One Piece: A Critique

One_Piece_Anime_LogoI am not normally the anime guy here on JapanPowered, as long time readers know. My brother normally takes on the analysis of anime/manga. My preference leans more toward history and folklore, with a little dabbling in the social sciences. This probably is in part due to my love/hate relationship with anime. While I enjoy some anime, and I find the genre to be fascinating in how it is able to explore concepts that other genres really can’t, there are some things about it that keep me from being much more than a casual fan.

Being an overly introspective person, I couldn’t help but wonder why that is the case. After all, I’m enjoying the current Toonami line up, and I enjoyed Bleach, Cowboy Bebop, and some of the other Adult Swim staples. But unlike Chris I feel no need to explore new anime other than whatever happens to come onto Adult Swim (Attack on Titan was an exception, but its horrific content naturally falls in line with my macabre interests.) Why, then, can I not REALLY get into anime, the way that some of you here on JapanPowered do?

The answer may lay in One Piece. Or, rather, in some of the show;s bad habits that make it unwatchable. For those who don’t know, One Piece is a long running Shonen about Monkey D. Luffy and his pirate crew, who accompany Luffy on his quest to obtain the One Piece and become the Pirate King. One Piece takes place on a planet with very little land and almost endless oceans. People live mainly on small islands, although there’s a large single continent that seems to divide the planet. There are a wide variety of people and cultures, from giants to animal people to beings that are pretty hard to classify. These are ruled by a powerful World Government and its Navy, who obviously frown on Luffy’s quest.

One Piece is a beloved anime among fans, but for me it is among the very few shows I genuinely hate. It is a poster child for the flaws that keep anime–especially Shonen–from reaching a wider audience.

 

Bizarre, offputting art and an obnoxious tone

The most obvious issue with One Piece is its art style. Granted, visual style is often a matter of taste. For example, I found the art work of Soul Eater strange and off-putting, but not in a jarring way. There was an underlying quality to it, and while the backgrounds were strange the characters were well-proportioned and detailed. Even if the circumstances were incredibly weird, the characters themselves were not, at least in terms of their art work.

One Piece, on the other hand, features a gaggle of bizarre creatures that are, frankly, more than a little creepy. The average human on the show is bizarrely proportioned, with an overly lanky build and strange facial structure, not to mention that many have a long, Tengu-like nose. Character design can vary wildly from this norm, from literal giants to creatures that are harder to classify. Which is fine to some extent, but One Piece goes overboard to the point where the show feels like a bad acid trip.

As I said, weirdness in anime is not new. Certainly, the bizarre art style is probably a turn off to people who are unfamiliar with anime, but to those who are familiar with Shonen it is, if not par for the course, at least not completely unusual. Less forgivable is the overall obnoxiousness of the show. Frankly, One Piece is flat out annoying. The characters shout half their lines, and there are characters whose default volume is the high end of “loud.” One particular character who comes to mind is the one who repeatedly told others to live with “gusto,” who was drawn as a huge bearded guy bobbling on scrawny little legs. Another was a giant who the character Robin encountered as a child, who taught her to laugh even when she was unhappy. His laugh was not only obnoxious, but repeated over and over and over through the course of multiple episodes.

These issues are more cosmetic. Someone could easily argue that shows such as Bleach or Dragon Ball Z have the same issues, and I would probably agree, although with the caveat that these shows have them to a far lesser degree than One Piece. Less forgivable than the cosmetic issues are the storytelling issues that make One Piece basically unwatchable.

 

Terrible pacing and a plot steeped in melodrama

The pacing in One Piece is abominable. The show is weighed down by padding and filler to the point that the plot moves at a crawl.  We watched One Piece from about the first or second week it was aired on Toonami. During that time, the plot moved from the pirate games arc to the Ennis Lobby arc (which, judging by the commercial spots, is considered a high point of the series.) The pirate games  arc felt like nothing more than filler, although I don’t know enough about the show to really say. But the Ennis Lobby arc seemed to drag on, and on, and ON.

