One Piece. It’s the best. It just is. There isn’t any piece of fiction that’s been more impressive than One Piece in the history of the world, and if you think there is one, you’re just wrong. Am I trolling a bit? Yes. Am I exaggerating at all? No.
One Piece is the odyssey of our times. A series of countless drawings, with each one serving 10 purposes at once, juggling an absurd amount of plot lines and preserving an impossible balance in the services of its goals that it never loses sight of for 25 years, and culminating them into constant, exhilarating peaks. Not to mention that all of this is achieved in one of the most overproduced and limiting mediums: comic books that are supposed to target 14-year-old Japanese boys; the shounen manga. A space with millions of rules on how you can do things. Imagine writing a chapter a week of the same novel for 25 years without looking back, and then publishing the first draft. Imagine that draft being any good. And imagine it being the best thing that ever was. The famous Hemingway quote on writing -“The first draft of anything is shit.”- obviously doesn’t apply to One Piece.
But just how? What could be the process of creating something like this? One Piece, to me, is the single biggest achievement by an auteur, and the question burning in my mind for the longest time was how it is even possible for one human to create something like this. Surely, we can just say the guy -Eiichiro Oda- is just that good. It comes naturally to him, he just writes and draws, and this is what comes out. He is “GODA”, as his fans put it, after all. But, as even a little bit of closer inspection would make it obvious, this thing is methodical as fuck. One Piece is tirelessly engineered with a complexity that would scare some hard-ass scientists away. It’s something that’s planned with peerless ambition and executed with confidence. And this is my attempt at understanding the method to the guy’s madness.
I’ll try to go over the central aspects that make One Piece what it is, one by one, in some vague order of importance. Through these, I’ll try to figure out how One Piece took shape in Oda’s mind, how he approached his work, and how the series slowly came to be the juggernaut we know today. I doubt any of this will turn into “writing tips for beginners” though. From what I can tell, Oda’s approach to creation is very tightly coupled with the contents of his work. Whether it is its context or contents, One Piece is uniquely him. But I’m hoping this would be an enjoyable read for anyone who wants to look a little deeper into how the series works, all the while demonstrating how almost every little detail in it is carefully and purposefully put together. Finally, I have to note there’ll be lots of surface-level spoilers in this, so if you’re looking from outside and want to be convinced why One Piece is the best before you jump in, this might not be the best read.
1. Themes are King
2. The Moral Anchor
3. Gardener vs Architect
4. A Postmodern Manga
5. The Compass
6. Confidence, Love and Talent
I’m gonna go ahead and start with the north star of the series and the fattest section of this writeup: the themes.
Themes are King
The level of importance themes have for a fictional story is an interesting conversation. Some even question their necessity outright. Back in 2013, David Benioff -the notorious showrunner of “Game of Thrones”- famously said that “Themes are for eighth-grade book reports”. Whether that controversial statement has any validity or not, I’m not gonna get into it. I don’t even know if series writer George R. R. Martin agrees with it. But it certainly serves as a great backdrop, when it comes to examining the high regard One Piece gives to its themes. And this won’t be the only time I put the two series against each other in this writeup. “A Song of Ice and Fire” is frequently mentioned as being in the same vein as One Piece with the scope of its lore and the ambition of its storytelling. With its recent failures, I think these comparisons became even more fascinating to look at.
Let’s go back to the very beginning of One Piece, when the series was bare-bones, and consisted only of its setting. We can more or less piece the story together from Oda’s interviews: he was determined to create a manga, even from the times when he didn’t know what that manga was going to be, except that it should be an “adventure” story. His driving instinct was to make something that no one ever did before (a “disposition to stand above others” if you will, like the way he defined his coveted “Conqueror’s Ambition” in the series). But before long, around when he was in middle school, he found that novel setting for an adventure in pirates, thanks to one of his childhood influences: the Vicky the Viking cartoon. Once he decided what the setting was going to be, it was all about outlining the themes he associated with piracy, figuring out the ideas he was compelled to explore, and gathering a lot of material.
