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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The (Lack Of) Problems with One Piece


            You’ve seen me take to this site to rant about my issues with Naruto.  You’ve seen me vent about the spectacular decline of Bleach.  But while those two former juggernauts each had their moment in the sun, faded, and then concluded, one of the former Big Three, One Piece, still remains a core part of Weekly Shonen Jump. 

            Created by Eiichiro Oda and running largely without break since 1997, currently at 861 manga chapters and 783 anime episodes (as of this writing), One Piece is not only still running, it has no apparent end in sight.  But unlike its erstwhile competitors, there is a strong argument to be made that One Piece has not only retained a consistent quality over the decades, but that it’s actually gotten better and more interesting as it’s gotten longer. 

            It would be easy to simply credit this to the fact that Oda is an utterly insane creative genius, and that much is certainly true; if he weren’t, he wouldn’t be able to artistically thrive as much as he does in an industry designed to utterly break manga artists both mentally and physically.  But as tempting as it might be to write off the phenomenon that is One Piece as a singular success too unique to be understood, doing so ultimately undercuts the artistic strengths that have allowed it hold up better than most other long-form stories, be they manga, comics, TV shows, or whatever.  It is insanely hard to create something this good for this long, but it’s not impossible to do, and it’s not impossible to grasp the whys and hows. 

            So let’s take a moment to consider this remarkable work; why has One Piece, as opposed to Bleach and Naruto, managed to get better, and not deteriorate, with age? 

1. The art style has remained consistent since Chapter One. 

            It's par for the course that the longer a series is, the higher the chance there will be a noticeable shift in the tone or style of the art by the end.  Sometimes this can have little effect on the overall quality of a manga, but in others it can end up being fairly detrimental.  Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece all started out with an exaggerated, rough-hewn look typical of most early chapters of a Shonen battle manga.  Each one showcased the particular skills or talents of the respective artist, gave the manga its own unique visual feel, and was a key part in each of them taking off and becoming the cultural juggernauts they are today. 

            They also allowed for a flexibility in what expressions the characters could make- the more detailed or serious or dramatic moments were beautifully crafted, but also switched effortlessly to more exaggerated or distorted figures in the sillier moments, and both could sit side-by-side on the page and still look like they were part of the same world.  Eventually, though, Bleach and Naruto began to slowly shift after about a few hundred chapters, taking on a more solid-looking style.  It looked more serious and “mature,” with harder lines, so it worked fine for the more serious moments of the story, but it no longer had the same flexibility as before.  The result was that whenever later chapters tried to shift back to more comic moments or throwbacks to running gags, it only broke flow and served to remind the reader just how much the feel of the series had changed over time. 

            One Piece, on the other hand, still has the same zany style is started out with, creating a world where characters can literally cry rivers, contort their faces in every conceivable way, and look deadly serious, and still feel like they are all happening in the same universe.  There’s a whole other article to be written about how fluid Oda makes the sizes and shapes of the people inhabiting this world.  It allows the series to constantly feel fresh and try out new designs, because the looseness of the style means anything really can happen, no matter how bizarrely insane the designs get.   

            And while we’re on the topic of art, style, and layout…

2. Every chapter is packed, with no empty pages or wasted space

            This is much more of a knock on Bleach than it is on Naruto, because by the end Kubo became notorious for padding out every single chapter with swaths of empty black or white shapes (sometimes whole pages of it).  This lead to an insane number of wasted chapters, where the story progressed at a snail’s pace, or circled around on itself and went nowhere, or where literally nothing happened, because there wasn’t any space left to allow anything TO happen. 

            There is none of that shit in One Piece.  The “worst” One Piece chapters are perhaps a bit boring, or forgettable, or too jumbled to make sense, but will almost always have at least one cool visual or decent joke, because each one is packed to the gills.  Not a single panel is left to rot.  And that’s key, because it means that even when something in the series doesn’t work, the passion and effort are always on full display, something that Bleach conspicuously lacked long before its ignominious end.  

