In Netflix’s live-action One Piece, no one dreams like Monkey D. Luffy. Luffy holds the pursuit of his own dream as his driving force. And in his cheerfully relentless path to achieving his dream, he gently pushes everyone around him to discover their dreams, and thus to evolve. Not a single character on One Piece is remotely close to achieving their chosen dream by the first season’s end. But every one of them has grown vastly, guided by first realizing and then stepping toward their dreams.
Following a dream is a common thread across fiction. Heroes often have dreams of achieving great victory, of finding a purpose, or of learning their place in the world. Sometimes, villains have dreams, too. Those tend to go less well. But in Netflix’s live-action One Piece, the concept of dreams is the central throughline of the story. Dreams are revered as tangible, powerful things. And although without one, a character is lost, a dream is not necessarily a guarantee of triumph. Instead, One Piece’s rendering of dreams focuses less on their completion and more on the idea that without a drive, existence becomes pointless and growth ceases. It is this spotlight on the messy journey of dreaming, and not on the destination or simple existence of dreams, that makes the series’ portrayal of them so salient.
Whether One Piece can claim the title of a successful adaptation is a question we can debate forever. But the greatest strength of fiction lies in its ability to impact the world external to its own. In our reality, dreaming can be difficult. More than ever, a constant bevy of obstacles can make it feel pointless to dream. But One Piece’s true power is in its readiness to assure us that regardless of outcome, having a dream and following it is enough to have an impact, on ourselves and on the world.
In the early episodes of the show, Koby, a character who had been trapped by circumstance, laments his newfound freedom. He notes, “Maybe I made a mistake, I never should have left Alvida.” In response, Luffy asks Koby to tell him about his dream and sets him on the course toward it. On Alvida’s ship, Koby was wasting away, frozen in an unhappy limbo, forced into being someone he wasn’t. Dreaming, figuratively, and Luffy, an agent of dreaming, literally, sets him free.
Of course, the audience and Luffy know that Koby’s dream of becoming a Marine isn’t necessarily one that will resolve in the way Koby thinks it will. But regardless of the outcomes and the reality of the dream, the presence and pursuit of it is enough to move Koby into becoming the person he was meant to be. However imperfect the growth of dreaming is, it renders Koby alive, where before he was only existing. Staying stagnant without a dream may have been easier. But actively pushing toward one allows Koby to blossom as a fully realized person.
Similarly, One Piece’s chef Sanji held his dream of finding the All Blue, a mysterious One Piece location, close to his chest for a long time. But instead of pursuing it, he’d stubbornly stayed in one place. Having a dream, One Piece implies, is not in and of itself enough. Dreaming is an active sport. Although Sanji’s situation is better than Koby’s, it isn’t until Sanji has actively moved to pursue his dream that we see him evolve.
One Piece gives the impression that Sanji and his mentor Zeff have danced the same dance and had the same arguments over and over and over again for a long time. But when Sanji finally lets his dream drive him, he can also finally find the words to tell the one-time pirate what he means to him. While this has nothing to do with the goal of his dream, in acknowledging it, he transforms into the next version of himself. Following a dream is not about a literal destination, One Piece reminds us. Instead, pursuing a dream is the mechanism through which all growth is achieved.
One Piece also understands very acutely, and very realistically, that dreaming can be dangerous—that following a dream can cause a person to make unfathomable decisions and can even leave them in a precarious situation, struggling to survive. The action of dreaming does not mean there are only purely good outcomes. Dreaming does not become enmeshed in a starry-eyed wonder more commonly seen in fiction. No, dreaming is a real and scary endeavor. But despite this, to simply stay dreamless, or worse, to take a step in defiance of a dream, is a far worse fate.
After intent swordsman Zoro somewhat foolishly challenges Dracule Mihawk, a far better fighter than him, to a duel in pursuit of his dream, to become the greatest swordsman in the world, he ends up badly injured. Despite this, Luffy remains firm in his decision not to have intervened in the battle. He tells his disapproving crewmate, Nami, “I’d do anything to save him, anything. Except stand in the way of his dream.”
On the face of it, maybe Nami has a point. But more figuratively, Luffy and One Piece know that Zoro would never have survived losing the ability to follow his dream. If having and following a dream is the key to evolution, then defying it is akin to death. It’s that motion toward a dream, however chaotic, scary, and occasionally disheartening, that moves the characters forward. Zoro’s brush with his dream may have left him scarred, but it culminated in his assured pronouncement of his place in the world—as first mate to Luffy’s captain. And that certainly would not have occurred had Zoro been stopped in the pursuit of his ultimate goal.
When they first meet on One Piece, Zoro tells Luffy he’s a Pirate Hunter. And Luffy responds asking, “Is that all you are? Is that all you want?” Who among us hasn’t asked ourselves those very questions? Of course, in our realities, dreaming is not as straightforward as it is on One Piece. And we don’t all have secret powers from a Devil Fruit to rely on in the pursuit of our aspirations. Luckily, One Piece has a pretty easy answer for us, one that works even in the real world. We become ourselves in the pursuit of our dreams, whatever they may be. And regardless of whether we do or can achieve them entirely or not, in taking whatever steps we can toward them, we flourish.