Hey, have you ever heard of this manga named One Piece? Despite being the best-selling manga of all time, I don’t know much about the One Piece franchise. Before I got a job here at Right Stuf Anime, manga was something I never dabbled in as my library didn’t carry many series. I will also admit that I had a bias against shonen action manga as I thought it delivered great on the action… and that’s it. But after I got the job, I got to read more manga and watch more anime which grew my anime and manga knowledge. I got to read Assasination Classroom and watch shows like Mob Psycho 100, which blew my expectation of shonen action series out of the water. It made me look back at a series I had ignored in the past.
The evidence to support me reading One Piece started to build up:Lisa’s blog post made diving in seem less difficult, and Super Eyepatch Wolf’s videos about One Piece are excellent and make the series seem enticing. Then there are the upcoming milestones: the 100th manga volume and the series 1000th chapter will be printed sometime in the next year. If there’s ever a time to eat the Devil Fruit, it’s now.
That’s what I’m going to do:
I will race against Eiichiro Oda and read all of One Piece before the 100th volume comes out in the USA. You read that, Oda? Probably not; you’re a busy man, so I don’t expect you to browse the blog of an anime retailer. Okay, so it’s a personal challenge then!
Because of it’s long length, I’m breaking down my journey into the sagas as listed on the covers of One Piece manga. With that said, my first update will be the East Blue Saga, covering Volumes 1-11.
East Blue Saga
With that, we’re off! Overall, I thought it was an uneven but strong start. While the series ran into what I felt to be pacing issues, Oda-sensei makes this introduction to the Straw Hat crew and world an enjoyable ride.
I really enjoyed the first chapter. Thanks to Oda’s great character design and unique style, every character is instantly memorable. Luffy is a fun character, and even though he isn’t very relatable or deep, his bluntness makes for good conflict and insight. But the real star of the chapter is Shanks, who comes out of nowhere to be one of my favorite characters of the series so far. He’s a good man who has a mysterious air to him. He’s the romanticized version of a pirate Oda no doubt grew up dreaming as a kid.
Shank’s sacrifice for Luffy was very moving and shocking. Yet I was glad to know this series wasn’t going to hold back any punches when it comes to hardships the character’s have to face while having a good sense of humor as well.
I also need to give a quick shoutout to my boy Koby. He’s only in the series for a couple chapters, but I really wanted him to join the crew. Why does he have to dream of being in the Navy? I wanted to see his courage grow more and more until he becomes the man he dreams of being. Having friends with contradicting dreams is fresh for drama, and while Oda doesn’t dwell on it like he could have, he does make good use of it.
Zoro is also cool, I guess. Look, I like Zoro. He fights with three swords and says cool things, but he’s your archetypal Japanese swordsman. There’s not much to him beyond that. Maybe I don’t like him as much because I felt his backstory was poorly implemented.
So we’re in the middle of this intense fight between Zoro and this guy with an axe embedded in his arm, and Oda decides now is a good time to stop everything and tell Zoro’s backstory. Is the backstory good? Yes, but why have it now? Why not just say “I have something to fight for!” and keep the action going? What could have been a good opportunity for foreshadowing gets broken for a reason I don’t know. I hear that Oda’s foreshadowing skills are very good, but this backstory was not inserted well. Backstories are a very important part of One Piece, so I hope Oda gets better at knowing when to show them.
Oda also has a tendency to end chapters suddenly. For example, here is how the first volume ends:
That’s it. I understand that it is hard to properly pace a story out when you only have 20 pages a chapter, but Oda could learn how to better make an ending or at least cliffhangers.
But that doesn’t matter too much because in the next arc BUGGY IS IN TOWN! Buggy and his crew are a great example of Oda’s impeccable character designs. Every enemy Luffy faces has some theme about them, and for Buggy’s crew, they’re a circus. Zoro and Luffy end up fighting Buggy’s first mates, which are a lion tamer and unicyclist. It also plays into Buggy’s backstory of being treated as a joke while an apprentice onboard Gol D. Roger’s ship. Buggy is easily the best “villain” of the saga, and I’m excited to see more of him in later arcs.
We also meet Nami in this arc, whose quick wit immediately jumps off the page. Having someone actually use their brain is a breath of fresh air and bumps up well against Luffy and Zoro. The banter is great between these three.
But the true MVP of this arc is the least expected: Chouchou.
Chouchou is the best because he is a dog, but also because he’s the best symbol of the arc’s message of “finding your own treasure.” It’s a message that, while not very deep, is always a great reminder. Like Buggy, sometimes you get so caught up in materialism that you lose sight of what you really care about. Nami seems to have a fault like Buggy also, but we’ll get to that later. That said, One Piece better be a physical treasure, or I’m going to be mad.
Next we sail to Syrup Village and meet Usopp, a character I expected to hate but ended up liking as one of my favorites. Before reading the manga, I knew Usopp for his cowardice and compulsive lying, traits that are often annoying. Usopp is a coward and a liar, but you end up loving him because of those things. His flaws make him the most human and downright relatable of the characters so far. If you were face-to-face against a man who wields a sword on each finger and is super fast, would you go gung-ho into battle?
