Why would any sane person commit to reading a series that’s still going strong after sixty volumes? I can think of three compelling reasons why you should set aside your shonophobia — that’s Latin for “fear of incredibly long series with interminable fight scenes and characters who do their best” — and give Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece a shot.
1. THE ARTWORK
Though many shonen manga-ka love to populate their stories with flamboyantly ugly villains, Eiichiro Oda’s character designs are more memorable than his competitors’. That’s because Oda doesn’t just add a few scars and a crazy hairdo to distinguish the bad guys from the good; he creates every villain from scratch, making each garment, prop, tattoo, wart, and weapon a direct reflection of the character’s personality and personal history. The same goes for other supporting players: Oda emphasizes the greenness of one pirate’s kiddie followers by giving them vegetal hairdos, and the isolation of a pirate castaway by stuffing the character’s body into an empty treasure chest, with only Gaimon’s unkempt hair and feet poking out. (Gaimon gets one of the series’ best lines: “I used to have two eyebrows!” he exclaims, musing on his twenty years stranded on a remote island.)
Oda’s entire approach to drafting shows a similar thoughtfulness: his pirate ships, tropical islands, and sea coast villages are rendered in clean lines, with a minimum of screen tone. Oda relies instead on playful shapes to help set the stage, from a sea-going restaurant that looks like a cross between a carp and a Hong Kong dim sum parlor, to an island populated by rabbit-cobras, pig-lions, and rooster-foxes.
The only blind spot in Oda’s artwork is his female characters. Though he can draw a marvelous, gnarled pirate queen, as gloriously repulsive as any of the series’ other villains, his young, attractive girls are blandly interchangeable. Even as more female characters are introduced in later story arcs, their appearance seems more calculated to satisfy the male gaze than reveal much about their personality — besides, of course, the near-universal tendency among shonen artists to make a girl’s bust- and neckline a reliable predictor of her villainy.
2. THE LOVING SEND-UPS OF SHONEN CLICHES
One of the reasons I don’t read more shonen manga: I find the characters’ compulsion to shout the name of their fighting techniques kind of silly. (OK, a lot silly.) If anything, it brings back memories of the old Super Friends TV show in which the Wonder Twins clinked rings and announced that they’d be taking “the form of an ice sled!” or “the form of a green-striped tiger!” (If that was meant to be comedy and not a complete abdication of imagination on the writer’s part, I missed it.) Granted, InuYasha and Naruto boast cooler-sounding and more effectual powers, but the minute InuYasha yells “Wind Scar!”, I’m ripped out of the scene, pondering the need for such verbal displays.
In One Piece, however, Oda pokes fun at the practice by assigning his characters goofy powers with goofy names that are fun to say. Monkey D. Luffy’s Gum-Gum attacks are the most frequent and obvious example, as he pretzels himself into a Looney Tunes assortment of weapons and shields, but his crew mates also have a few tricks up their sleeves. The best of them, by far, is Tony Tony Chopper, a blue-nosed reindeer who also happens to be the ship’s doctor. His Human-Human powers enable him to assume a variety of forms, including a gargantuan were-reindeer that wouldn’t be out of place in the pages of Lycanthrope Leo.
Oda also walks a fine line between openly mocking his hero and using him to exemplify the “friendship, effort, and victory” motto that undergirds every Shonen Jump title. Monkey is, to put it nicely, one of the dumbest shonen heroes in the canon — and that’s part of his charm. Unlike, say, Naruto or Lag Seeing (of Tegami Bachi fame), Monkey’s single-minded pursuit of treasure is portrayed as a kind of insanity, not a sign of a stellar character. Monkey goes to extreme lengths to prove himself — not unusual for a shonen hero — but his behavior is clearly meant to be ridiculous. (In the very first pages of the series, he stabs himself in the face with a knife to demonstrate his imperviousness to pain, much to the horror of the assembled pirates.) Yet for all his ill-advised bravado, he’s a kind-hearted goof; anyone who demonstrates valor or integrity is invited to join his crew, regardless of the original circumstances under which they met Monkey. Again, those qualities don’t make Monkey unique, but they do make him appealing; he’s an indestructible hero who’s utterly fallible.