He experimented a lot with the themes that would permeate in his manga, as the earlier versions of One Piece -the prototypical one-shots- displayed a variety of ideas. But by the time he was publishing the first chapter of the actual thing, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with the story and what its themes were going to be. In this first section, I’ll mostly try to prove that point by going over how clearly each of those themes was communicated from very early on in the story, and the extent of which they came to define everything about it afterwards. While most of us naturally didn’t realise the weight of those signals when we were reading One Piece for the first time, now that we’re almost 1000 chapters in, it’s crazy to look back and see how in control Oda was of its progression from the very start.
I’m gonna cheat and give you the whole conclusion of the section here and now: To me, this dedication to the themes was always the secret behind the impossible consistency of Oda’s story; it’s not that he planned the details ahead of time, he really didn’t. It’s that he always stayed true to what he wanted to do. So whichever way he expanded the universe, and however crazy he went with it, all additions to the narrative and characters always fed the same core framework. This unifying purpose in everything that he did gave him the confidence to let his imagination go wild at every turn, and it’s the reason how he never lost sight of the spirit of the series throughout the decades. While many long-running stories that depend on techniques like “the mystery box” consistently disappointed their audiences with their resolutions, this one technique that we learned in the eight-grade was capable of keeping the eyes of the audience glued to the pages year after year.
I’m sure it can be summed up in a lot of different ways, but to me, there are 7 framing themes that define the manga: Romance, Camaraderie, Loving fun, Dreams/Ambition, Freedom vs Oppression, Inherited Will, and finally The Tide of The Times.
“Inherited Will, The Tide of the Times, and People’s Dreams. As long as people continue to pursue the meaning of Freedom, these things will never cease to be!” — Gold Roger
Piracy is about the call of adventure. It’s the promise of something amazing always on the horizon. It’s the shine in Luffy’s eyes. To Oda, first and foremost, being a pirate was about being an optimist, about going out to the vast oceans to look for something more than what life has to offer on land. The clearest sign of how important this theme was to the story is the working title of the series from early one-shot days: “Romance Dawn”. While it ended up being the name of the first chapter only (maybe because Oda thought naming the series with the final goal in mind instead of the starting point was a better choice), the series didn’t end up being any less about romance because of it.
In One Piece, nothing has to be bound by the gritty reality. With the first words written at the beginning of the very first volume, Oda complains that the pirates he researched sadly didn’t leave any written records behind them, probably because they were so busy having fun, and just didn’t have time to write things down. Because One Piece was never about “actual” piracy, Oda made the conscious choice to make it instead about the romanticised idea behind it. As long as a story element has its internal logic -and mostly it does- the more crazy, unusual, and exaggerated it is, the better. This was so important to Oda that he says he even developed his drawing style purposefully to suit this kind of a series; just so that whatever he wanted to draw, he could find a way to make it look plausible in that limitless world.
So, One piece is 7-year-old Luffy listening to the crazy and impossible tales of passion from Shanks in a bar. It’s about islands in the sky, ships that eat other ships, people that are 10-meter tall, a goldfish so giant that its shit is as big as an island. And it’s about how men searching for romance in the great age of piracy will change the world.
Piracy is about being in a crew. It’s about trusting each other, about the crew’s trust in captain and captain’s trust in the crew. It’s about their journey learning to trust each other through thick and thin. So while not being outright told by the narrator, Roger or Shanks at the beginning of the series like the others, the camaraderie theme was so ubiquitous with the first 100-chapter prologue of the manga, that the word “nakama” came to represent what the early One Piece was all about in all of the readers’ minds. Unlike the similar and more commonplace “friendship”, camaraderie was about the bond between people who shared their days on the same journey.
Oda thought ‘camaraderie’ as a theme was something very new to the shounen manga at the time he was starting out. This might also be one of the reasons he was attracted to the piracy setting in the first place, as chasing fresh ideas was most important to him back then. But whatever the reason is, it was one of his best decisions. Most of the emotional peaks in One Piece came from moments about having people around that you can depend on and trust, to rise to the occasion.
While it seems like its prevalence decreased a bit with the introduction rivalry theme in the second half of the story, camaraderie never really went away. And it’s quite unlikely that it ever will.
