For many anime enthusiasts, Eiichiro Oda’s monster story One Piece represents a mountain that one has neither the time nor the energy to traverse. After all, Oda’s been writing this story for 20 years with no sign of ending it. The manga is close to a whopping 900 chapters, and the anime isn’t far behind in number of episodes. People usually say, “Sounds interesting, but I don’t want to commit that much time to watching an anime.”
I completely understand this sentiment because I thought the same thing. One Piece certainly sounded intriguing, but there was no way the time commitment to digest such a story would be worth it, right?
The problem, I’ve realized, is that One Piece doesn’t quite compare to other battle shōnen, and it certainly doesn’t compare to other long-running anime series. Stories such as Naruto, Dragon Ball, and Bleach suffered from story fatigue towards the end of their runs; the mangaka were tired, and it shows. To imagine those series running for 900 chapters is a cringe-worthy thought. But One Piece is different. Instead of suffering from fatigue, it becomes more engaging as time goes on. The length, which hinders most other stories, becomes One Piece’s greatest strength.
An Introduction to the One Piece World
The story of One Piece is set in an alternative fantasy world in which a single thin continent runs on longitude 0, encircling the globe and dividing the world into four seas. Known as the Red Line, this continent has mountains so tall they reach above the clouds and are almost impossible to traverse. On the equator sits the Grand Line, a sea in which bizarre weather patterns are normal and conventional compasses don’t work. On both sides of the Grand Line lies the Calm Belt, which has no wind and is inhabited by dangerous sea monsters, making travel difficult at best. Because of both the Red Line and the Calm Belt there is only one route into the Grand Line, and it requires some fantastic sailing with a lot of guts.
In the history of One Piece‘s world, only one man managed to sail the Grand Line in its entirety, and his name was Gol D. Roger. In the introduction of the very first anime episode, the narration says:
Wealth, fame, power. Gol Roger, King of the Pirates, obtained this and everything else the world had to offer, and with his dying breath sent countless souls to the seas. “You want my treasure? You can have it! I left everything I gathered together in one place. Now you just have to find it.” These words lured men to the Grand Line in pursuit of dreams greater than they’d ever dare to imagine! This is the time known as the Great Pirate Era!
Twenty years after Gol Roger’s death, Monkey D. Luffy sets out to follow in the pirate’s footsteps to conquer the Grand Line, become King of the Pirates, and find the mysterious treasure known as One Piece. Luffy’s journey begins in the East Blue when he declares himself Captain of the Straw Hat Pirates without a crew and without a ship. The closer Luffy gets to finding One Piece, the more crewmates, ships, wealth, fame, and power he accrues. There’s a real sense of accomplishment as you watch Luffy go from being a nobody to one of the most powerful pirates on the seas. The consequences of his actions begin to affect more than just his crew until nations, seas, and the entire world are left changed in the wake of his passing.
The One Piece world also has one more important quirk: the presence of Devil Fruits. There are hundreds of Devil Fruits, and each one grants a different power. Some are utterly ridiculous, like the power of a giraffe, and some are insanely epic, like the power to create earthquakes. Some Devil Fruits turn the user into an element, like fire, and some change the user’s anatomy. As for Luffy, he ate a Devil Fruit that turned him into a rubber man, giving him the ability to stretch any part of his body.
Everything Has a Purpose in One Piece
Most mangaka write their series week to week without having an ending in mind, but Oda started One Piece knowing what the final panel would be. He constantly thinks about his series in the long term and introduces plot points long before they become relevant. For example, in chapter 489, a character named Lola gives one of the Straw Hats a slip of paper with her name on it. This piece of paper isn’t mentioned again until chapter 836, when it becomes vital to the plot.
Oda also does a fantastic job of introducing powerful antagonists far before Luffy is strong enough to face them. If I were to compare to other shows, it would be akin to kid Goku fighting Beerus or kid Naruto meeting Pain. By showing such powerful foes earlier in the series, there’s a sense of danger and vulnerability for Luffy. He doesn’t overcome by the power of friendship or by unexpectedly gaining a powerup—Luffy loses, and when he does, it’s painful. He rides out the consequences in a way that feels altogether human and that makes him relatable. As Luffy deals with these challenges he matures, becoming more contemplative as One Piece progresses.
The meticulous dedication Oda has to the details means his story has a consistency simply not found in other battle shōnen. There are over 950 named characters in One Piece to date, and most of them have a back story, motivation, and quirk. Every Straw Hat has a specific role to play, and each is vital to the group’s survival. Instead of sidelining characters during big fights, Oda gives them a task or enemy to face on their level. The crew’s powers are diversified, so no one fights in the same way. Luffy punches, Zoro has katanas, Sanji kicks, Nami controls the weather, Franky has cyborg gadgets, Usopp has a slingshot, Chopper is a reindeer who can transform, Robin’s Devil Fruit allows her to sprout arms, and so on.
The longer One Piece goes on, the more it moves from simple battle shōnen to layered story with multiple facets. It has conspiracies, political intrigue, racism, social inequality, and economics. There’s so much mystery that has yet to be revealed. What is the will of D? What secret is the World Government trying to protect? How did the Devil Fruits come to be? And what exactly is the One Piece treasure? The amount of unresolved plot threads means it would be impossible for Oda to wrap up the series in the next year or two. One Piece must continue for the rewards at the end to feel potent and satisfying.
Should You Watch or Read?
It’s important to understand that while the One Piece anime has an low amount of actual “filler” content, the episodes can drag in some (but not all) sections as the series tries to stay behind the manga. In general, One Piece is a slow-burn story, so while the early episodes are important for One Piece’s foundation, they can be uninteresting at times. Unlike Studio Perriot’s Naruto, which debuted the same year as One Piece, Toei’s early episodes for the series look dated. The character designs aren’t close to the manga, and the art is flat. It isn’t until episode 207, when the anime switches from 4:3 to 16:9 ratio, that the art finally improves.
Despite these issues, watching One Piece is a joy. The score is fantastic, and Toei delivers some wonderfully animated sequences from top-tier animators. The subtitled version of One Piece is my personal recommendation, as viewers won’t want to miss the experience of Mayumi Tanaka’s performance as Luffy. She nails his character, and I distinctly remember getting goosebumps during scenes when Luffy is enraged, grieving, and fighting his most desperate battles.
The manga, on the other hand, is a fine read. Once Oda comes into his own as an artist, you’ll find his manga has a “messy” quality. His style works well for the feel of One Piece, and as time goes on, the panels become more and more complicated. Ultimately, whether you watch or read is entirely up to your personal tastes.
Is There a Way to “Try Out” One Piece?
If you’re just wanting to dip your toe into the world of this series, there is a movie you can watch, provided you don’t mind seeing Luffy’s powerups and the entire crew before they join. Strong World is the 10th One Piece theatrical release, and unlike the other movies, it’s written by Oda himself. The film is about two hours long and in that time gives a decent cross-section of the feel of the series. The visuals are breathtaking, the music is fantastic, and the story balances Oda’s wacky humor with his more serious writing. Strong World doesn’t require any additional information beyond what’s provided in this article, but should you decide to start One Piece after seeing the movie, it will be worth watching again when you’ve gained more context.
If this series’ length is the only reason you haven’t engaged with it, don’t let that stop you. One Piece is storytelling at its best. It’ll make you laugh, cry, cheer, and wonder why you hadn’t started watching the Straw Hat Pirates’ adventures sooner.