[Hello all and welcome back to Weeb Analysis where this month we’ll be taking a look at a true titan of the industry with One Piece. Weeb Analysis is a monthly column dedicated to analyzing new anime and seeing which titles are truly the classics in the making and which ones are worthless shlock not worth your time. The question now stands: is One Piece worth analyzing, or is it a waste of your time?]
On November 21st, 2021, One Piece will air its 1,000th episode. Just let that sink in. A series that has been airing new episodes virtually every week for over two decades is reaching an unimaginable milestone. Let’s just remove this discussion from the anime industry for a second. There are more episodes of One Piece than there are episodes of The Simpsons. No animated series outside of Pokemon has as many episodes as One Piece does and I would argue that One Piece’s achievement is more notable than Pokemon’s solely because One Piece has been telling a single, ongoing saga for its entire existence.
There is so much to unpack with One Piece from its place in anime history as being the most successful anime/manga franchise of all time. As far as general sales go, One Piece has shipped half a billion volumes since its inception in 1997, which is even more impressive considering Dragon Ball Z (which many instantly associate with anime) has only shipped 300 million volumes since its creation in 1984. There is no getting around the fact that in terms of raw numbers, One Piece IS anime. There is no other series like it, which makes tackling this series in particular absolutely mind-melting.
Where do you even begin with One Piece? How do you celebrate the history of a series that has endured and will continue to endure and influence generations of otaku for years to come? How do you even begin to unpack the decades of episodes leading up to this momentous occasion? How do you recommend a series like One Piece to a complete newcomer? Is it even possible to do that? To understand One Piece is to understand the shifting tides of the anime industry, its peaks, and valleys, and to understand why a series like this is as celebrated as it is. So why not start at the beginning?
What you’ve just witnessed above was the infamous “Pirate Rap.” One Piece premiered in the West on September 18th, 2004, on the Saturday morning programming block Fox Box (may it rest in peace). However, most people, like myself, probably started to watch the series when it premiered on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block in April of 2004. I watched the show weekly alongside other anime that were reaching the States at the time. Things like Naruto, Zatch Bell, Dragon Ball GT, and the legendary Yu Yu Hakusho. However, One Piece was never my favorite series to watch, and it primarily had to do with the production company behind the localization effort: 4Kids Entertainment.
There is A LOT to say about 4Kids Entertainment. Some will argue that the company was fundamental in introducing anime to a younger demographic in Saturday morning cartoon slots and made those series more accessible to a wider audience. Others will argue that it neutered the shows it had and sanded down the edges too much that stress balls have a greater chance of cutting you. I tend to fall on the latter end of the scale since, while its efforts were somewhat appreciated back in the day, rewatching these dubs and adaptations is one of the purest examples of removing raw dramatic moments from the shows and making… interesting directorial decisions. You could even make the argument that One Piece’s popularity in the West was stifled entirely because of 4Kids efforts back in the day since it is notably less popular in the United States versus everywhere else in the world.
Cigarettes were a no-go for children’s shows, so anyone with a cigarette was instead eating a lollipop. A villain in one of the early arcs used poison suction cups to beat their enemies. Many characters cursed and there are some really dark moments in earlier parts of the series, like a character severing their foot to give to a starving kid so that they wouldn’t die. One Piece was most certainly not a kid-friendly series and in an interview after the fact, then senior vice-president of 4Kids, Mark Kirk, said that the company pawned off One Piece as soon as possible since there was no way that it could make the series fit into the kid’s target demographic no matter how hard it tried.
That’s because One Piece is a bold series that tackles a lot of difficult concepts that most franchises would be afraid to tackle. You have some standard themes that are fairly universal in fiction, such as honor, courage, standing up for what you believe in, etc. Then you have deep examinations of institutional racism, civil war, child abuse, child slavery, trauma, corrupted and hypocritical governments, historical revisionism, among many, many other topics. When a series goes on for as long as One Piece has, there tends to be a lot of tough topics the show addresses.
Yet I never really watched the show once 4Kids dropped the rights and they were subsequently picked up by Funimation. In fact, I primarily know One Piece from the manga. Since 2003 I’ve been going to the same comic book store and buying my volumes of One Piece and following along that way. As a matter of fact, I rarely watch the series nowadays. I know everything that’s happening inside of it, but my engagement with the anime is limited to memes that become all-consuming in the anime world, as well as the one-off film that comes along every couple of years or so.
To follow One Piece is basically to dedicate a good amount of your life to it. Like, it’s bordering on The Wheel of Time for sheer scope and size. The plot of the series follows one Monkey D. Luffy as he travels around the world to find a treasure known as the One Piece left by the legendary pirate, Gol D. Roger. The person who finds it will be crowned the King of the Pirates, which leads to an age of piracy where for decades, crews have been sailing the world in search of it. Luffy establishes his own crew when he’s of age, which now numbers ten as of this writing with hundreds, and I mean hundreds, of allies, tons of plot threads, and seeds planted that it’s both glorious and insane.