Piracy is about having fun. Not caring about the rules, drinking, dancing, singing shanties and having endless parties. And more than anything else, it is about not taking life seriously. This idea is clearly communicated in the first chapter through Shanks’ crew, who quickly show that this story is not about being a violent outlaw, being self-serious, and starting a fight over a kid who insulted you. Being a pirate is more like being able to laugh at yourself when someone spills a drink in your face.
With “loving fun”, I might be merging a few themes that are close in spirit. The other half of this is that One Piece will always be about embracing the silly side of life. So much so that in addition to frequently being put on a pedestal as the way to live, it was this idea that determined Luffy’s unusual powers. While many comic book authors opt for putting their main character in the coolest premise they can think of to catch more eyes, Oda had other priorities. Luffy can stretch because it allows for a goofy vibe that keeps things from getting tense unless he wants it to. This is an aspect Oda never compromises on no matter what, probably because together with “romance”, it enables him to be endlessly creative in his work. This insistence sometimes goes against the tastes of his power-fantasy loving shounen audience, very much like how it annoyed the 7–year-old Luffy at the beginning of the story. But not compromising the party-potential at the end of arcs is so essential to Oda that he would let almost nobody (even enemies) die in the current timeline. (Funny how Punk Hazard and WCI, arcs that didn’t allow for banquets at the end, had actual, rare deaths. Hmmm.)
If we ever needed more proof of how important this theme was to him, we have Oda’s recent response to a question asking his 3 favourite scenes to draw in 25 years of publication. He mentions the campfire scene at the end of Skypiea, as I guess he doesn’t think there is anything more “One Piece” than partying with dancing wolves after a treasure hunt in the skies.
Piracy is about having dreams. It’s about wanting things from life that others don’t, leaving the comfort of your home to seek it, and having the willpower to see it through.
The series-defining quote of Gol D Roger, right at the end of the 100-chapter prologue before the actual story begins goes like this: “Inherited Will, The Tide of the Times, and People’s Dreams. As long as people continue to pursue the meaning of Freedom, these things will never cease to be!” We didn’t know what these things exactly meant at the time, but among them, “Dreams” was the one Oda didn’t waste any time talking about. All of the protagonists in One Piece are defined by their dreams; it’s what differentiates them from other people and it’s why they join the crew in the first place. Right at the very end of the same chapter, each one of them says it out loud before they start their legendary journey. As is the case with most ideas put on a pedestal in the story, this too reflects Oda’s own dreams to create the story for the ages.
Most people notice the dreams theme having less of an importance in the second half of the manga, but this is less about going away and more about changing shape. Dreams has smoothly and sneakily transitioned into ambition, as the protagonists’ dreams actually start to appear on the horizon and become tangible goals. How can you continue to call Luffy’s goal of becoming the pirate king a dream, now that the rest of the world believes he is a prime candidate for it? The introduction of haki -literally meaning ambition in Japanese- coinciding with the start of the second half of the series, along with the ambition theme, is no coincidence either. And who knows, maybe haki being the talent that literally gives things tangible form so that you can touch them is purposeful too. Both Dreams and Ambitions have been usually accompanied by the willpower to reach them, which is another trait quite frequently praised in the series.
Freedom vs Oppression
Piracy is about freedom. Honestly, it represents the quintessential pirate conflict: Chaos versus Order, Rebellion versus Civilisation. While being what most piracy stories are about, interestingly the freedom theme wasn’t mentioned in the manga at all until the chapter 100, where it was quickly singled out as the prerequisite to everything else in the same Roger quote, pretty much stating that the story of One Piece is only possible because people continue to chase the meaning of freedom. From then on, it came to define the series more and more, and at a certain point, took centre stage as the driving conflict. We saw Luffy take down one oppressive force after another. We learned what “freedom” means for Luffy. And we witnessed what “order” meant for both marines and the public struggling under it. Exploration of this duality came to a peak in Marineford as the eventual conflict of the series finally became visible. Here the final antagonists of the series let the audience know who they are and what they represent: the absolutist marine Admiral Akainu and the chaotic pirate Admiral Blackbeard.