3. THE EXCELLENT ADAPTATION
Any text as thick with puns and pirate-speak as One Piece runs the risk of falling flat in translation, but the English-language adaptation is fluid, funny, and eminently readable. I can’t gauge how faithfully the VIZ edition adheres to the original Japanese, but the script’s buoyant, goofy tone complements the artwork perfectly, leading me to think that VIZ’s editorial team has given American audiences a reasonable approximation of the Japanese-language reading experience. Heck, they’ve even made Oda’s reader correspondence sound like a real, mischievous person answered those fan letters. Now that’s a good adaptation.
david brothers saysDecember 2, 2010 at 2:10 pm
This is good! You’re right about the women, too. What I find interesting is that Oda is definitely indulging in some absurd proportions (his women [and Sanji] are so leggy that they’re basically bizarro giraffes), but it doesn’t strike me as being quite as… what’s the word, gross? As a lot of other comics, Japanese or American. There’s a joke/rumor that Nami’s bust increases over the course of an arc (Skypiea, maybe?) and then shrinks back down to normal at the end. I dunno if it’s true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was, you know?
Have you made it far enough to see Amazon Lily, the island that’s entirely women? I thought it was interesting that Oda stretched and put some of his pirate designs onto those women. They’re still wearing tops and garters (and capes because um why not), of course, but visually, they are more interesting than a lot of the women in the book. (Though I have an inexplicable soft spot for Perona, despite being a non-fan of gothic lolita as a style.)
I think OP’s adaptation is so strong in part because of the source material. Oda’s working in this mix of what I tend to think of as being traditional Japanese manga humor (like the stuff in Dragon Ball) and straight up Tom & Jerry/Looney Tunes style humor. There’s a bit in Skypiea where Usopp, Sanji, and Luffy’s eyes and tongue and I think Usopp’s skull come shooting out of their face in surprise. I was really and truly in tears laughing at that, and several other bits throughout the series. With that kind of source, you’d have to work to screw it up!
Erica saysDecember 2, 2010 at 3:09 pm
Even aside from coining “shonaphobia” this was a great review.
I had a thought about the attack names a while back. I have no way to prove this, but I noted that in kendo participants do in fact announce their target as they attack – “Men!” for a head strike, for instance. I believe this was mean to allow the judges to see if that strike was effective, but that could just be in my imagination.
Magical girls also announce their attacks, so clearly this is something pretty firmly ingrained in manga culture, if not Japanese culture as a whole.
david brothers saysDecember 2, 2010 at 3:15 pm
It happens constantly in kung fu movies, too. Or at least, it used to in the ’70s in flicks that focused on traditional/historical portrayals of kung-fu. Tradition turned catchphrase, maybe?
Katherine Dacey saysDecember 2, 2010 at 3:43 pm
@David: I agree about the Amazon Lily arc: the female character designs were a lot more imaginative than in some of the earlier volumes, though a lot of them could be sorted into the two basic categories of “grotesque pirate caricature” and “evil hotties.” On the whole, it doesn’t really bother me; Oda is such a great cartoonist that a few bland character designs don’t blemish the book’s design one whit.
As for the adaptation, I agree that the source material is undoubtedly awesomely funny. I’ve read enough poorly translated manga, however, that I thought VIZ’s editorial team deserved a shout-out for making Oda’s script sing in English.
@Erica: Thanks for the information! I’ve never studied any martial arts, so I didn’t realize that participants routinely called out the target of their attack. It makes perfect sense, then, that the tradition would carry over into manga and movies.
Angela saysDecember 2, 2010 at 9:10 pm
This MMF is killing me. I read quite a bit of One Piece in Shonen Jump, and I loved it, but after Hikaru no Go and Shaman King were dumped from the magazine, I realized it was the only series left in the magazine I cared for, so I stopped my subscription. So I already know I like this series, and seeing all of you guys writing about how awesome it is just reigniting that desire to continue the damn thing. My bank account can’t handle this!
