It’s a vexing dilemma for the aspiring otaku. You’ve heard about this cool anime series. You’d like to get into it. You want to see what all the fuss is about. But… there’s a mountain of material to sift through! And good luck trying to just pick up the latest episode. Purists will demand you watch from the very beginning and “power through” years of installments before earning the right to enjoy anything current.
Obviously, there’s a gulf in anime fandom here, and it ought to be bridged. This stuff isn’t as far afield from mainstream TV as it’s made out to be. In fact, plenty of easy comparisons can be drawn to Western pop culture, and they’ll make even the most storied and esoteric anime easier to grasp for any neophyte. Nobody should need to take an entrance exam to watch a TV show. That’s no fun.
So, if you’ve always wanted to climb on board with One Piece, please enjoy these Cliff Notes…
One Piece is the brainchild of cartoonist Eichiro Oda, and it currently reigns as the world’s most successful anime and manga. As in it regularly sells millions of print volumes and has tallied more than 700 episodes (airing almost every week) since its debut in 1999.
The series stars Monkey D. Luffy and his crew of heroic pirates, the Straw Hats. They’re searching for the “One Piece,” a mythic treasure the King of Pirates hid somewhere just prior to his execution. Whoever finds it will take his title. Of course, like Dragon Ball, while this series is named for a prize (and is ostensibly about the heroes’ quest for it), the One Piece is really just a McGuffin.
It’s the journey, not the destination! The series is about these pirates sailing from one strange island to another: protecting innocents, beating villains, and trying to do right wherever they wander.
So, how is this like The Wizard of Oz…?
Well, we’re not referring to the MGM talkie so much as the markedly-more-fanciful book it’s based upon (which, for one, includes three other pint-sized species in addition to the Munchkins). Over dozens of sequels, L. Frank Baum and his successors expanded the borders of Oz to include characters like Rinkitink and the Shaggy Man who were even kookier than the Scarecrow or Tin Woodsman.
And though Oda’s art style resembles Edward Gorey’s, at times, his imagination works quite similarly to Baum’s. The pirate theme is only a starting point, really. He has created a constantly-expanding sandbox which he can keep filling with whatever flights of fancy tickle him. Skeleton musician swordsmen! Tugboat cyborgs powered by soda pop! Hulked-out reindeer doctors! (That’s only mentioning some of the oddballs on the Straw Hats’ crew, too).
In many ways, One Piece is a successor to DBZ, but Oda puts even less limits on what’s possible in his universe. You can tell he’s making it all up as he goes along. Tracking the steps of his creative process is a big part of the fun, actually. Again, it’s the journey, not the destination. Just as there’s appeal in simply exploring the Yellow Brick Road and Emerald City alongside Dorothy, the plot at hand in One Piece is really just secondary to watching this whimsical world be built one island at a time.
Of course, you aren’t likely to ever see Dorothy pound the snot out of the Wicked Witch. This is a shonen anime, after all.
If Dragon Ball started as cheeky comedy and unexpectedly evolved into something more bellicose, One Piece has been mercurial with its tone since the beginning. Some episodes will be low-stakes fluff (Luffy has to chase down a poodle) while others will be dire tragedies (the Straw Hats must pump the stomach of a girl who’s overdosed on drug-laced candy). There’s little hesitation about which is more “appropriate.”
If that sounds jarring, well… look at Oz again. Aren’t the flying monkeys nightmare fuel? And how many were taken aback by how “dark” the more book-faithful Return to Oz is? The most enduring all-ages franchises skirt the line between suitable for children or adults. They’re different things to different audiences at different times.
Since the Straw Hats are a ten-strong team, there’s a wide spread of personalities for viewers to identify with, but the show’s balance of tones is still best represented by Luffy himself. His stretching powers might invite comparisons to Mr. Fantastic or Plastic Man, but he’s more a combination of Peter Pan and Popeye the Sailor–recalling heroes from classic children’s lit and gag strips alike.
For the most part, Luffy is a carefree Pollyanna. A man child with no romantic interests; only a bottomless belly and an unceasing enthusiasm for adventure. However, if his friends are imperiled by a villain, you’ll see him get nasty. Real nasty. He’ll literally “shift gears” until his fists are hard enough to smash teeth.
While his personality remains constant throughout the series, he still goes through this character cycle in almost every story arc. That’s another part of the appeal. It’s akin to how fanfic fantasies come true in Kingdom Hearts. There’s just something compelling about seeing a typically harmless Disney character like Goofy (or the Cowardly Lion, to bring this back to Oz) toughen up to take on despicable anime villains. And that happens all the time in One Piece.
So, hopefully this has given you, the curious and discriminating viewer, a better sense of why this series has captured so many imaginations. If you want to start watching, longtime fans say you should pick the “Arlong Park” arc as a primer, since that’s when most of the Straw Hats assemble. However, that’s still hundreds of episodes back so, honestly, you might as well just jump into the latest one. Your head may spin over the dense tangle of whimsy, but that’s always how things work in the wonderful world of One Piece.
Featured Image Credit: FUNimation