What I love about the timing of this theme’s introduction is that it’s exactly in the same chapter as the introduction of revolutionaries, through Dragon. The Revolutionaries as a concept is something quite distant to the pirates themselves, so it looks to be an unexpected addition to a series about pirate adventures at first glance. But once we know this whole setting is going to be defined by its oppressive world power, it makes all the sense in the world that such an entity would have a direct opposing force, unlike the pirates who are mostly just circumstantially opposed to it. It’s just another amazing example of the organic growth of the world through its themes, and an unintuitive yet genius addition to the setting.
Other than all of these themes that Oda associated with piracy, there were two different ideas that he was compelled to explore and that he signalled with the same weight.
Inherited Will / Carried Over Wishes
While being one of the most spelt out themes, it’s also one of the million examples in One Piece of how short-term storytelling is pointing towards where the story is going for the long-term. While Sanji’s and Zoro’s stories touched on the concept briefly without really explaining it, it was the Drum Island arc -first recruitment arc after the theme has been declared out loud- that clarified what it’s actually going to mean for the story: In One Piece, death is not the end as long as your will is being carried through time by others. This was precisely the same arc when the Will of D, the will Luffy is bearing, is introduced to the series as well. While we couldn’t really understand what shape “inherited will” would take until the Enies Lobby arc with the introduction of The Void Century, that declaration of the theme was what told us this narrative is going to be way bigger than just one lifetime.
If we still had any doubts about it by the halfway point of the series, Whitebeard finally put it into clear words at the end of Marineford: “Someday, someone will arise bearing the weight of centuries on his shoulders, to challenge the world.” One piece is about the weight of those centuries being carried throughout time.
The Tide/Flow of The Times / Destiny of the Ages
The most overlooked one: One Piece is about changing times. While it was right in there in the same quote, most of us just skipped thinking about what it was going to mean for the story, probably because it’s not mentioned out loud in any other point in the narrative again like the others. One Piece is about empires rising and empires falling. It’s about the spirit of eras and their inevitable destinations. It’s about the faithful moments that change the history of the world. While having no direct relation to the piracy theme, it’s obvious Oda was fascinated with the idea of shifting ages. Maybe it started when he was researching the real world “Golden Age of Piracy”, or maybe he always liked it. Either way, he patiently constructed his narrative with these moments. Like the duel of Ace and Blackbeard, or Luffy and Law destroying the smiles factory, or the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in the WW1 arc. Every age slowly boils, and the small moments carried out by the wills of people living in it push it over to their finishing lines. The tide raises the people within to where they need to be, and people change the times to create the new one.
Combined with inherited will next to it, this theme pretty much told all of us that this was always going to be a multi-generational, world-scale narrative taking place over different eras. I’m not sure how much of the actual story Oda planned back then, but just the knowledge that this is the type of story that One Piece was always going to be, combined with his patience, enabled him to always move forward in the right directions until we found ourselves at the climax of Marineford. And soon we will be within another by the end of Wano it seems like.
It’s quite surprising how a big part of the unapproachable complexity of One Piece starts to feel a lot more digestible when we make the attempt of outlining its themes.
In a basic sense, the mystery behind a lot of decisions regarding the smaller story elements goes away. Like, if you’ve been wondering why the hell Oda keeps maiming his characters time and again but never kills them until they achieve resolution, he gives the answer in one of the interviews. It’s because “living another week with good cheer and vitality” is, in fact, a theme in One Piece. While death is permanent, losing a limb should never stop you from chasing your goals, and One Piece is never tragic without the hope for better days on the horizon. Even if there’s an opportunity to evoke more intense emotion from the reader at times, if it doesn’t serve the purpose of the themes it’s not gonna happen. Killing Conis’ father Pagaya in Skypiea to make the arc feel heavier in readers’ stomachs is not worth it if it’s gonna cost us the campfire with dancing wolves.
