One Piece Social Commentary

By | Tuesday, January 03, 2012 Leave a Comment
According to Wikipedia, One Piece is "the most popular manga series of all time in Japan and one of the most popular manga series worldwide. It is the highest-selling manga of all time in the history of Weekly Shōnen Jump, as well as currently being its most acclaimed manga. In 2010... volume 61 set a new record for the highest initial print run of any book in Japan in history... One Piece is currently ranked as the best-selling series of all time in manga history. It enjoys a very high readership, with more than 250 million volumes of the series sold by 2011." And that doesn't even talk to how many people enjoy the anime. So, pretty popular, right?

The series was created by Eiichiro Oda in 1996, and first saw regular serialization the following year. The basic story, if you're unfamiliar with it, follows the adventures of Monkey D. Luffy and his small band as he seeks to find the fabled One Piece treasure and become the King of the Pirates. The protagonists are all clearly labeled as pirates very early on, and they spend more than a fair amount of time fighting or evading the Marines. Naturally, over the course of the story, we're seen how the heroes are sympathetic characters and all of their illegal activities are easily justifiable and justified.

I only started getting into the series last year, but I'm up to the point in the story where Luffy is attempting to free his brother out of prison. (Which is to say that I've plowed through over ten years' worth of material in about 6-7 months!) But in the process of battling his way through the prison -- allegedly the strongest of it's kind, housing the most dangerous criminals on the planet -- every prisoner that isn't killed/wounded in the ensuing mayhem is released. Some are specific characters that have shown up in the past, and are now helping Luffy in order to win their own freedom back, but many are nameless background characters in black and white striped prison uniforms. Hundreds of prisoners now running free. The Vice Warden of the prison notes at one point that he has to ensure that no one escapes because that would cause a danger to the rest of the world. That the general population would be sent into a state of terror, knowing that so many hardened criminals were now free.

Except...

Once their escape looks like it will finally be a success, they start making comments about making sure they never get sent to prison again. And when they realize that one of their own willingly sacrificed himself to keep the gate open for them, they all go into weeping hysterics. So, perhaps not quite as hardened criminals as they've been made out by the Marines.

This is not far off the heels, too, of a story in which one of Luffy's crew is captured and sentenced to execution because she knew how to read some ancient history texts. They make it very clear in the story that she is being executed because she might read something the government doesn't want her to read. In this particular story, though, there's a clear intent that the Marines were after her, as a single individual, because they feared what she and she alone could do. And it was also suggested that she was, in part, being targeted by a personal grudge of a single official.
But in light of the more recent story, it got me thinking. Throughout the entire series, the World Government in One Piece is consistently shown in a negative light. Not only are the lower level Marines continually being trounced by the story's heroes, but the machinations of higher government officials is frequently shown as suspect, if not outright corrupt. Now, clearly, if the protagonists are going to be pirates, they have to be shown in a more positive light compared to their antagonists and it will of course default to showing the Marines poorly. But there are any number of ways that could be handled which would simply show the heroes as simply being misunderstood. Given the pervasive and continual nature of how not just the Marines, but very nearly everyone associated with the government is depicted, it can't help but lead to one inescapable message...

Governments are run by power-hungry elitists whose only interest is in keeping themselves in power, regardless of what it means to anybody else. Criminals are simply those who threaten that by daring to think differently. (Many of those in the prison were apparently only there because they raised transgender awareness.) That's not a new message, certainly, but it's a fairly consistent one throughout One Piece's decade and a half of publication.

Think about that for a second. A decade and a half. That's about the same amount of time that Harry Potter has been around. You've heard those stories about how many of the kids who started reading the Harry Potter books back in the day have grown up with the characters and are now adults themselves? As in, adults who vote. As in, adults who can't get a job and go to Occupy Wall Street protests.

Some of my political beliefs were influenced by pop culture. Everyone from Batman to Frank Zappa. I don't think I lifted any of those ideas wholesale, but they informed my thinking as much as family, friends, my own experiences, etc. I think everybody has some ideas they picked up from comics and movies and TV.

With that in mind, recall those two-hundred fifty million volumes of One Piece? Not including the individual chapters read via Shōnen Jump. Not including the anime.

I'm left wondering how many of those people at the Occupy protests know Luffy and the Straw Hats, and how much of an influence Oda may have had on them.
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