King Of The Anime, A One Piece Retrospective: Pirates Of The East Blue

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So this was me last September:

“Ugh… I cannot believe I let my friend goad me into watching a 400+ episode anime series. What does he expect me to do? Not have a life? At the very least, this will kill time before the new Avatar series comes out next year. Alright let’s get this over with.”

One month later…

“OH MY GOD!!! THIS IS THE GREATEST ANIME I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE!!!
Wait, I have a life?”

First thing you should all know about me is I have a mild case of Aspergers Syndrome, and one of my most potent symptoms is that I get extremely obsessive over certain hobbies of interest in my life. Case in point, when I get into something, I get reeeeeeally into it. I was like this with Avatar The Last Airbender for the last several years, and I’m like it with One Piece now. However, because the overarching plot of One Piece has evolved so much over the decade and a half that has culminated its existence, I have taken myself on a voyage back to the series’ origins to give our readers a little taste of what it has in store. And what better way to start than discussing the franchises’ central protagonist.

Monkey D. Luffy

“I am the man who will be King of the Pirates!”

Bold, brash, and a bottomless optimism that can only be matched by his stomach, Monkey D. Luffy is the hero of our story, and he is Awesome (No, he does not have a title card like Scott Pilgrim to tell you so, but like he needs one). He has both super human strength and the power to stretch like rubber, so he’s basically a combination of both Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, which in-and-of itself, is Awesome. Like many adventures before his own, it begins with a dream, and that dream is to become the greatest pirate in history. Stirred by the tales of his childhood hero “Red Haired” Shanks, Luffy vowed to become a pirate himself. That was before he accidentally ate the enchanted Devil Fruit of the Gum Gum tree, which gave him his rubber body at the cost of being unable to swim, a serious handicap to anyone aspiring to sail the seas. Undeterred, Luffy set out on his 17th birthday to find a crew, head for the Grand Line, surpass even his idol, and find the legendary treasure left behind by the former Pirate King Gold Roger: The One Piece.

One thing a character like Luffy does so well is take popular tropes from anime protagonists of the past and become fully committed to them. He has got to be the least wishy-washy character I have ever seen. It bears repeating that Eiichiro Oda was indeed inspired by the work of Akira Toriyama, and the parallels between Goku and Luffy are quite relevant. Both characters express pure hearts, big appetites, empty headedness, and a drive fueled by their unrelenting desire to protect the people they love. Yet in Luffy’s case, his character almost seems like an over-exaggeration of each of Goku’s traits: The drive, the appetite, and the sheer stupidity, to the EXTREME!

Some people might think that would come off as obnoxious, but it’s actually surprisingly refreshing to see a main character so consistently over-the-top. He keeps the energy so high, and there is rarely a dull moment when he’s on screen, which is good when you consider just how long this series is.

If there was one thing that wasn’t completely awesome about Luffy, it’s his English voice from the Funimation dub. Colleen Clinkenbeard has the voice duties, whom you might have heard as the new voice of Gohan and Young Goku in Dragon Ball Z Kai. I actually think she does those parts really well, and there are a handful of female characters (Priscilla in Claymore and Minai in Shikabane Hime are two great examples) where she does an excellent job, plus if you watch anything long enough you’re bound to get use to it. And yet, her version of Luffy is lacking. It’s not even a matter of her not having enough energy in her performance or not being talented enough, she just doesn’t fit the part. She makes a high-spirited 17-year-old sound like a 12-year-old who’s been smoking since he was seven, except then we do get to see him when he’s seven in a flashback, and he still has that annoying gravely voice, so apparently he’s been smoking since he was three.

Anyway, in the spirit of most fighting series, a character is put in place as a foil to our hero who will rival him throughout the series progression. Normally, when you think “rival,” usually what comes to mind is the stoic hardcore archetype, like Seto Kiba, Vegeta, Prince Zuko, Sasuke, guys like them. What doesn’t come to mind is some pink-haired, four-eyed, 14-year-old [just a guess, I don’t know his age]cabin boy enslaved by the vicious pirate “Iron Club” Alvida. AKA, this guy:

Coby

“I am the man who will be a marine admiral.” Ha-ha… wait seriously?

Coby is the very first person Luffy befriends on his journey (in fact, he’s the first central character we’re introduced to even before Luffy shows up). He has no discernible talent for fighting, he’s shy, quite cowardly, and as Luffy puts it, kind of a worthless wimp. Despite this, Luffy does see Coby’s kind heart and strong ambition, so he takes it upon himself to clobber the Alvida Pirates, as well as the “Iron Club” herself, and help Colby escape so he can be free to follow his own dreams: to become a marine and fight for justice (that, and Luffy needs a temporary navigator to get him to the next island.)

