Written by Winter Trabex.

When Japanese artist Eiichiro Oda decided to make manga for a living in order to, in his words, “avoid having a real job,” he might not have expected to have produced the best-selling, most popular, manga of all time. That manga is called One Piece. It is a story about super-powered pirates fighting unrealistic battles against oppressive world government authorities and their pirate allies. It is a story with many fantasy elements which nonetheless manages to make, in story form, impactful statements about the world we live in today.

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The world of One Piece is a world in turmoil. Several hundred years ago, many of the various countries in the world- though not all- came together to form a centralized government which rules the world, more or less. The progeny of those original first governors are called Tenryuubito. They are the world’s aristocracy, people who own and abuse human slaves, who buy and sell mermaids at flesh markets, and who are virtually untouchable.

The Tenryuubito rule through the world’s far-reaching, ever-present police force simply called kaibun, or Navy. The Navy personnel, who wear hats and jackets with the word “marine” on them, work to carry out the wishes of the aristocracy. This often takes the form of hunting down pirates, who are literally everywhere, sailing about a world where there is far more sea than land.

Many of the pirates depicted in One Piece have what are called Devil Fruit powers. By eating a very rare, not very tasty, type of fruit, people can gain an unknown, unrealistic, often absurd power. These powers range from being able to stretch one’s arms out for a very long distance to being able to turn other people into helpless, obedient toys. Devil Fruit power is what allows the world’s pirates- many of whom are themselves evil, with a few good people mixed in- to contend with the overwhelming, endless military might of the Navy.

The struggle for individual freedom fought between the pirates, who seek to live as they please, and the Navy, who seeks to impose order upon everyone, takes place through several intense, physical fights. In time, the Navy can only contend with the Devil Fruit users by utilizing a natural force called haki, which is a strengthening of one’s body. The clash of those who wish to live in freedom and those who unwittingly create tyranny spirals ever upward into increasingly more powerful battles. Pirates and Admirals rampage through entire cities, destroying away entire mountains over philosophical differences.

At the center of this struggle is a young man named Monkey D. Luffy, who is always called by his last name of Luffy. Luffy makes a determination at a very young age to set out to sea one day- in spite of his grandfather’s wishes for him to join the Navy- in order to live as free as he possibly can. Luffy’s goal is become the King of the Pirates, which can only be accomplished by finding the treasure left behind by the last king, a treasure called the One Piece.

Over the course of eighteen years of publication and 778 chapters, One Piece has become much more about the struggle for freedom itself than about a simple treasure hunt. Luffy, while leaving his home of East Blue, travels to various places around the world where this theme is encountered again and again. In Alabasta, a sand country, he finds that the nation is being politically undermined by a pirated named Crocodile who wants to subvert the country’s friendly monarchy. On Sky Island, which is literally an island in the sky, Luffy finds a man ruling there, after having proclaimed himself as a god. The God, named Eneru, demands absolute obedience from everyone.

In Water 7, a shipbuilding town, he finds that one of his friends/crewmates has been captured for knowing too much about the world’s history. The world government fears that this friend, named Nico Robin, might someday uncover a historic weapon that could undo their power. In order to maintain their authority, the government is all too willing to throw human lives away, especially in summary execution. Under the government’s rule, people just aren’t allowed to live their lives in peace so long as even a perceived potential threat exists.

The situation turns around the moment that Robin, who had only gone along with the government’s actions because she wanted to die, suddenly decides she wants to live. Choosing life- when the world government always chooses death- places her in direct opposition to all the aristocrats, all the Navy officers, and all the various people around the world who actively support the government. She doesn’t know this when she says it, of course. She just decides that, when confronted with the sight of Luffy coming to rescue her, she would rather live.

This opposition becomes clearly apparent when Luffy and his small crew of pirates encounter the Tenryuubito at a flesh market where discrimination against fish-men (humanoids who can live under the sea) exists in spades, primarily driven by the aristocracy itself. When the world government official once again chooses death by shooting one of Luffy’s friends, Luffy responds in the only way he knows how. He punches the untouchable man.

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This proves to be one of the more exciting, uplifting moments in the series. Rather than designing a system that makes the government obsolete, rather than spreading awareness about the evils of government action, Luffy strikes one down directly. Only Luffy’s Devil Fruit power makes this possible. Without the fear that death won’t immediately follow as a result of challenging the world’s highest authority, anything becomes possible.

The world of One Piece is a chaotic world in which anarchy thrives precisely because intimidation simply doesn’t work. The few pirates who directly challenge the government- those who are not simply content to pillage and plunder- live free because of their strength. Their fearlessness gives birth to their freedom. They are able to live as they do, right or wrong, good or bad, because they don’t fear punishment.

It turns out that great change is wrought very quickly in the world by those who do not fear. The people who decide the future are those who are willing to embrace a philosophy of life while rejecting a philosophy of death. In One Piece, the power of the individual always triumphs over the power of the collective.

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