February 17, 2014
For years I've managed to completely ignore the bestselling manga franchise in the world. Then I started watching the "Water 7" arc on TV Japan and got hooked.
Eiichiro Oda, the extraordinarily prolific author of One Piece, has so far written 72 volumes of the manga; the publisher Shueisha has sold over 345 million copies; and the anime from Toei is currently in its sixteenth season.
From all indications, Oda is still going strong (and now with a media empire to back him up). As I've only been exposed to a tiny piece of the One Piece universe, I'm in no position to to opine on the work as a whole. I'll sum up what I've gathered so far.
Monkey D. Luffy, captain of the Going Merry, is a self-professed pirate, though he and his crew never get around to any actual pirating. Rather, Luffy is on a quest for the legendary pirate treasure known as "One Piece," that will allow him to claim the title of "Pirate King."
It's a quest that is constantly interrupted by their good-intentioned meddling, which takes them off on adventures wildly at odds with their purported goals, and often puts them at odds with government authorities (hence their reputation).
Substitute "smuggler" for "pirate" and One Piece is Firefly on water. Or Firefly is One Piece in outer space. The comparison works rather well from the captain down to his motley crew. This description of Malcolm Reynolds applies equally to Luffy:
He is cunning, a capable leader and a skilled fighter. Mal's main character drive is his will for independence. While he is not above petty theft, smuggling or even killing to maintain his free lifestyle, he is generally honest in his dealings with others, fiercely loyal to his crew and closely follows a personal moral code.
To that I'll add that One Piece is a superhero series done pretty much right.
In too many superhero shows, the supervillain only exists because the superhero does. The Avengers somewhat surmounts this problem because Loki is not all-powerful (though I dislike the mind-control plot device) and his existence alone is not an existential threat to the universe.
And second because Whedon has our heroes spending as much time bickering as fighting the enemy. To be sure, a big mistake made on ensemble shows is inventing stupid reasons for the protagonists to not get along, rather than the conflict arising organically out of character (e.g., Kirk, Spock, McCoy).
The Avengers is about too many big egos (and big tempers) in too small a space. Robert Downey Jr. aside, my two favorite scenes belong to the Hulk. The "puny god" scene, of course, and the one where he biffs Thor just because he's standing there.
The Avengers need Agent Coulson and Nick Fury to hold them together and direct their energies towards the more important goal.
We find the same thing on Serenity and the Going Merry, what Kate calls the "happy imperfect team": a bunch of oddballs and mercenaries who'd never get anything done without the glue of Malcolm Reynolds or Luffy holding them together.
And who is Luffy holding together? As of Water 7, the "Straw Hats" (named for Luffy's preferred head apparel) are:
• Zoro, whose swords can cut through pretty much anything.
• Nami, the ship's navigator and a cat burglar.
• Usopp, a slingshot sniper, tinkerer, and inveterate teller of tall tales.
• Sanji, the ship's cook and a martial arts expert.
• Tony Tony Chopper, a shape-shifting reindeer who's also the ship's doctor.
• Nico Robin, archaeologist who can create additional invisible limbs like Lucy in Elfen Lied.
And then there's Luffy. Like Reed Richards in the Fantastic Four, he can stretch and twist his body like a rubber band.
Their various and often glaring imperfections inject the necessary dollop of realistic conflict into their adventures. The "Water 7" arc in particular has Luffy and Usopp getting into a knockdown, drag-out fight, but one that is painfully true to human nature and to their characters.