And beyond that simple clarity, it starts to feel like there was no way for One Piece to be anything other than its very impressive self today. Just think about what someone would imagine if you explain all of these themes in detail and tell them to come up with a story that explores all of it. It’s hard to think someone would be able to come up with a story that doesn’t sound more or less like One Piece. Getting “what you want out of a story” right ahead of time is just that imperative: it transforms a work that feels like an impossibility, to feel like an inevitability. So to me, while obviously not nearly enough to create a recipe for success on its own, there is no more important ingredient in One Piece’s success than Oda’s uncompromising dedication to his story’s themes.
Obviously, there are way more recurring themes in One Piece that I haven’t touched on, and they all help Oda write his story with more purpose. The subjectivity of justice, manliness, the night & the dawn, war & peace, people coming together for a common goal are all ideas that come up again and again. I’m sure there are a lot of points to dig out by exploring their positive impact on the story as well. Still, if this writeup is ever going to end, we should just stop and move onto other aspects.
The Moral Anchor
Do you need your protagonists to be always morally justified in a story? Not really; it depends on the story you’re trying to tell, of course. But One Piece is a story of a group of tightly knit people challenging the whole world with their own ideals and beliefs, and it is a story targeting young kids, so we could argue it has an ethical responsibility. Even though Straw Hats are frequently put in positions in the story where they are the actual troublemakers, the audience’s belief in the justness of their journey feels like a necessity of sorts.
The thing is, finding the moral compass in a setting where leading actors are fiends with no regard for law is very challenging. But Oda responds to “challenging” as Luffy responds to danger, so of course this didn’t stop him from putting a lot of thought into getting the ethics of Luffy’s brand of piracy right before starting publication. We could see his struggle to get it right from his shaky early attempts. In both of the prototypical one-shots “Romance Dawn Version 1” and “Version 2”, pirates were unnaturally split into two distinct groups: Peace-Mains and Morganeers. A peace-main was a pirate who goes on adventures and does not really care about treasure or fighting other pirates, while a morganeer fought for treasure and personal ambition. The latter were greedy, loved to fight, and often enjoyed causing other people pain and misery. Luffy and his idols were obviously Peace Main pirates, and that might’ve been enough to isolate them from the villainous connotations of piracy. But evidently, Oda was not satisfied with his solution and found it unconvincing. Luckily, by the third try, he arrived at something a lot more natural and profound.
The first chapter “Romance Dawn” is so rich with ideas and themes, it’s not a surprise to also find the series’ code of ethics outlined there. Shanks and his crew were always supposed to be the model pirates of One Piece. Through them and along with Luffy, we learn what it actually means to be a pirate. At the end of their short skirmish with the mountain bandits, which they were mostly laughing about until then, the crew’s demeanour suddenly changes when one bandit raises a gun to Shanks’ head. Shanks then explains the weight of the bandit’s actions: taking up arms and guns is not the same as taking up a toy, and the moment you raise one is the moment you reject and move out of society’s protections; living outside of the law means being at peace with your death. The moment they establish the bandit as their equal with that exchange, they kill him without hesitation and express for the first time the code that’s in the centre of One Piece’s world-view: The ones who can shoot at others are the ones who put their own lives on the line.
While the introduction happens in the first chapter, the context that shows what that actually means is provided in the arc right after. We established that sometimes justice can only be achieved through people who put their lives on the line. But the idea that “putting your life on the line gives you the right to execute your justice” has bigger implications than just saving a kid from bandits. It fundamentally challenges any authority claiming monopoly on passing judgement. There is indeed such authority in One Piece’s world: the world government and its main military arm, the marines. When the story moves to Shells Town, and we meet Captain Morgans, we see what happens when the law & order that was supposed to keep the world safe for the weak becomes the cause of oppression itself. Everyone in the small town is in agreement about the tyranny of the marine captain. This includes even the marines under him who are powerless to do anything about it. It is only when Luffy and Zoro, two pirates, risk their lives to save the townsfolk, that things finally take a turn for the better. But interestingly, the decision that allows them to fix that society is also what prevents them from participating in it. In the eyes of the law-abiding, their actions now clearly put them in the same category as the criminals who hurt others for their own benefit and they are kicked out of the town shortly after. Marines even punish themselves for aiding their escape, and the Strawhats don’t complain about it. They know that the freedom to create a better world requires giving up their standing and rights as regular citizens. Hence the constant emphasis throughout the series that there’s no such thing as fair for pirates, as being a pirate means giving up on the whole notion of fairness. What’s being romanticised in One Piece is not chasing an all-imposing freedom through your might, it’s having the resolve to make this exchange of freedom at the cost of your life.
