Wealth. Fame. Power.
The man who had achieved everything in life, like none before him, was the Pirate King, Gold Roger.
The few words he spoke at his execution drove people the world over to take to the seas:
"My treasure? If you want it, you can have it.
Seek it out! I left everything in my life at that place!"
The anime and manga One Piece, by Eiichiro Oda, is a shonen (boy's) adventure series which follows the adventures of Monkey D. Luffy and his peculiar crew across one of the most bizarre worlds ever animated. This review is based primarily on the anime, and covers events up through about episode 195 (the end of the Skypiea/God Enel arc). The series is still continuing today, well past 600 episodes in length, so obviously this review is only covering about one-third of the currently existing episodes. Still, two hundred episodes is enough to talk about!
The background of One Piece starts out as a deceptively simple, not to say ridiculous, premise; the great pirate king, Gold Roger, is captured, but his treasure –including the legendary, never described "One Piece" – is not recovered, and on the execution block he says he left it all at "that place".
"That place" is understood by most to mean at the end of the "Grand Line", an array of islands in the most treacherous sea of that world (the other seas being called "blues" and designated by direction – East Blue, South Blue, etc.). This announcement triggers a huge surge of treasure hunters and bandits – collectively, of course, called pirates – to seek out the One Piece and the rest of Gold Roger's treasure.
One Piece stretches my tolerance for comedy to the breaking point – and then, regularly and consistently, pulls off moments of awesome and drama that make up for all the jackassery in between. Like Dragonball and some other shows, One Piece has an art style that can jump between pure comedy and solid drama quite fluidly – or jarringly, on occasion. The overall conceit of the story – of a world where "pirates" are a major factor, often wielding (bizarre and even absolutely ludicrous) super-powers, and often apparently threats to major governments, all of them seeking after this mythical, perhaps mystical treasure, is patently ridiculous. Yet…
Eiichiro Oda's work has a strangely dreamlike logic in it that makes it work. This is a world, not of rationality and seriousness like that of Fullmetal Alchemist, but one where dreams and myth and symbols rule supreme.
The central character of One Piece is Monkey D. Luffy. Luffy is in many ways the classic "Idiot Hero" – although he very often shows signs of being more "Obfuscating Stupidity" and is most certainly a textbook example of "Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass". Luffy is a skinny, gangling looking young man who generally wears a red vest, a straw hat, shorts, and flip-flop sandals. He is one of the most unprepossessing main characters one might expect to encounter, and his demeanor does nothing to dissuade any first meeting him from this impression. He is a wide-eyed innocent with no guile (and rarely any understanding of others' deviousness) and an absolute confidence in his destiny, which he will announce to anyone he meets: "I will be the Pirate King!"
This confidence, as opponents often discover to their dismay, turns out to have some considerable basis. Luffy is one of those blessed with unusual powers due to the consumption of the "Devil Fruit". Devil Fruit confers on the eater an apparently random power, with one limitation: immersion in seawater renders the Devil Fruit eater not merely powerless, but paralyzed, and they will sink to the bottom of the ocean and die if not rescued. For someone venturing on the sea, this is a not at all insignificant weakness; there are also objects and materials that can echo/concentrate this power of the sea, so that nets and other objects can be made which, in effect, play a similar role to that of Kryptonite versus DC's Superman. These Devil Fruit powers also are, apparently, exclusive; that is, only one person may have a given special power.
Luffy has eaten the "Gum-Gum" fruit – and become, as he often states, a rubberman. He has the ability to stretch and deform like rubber, rather like well-known superheroes Mr. Fantastic, Elastic Man, and Elastigirl from The Incredibles. Belying his idiot act, Luffy is extremely inventive and innovative with these abilities when he has to be, although his preferred approaches are "hit it harder". His powers make him almost utterly immune to blunt force impacts of any magnitude and it is shown that he also has the insulating properties of rubber.