            Speaking of space…

3. Pagetime between the main characters is (fairly) well-balanced. 

            One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto all have huge, sprawling casts with a staggering variety of characters and personas filling their worlds.  Maintaining the right balance between main and secondary characters in such large universes is extremely difficult, and while both started out very strong in this regard, there came a point where both Kubo and Kishimoto were clearly unable (or unwilling, or uninterested) in trying to even out the narrative focus between core characters (*cough* Chad, *hackhack* Sakura), with many popular secondary characters falling by the wayside as well. 

            One Piece does a vastly more solid job of making sure every member of the crew gets a few moments to shine in each arc, even when some play a more important role in one storyline than others.  Sure, there are nitpicks to be had that some characters go way too long without a cool fight or big story moment, and for narrative reasons some of the crew members will drop out of sight for a bit- nothing in this list is meant to argue One Piece is a paragon of perfection- but given how easy it is to fall short in this particular area, it is remarkably impressive how well Oda has handled this juggling act across several decades of publishing. 

4. The rules of the universe allow wiggle-room for superpowers without generating contradictions

            One of my biggest beefs with both Naruto and Bleach, by the end, was that, as each series went on, previously established in-universe rules for how superpowers worked (and, especially, what their drawbacks or costs were) were bent more and more, and eventually broken entirely.  This was clearly done in order to bring in different types of powers, allowing for other kinds of action, and to gradually up the stakes until literally all existence was in danger.  All of which are theoretically fine.  But by tossing out the limits that had previously served to ground the series, the creators ended up depriving what should have been cataclysmic and awe-inspiring finales of any tension.  Villains eventually had the power to do anything that let them survive that extra chapter, because….just, because.  More and more of the good guys morphed from interesting characters with unique and nuanced powers and styles into Goku Clones.  And after a few arcs of the same, that shtick just gets boring. 

            One Piece has never suffered from this problem, because outside of establishing the different types and degrees of powers that could be achieved, it never placed too much of an emphasis on strict laws regarding powers, because that was never the focus; the focus was enjoying Luffy’s wacky pirate adventures.  This, plus the ingenious use of the Devil Fruit concept, means that like with character design, One Piece has always felt like a universe where literally anything is possible and will happen sooner or later, and Oda has been able to introduce new powers and concepts with each arc without ever feeling like the series is breaking its own rules. 

            Continuing with the topic of story arcs….

5. Each arc is coherently structured and paced, and the stakes are always personal

            There have been tons of hints about the larger world and history of One Piece dropped here and there throughout its run.  And Luffy’s ultimate goal- finding “One Piece” and becoming the Pirate King- involve so many huge obstacles that there’s a lot of ways the story could build into a truly global conflict by the end.  But up to this point, even in the more significant story arcs like the recent Dressrosa Arc, the primary motivations for Luffy and/or whichever character has center-stage are always clear, focused, and often deeply personal. 

            What this does is make it possible to follow along and enjoy each step of the journey without needing to be obsessed with the larger story.  For the most part, you still don’t really need to have read ALL of One Piece to just jump right in to more recent arcs and enjoy the series for what it is. 

            Take the Marineford Arc, easily the largest and grandest spectacle of the entire series, which featured some of the most important narrative developments of the entire manga.  For all the scope on display, to a degree that to this day still boggles my mind, and for all the politics driving the actions of the Marines, Whitebeard, and others, Luffy remains the central character of the arc, and his only concern is to save his brother Ace.  He doesn’t care about Blackbeard.  He isn’t afraid to challenge either Whitebeard or Sengoku.  He just wants to save his brother. 

            The recent Dressrosa Arc was basically a dressed-up fighting competition, again with a very specific goal for our lead character- winning the fight in order to get back Ace’s Devil Fruit from Doflamingo.  In the current arc, the focus for our heroes is rescuing Sanji after his capture by one of the Four Emperors.  Like with the need to abide by in-universe fighting rules, this grounds the series enough that when it wants to get serious, it can, but it doesn’t have to keep upping the superpower stakes to make each new arc worth following- it just has to give us at least one compelling emotional reason to stick around and see what happens. 

            That being said….

6. The world-building (so far) has been superb

            ….Oda has also successfully combined the smaller stakes of each arc with some truly phenomenal world-building, the importance and strength of which has only started to become apparent since the Time Skip. 

