Thirteen years ago on August 4, 1997, Japan was introduced to the first chapter of One Piece, a fantastical new series written by a young man named Eiichiro Oda set in a golden age of piracy. Starting from humble beginnings following an idealistic bug-eyed boy with a crummy straw hat and a taste for adventure, the series slowly snowballed into something far greater than anyone could have ever imagined. Just take a look at any manga shelf at Barnes and Noble or Borders, and it becomes very apparent that One Piece is a series of great size and scope, covering the Strawhat Pirates’ journey thus far measuring nearly the first half of the entire world and ten thousand meters into the sky.
It’s a simple and predictable journey, one may argue. Boy has a dream of greatness, and when he reaches the end of the world, he will have achieved said dream. But in a journey that takes so long and spans so many volumes, it would be so easy to veer off track and become a mere shadow of its former goals. Yet at sixty volumes as of December 2010, the series is still as strong as ever (and arguably stronger than it’s ever been). Not an easy accomplishment, to be sure. But how has it stayed so strong? There are many different reasons as to why it is that One Piece after so many years, continues to be a rewarding experience week after week, but I believe it to be, in large part, due to Eiichiro Oda’s constant threading throughout the entire series. Threading that helps keep the story's diverse arcs linked together like an intricately woven fabric.
But what exactly do I mean by threading? Sorry creative writing majors, but I don’t necessarily mean thematic threading (though he does a great deal of that as well). I’m talking about the kind of threading that binds the series together into one giant cohesive world, and more importantly, a giant cohesive story: plot and character threading. Because of these two types of threading, even the most off-kilter and ridiculous story arcs manage to find their purpose in the overall story. If you have yet to read up through the Water 7 arc in the manga, then now might be a good point to stop reading, ‘cause I’ll spoil the hell out of you if you don’t (and if you just don’t care, then by all means keep reading. I’ve always found that the journey of One Piece is far more important than the shocking plot twists), as it is impossible to discuss the threading in the story without linking it to events occurring even now in the story. For now I will only discuss the first hundred some-odd chapters in what has become known as the East Blue Saga of One Piece.
The story starts off simple enough, with our young and boisterous protagonist Monkey D. Luffy leaving his hometown of Fuusha Village. It had been many years since the Red-Haired Shanks and his band of pirates had docked there, and ever since Shanks had left behind his token straw hat, Luffy had vowed to become a strong pirate himself; and not just a strong pirate, but the King of Pirates, a title only held by the infamous pirate Gold Roger twenty some-odd years ago. In this day and age, the pirate who finds Gold Roger’s hidden treasure, the One Piece, will rule the seas. And so begins Luffy’s great journey, leading him from island to island in search of a strong reliable crew with whom he could share his dream.
Therein lies our first bit of threading: the One Piece. It is, after all the namesake of the series, so chances are it’s important. Through every arc, sidequest, trial and tribulation, Luffy and company always have their eyes on the eventual prize. It’s the one thing that will signify an end in sight to the reader, which is something that no series can claim to have. In many cases in a long-running shonen series, the story ends when the author just decides to end it, and the end goal is rarely something that the protagonist set out to accomplish at the very beginning of the series.
The second bit of threading in One Piece comes in chapter 2 of the series in the form of an annoying pink-haired little boy named Coby. Coby is a cowardly kid who dreams of one day becoming a brave marine. After gaining a bit of courage and inspiration from Luffy, he sets out to achieve his goal and enlists in the marines. So how does this tie in? You remember all those cheesy shows you used to watch as a kid where two friends about to go their own separate ways always say the terrible cheesy line “we’ll meet again someday?” It’s a nice sentiment, but usually you realize that the actual series will be long done before we, the reader/audience, gets a chance to see the two characters meet again? Well surprise surprise, over 400 chapters later, who else do we meet but Coby himself, no longer the feeble coward we once knew and well on the path to achieving his ultimate dream. He’s a minor character thread, but he’s still one that helps link the very late chapters in the series with the very first ones, giving the story a very united feel to it. What’s more is that it turns out that the man who is training Coby is none other than Luffy’s grandfather Vice-Admiral Garp. So not only is the story itself linked together with this one character, but even the world itself starts to link together like a giant jigsaw puzzle, creating an incredibly rewarding feeling for loyal readers.
Now let’s jump back to the beginning of the story, shall we? Continuing on from Coby, Luffy meets Zoro (his first mate and swordsman), Nami (his navigator), and Usopp (his eventual sniper). Now let’s stop again at Usopp, for another thread has appeared. It turns out that Usopp is the only son of the pirate Yasopp, who happens to be the marksman in Red-Hair Shanks’ crew, which if you recall is the very same crew that docked at Luffy’s home village when he was a kid. It’s a minor character thread, but it still is something that links back to the beginning of the story, making this world feel more and more like it has some grand plan in mind. After all, Luffy plans on seeing Shanks again one day, and when that happens will Usopp be able to proudly stand at his side and greet his father as a man? So not only is Usopp connected to Luffy’s past through Yasopp, he’s also connected to Luffy’s present as a member of the crew, and to his future on the day that the two meet the Red-Haired Pirates. Once again, everything links up nicely, and builds anticipation to a possible future.