While this is indeed a formidable power (as any who have read comic books with similar heroes can attest), it is certainly not adequate for all situations, and in fact is at best only co-equal to Luffy's true power: convincing the right people to follow him. Luffy's recruitment approach is basically the same: decide that he needs a particular type of person on the crew, look for a person that could perform that job, and then recruit them – whether they want to join at first or not. Astonishingly, this ends up working. Luffy's innocent, straightforward approach, unflinching honesty, and loyalty win over nearly everyone in the end.
The latter characteristic is one of the key things that differentiates him from one of his obvious inspirations, Dragonball's Son Goku. Much as I love Goku's adventures, Son Goku was clearly more of an adventurer interested in the contest; aside from one or two incidents, his greatest driving force was mostly testing his abilities, not defending others per se (although he would certainly do that, and didn't like seeing weak people beaten up.
Monkey D. Luffy is all about proper treatment of people. His "nakama", his crew, is of course first and foremost, but he will notice mistreatment of others, especially those weaker than other people around them, and he will not tolerate it. He will risk his own life for people he has barely met. It is this characteristic, more than any other, which wins formerly reluctant people to his side – that and his unswerving loyalty. If he has decided you are one of his nakama, then he believes in you – he will not tolerate or entertain for a moment the possibility that you have truly betrayed him, nor will he give up on you. The moment that he demonstrates this to Nami – who had given every reason for him to believe her a traitor, and then begged him for help – is one of the Crowning Moments of Heartwarming combined with Awesome in the entire series (thus far, anyway!).
The other members of his crew (called the Straw Hat Pirates, because Luffy always wears a wide-brimmed straw hat which has personal significance to him) are equally odd, yet also detailed. One thing Oda does with great care is to work out the backgrounds and motivations of all his characters, heroes and villains alike, so that they are not mere archetypes or jokes, but people – albeit often extremely strange people. He hasn't quite gone Kishimoto's (Naruto) route of knowing every charater's ancestry back for three generations in detail, but he's devoted a great deal of effort to the characters as well as the bizarrely detailed world of One Piece.
Rorona Zoro is the swordsman of the Straw Hats. A green-haired, very strongly built man, Zoro wields three blades simultaneously in a unique style he designed himself; one in each hand, and one in his mouth. (Don't try to make sense of this. That way lies madness). Zoro's major driving force is to become the greatest swordsman in the world, but not – as with so many similar heroes – purely as a matter of personal pride. It was also an oath he swore to a young lady who was his rival and friend when they were young, and when she died in a terrible accident, he swore that he would complete their oath. Fantastically skilled with the sword, up to and including mystical-level combat techniques, Zoro is otherwise… not terribly bright, and has perhaps the worst sense of direction since Ryouga Hibiki (Ranma 1/2). He will often talk like a cynic, pretend to be uncaring, but he, like Luffy, will not abide bullies and will intervene whenever he sees such things.
Nami is the ship's navigator, a very pretty pink-haired girl of slender build. Money appears to be her primary motivator – originally for a specific purpose, but time has shown that it's a major interest for her in person. However, her true interest is in maps, and her goal is to be the first person to draw an accurate map of the entire world, including the never-mapped, chaotic seas of the Grand Line. Nami is physically one of the least capable of the Straw Hats, but does not lack for bravery. She is skilled, though not tremendously strong, and is one of the smartest people in the crew; she often sees the solutions to complex problems and can think very fast on her feet, even in combat. She is also the sometimes frustrated "den mother" of the crew, who tries to keep her eye on the actual goal while others – led by Luffy – get distracted by almost every possible event.
Usopp is the mechanic and master of ranged weapons aboard the Straw Hat's ship, the Going Merry; he is dark complexioned, with tightly curly hair and a comedically long nose. He is also an inveterate coward and liar, who has the paradoxical goal of becoming one of the greatest warriors of the sea. Backed to the wall, however, Usopp can become desperately inventive and dangerous, much more so than his comical appearance, voice, or foolish boasts would lead one to believe. Usopp's overall traits make him appear to be a clear reference/riff on the classic tale of Pinocchio – the long nose, the lies, and the desire to be something that he patently is not. Over the course of the episodes we have seen, Usopp has slowly grown in bravery and willingness to act; he is still very, very far from being a hero as he'd like to be, but he has grown and changed. He is also a master gadgeteer, and has provided Nami with a multi-part, multi-powered staff that she has used to surprising effect.
