Note: This post is part of the Manga Moveable Feast.
If you had asked me six years ago whether I preferred Naruto or One Piece, I would have said the one with the ninjas. At the time, I had hit a stumbling block with One Piece in the form of the Skypiea Arc, which I found to be rather lacking compared to what came previously. Naruto on the other hand felt stronger than ever. Little did I know though that One Piece would overcome this hurdle with aplomb and continue to improve, while Naruto would eventually hit a bad spot from which it still hasn’t ever completely recovered.
It seems as if almost every popular boys’ fighting manga eventually hits that point of no return, the moment where you can say a series shounen jumped the shark. Hokuto no Ken, one of my favorite series ever, has a clear defining line where it goes from good to terrible. Dragon Ball isn’t quite the same after the fall of Freeza. Yakitate!! Japan, for all its fun and humor, just could not quite maintain itself. This is all the more reason to consider One Piece is a rare feat among rare feats in the world of manga. Going strong for almost 15 years now, it has probably been the most consistently good despite, or perhaps because, of its longevity. But what does One Piece have that its contemporary peers do not? What keeps it going?
When I think of shounen series that were able to keep up their quality throughout their entire run, the first one that pops into my head is Kinnikuman. An 8-year-long series originally detailing the adventures of a comically inept superhero, Kinnikuman would eventually transform into an over-the-top dramatic intergalactic pro wrestling manga where friendship is so powerful that it is literally referred to as “Friendship Power,” leading to a final arc where the titular hero must wrestle to become king of his alien planet and defeat the evil muscle gods who conspire against him, and I think what makes Kinnikuman so consistent is that it has no real rules to abide by. Nonsensical wrestling techniques, achilles’ heels based on the most suspect logic, secret origins and an abundance of replacement limbs, all of this is as common as water in the ocean for Kinnikuman, but the series just rolls along , not allowing the reader to stop and consider how amazingly ridiculous it all actually is. Except when they do and the experience is made better by it.
Similarly, One Piece continuously rewrites the rules of its own universe, changing the meaning of “sensible” along the way. Monkey D. Luffy’s first few crew-mates are fairly normal; though their abilities might be bizarre or unique, they’re still mostly human in appearance. Then he befriends a bipedal physician reindeer. Later on he’s joined by a cola-powered cyborg in speedos and a re-animated skeleton. The Straw Hat Pirates travel the world from island to island, meeting friends and defeating adversaries. Then upon entering the Grand Line, the first big goal of the series, and what it means to be a body of land surrounded on all sides by water gets thrown right out of the window. There, in the most fierce and dangerous area of all, are islands with radically different climates and animals all within relatively short distances of one another. There’s a desert island, an island literally made out of trees, and yes, even an island in the sky. The world of One Piece continues to grow, and seemingly nothing is ever too unusual.
A good portion of One Piece‘s freedom to expand lies in Oda’s art style, which evokes a sense of fun, excitement, wonder, and comedy. It can expand its limits comfortably in a way that series more beholden to pseudo-realism such as Bleach and Naruto cannot. It makes you easily accept the fact that a man can wield three swords simultaneously with one clenched between his teeth or that an island of powerful and deadly transvestites exists.
And yet, just having a setting where almost anything can happen is not an automatic formula for success. Quite the opposite, it can cause a story to spiral out of control and to lose what made it really work in the first place, if it ever worked at all, and this is where One Piece‘s creator is truly amazing. Certainly the aesthetics of One Piece help a lot Oda is able to take this increasingly convoluted world and focus its explosive energies into a tale that is remarkably consistent in tone, theme, characterization, and overall feel. Although the series could easily get out of hand, it never completely goes off the deep end, which is a chaos that Kinnikuman itself only avoids by embracing it entirely. It’s as if One Piece tests its own limits so often that doing so has become the standard.
One Piece‘s approach to world-building and the comedic art style that supports it are certainly not the only reason that One Piece succeeds, but I think it is a good window into its real core strength, which is its ability to stay fresh and exciting, and to make it feel both comfortably close and yet also dramatically distant while also continuing to push those boundaries and distinctions. Much like the human body, One Piece constantly renews itself and grows stronger as a result.