Let us now move on to the Baratie arc where Luffy meets the cook in his crew: Sanji. Despite the villain of the arc’s brute strength, where the importance truly lies is in the chance encounter with the character Dracule Mihawk, the world’s greatest swordsman. Zoro, being a true swordsman, jumps at the chance to fight this man, though quickly is picked apart by Mihawk with little effort. This fight is a signifier of how weak the Strawhats are at this point and time, and how much bigger the world is on the Grand Line (which, by the way, is the strip of ocean surrounding the world that the Strawhats hope to navigate). This moment reignites Zoro’s goal to be the best swordsman in the world, and he promises to train hard and challenge Mihawk again when they meet. This also marks the first time that the Strawhats meet someone who’s high-up on the government food chain. Though not a Marine, Mihawk is what is known as a Warlord of the Sea, a title given by the World Government to pirates with special privileges. This title means that the government will let the pirate do what they want if said pirate fights when the government calls for assistance. This is something that becomes important much later on in the series when the World Government calls on the Seven Warlords for assistance in a very important battle against a very important pirate (who will be discussed in Part Two of this essay).
The next thread comes directly following the Baratie arc where allies Johnny and Yosaku explain who the Seven Warlords are and bring up one by the name of Jimbei, who was once a member of the same pirate crew as Arlong, who, by the way, is main villain in the next arc. After throwing Jimbei’s name to the audience, any rational human being would think it was only a short matter of time before the character was formally introduced to the audience. Not in this series. Only after another 459 chapters does the audience finally get their first real glimpse of the fish-man. So even amidst the darkness and horror that is Impel Down (when Jimbei is formally introduced), we find some link to the One Piece of old that reminds us that this is all a part of some grand scheme that the author must have had, right? Of course there’s no way that the author had everything planned from the beginning, but it does, over time, make the reader trust the author of the story, knowing that as crazy as things get, the man has a plan that will make everything better.
Now let us move on past the Arlong arc into Logue Town (we’re currently around chapter 99 now), where Luffy and the Strawhats are introduced to Captain Smoker. Smoker is important in several ways to the overall story, but I’ll only point out two. The first is his link to the second villain of the series: Captain Morgan (introduced in chapter 4). Before Luffy came around, Captain Morgan ruled his town with an iron fist, even going so far as to kill innocent civilians just to prove how great he was. He was a symbol of primal fear in town and is pretty much what us (the reader) would expect every Marine officer to be like. After all, we can’t have our protagonist fighting a good guy, right? When introduced to Captain Smoker, the author plays off our expectations, and when a little girl drops ice cream on his pants, we expect him to hurt her on the spot. But immediately, he throws away our expectations by having Captain Smoker offer to buy her another ice cream to replace the one she dropped. Smoker is both a reminder of Morgan and a foil to his character. This threads the story back to the very beginning. Then there’s his relationship with Luffy. When Luffy escapes Logue Town, chasing him down seems to become Smoker’s life goal. Throughout the next major story arc and even later on, Smoker and the Strawhats have their bouts of helping and hurting each other, a relationship not unlike the one that Luffy’s grandfather, Vice-Admiral Garp, had with Gold Roger twenty years prior. It is unclear if Eiichiro Oda plans to follow through with this parallel, but at present it seems like a strong possibility. This simultaneously links to the world twenty years ago, and a possible future that will probably take place on the second half of the Grand Line at some point in the story.
Finally, Logue Town brings back villains Alvida and Buggy (who were Luffy’s first and third opponents in the story, respectively). Apart from the fact that these were the earliest villains of the series (and therefore link this arc to the very beginning of the story), they affect the story in many other ways. In their attempt to kill Luffy, several threads emerge. The first is that of Luffy smiling at that moment the thought he was dead. Twenty years ago, Gold Roger, smiled that same smile on his moment of execution. Up until this point I, as a reader, had still not believed Luffy to be anything that could measure up to the legend of Gold Roger. This was the first instance where I realized that maybe the two were not so different after all. These parallels to Roger continue throughout the story, and this links Luffy not only plot-wise, but world-wise as well. The next thread comes in the form of a man named Dragon, who saves Luffy at the last second. His true identity or place in the story is originally a mystery, and it will only be after another 300+ chapters that we realize that the man is, in fact, Luffy’s father.
Even within the first hundred chapters, we are given threads that will continue on for the foreseeable future, linking characters to characters, characters to events, and events to the overall world. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. In the Baroque Works saga, there is thread after thread laid ever-so-carefully that correlate directly to events happening in late 500s. While this may be it for my Manga Moveable Feast, this will not be it for my analysis of the threads in One Piece. Stay tuned over the next month for subsequent entries.