The ship's cook is Sanji, a tall, slender, blonde young man who is indeed a master chef. Sanji is also a master of a kick-based fighting style which is roughly equal with Zoro's swordsmanship; the two have often had semi-friendly competitions to see which could, for example, hunt down the most meat animals in a given period of time, using nothing but their fighting skills. Sanji, befitting the others in the crew, has his own goal – to become a master of the cuisines of all seas, and particularly to reach the rumored All Blue, a sea where all the Directional Blue seas meet and thus the fish of all seas can be found. He is particularly fond of, and vulnerable to, beautiful women, becoming infatuated with them at a glance. He is, however, always a gentleman (not a Kame-Senin-like ecchi) and will play the knight in shining armor at every opportunity.
Chopper is the ship's medic, a master doctor… who happens to be a reindeer (and whose origin story is clearly drawn from none other than Rudolph). Raised by a human doctor after being driven from his tribe, Chopper became a great physician and has decided that his ultimate goal is to become the greatest doctor the world has ever seen, perhaps even to defeat death itself. Chopper has also eaten one of the Devil's Fruit, this one giving him … the powers of a human. Yes, he can change into a manlike shape. He has combined this with his knowledge of alchemical medicine to create a "Rumble Ball", a magical pill that allows him to supercharge his human shapechanging and assume multiple powerful forms (a super-fast form, super-strong, etc.). Chopper is not inherently a fighter and often seems as cowardly as Usopp, but is not given to bragging; indeed, he usually underestimates himself drastically.
The most recent addition to the crew is Nico Robin, a beautiful dark-haired woman who is an archaeologist, seeking the true history of the world – a history lost, perhaps covered up, centuries ago, and now only written on mysterious monoliths called Poneglyphs. Robin is also a Devil Fruit eater, with the bizarre power to cause duplicates of her arms to materialize on any object or surface she can see. This is actually a very frightening power, because it means you cannot escape her grasp, and she is quite strong and combat skilled to begin with; she was one of the Straw Hats' powerful enemies at first during the Alabasta/Crocodile arc.
These peculiar allies sail through a world which at first seems to consist of powerful pirate renegades and a distant military, usually represented by "Marines", which hasn't got the power to control such people. But as time goes on, we discover that the world is much deeper and more complex – often in sinister ways – than it appears at first. The Marines begin to show up with members quite capable of throwing down with the Straw Hats or other pirates, and we see glimpses of machinates of the overall world government – including their agents – which lets us know that there are many other events happening that the Straw Hats, in their simplistic cruise across the seas, haven't an inkling of, and which may well end up changing everything they think they know.
The show is filled with spectacular scenery, dramatic and comedic characters, and sometimes jawdroppingly awesome combats. Despite the peculiarity of the world and people, the heroism and dedication of the Straw Hat gang draws you onward to see what they will face next, and has you cheering for them. While some of their adversaries are as black-hearted villains as you could ever wish to see punched in the face (Crocodile, the man of sand, and self-proclaimed God Enel, living incarnation of lightning), many of them turn out to be more complex than they at first appeared, and sometimes can be turned from enemy to neutral, or even to friend.
I have noticed that there seems to be a trend – thus far – to avoid actual deaths. At least, of all named characters I can recall onscreen, I'm unsure I've seen one actually die. Some appear to die, but then we get a glimpse of something indicating that they were just mostly dead. This may fit with the dreamlike nature of the world of One Piece; death is more a guideline than a rule, so to speak.
I have, thus far, been very much enjoying One Piece – despite its sometimes wincing comedy and strange universe – and if you like offbeat adventure with some humor and awesome combat, this may just be for you!