And that, in a nutshell is the first episode: A boy aspiring to be a pirate beats up a bunch of other pirates to rescue another boy aspiring to be a marine, and somehow, it makes perfect sense. Already this show is making my previous perceptions of good and evil spin around like crazy, and that’s what’s so great about introducing Coby first. He foreshadows how non black and white this world really is and how Luffy’s journey to become King of the Pirates is going to pit him against people who aren’t, in any sense of the word, bad. It gets even more confusing when you consider Episodes 2 and 3 consist of him doing the exact opposite thing he just did: Rescue an outlaw from the Marines.

 

Roronoa Zoro

“My swordsmanship will be so great, even the heavens will hear my name.”

Roronoa Zoro, age 19, is the Wolverine of One Piece. By that I mean he is the show’s top badass, and EVERYONE knows it. Sure, Luffy is awesome, but his lighthearted goofy nature keeps him from eating, sleeping and breathing badassery the way Zoro does. He’s a santoryu, which means he fights with three swords. At the same time! A style unlike any swordsmen I have ever seen. Even just hearing about him, Luffy was intrigued. He and Coby rush to the Navy base to find him, and what is the first thing we see this badass doing?

Tied to a stake, daydreaming of his childhood when he repeatedly got his ass kicked by a girl. …Remember the X-Men animated series, when the first time we see Wolverine, he got KO’ed by freaking Jubilee? Yeah it’s kind of like that. But I swear, everything after that is badass. Speaking of badass, guess what badass voice actor plays him in the Funimation Dub. I’ll give you a hint: It’s one of Mr. Pranger’s favorites. [Pranger’s note: It’s Chris Sabat isn’t it?] [Pranger’s REAL Note: Sabat? I hate that guy!] Bingo! [Pranger’s note: That’s it, I’m watching it in Japanese.]

Anyway, Zoro has become infamous for hunting down pirates across the East Blue but was imprisoned when he stood up the Marine Captain’s bratty son Helmeppo, who was using his status to bully the villagers. Instead of flipping out, Zoro decides to do his time and be free in a month.

Only one problem.

Helmeppo has no intention of letting Zoro live, and instead sets him up to be executed. Luffy’s still hell-bent on convincing Zoro to join his crew, and Coby knows this sentence is not justified, so both agree to help save him. In a brawl with the marines and their corrupt Captain, “Ax-Hand” Morgan (yes, a lot of characters have nicknames), Zoro realizes he has made himself an outlaw and therefore agrees to become a Pirate and join Luffy’s crew. Yet he makes it clear that if Luffy ever gets in the way of his own dream, he will not hesitate to cut him down. Luffy, rather than be threatened by this statement, is overjoyed that his first crewmember has an aspiration so great:

“The world’s greatest swordsmen? That’s great. The King of the Pirates needs that on his side. I expect nothing less.”

And so, Luffy gets himself a first mate and the two set sail in pursuit of their equally crazy dreams.

Sparrow and Turner only wish they could be this epic.

Only one more problem.

Neither one of them has any sense of direction. Yep, while both of them are spectacular fighters, they are also complete idiots, and with Coby staying behind to join the marines, they won’t have a navigator to guide them to the next island, let alone make it to the Grand Line. So while they’re just wandering the ocean for a while, perhaps this is a good time to further explore what drives these two.

Past and Promises

There are three unwritten rules that each and every member of Luffy’s pirate crew seems to comply with. Rule #1: You have to become Luffy’s friend. Rule #2: You have to specialize in a skill that Luffy does not have. And Rule #3: You have to have a completely, gut wrenching, tear-jerking, impractical, over-the-top, melodramatic back-story.

Here. Let’s let Luffy demonstrate.

So Luffy’s story starts 10 years ago when he’s so desperate to prove to “Red Haired” Shanks and his crew that he is worthy of being a pirate that he goes to call out a group of mountain bandits who belittled his idol the other day. Luffy gets himself caught and the bandits’ leader throws him into the ocean. Unfortunately, the shores of Windmill Village are guarded by a vicious serpent (A Sea King as the show calls them). That, and because Luffy ate the Gum Gum Fruit, he can’t swim either. He’s as good as dead, until Shanks rushes to save Luffy’s life, losing his left arm in the process. (And because he’s not a Namekian, it’s not growing back. No, Automail does not exist in this universe either.) While Luffy is feeling unbearably guilty for crippling his hero, Shanks will later proclaim that he gave his arm as a gamble on the new generation of pirates. Before departing from Windmill one last time, Shanks gives Luffy his trademark straw hat, and makes him promise to return it to him the day he becomes a great pirate.

Well, that was indeed very touching. Way to set the bar Luffy.

Now let’s go check on Zoro ten years ago.

