I Can’t Believe It All Stays Together: The “Limits” of One Piece

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.

I’m Not in the MMF But Check It Out Anyway

The Manga Moveable Feast makes a cultural shift this month, transforming into the Manhwa Moveable Feast  in order to focus on the Color trilogy, a series by Kim Dong Hwa about a young girl in Korea on the cusp of womanhood and her subsequent growth.

Having only ever read the first of the three books, I decided not to participate this time around. Still, I know that this title is different from the general marketed image of “manhwa” in the United States, where it comes across as just a more illustrative variation of Japanese manga.

Manhwa simply doesn’t have the same level of exposure that manga does; even I have to admit I know little about it as a whole. Thus, my hope is that the Color series and this inter-blog discussion inspire people, including myself, to try and learn more about it.

You can start at the introductory post here, and then make your way through the archive of participatory posts. Of course, watch out for spoilers as some of these posts will contain some thorough analyses of the series.

Towards the Other: To Terra…

Introduction

This look at Takemiya Keiko’s 1970s shounen manga To Terra… is inspired by the “Manga Moveable Feast,” an ongoing project dedicated to having a variety of manga-passionate minds discuss a specific title. I owe a lot to To Terra…, and have been wanting to talk about it for a long time, and I believe that this is my best opportunity. I’ve included a synopsis of the story to make for easy reading, but this month’s MMF host, Kate Dacey, has written an incredibly informative introduction to To Terra…, and I really do recommend that you read it, whether it’s before, after, or even during my post.

Personal History

My very first experience with Takemiya Keiko’s To Terra… came in the form of Frederik Schodt’s book, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Animation. Displaying a single page on the margins of that book as an example of science fiction manga, the image of a young boy moving through what appeared to be a futuristic network of clear tunnels was like a visual shock, telling me that there was more to the anime and manga that I loved than the few shows I had seen. “Toward the Terra,” as its title was originally translated, had me not only wishing to someday see this series but also to look more closely at anime and manga as a whole. and it all came from an image.

That was in 2000, and it wasn’t until 2007 that I finally got to see for myself what To Terra… was all about. After the initial shock of actually seeing To Terra… in the bookstore, I picked up the first volume, consumed it, and finished the saga as the rest of the series came out. As I look at the series again, however, I become more and more aware of its influence on future manga artists, and though I cannot trace the exact path from Takemiya to the creators of today, I want to talk about the connecting threads that are visible to me.

Synopsis

To Terra… takes place in a time when man has polluted the Earth (Terra) almost beyond habitability and has moved into space. Their goal is to slowly re-cultivate the planet over many generations, but in order to ensure that humans do not repeat their past mistakes and let their greed and unchecked emotions overwhelm their need to save Earth, humans have turned to computers to regulate their lives. One tragedy that comes from this “Superior Domination” or “S.D. Era” is the fact that the “Mu,” children with ESP who are able to resist some of the programming that all “normal” humans receive, are perceived as a threat and thus eliminated in order to preserve the integrity of the new society. Through all of this, a 14 year old boy named Jomy Marcus Shin becomes the bridge between the humans and the Mu and eventually a revolutionary, discovering the truths and lies behind Superior Domination and Terra itself.

Thoughts

One of the first aspects of To Terra… that throws people off is the fact that To Terra… is indeed a shounen title, even if Takemiya is more well-known for her work in shoujo. To Terra… was written for boys, and it shows in many ways. It is a science fiction epic full of action and intrigue, spanning a long period of time, skipping years between parts. Jomy himself is portrayed as having a lot of power and potential but also as extremely unrefined in those respects, qualities you see even in today’s shounen protagonists such as Uzumaki Naruto and Sumimura Yoshimori (Kekkaishi). But the shoujo influence is still there, and though I cannot say this with 100% accuracy, I truly do feel that Takemiya’s shoujo experience manifests itself in To Terra… in a way which paves the road for many of the shounen titles which have followed it.

While the most obvious sign of Takemiya’s experience in the genre of “girls comics” may be the expressive art style so indicative of 70s manga for girls, the shoujo influence can be felt much more profoundly in the way that To Terra… makes you very aware of the relationships between characters. This is not meant in the romantic sense, though some of the closeness between the mostly male cast could be interpreted as such, but in the way the characters are portrayed relative to each other. As you read To Terra…, you are constantly aware of the differences in philosophy and overall outlook on life that characters possess, the parallels that exist between them in terms of history and personality, and anything that really makes you notice that To Terra… is a personal story about people existing alongside other people, even if it is steeped in a grand narrative.

The heavy emphasis on relationships was rare then for shounen manga, and it is still somewhat rare today, but you can see  great number of titles that, even for the briefest of moments, take a play from the book of To Terra… and have you thinking less about battle and competition and more about the interplay between two individuals, from the early banter between Ichigo and Rukia in Bleach, to the works of authors such as Adachi Mitsuru (Touch!, Cross Game) and Takahashi Rumiko (Ranma 1/2, Inuyasha).

Again, I cannot tell you if any of these creators actually looked directly to Takemiya Keiko for inspiration, but I do believe that the example she set in To Terra… nudged shounen manga along the path that would unite it with many of the facets of shoujo manga and vice versa. Though we think of the fusion of genres in manga as being a relatively recent thing, To Terra… shows that it has been a long process, and personally speaking I believe we are the better for it.

The Manga Curmudgeon’s Manga Moveable Feast

David Welsh over at the Manga Curmudgeon is trying out a new experiment he’s called the “Manga Moveable Feast,” wherein over the course of a week multiple bloggers write about a specific topic. For the inaugural MMF, David and others have chosen the topic to be Sexy Voice and Robo by Kuroda Iou. Seeing as Sexy Voice and Robo is one of my favorite manga, I’m quite glad to see it getting all this love, and to also to see the variety of opinions on the work. Naturally, I also submitted my 2008 review of the manga.

The first MMF started just this past Monday as going to continue until the end of the week, so there will be more and more reviews and analyses on the way.

I might also make another post once this is all over, analyzing one or more of the writings posted. And if you haven’t picked up Sexy Voice and Robo, I really recommend that you do.