Only three things in life are certain for a shonen otaku: tournament arcs, Studio Trigger series finales ending in space, and One Piece continuing until the heat death of the universe. I’d made prior attempts to read One Piece, but each time I got too intimidated by its length, which has now surpassed 1,000 chapters. But between pandemic free time, Netflix conveniently adding the anime’s first two arcs to binge, and the Shonen Jump app making the manga crazy inexpensive, I could no longer deny the inescapable pull of its magnetic main character and the mysterious “will of D.”
The first issue with tackling a series that’s been ongoing for as long as I’ve been alive was deciding how to go about consuming its media. Remembering the drudgery the filler seasons of Naruto and Bleach put me through, I decided fairly quickly that I’d read One Piece rather than watch it. Having to look up what episodes I should watch or skip would have taken a lot of the fun out of the experience. Plus, mangaka Eiichiro Oda answers fan questions at the end of each chapter. Some of his answers are more telling than others, but they really help in painting a fuller picture of his vision.
What sets One Piece apart from other shonen manga is how excellently written the characters are, how much attention Oda pays to his world building, and how the series balances both its fun and serious subject matter.
Monkey D. Luffy, his “Straw Hat” Pirates, and a majority of characters in the saga are excellently written. Every crewmate’s distinct personality bounces off of the others so well that reading One Piece feels like a sitcom half the time. Basically, I really want to be friends with the Straw Hats, and reading the series during the pandemic helped fill a void left by my distant real-life kin. I had the Straw Hats to keep me company.
As the number of crewmates grows, the series wisely pairs them off so numerous fun dynamics can emerge. I’m partial to any outing that manages to have navigator Nami and marksman Usopp together; their banter as the less powerful members of the crew highlights the scale of the Straw Hats’ conflicts and firmly anchors the pair as core to the crew’s collective heart.
Every character has their own clear set goals and ideals, whether it be Sanji hating to waste food, Nami wanting to draw a map of the entire world, or Zoro’s desire to get stronger. Whether these ideals are diametrically opposed or happen to align, the characters of One Piece feel like more than one-dimensional characters. Main characters or bit players, they all manage to play an important part in the story at large.
Although Luffy is a static character for a majority of the series, he doesn’t suffer the same Dragon Ball Z flanderization problem as Goku, whose power level and intelligence had an inverse relationship as his series progressed. That isn’t to say Luffy’s brash, one-track mind doesn’t land his crew in trouble, but the scale of his mischief doesn’t place the entire universe in jeopardy for the banal sake of proving he’s the world’s strongest.
The entire world of One Piece feels lived in, and that’s shown best in how Oda manages to juggle fleshing out each character. Even past villains and side characters you don’t think you’ll want to spend more time with manage to come back and earn your affection. At the start of chapters, Oda will give glimpses at what side characters are up to while the Straw Hats are adventuring, which seamlessly tie into the main story.
Reading story arcs in One Piece is a unique experience. It was ingenious of Oda to name his arcs after the islands the Straw Hats disembark on throughout the series, because whenever I would meet a One Piece fan out in the wild, the first question they would ask is what island I was on. I almost felt like a de facto member of the crew accompanying the crew on their journey.
Oda also pays attention to every detail in his world building. Seemingly innocuous, offhanded bits of exposition relayed by characters that I thought didn’t matter would manage to be plot relevant up to 300 chapters down the line.
What’s more, One Piece is genuinely the funniest manga I’ve ever read. The characters’ bizarre and outlandish designs prove highly expressive, and the slapstick comedy effectively gives the reader space to breathe between plot points and heavy exposition dumps.
One Piece is also a very uniform read. Oda constructs One Piece’s story arcs to neatly end around the 100-chapter mark, usually with some sort of celebration that culminates in a grand feast. This makes their accomplishments in the previous arc feel like a reward to the reader as well. Of course, just as arcs reach some kind of conclusion the story’s getting ready to launch off into a new arc that somehow bests the previous.
Its politics are surprisingly on point, too, with a felicitously political plot. I never expected a shonen manga to get political and stick the landing in how it tackled subjects like corrupt governments, fake news propaganda, war crimes, slavery, racism, and genocide, but One Piece gets it done.
Each island had its own political dilemma, and the Straw Hats’ misadventures land them into the role of being accidental freedom fighters rather than the traditional opportunistic pirates its world comes to expect. I was surprised at the nuance characters displayed when tackling these tough topics, and how they respected the weight such momentous events would have on an island’s inhabitants. The series manages to display emotional maturity while not being preachy about its values, and isn’t afraid to let moments be heavy and voice why disastrous situations caused by power-hungry authority figures should be met with rebellion.
Saying One Piece is crazy good this week is an understatement. It’s been crazy good for 1,000+ chapters. Folks who champion the series as the best shonen manga ever written really do have a pretty strong case; no shonen series since Hunter x Hunter has so challenged my expectations for what the genre can be.
Bizarrely enough, I wouldn’t mind if Oda kept One Piece going for another 1,000 chapters, because somehow after 24 years it feels like he’s barely scratched the surface of this wild world he’s dreamed up. But apparently he’s looking to wrap it up over the next arc or two. Say it ain’t so, Oda! I feel like I’m just settling in, and can’t wait to see where this voyage goes next.