Loaded with backstory, side plots, and “comedy,” it moved at a snail’s pace that made the original cut of Dragon Ball Z look lean and mean by comparison. There were whole episodes where nothing of any consequence happened. Fights dragged on interminably (again, a criticism that can be leveled at most Shonen,) and sequences were padded with copious backstory. The worst offender was the outset of the final battle sequence with CP9, the World Government’s super powered espionage service. The outset of the scene had a sequence where Luffy and his crew gather at the gates to the last bastion of Ennis Lobby and face Robin (who they are rescuing despite her reluctance) and CP9. Luffy and his friends jump down to a passing sea train. They did this for six weeks or more, as for some inexplicable reason the author decided this was a good time to cram in back story for each and every member of the crew. If this was intended to build tension, it did nothing of the sort. In fact, it did the opposite, as that was the point I gave up watching the show out of sheer frustration.

Aside from the padding, the plot is mired in melodrama. Everything about One Piece, from the characters to the action to the plot itself, is overblown to the point of ridiculousness. For example, during the Ennis Lobby arc, there was an entire sub story where the crew argued over the fate of its ship, which was irreparably damaged. The conflict climaxed with Luffy and another crew member fighting over the ownership. The conflict was apparently because the ship had a soul that the crew member had seen and felt attached to. By that point, I was too sick of hearing about it to care. The whole sequence seemed not like a genuine conflict, where characters are at odds over a genuine disagreement based on differing objectives, but mere melodrama, which is conflict simply for the sake of it.

To put in perspective how stupid the ship melodrama was, let’s use an example. Lets say Chris and I bought an RV and drove it everywhere, having tons of adventures along the way. Lets say after 20 years the engine falls out and it would cost more to repair it than to simply buy a new RV. Then Chris claims that he saw the soul of the RV and that it was our home. He doesn’t want me to scrap it. We wind up in a fist fight, after which I trounce him and he slinks off to stubbornly try to fix the broken RV rather than do the practical thing. If that happened in real life, any rational observer would think the whole thing was stupid. It’s exactly the same with the ship side story in One Piece.  It would have been different had there been a long simmering conflict among the group about Luffy’s leadership, and the ship issue was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, but so far as I could see, that wasn’t the case.

This isn’t to say that the ship story couldn’t have been done well. Let’s look at Star Trek for an example. There was more than one occasion in the various series where the crew was forced to sacrifice The Enterprise. The ship’s doom was poignant in these cases because the captain made the decision that, as much as he loved his ship, he would give it up for the greater good. In other words, there was a genuine sacrifice involved. There was actual conflict, between what the enemy was attempting to do and what the hero was trying to do, and the hero had to make a great sacrifice in order to reach his goal. The poignancy would have been pretty well undermined had Worf and Picard gotten in a fist fight on the bridge because Worf saw the soul of the ship and didn’t want it to blow up.

Granted, the two scenarios aren’t exactly comparable. In One Piece, the ship had simply become worn down and couldn’t be repaired. It didn’t go out in a blaze of glory, but it also didn’t have to be used as fodder for melodrama. The ship could have been sacrificed in an earlier battle, perhaps, or the characters could have simply acted like adults and bore it a tearful farewell with a little dignity rather than squabbling like children throwing a tantrum.

 

Overall, One Piece was a disappointment

If I seem like I’m being hard on One Piece, I am. That is because I find the show extremely frustrating, a frustration that extends to anime–especially Shonen–in general. I WANTED to like One Piece. I TRIED to like One Piece. I wouldn’t have watched it for months on end otherwise. But, in the end, the numerous flaws in the show were too much and I began to genuinely despise it.

What is so frustrating about One Piece is that it really could have been a great show with a good story. The world is really fascinating–in fact, I enjoyed reading the Wikipedia article about the show far more than actually watching it–but the presentation ultimately flops. The diverse and bizarre world could have been represented in an art style that was not so jarring, and the characters could have been made less obnoxious. More importantly, the story could have had some genuine focus, with an actual conflict as opposed to melodrama and a fluid plot rather than one weighed down with padding.

However, the many flaws of One Piece ultimately outweighed its potential. It isn’t alone, though. These flaws are a huge problem with many anime, Shonen being the worst offenders. Which is a shame, because when anime is done well it is spectacular and on par with the best that Hollywood can produce.  However, most anime is at best mediocre, and at worst grating to the point it makes you question why you like the genre in the first place.

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