One Piece is an epic by every example of the word. Each major arc the anime adapts continuously ups the stakes in terms of scale, spectacle, and importance to the world at large, yet everything connects. One-off characters who appeared earlier in the show many come back dozens, if not hundreds of episodes later to play a pivotal role in the adventures of Luffy’s crew, the Straw Hat Pirates. Most of those adventures usually entail the crew going up against some big bad, whether it be another pirate crew, a sanctioned government organization stirring up trouble in the name of “preserving the peace,” or self-proclaimed gods and angels.
One Piece gets pretty nuts, and its power system is even crazier, with characters consuming Devil Fruits to gain abilities. These abilities range from turning your body into fire or electricity to stretching your body like rubber to being unable to die or turning yourself into a pterodactyl. One of the highlights of each arc is discovering the new cast of colorful characters unique to the arc and which weird powers they have. One arc has a man who can swim through any object, who works alongside a little girl who can turn people into toys, all under the rule of a sociopath that can control string. If you thought you’d seen creative superpowers, I guarantee you that One Piece will have at least one ability that will set your imagination ablaze. But regardless of which Devil Fruit a person has, they all have the same drawback: they lose the ability to swim. Considering this is a seafaring adventure, that’s kind of a big deal.
One thing about One Piece that makes it so impressive, even to this day, is just how its creator, Eichiro Oda, plays the long game. Like I said, plot threads and characters introduced at the beginning of the show are used hundreds of episodes later to inform character development. Take Brook, the merry afro skeleton musician of the Straw Hat Pirates. We’re first introduced to him in episode 337 and over the course of 45 episodes, we learn a lot about him as the crew explores a gigantic island-sized ship full of zombies. However, it’s during that time that Brook reveals that he developed a friendship with a whale while he was alive… the same whale that met and befriended the Straw Hat crew in episode 62. A seed was planted and it took around 300 hundred episodes for that story beat to pay off. And that’s just a minor example.
I can’t even begin to describe just how grand of a story One Piece actually is and has become. The series was originally meant to be only 12 volumes but since then it just never seems to stop. The anime also just keeps on trucking along, getting bigger and bigger. The current arc in the anime, Wano, has been going on for well over 100 episodes and is nowhere near concluding. It may be another year before we actually reach some resolution on it, which is mind-boggling.
As shocking as that may be, what is even wilder is how virtually all of it is essential. There are hardly any unnecessary, anime-original storylines that crop up in One Piece since the show spends so much of its time on its already massive plot. There’s no reason for the show to spin its wheels with unnecessary plots because the one it’s trying to tell is just so dense. However, this does lead to the two biggest weaknesses of the show, and they are crippling weaknesses I will admit: the glacial pace of the plot, and the sheer density of it.
Yes, One Piece will be going on for 1,000 episodes, but a whole lot of nothing happens in most of them. Some episodes don’t even adapt a single chapter of the manga and each chapter usually runs twenty pages with a bunch of action scenes. One Piece is a Shonen action series, therefore there are a lot of fight scenes that go on for ludicrously long periods of time. Every major arc features one of the Straw Hat Crew -and there are a lot of them- fighting some unique enemy that puts their skills to the test. Each of these fights tends to go on for a couple of episodes.
Take the Enies Lobby arc, where six of the Straw Hats launch a rescue operation to save their archeologist, Nico Robin. All six members have to fight against a unique enemy, which includes establishing the threat, showing off their powers, each crew member trying to come up with a strategy to fight them, and eventually winning. It’s formulaic, and a damned good one, but as the show balloons in size, so do the conflicts. Enies Lobby lasts for 48 episodes, but that pace is absolutely brisk compared to later arcs. Dressrosa, the longest arc in the show (for now), clocks in at 117 episodes. 117 episodes of introducing new characters and countless fights. So many fights. They just never end.
To make things even more challenging, when you’re making new episodes of a long-running anime on a weekly basis for over two decades, the production quality isn’t going to be consistent. Some episodes look dirt cheap and spend most of their runtime drawing out scenes as much as humanly possible to the point of frustration. Yet that’s counterbalanced by the show just absolutely going ham with the budget on key scenes. It was only a few months ago that the anime community was gifted with this awesome music video from a villain’s rave that has better production values than most feature films. Like… they didn’t need to go as hard as they did, but when push comes to shove, the animators can make key moments really stand out. It’s just a shame that you usually have to wait months for those moments to come.
