I don’t think I can overstate how much of a fan I am of One Piece. Back in the early-2000s, those early Viz editions (with the shiny font) helped me get through my drug-addled wisdom teeth removal recovery. I even plowed through some of those early print editions of the English Shonen Jump magazine when I was bored.
The art was goofy, the tone was off-kilter, but I couldn’t get enough of the high-seas adventure, so I ordered a box set of the anime with the terrible Hong Kong subs, which featured ridiculous translation errors.
Over the years, I’ve had an amazing ride. I’ve spent most of the past decade following the manga on a week-to-week basis. I’ve seen the industry move from illegal scanlations to legal simultaneous translations. I got involved with the amazing One Piece Podcast site, which is easily the best fan-based community for a series I have ever seen. The fact that I get to be involved with them on any level is amazing to me.
And yet, over the years, I’ve felt my enthusiasm for the series wane. A few years back, I stopped reading weekly altogether. Only a couple of months ago did I finally catch up. While I had a great time doing so, I can’t say my experience, in any way, compared to my experience in the early 2010s.
So, what is different? Has the series gotten worse? Have I just changed as a consumer?
Well, there is no doubt my own preferences have changed, but I don’t think that’s the only reason for this shift in my enthusiasm. I think a lot of it is indeed entrenched in the current goings-on in the series and author Eiichiro Oda’s approach. And, to be honest, I couldn’t put my finger on it until recently. It was a conversation on Twitter that made me realize why I felt the series has been lacking since as far back as the Fishman Island arc.
To put it simply: it stopped being character-driven.
To put it slightly less simply, it stopped being about the Straw Hats and started being about the happenings of the entire world. It stopped growing its characters and shifting its focus on moving chess pieces on a board.
Yes, I know the manga has plenty of other problems, but I won’t even mention them here. I won’t go into some of the other problems the series has in terms of its treatment of women and trans people. That is definitely a discussion worth having, but for now, I’d rather discuss what I feel are its shortcomings as a narrative.
But before I discuss its shortcomings, I need to mention what it is about the series that attracted and kept me invested in the first place.
Greatness Of Early One Piece
I first got into the series around 2003 or 2004. In fact, the first arc I read was the Captain Buggy arc. Yes, this arc was goofy and very quaint by today’s standards, but man did it get me to care. I wasn’t yet familiar with the characters, but their personalities were big enough that I could get the gist of what archetypes they were.
Luffy was a happy-go-lucky hero, Zoro was a badass, and Nami was a thief. But it got me to care about the plight of the town, and a poor little dog that lost his owner. Beyond that though, we got to know the Straw Hats. Over the course of the arcs in the East Blue saga and the entire first half of the series, we got to see why the characters were the way they were.
Each mini-arc dove into their backstories, and by the end of said arc, we got to see some big change within them. Usopp came to terms with his place in the Straw Hat crew. Nami finally asked for help after trying to fix her world by herself for many years. Chopper learned not to hate himself for what he is. Robin recognized that her life actually had true value. And Luffy? Deep into the series, he finally faced true doubt about his prospects as the King of the Pirates and had to reach deep down to keep going.
These are just a few of the more interesting arcs within the first half of the series. And they are great. Even though death is largely not on the table (this isn’t a “kill ‘em all” kind of show), the emotion behind these arcs are utterly captivating.
Yes, the fights are fun and I adore the world-building, but the characters and their growth is what really keeps me.
But that’s not to say One Piece never had its plot-driven arcs before the timeskip.
The Early Plot-Focused Arcs
The Alabasta Saga was a huge departure for the series at the time. Back then, we usually got full arcs based in one town or island. But Alabasta was over many islands and dozens of chapters. As such, it was largely plot-driven. There was a kingdom in trouble and the Straw Hats had to save them. Luckily, even without any Straw Hat growth, they had the semi-Straw Hat Vivi who helped keep the emotional core of the saga intact.
Skypiea saw almost no growth in the characters, but this story was anchored by the groundwork laid by the Jaya arc. It also helps that these two arcs were surrounded by the East Blue and Water 7 sagas, which were deeply character-focused, the latter of which I think featured the perfect mix of plot and character.
I think we got our first taste of a fully plot-focused arc with Thriller Bark. Don’t get me wrong. It was still a fun story. But there was very little to connect with emotionally. Yes, you had Brook and his connection to Laboon and the ordeal that happened with his crew, but I never got the impression that his involvement drove the arc. He was just one part of a bigger story that involved a Warlord of the Sea.
Luckily, this was quickly followed by the Sabaody Archipelago arc, which catapulted the series to further greatness. Yes, between it, Impel Down, and the Paramount War arcs, it is super plot-driven. However, it has Luffy’s growth at its center, and by the end, he is vastly changed. Between that and the world-building, I’m sure this a big saga that is fondly remembered by many.
But then came the timeskip.
The New World of One Piece
Like everyone else, I was very excited by what One Piece would have to offer us. I wanted to see how the Straw Hats progressed and how big the world would get. Sadly, I didn’t realize just how much this emphasis on world-building would change the feel of the series for good.