And there it was: the morality among thieves, the inherent moral necessity and romance to the decision to be a pirate. Selfishness doesn’t have to be the only trait that defines piracy. The opposite, self-sacrifice, is also right there to be found. And depending on what kind of person they are, a pirate might actually sway between these opposites, following their own sense of justice. We don’t need contrived labels to figure out which is which.
Again, while it’s arguable how important it is for a story like this to have a moral framework to be successful, I think it’s obvious that this clarity helped Oda settle down on what the story was going to be about. It helped him zero in on the specifics of the setting that a pirate adventure might work the best in, and it let him approach the story with a lot more confidence for the rest of the way. While it’s easy to miss out on the implications while reading the brief first arcs, all of these ideas are finally extensively illustrated in the major story arc of Grand Line: in Arabasta, and, interestingly, in one of the rare crew in-fighting scenes of One Piece, between Vivi and Luffy. For a while before the conflict, we watch princess Vivi -the honorary straw hat who is frequently portrayed as an ideal leader for a civilised society- doing her best as always to solve the crisis through reasoning with the rebels. But eventually, it becomes obvious that her noble efforts are in vain, as the institutions she is trying to operate under are too corrupted by Crocodile. Things finally escalate into a direct confrontation with Luffy as he explains the futility of Vivi’s approach. When she asks for an alternate solution in tears, Luffy shouts the obvious answer: “Put our lives on the line.” In the same arc, Smoker goes through similar questions, unable to do his job within the corrupted system. In both Smoker’s and Vivi’s futile efforts, we witness that there are times we can not outgrow oppression without people like the Strawhats.
Oda’s insistence on getting the morality of the series right beyond a superficial level eventually led the series into more complex concepts of morality. On the one hand, ideas like moral relativism and pluralism started to become a part of the narrative. If we say that being just is not about following the order of society, what is the logical next step from there? As One Piece kept exploring conflicts between people who are following their own sense of justice, we found ourselves more and more surrounded by the subjectivity of justice theme. So by the time that we were at Water 7, the manga had naturally started to ask bigger questions on how we can decide what’s wrong and what’s right. We watched Sakazuki and Kuzan -two fleet admirals to be- trying to find and vindicate their own brand of justice. Was it the order that had to be preserved above all else? Were we burdened to sacrifice people to whatever that order deemed to be the greater good? Or could the answer be to take on yourself the responsibility to risk that greater good, just for a chance to see what our actions would mean in the long term? On the other hand, Oda’s choice to focus on the personal side of justice also meant that, compared to the simple “the good, the bad, and the naughty” setup of the prototypical one-shots, we were now getting a much more complicated and interesting core conflict for the series: Authority vs Freedom.
Like most other themes within One Piece, the exploration of these new ideas came to a head at The Marineford Arc. On one side, in his fan favourite quote, Doflamingo was clearly spelling out what the series was pointing towards for a while now: that there is a plurality of value systems, and the de facto one is the one usually enforced by might. Or as Oda would put it personally in an interview later: “Opposite of a justice is yet another justice.” On the other side, that core conflict of the series was laid bare at the greatest scale throughout the arc. It was hard to tell which one was worse: the freedom of Blackbeard or the authority of Akainu. Which one should we root for at the end of the day, chaos or order?
This sounds like quite a hard dilemma to solve. But once again, Oda being Oda, he was not going to stop until he figured out his answer. Especially to a question he was putting forward in his series in the first place. The way it is written, One Piece doesn’t allow for loose ends narratively or thematically. Everything has to come together as one colossal statement on the world at the end. So Oda started building towards his answers throughout the arcs, through the words of his characters that he puts on a pedestal. And their answer was, simply, that we need both.
