simply takes time to grow to like some of the more pathetic characters, this is becoming much less of an issue than what I’ve previously made it out to be. Amazingly enough, I’m beginning to like Usopp as a character, and for the recent Arabasta arc, there wasn’t a single character that I wasn’t fond of.
Furthermore, the characters that happen to be above-average for the show tend to be downright excellent. If there are people in this world that are immune to the charms of characters like Sanji, Luffy, or Nami, then I haven’t met them yet. Each one of these has an immensely compelling back-story and a loveable and distinctive personality. Also, each can be amazingly funny when played off of the rest of the cast.
My one possible complaint would lie with Vivi, who seems a little dull at times; there just doesnt seem to be anything interesting about her personality. However, this could easily be just because she’s not quite as original and wacky as the rest of the crew. As a whole, the characters are an ultimately endearing bunch, especially if one chooses to overlook the weaknesses of some of the more minor characters.
Do I believe that One Piece will last forever? Surely not. All great things, even ones that initially seem infinitely robust, must eventually come to an end. I’m sure there will come a time where One Piece will either cease to be entertaining or simply cease production.
However, even if One Piece begins to suck from the very moment that I finish writing this review, the sheer length of quality episodes that have been released already easily elevate the series to far beyond most anime can dream of. Besides, if the Arabasta arc is any indication, One Piece looks as though it will remain entertaining for a good deal longer.