Fishman Island wasn’t the greatest start into the New World, but it had its purpose. It served to show just how far the characters had come and how badass they were. It also had an interesting focus on racial inequality that still resonates on some level today. But it was the most disconnected I had felt to the Straw Hat Pirates to date.
They were all pretty badass in their own ways now. And that’s totally fine, but I feel like this is around when Oda started to revert to “typical Straw Hat-isms.” What is that? It’s a term I just made up five seconds ago, but you may understand what I mean. A scene occurs, and we know that the Straw Hats need to react in some way. Because of how long we have known the characters, we know exactly how they’ll react.
Luffy will be impressed and excited. Usopp, Chopper, and Nami will likely be scared or cautious. Zoro will be sleeping. Brook will either be scared or ask to see some female character’s panties. Robin will chuckle and say something morbid. Sanji will get heart eyes and say something perverted. You get the idea. These scenes basically write themselves, really. They’re amusing, but they feel a bit…hollow. And they are too frequent for their own good. At times, it feels like Oda feels an obligation to check a certain character personality box rather than giving them something interesting to do.
Again, this would all be fine. It’s a comic, after all. It’ll have gags. I get it. But the problem is that it’s done in tandem with another big problem — the biggest problem, in my opinion.
The Static Straw Hats
This is the biggest issue so far. The Straw Hats are no longer changing. They act in ways you can predict or in ways that are funny, but don’t seem to be morally challenged in any way. They simply show up on an island, get involved in the scuffle, act as they do, kicks some ass, change the political landscape, and move on. Perhaps with the exception of Whole Cake Island (fittingly, it’s my favorite post-timeskip arc to date), the story does nothing to change the character’s personalities, motivations, or perspectives on life.
To make matters worse, it often feels like Oda even reverted some personalities. Usopp and Chopper made great character strides in the first half of the series, but it feels like it’s all been undone for the sake of plot or comedy.
Now, I guess you can argue that static characters are the appeal of this series. People love Luffy, so why change him? There’s even an argument to be made for this manga being about how a band of pirates changes the world, not the other way around. I get that. There are plenty of films that feature that same sort of dynamic (the Paddington movie, for instance). And, without a doubt, One Piece leans into that. The second half of the series has the Straw Hats changing everyone around them.
The problem is that those character changes don’t feel like the main focus.
New One Piece Focuses Mainly On Plot
The One Piece world is vast. It rivals the highest of high fantasies out there for one of the greatest worlds. Oda set a lot of chess pieces in place, and in order to finish this story before he dies, it makes sense that he’d have to have things move along. Furthermore, he understandably wants to make each arc as different as possible from one another.
And you know what? I think he mostly succeeds.
The problem is, though, that every arc these days feels like a million different little cogs. It feels so focused on making sure all these little cogs work together that it feels like one core aspect is lost. Character. What One Piece lacks right now is any true focus on character. Yes, these other non-Straw Hat characters change, but they’re not focused on nearly enough for it to be optimally impactful.
Yes, Oda tells us a lot about how the characters feel, but I don’t think I see it nearly enough. In Wano, I feel like I should feel more attached to Momonosuke than I am. This is, after all, his story, if you think about it. But because of the huge cast of characters, there isn’t enough screen time to focus on his emotional underpinnings.
I’d say this can be applied to most of the arcs in One Piece post-timeskip. Dressrosa was the main offender. There were so many characters and subplots within it that I wasn’t able to emotionally attach myself to any one aspect. For me, that was an arc that collapsed under its own weight. It’s the reason I dropped the series for as long as I did.
So, How Can Oda Fix This?
Okay, so at this time, I think I need to make one point clear. Oda doesn’t need my help. The dude has been at this for nearly 25 years. He knows how to tell stories. But, from my perspective, there is one big thing I think he can do to improve what’s being presented, currently. But it would have larger ramifications down the line.
So, what can he change?
Make each arc lead to a change in at least one character. Oda is pretty good at doing that. We’ve seen it in the first half of the arc and even with the secondary characters, but not so much with the main cast. Even worse, when they do change, they are quick to revert to their previous personalities.
So make an arc change at least one main Straw Hat and make that change them permanently.
I’m sure plenty of you have problems with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but something that franchise does better than any other is continually evolve its characters. Their leads are never static. They change constantly and future films change them further based on the events of each movie.
The Straw Hats may be super strong, but this is the Grand Line. They’ve gone through events that should have shaped their perspectives. Just how those early flashbacks shaped them, the current events should continue to shape them.
If Oda structures these convoluted stories on changing certain characters each arc, I think it’ll do wonders to help make them more impactful and more interesting. It’ll give each arc a stronger underpinning and ultimately give it more consequence. In a series where deaths are few and far in between, emotional resonance is where it’s at, and that’s something I feel like has been severely lacking for the past several years.
But, of course, I’m just one dude on the internet. It’s just my opinion. I’m sure you have yours. In spite of what I think are big flaws, I still love One Piece very much and will continue to read it weekly going forward. It’s left an unmistakable mark on me and has forever shaped how I view story.
And I can never thank Eiichiro Oda enough for that.
What do you think? Do you agree with me on this or have any other big issues with One Piece as a whole? Sound off down below!
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