Even at the age of nine, Roronoa Zoro, then only a two-sword stylist, was already a very formidable swordsmen who could even take on adults with his skills. And yet, his journey to the top hits a brick wall when he encounters one person he cannot beat: Kuina, his sensei’s daughter. After losing to her 2000 times in a row in kendo matches, Zoro challenges her to a duel with real swords. Yet again, he falls short. In a moment where Zoro’s pride is ready to shatter out of frustration, Kuina verbally kicks him is the teeth by saying that she should be the one that’s frustrated, and yes, this conversation is going exactly where you expect it. She gives him this sob story about how girls grow weaker than men when they grow up, and no matter how much she wants to be a master swordsmen, Zoro is eventually going to surpass her simply through the process of puberty. Needless to say, he doesn’t take that very well:

“What are you crying about!? You beat me! That’s not fair! Beating you is my dream! Someday, I’ll beat you because I worked hard, not because you got weaker! It’s got nothing to do with being a boy or a girl! I’m training every day to beat you! You’re making me look bad!”

Zoro inspires Kuina to make a pact with him: that one of the two of them will become the world’s best swordsmen, so that they could fight each other for the title. Kuina accepts, and they make it a promise.

And literally the next morning, Kuina trips down the stairs and dies.

That’s not even out of context, it was that sudden. She’s dead, and all because of a freak accident. There’s no way around it, Oda, THAT was harsh, and you wrote that when you were younger than me.

Zoro inherits Kuina’s sword (by his own request to her father), and he makes a vow to keep the promise for the both of them. Thus is the birth of his triple sword style.

 

Nami

“The only things I love are money and tangerines.”

Now that we are emotionally invested in our duo, time to meet the girl that’s going to get them where they need to go: Nami, 18-years-old, a woman who’s as clever and cunning as she is eye-candy. While this character is very well loved among fans and is often seen as one of the most fascinating leading ladies in anime, I can’t get over the fact that her first impression paints her as a culmination of every single feminine quality I despise: A selfish, manipulative, hypocritical, flip-on-a-dime, money obsessed thief who we later learn is prone to quadro-polar freakouts nearly every other episode at least (think Misty, but possessed by Satan). While it is true that we won’t fully understand Nami until her backstory is revealed in another 40-odd episodes (which is definitely worth the wait), for now, we just have to put up with her, because dispite all this she’s a brilliant Navigator and Luffy needs her on his side.

Too bad her first act of gratitude toward Luffy saving her ass from a pair of pirates is tying him up and turning him over to the very pirates she stole from claiming that the pirate is her boss and put her up to it so she could infiltrate the crew and steal a map to the Grand Line, all for herself. Yeah, I know. She is a horrible human being. Yet it gets even worse, as the pirates in question are captained by non other than Buggy the Clown, who runs a pirate crew that consists exclusively of carnies (and if you can think of a combination that sounds more frightening than pirates and carnies, I owe you a coke). While Buggy’s first mate Moji is a tamer with a pet lion [named Richie]as big as an elephant, and his second mate Cabaji is a lightning fast unicycle-riding swordsman, it is Buggy himself that turns out to be the most threatening. He is the second character we meet who has eaten one of the Devil Fruits. His power comes from the Chop Chop fruit, which allows him to split his body apart and send the separate pieces of himself flying in any direction.

“Why so serious!”

In a swashbuckling battle of crazy hijinks, backstabbing, and a Devil Fruit showdown, Nami uses her skill with a rope to tie down Buggy’s body parts, making him an easy target. Luffy sends the clown blasting off, Team Rocket style, where I’m sure we will never see him again, wink wink. Nami realizes just how much she can use the muscle in her quest for the Grand Line’s treasures, so she agrees to join Luffy and Zoro as their navigator. The first story arc ends with the trio setting sail in their little fish boat to pursue their dreams. On the way, a bigger crew, bigger ship, bigger booty, and bigger heartbreaks, bigger fights and bigger victories all await their journey toward the Grand Line.

And thus ends the first eight episodes/21 chapters of One Piece. How does it hold up? Compared to the current, immensely tragic events of the most recent arcs, this is just a lot of fun. The pacing isn’t nearly as good as say Avatar or Gurren Lagann, but it’s a ton better than the first few episodes of DBZ and Naruto. The writing and dialogue is pretty clever when it wants to be, and does a great job at giving personality to everyone, even the minor characters that only show up for an episode or two. The art and animation looks a bit nostalgic, but that’s not bad. While the show doesn’t take itself too seriously, there are some very tender moments concerning Luffy and Zoro’s back-stories. The villains, while occasionally goofy, are out for blood and don’t pull punches. The first two in particular are perfect foreshadows of the two specific types of baddies our heroes will frequently run into. “Iron Club” Alvida: a vicious pirate, and “Ax Hand” Morgan: a corrupt marine. While both of those guys went down with what amounted to a single blow, Buggy was the first legitimate threat, and he was also the first enemy with Devil Fruit powers like Luffy. Expect more of those to crop up as we go along as well.

So if you like pirates, anime, intense action, or just plain good storytelling, come aboard and watch/read One Piece. From the words of the future King of the Pirates, “There are incredible adventures out there just waiting for us.”

If you already like One Piece, than maybe you’d enjoy one of these:

Authentically Awesome Anime: Samurai 7

Triple Feature: Pokemon The First Three Movies

Authentically Awesome Anime: A Gurren Lagann Retrospective

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