            After the first several hundred chapters, there wasn’t much of a larger narrative to One Piece to speak of- a few hints about the Marines, the World Government, Celestial Dragons, and a secret history of the world were dropped here and there, but it was only in the run-up to the Marineford Arc that the trickle started to increase to a flash flood, and by the time the series went on break for the Time Skip, there were enough puzzle pieces in place to allow for some really intriguing speculation on how the larger One Piece universe operates.    

            Compare this to Detective Conan, another massive and long-running manga/anime franchise, where the broader story has not advanced or altered in any meaningful way since it first started.  Every time I consider this, I am blown away by how carefully Oda has crafted the larger bits of the picture in his story, usually by working in a few new pieces in the gaps between major story arcs by cutting away from the main cast for a week or two.  It’s such a remarkably careful job that I honestly can’t tell if he’s had all this planned out in his head from the beginning, or if he’s only recently started to consciously give a direction to the bigger plot devices of the franchise. 

            Either way, Oda has provided us with a textbook example of how long-form storytelling can be used to craft the sort of detailed universes that a much shorter book, film, or show can never create. 

            This leads me to my final point, which is….

7. The series doesn’t overextend itself by trying to be something other than what it is. 
           
            One Piece is a gag manga in an action-adventure setting about a group of silly, eclectic misfits and the hijinks they get into on the high seas. 

            And really, that’s it.  Yes, there is a larger, fascinating drama playing out regarding the Celestial Dragons, the Shichibukai, the Emperors, the World Government, the Revolutionary Army, and the Marines.  Yes, there are some great, emotional character arcs that have given the series some of its best moments.  Yes, the artwork is unique; the story arcs are almost always precise, and very well-constructed; the in-universe rules are fluid, but still easy to understand and follow.  All of this is a key part of the franchise’s enduring success.  But more than anything else, what has allowed One Piece to endure and thrive in a way its competitors couldn’t is that it’s never pretended to be something it isn’t.  Oda doesn’t punch above his ability. 

            One Piece, in a nutshell, has never sought to be more than the silly-as-hell gag manga that it is, and thanks to this loose attitude, when it does go big or emotional, those moments shine all the more.  They feel earned, and rarely repetitive or hammered-in.  And around those moments, the manga has never stopped being hilarious, clever, witty, and just plain fun to experience each week, so even if the larger story was panning out to be formulaic shit, the series would (I believe) still hold up remarkably well.  The fact that the larger story IS really good and interesting and well-crafted is just the icing on the cake. 

            Compare that to Bleach and Naruto; both, by the end, were literally promising the world in their final acts, with literal “end of life itself” stakes, and in both cases that proved to be a task beyond what Kubo and Kishimoto were capable of as writers and artists.  The stories grew, sure, but a breaking point was eventually reached, and neither series could ultimately recover from that. 

            Now of course, Oda could still fuck all this up.  He could still jump the shark in a thousand different ways.  Nothing is certain in our world.  But so far, at least, he has consistently managed to provide a truly joyful experience week after week that has, in so many ways, been a defining work in the Shonen Action genre. 

            And again, I am in no way suggesting that One Piece should be considered the Greatest Manga Ever, or anything close to the sort.  Are there better manga out there?  Tons.  Ones that are more daring, take more chances, tell deeper stories, reach greater artistic heights?  Absolutely. 

            And even within its respective cultural niche, One Piece certainly has flaws; Oda barely tries to differentiate the story’s women beyond Nami and Robin, and his boobs/”sexy battle wear” can be just as bad as Kubo’s; many of the intended emotional parts can go overboard and fall off into outright silliness (like the bloody monologue the Sunny got as it was burned at sea); the arcs are extremely formulaic, with a very precise pacing that is rarely deviated from; and yes, he probably isn’t building to some deep, meaningful, artistic statement about life and the human condition. 

            But even lower-brow art done to perfection is still art worth experiencing, remembering, and celebrating.  And One Piece is one of the greatest examples of this kind of story and this kind of manga in existence.  It deserves all the accolades it has gotten, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t end anytime soon.  So please Oda; take care of yourself.  We need your sense of humor in the world more than ever. 


-Noah Franc 

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