Then you have the sheer length of it all. No matter how much praise I heap onto One Piece, the nearly impossible sell for the series is that it’s too damn long. Have you ever tried to watch 1,000 episodes of an anime? Unless you’re a masochist, just give up. To try and watch the series from start to finish now would be a fool’s task.
As much as I love it, I would agree with that statement. Keep in mind, I stopped watching One Piece once the 4Kids dub concluded. I never bothered to watch the series after that for a variety of reasons. One, the dub was lagging behind the manga, which turbocharged localization in the late 2000s to catch up with what was being published in Japan. Two, as a teenager, I stopped watching Toonami and when it went off the air for a few years, I had no idea where to even watch new episodes. And three, I was just impatient. Each new episode that aired only minimally progressed the plot as a whole, making each arc better to watch in one go. Unfortunately, when each arc takes about a year to fully air, you can see the conundrum I had.
To watch 1,000 episodes of a show just to catch up and see what’s going on requires some insane dedication. To be perfectly honest, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve been reading the manga since I was a kid, I probably wouldn’t bother trying to hop on the One Piece bandwagon. Yet I am here to tell you that it is, most definitely, possible. You CAN watch start watching One Piece from the very beginning. I should know because, as a true monster, I recommended to my girlfriend that she should watch One Piece.
And she did!
After starting the series at the end of March, she caught up on it and now watches it weekly as it airs. It took her up until October to get to that point, over seven months of watching it in her spare time, but she did it. My God, she did it. Against all odds, it’s now one of her favorite pieces of media ever. She adores the show not just because I like it, but because she has fallen in love with the characters. She loves the Straw Hat Crew, their tragic backstories, the heinous villains they have to face, and the sheer ridiculousness of the plot. She loves it all and swears by it. But it was an ask. A BIG ask.
This is a problem that isn’t unique to One Piece, though. It’s a problem that any long-running media series eventually has to contend with. The longer it goes on, the harder it is to keep viewership and the harder it is to gain new ones. Comic books have been facing this issue for decades, the MCU is starting to contend with this as it splits focus between several different formats and an ever-expanding universe, and One Piece has these exact same issues. You can’t simply start at episode 1,000 and expect to follow along. If you’re going to watch One Piece, you need to commit to it from the beginning. That simply isn’t up for debate.
I’m aware that the longer this piece goes on, the less it focuses on the show itself and more on the obstacles that will inevitably prevent a person from watching it. It’s a weird way to celebrate a momentous occasion, by explaining in great detail why I simply can’t watch the show weekly and why even attempting to do so will take months from your life. If I were to simply talk about the show in detail, it would rob you of the experience of watching it for yourself and seeing the dramatic turns that the story takes.
This may be my inner fan talking, but I legitimately cannot think of any part of One Piece where the story lags or fails to deliver. Each arc follows a general format, but the format works. The core cast of characters is the main draw and all of them are engaging. Even when the crew separates for certain arcs (and sometimes for years in real-world time), new and exciting characters may appear or reappear from earlier in the show to tide fans over. Maybe the Punk Hazard arc, where the crew goes to a half-fire/half-ice island controlled by a mad scientist is the most underwhelming arc, but it serves a larger narrative purpose to set up bigger and better arcs, so even then it feels essential.
More than anything, the fans keep coming back. If the show wasn’t popular, it wouldn’t have gone on as long as it is. It would have ended like one of its then anime contemporaries, Bleach, did. It reached the climax of a major arc, then ended without having a full adaptation, despite how much extra material there was to adapt. The people just lost interest, stopped tuning in, and it wasn’t seen as profitable to keep pumping money into a show with diminishing returns. Even after two decades of production, One Piece is still profitable. Fans still want to see where this wild ride goes as it keeps on sailing along.
I love One Piece. It is my favorite manga and if I was actively following the anime, it would probably be my favorite anime. People who follow the show only sing praises of it and extol its virtues, but nowadays it feels like a small tight-knit community. Getting into this show is an ask. Hell, it’s virtually impossible unless you have an absurd amount of free time or are truly invested in the series. Once you taste the pirate Kool-Aid, however, there’s no going back. You’re a One Piece fan for life. Whether you started out watching the 4Kids dub, picked it up after Funimation scooped up the rights, or watch it weekly via subs, if you’re a One Piece fan, you’re a member of the Straw Hat until you die. So happy 1,000 episodes One Piece. May you continue to excel and kindly start wrapping things up so your creator doesn’t work himself to death.
January 2021: Anime of the Year Awards 2020
February 2021: Akudama Drive
March 2021: On-Gaku: Our Sound
April 2021: The Promised Neverland
May 2021: SK8 the Infinity
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July 2021: Beastars
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October 2021: Star Wars Visions