Max West saysDecember 3, 2010 at 7:11 pm
The whole Japanese thing about calling out the name of the attack before using it…one explanation given for why that’s done is that it helps the character focus their mind and body.
Manga Therapy saysDecember 4, 2010 at 1:44 pm
This is a really good review. One Piece & Gintama are the two jewels of JUMP in my opinion. In some ways, Gintoki (the protagonist of Gintama) and Luffy are similar in terms of being utterly ridiculous, but noble characters.
The art of announcing attacks, eh? That ties into why characters TALK during fights. :P I should actually look into that. Reading this has got me thinking about battle scenes in anime & manga in general.
Katherine Dacey saysDecember 4, 2010 at 3:54 pm
@Max: You sound like a practicing martial artist! Thanks for the insight.
@MangaTherapy: Thanks! I hope you *do* write an essay about battle scene conventions in anime and manga—I’d definitely read that! I have a feeling it would generate a terrific set of comments, in part because it’s so fundamental to certain genres.
Oliver saysDecember 4, 2010 at 6:41 pm
I like your point #2:if you’re going to announce your attacks, they better be fun and ridiculous-sounding to say. I also feel that Luffy is bullheaded but he’s really focused on his goal. There’s not too much internal drama goin’ on with him which is good because it doesn’t waste time in the thick of battle.
Katherine Dacey saysDecember 5, 2010 at 11:39 am
There’s not too much internal drama goin’ on with him which is good because it doesn’t waste time in the thick of battle.
Couldn’t have said it better myself! Naruto looks like a philosopher in contrast!
BurningLizard saysDecember 6, 2010 at 12:21 am
Always up for One Piece love, it’s one of those series where anyone (and I mean anyone) would love it. Great review, except for that paragraph where you keep calling Luffy “Monkey.” I’m sure you know it’s his last name, but it seems a bit weird to read considering that nobody in the manga ever refers to him by just his last name. Might want to change the “Monkey”s to “Luffy.”
Also, it’s worth pointing out that for all the goofiness in the fighting styles and the humor, One Piece has a well thought out story, that somehow manages to keep the arc centered development not only interesting, but develops the world and character backgrounds at the right pace. Not to mention that all things considered it’s just a really solid story, with great emotional resonance. Pretty much all the character back stories are tear jerkers without seeming out of place.
Anne Marie saysOctober 30, 2011 at 9:21 pm
I’ve just started reading One Piece (bought the first 3-in-1) and I have to admit I’ve fallen instantly in love with the artwork. The goofiness and the detail that goes into even the background characters – it’s one of the few comics (western comics included) where a single background pic (of a pirate in the drinking or the expression on a cow) for example has made me crack up laughing.
But based on what I’ve read of it so far I wouldn’t have expected any kind of depth to it, just slapstick fun – from what I’ve read, this isn’t the case. So I’m looking forward to getting further into it.
Ckino saysJanuary 20, 2012 at 4:26 am
I’ve been reading One Piece since 1999 and still reading it now. It is a type of manga that once you read it you will either love it or hate it. Once you fall in love with it you will never get out of it.
The reason I love and loyal to it so much is because of the substances One Piece deliver in it quest. Lots of Shonen manga end up spiraling as a endless-fighting focus manga . Not saying One Piece is not one but along with the fight you still get the story across. I never cried reading a manga but Arabasta Arc, when the civil war in that arc reach its climax it manage to bring tears from my eyes.
Another interesting point of One Piece, Oda-sensei does not afraid to kill everyone favorite character which i find it rarely happen in any major popular series. Yes, I’m talking about Ace and White beard characters. I find it amusing, as much as the character had died in the series, up to the recent volume Oda always keep them alive in the series for example, one of the new attack by Luffy (or Monkey as you put it which i find it weird LOL) is an upgrade of his late brother.
I enjoy reading it and actually growing up with One Piece. The manga is as silly yet charming as Luffy character portrayed to be.
Katherine Dacey saysJanuary 20, 2012 at 12:57 pm
I never expected to like One Piece as much as I do; I’m normally put off by shonen titles that have long battle arcs, but, like you, I feel that Oda does a good job of making those extended fight sequences count for something.