Imagine finding a story about freedom and adventure, and never having to let go of the feeling it gives. In 7th grade, I found Eichiro Oda’s One Piece, along with other manga. But while other manga have ended or fallen away, Oda’s flagship series has endured since 1997 (and 1999 for the anime). Its story follows the adventures of the Straw Hat pirates and their captain, Monkey D. Luffy, as he seeks to become the King of the Pirates by finding the One Piece. He gathers his crew throughout the series, with everyone who joins him pursuing their own dreams and ambitions. For example, his first mate, Roronoa Zoro, aims to be the greatest swordsman in the world. His navigator, Nami, wants to create a map of the world. These characters are not overly complex, but they have each other, their respective goals, and the journey. Their simplicity allowed me to see the values they embodied, and how I could apply them in my own life.
In contrast to its characters, the world of One Piece is immensely complex. Its World Government (WG) is ruled by a slave-owning noble class, the Celestial Dragons, who live separately from the common people. The WG’s Navy fights against pirates, and there are Four Emperors of the Sea, who are pirates with enough individual power to balance out the Navy. There are also Seven Warlords of the Sea, pirates whose powers have been recognized by the Navy and who stand in opposition to the Emperors in exchange for pardons. This world also includes a 100-year period called the Void Century, which the government is set on keeping secret. There are legends of three all-powerful Ancient Weapons, and mysterious stone blocks with strange writing called Poneglyphs. Those Poneglyphs point to the island where the One Piece is waiting, leading Luffy to search them out.
This mix of simple characters and a complex world play off each other beautifully. The audience has the privilege of following Luffy from his beginnings, through meeting all of his crew, overcoming difficult enemies, and learning about the Poneglyphs and the Void Century. The reader becomes engaged, not just in how Luffy will become the King of the Pirates, but also in what the Void Century is really about. As the story progresses, we watch Luffy and his crew develop, and we discover the lengths he will go to to protect his family and friends.
We see him fight against dangerous pirates, defy the WG, and attack the Emperors because they would dare to hurt his family or friends, or stand in his way. He gains strength as he overcomes each of these challenges. He bears the scar of his greatest failure on his chest. Throughout his entire journey, he remains focused on his goal. We gain insight into his true pursuit when someone asks him why he wants to be King. His response? “It’s the freest person in this sea, who’s king of the pirates.” Luffy is in pursuit of Freedom, and in that pursuit, he leads a great life of adventure with his friends.
What makes the series so great is that Luffy is intimately tied with the events of the world, but they never touch him in such a way that is anything but personal. He doesn’t declare war against the WG at Enies Lobby because he doesn’t like the Celestial Dragons; he does it because he is friends with Nico Robin, who’s on death row. He doesn’t ally with Whitebeard in the Summit War because he wants to take down the Navy. He simply wants to save his brother, Portgas D. Ace. He doesn’t let the perceived power of any of his adversaries stop him from helping his loved ones. Instead, he rushes straight in, pushes himself to his limits each time, and comes back with greater power than he did going in.
The length of time that One Piece has been published, allowed it to stand as a touchstone for me. I would forget to read it a few times, then go back and get caught up. Each time I would get excited at Luffy’s new adventure, and each time he would show that same loyalty, determination, and drive to overcome. Those values became ones that I wanted to emulate, because I saw into a world where they determined the success or failure of some of my favorite characters. The series has served as a guide for me, a beacon that shows how to live a good life. The complex worldbuilding reflects our own modern world, where everything is dependent on each other, creating dizzying complexity. The Straw Hats have shown me that for all the world’s complications, there are some things that are timeless. Loyalty to friends, courage in the face of adversity, and an unrelenting vision of your goal. And above all else, enjoying the ride. I’ve been immensely lucky to follow those adventures, and they have served me very well by helping to shape my worldview for the better.