A special shout out to the feline-centric designs of the Black Cat pirate crew. Siam and Butchie are straight out of a Fleicscher cartoon, and I’m 100% for it.
We also get to see Usopp’s backstory play out in real time. Sure, we see how his father's legacy shaped him, but we also get to see his love for the villagers and his “crew” develop as the story goes along. Usopp disbanding the Usopp pirates is one of the emotional highlights of the saga.
Next up we get Sanji’s recruitment arc, which is like the previous arcs but, sadly, not as good. It’s not that Sanji is a bad character; he is just the least interesting of the Straw Hats. It also doesn’t help that Sanji is overshadowed in his own arc by side characters Zheff and Gin, who are more complex characters and whose actions affect the plot more directly than Sanji.
By now, I see that Oda has developed a formula for story arcs:
- Luffy docks at a location.
- Luffy finds out the location is or is about to be invaded by evil pirates.
- The Straw Hats discover a new person that Luffy wants to recruit. The new character refuses but will aid them in defeating the bad pirates.
- The crew defeats the pirate captain’s first mates. The new character finds a reason to join the Straw Hats.
- Luffy fights and defeats the pirate captain.
- The new character joins the crew. They ship off.
Though repetitive, the plots are still very fun and an intriguing set-up for future stories. But here the battles go on for way too long. Just freakin’ tap out, Don Krieg! The best fight didn’t even have anything to do with the plot, which is when the sweet-looking Mihawk shows up and battles Zoro.
Seeing Zoro lose was both a sad but welcome sight. Our hero’s victories are almost always certain, so to see them be defeated makes things more interesting. Now future fights involving Zoro are going to be even more suspenseful because we know he can no longer lose. But enough about the fighting; Nami stole the Merry Go and the treasure!
Here it is everyone: Arlong Park, by far the best arc in the saga. Acting as a bit of a season finale for East Blue, this is Nami’s true recruitment arc. Like Nami, her introduction when defeating Buggy was a fake out. Now, the Straw Hats learn the true Nami, and man, is it an emotional ride.
Here the arc formula is executed to perfection. Nami’s family and friends are both memorable and moving, the villain is developed and absolutely vile, and Nami’s backstory… oh, that backstory. Nami is already my favorite, but seeing how she became who she was made all her previous actions not only make sense but absolutely heartbreaking. Unrelated, I now cry every time I see a tangerine.
Arlong Park is also a great arc for Luffy. Before now, I was very skeptical of how Luffy actually viewed his crew. I never knew if he saw them as friends, pawns, or what. In one of the most emotionally moving moments in One Piece so far, I found out.
I also have to mention the townsfolk here. Oda knows how to build an interesting supporting cast, but none of the previous casts have quite the emotional heft as Arlong Park characters like Genzo.
Oh, and screw Arlong. It’s been a while since I hated a character as much as him. He’s Dolores Umbridge's level of hate, and I don’t make that comparison lightly. Now that I think about it, he’s Umbridge and Voldemort blended into one despicable shark man. Thank my One Piece that his fight with Luffy is the best fight of the series.
It wouldn’t be a One Piece boss fight without the boss’ underlings squaring off against the Straw Hat crew, and this time it’s very creative and emotionally rewarding. Sanji covering an enemy’s gills underwater felt very inspired. I was yelling with cheer when Usopp got his W against the fish-man. It’s great to see brain-over-brawn in an action series and proves Oda is looking to develop Usopp.
Then the real battle of not just fists but also worldviews begins. Arlong with his exceptionalist, naturalist worldview against Luffy’s compassionate, egalitarian view. No fight in One Piece has had this emotional and thematic weight to it. Because of that, every piece of action and dialogue lands extra hard. Though not as hard as when Luffy punches Arlong in the face through multiple stories.
That punch felt so good! That fight felt so good! This whole arc felt so good! One Piece is good!
To top it all off, we get probably my favorite flashback so far to end this spectacular arc.
Unrelated, I sob when I see pinwheels.
The East Blue Saga ends when the Straw Hats visit Loguetown to gather supplies. One thing I forgot to mention was that every chapter starts with a title page and a single illustration showing off the adventures of side characters the series left behind. These illustrations form their own story arcs, which is cool to see. So far, they have covered the stories of Koby, Helmeppo, and Buggy’s Crew. Speaking of Buggy’s crew, guess who returns in this arc?
Not only that, Alvida is back and is now a Devil Fruit user! These character returns make this a fun arc to bridge the gap between the sagas. Not to mention the new characters: Smoker looks to be interesting, and I can’t wait to learn who this Dragon guy is when he pops up again in 600 chapters (kidding [maybe?]).
It’s been 99 chapters, but I still feel like this series is just getting started. Above all else, One Piece has been a joy to read. It has some hiccups with repetitive story beats and lack of character depth in the main cast, but Oda’s wild imagination makes everything worth reading. Now, off to the Grand Line!