We need the order to protect the weak from the cruel. But that order can only stay uncorrupted and legitimate as long as people are willing to struggle and sacrifice their places within it to keep it up to standard. Whatever the case, this code stands: whether the good guys are in charge and the rebellion is supposedly in the wrong like it was in Arabasta, or bad guys are in charge and revolutionaries are trying to put an end to their oppression like the case with the World Government. Good and just kings like Cobra might be idealised within the story, but he himself says: If your own citizens are rebelling, it’s better to let people take the reigns and to let them become the new authority than to fight them. Even being on the right and knowing better does not legitimize the authority for suppression. On the opposite side, we should of course rise against the unjust order of the world government, but as Dragon himself says, only with the goal of creating a more just government at the end. Being on the right will never justify endless unruliness. In One Piece’s ideal world, chaos is a means, and order is an end. They should chase and complete each other like ying-yang, as without one the other will just lead to cruelty.
Before I end the section, I should mention a few more caveats that Oda adds to all this to round it into a cohesive worldview. First, putting their life on the line to rise against an authority is not only the responsibility but also the privilege of the people who subscribe to that authority. It is their right, and their right only. The Revolutionary Army doesn’t liberate people against their own will. They lend their support to those who find the will to fight against their oppressors. Luffy doesn’t help anyone until they’re in the fight and ask for help themselves. It’s neither their duty nor their place to solve problems they have no relation to. Because a good king is accountable to its own people and no one else. That is the sole way its authority could achieve legitimacy. Second, while the series keeps romanticizing putting your life on the line, it also redefines what death means within it to recontextualize that exchange. Roger didn’t really die. Bellemere, Hiluluk, Saul, Oden didn’t die. Dying with a smile on your face is not a trait exclusive to a tribe like some readers assume. It shows the resolve of the people who embraced their deaths to see their wills through, or entrust it to those who’ll remember them. It’s the mark of the people with the spirit of a pirate.
This grounded take on the actual meaning of morality serves as a nice contrast to how, with almost every other element, One Piece is as unrealistic, imaginative and dreamy as it can get. Oda has a great sense for knowing when to be silly and when to be serious. But in both of those cases, I think the more crucial point for our purposes is the fact that he refuses to settle on answers that do not satisfy him in the first place if that answer is to become a part of his work.
Gardener vs Architect
Let’s go back to George R. R. Martin. He has a famous quote in which he splits writers into two distinct groups. The architects, he says, plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners like himself, on the other hand, dig holes, drop in a seed, and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, but they find out the details as it grows. This distinction got quite a bit popular, as lots of people started to pigeonhole their favourite writers into one of these two groups. Some took this as an inspiration and tried to apply one of these approaches to their writing.
The dichotomy seems pretty convenient until we try to apply it to One Piece and watch it break apart; the way Oda writes seems to somehow transcend this premise. One Piece kinda makes the whole idea of having to choose and limit yourself into one of these approaches look like an excuse for people who lack the imagination and willpower to do both at the same time. To put it more clearly, One Piece just makes Martin look like a little bitch.
Let’s start with examining how designed-ahead One Piece really is. You’ve heard of the Chekhov’s Gun. You know what it means for a given story. There are no Chekov’s Guns in One Piece; there are Chekov’s Swiss Army Knives. In One Piece, if you saw a gun as a backdrop somewhere, it wouldn’t just eventually go off. It would shine light into the thinking of the character who owns it with its reason for being there. It would tie in with the themes of the arc with its nature. It would tighten the mood of the scene with its design. When it explodes it would cause a spectacular action scene and it would tie together two different plot points introduced ages ago. And the wounds created by the bullets would probably start a totally new storyline too. Oda is unreasonably efficient in the way he adds elements to the story and just doesn’t waste an inch of screen space.
I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating but not really. Let’s go back to the very end of Thriller Bark. When everything is wrapping and we think the minor gag pirate crew introduced for the arc are about to be gone forever as the Straw Hats sail away to new horizons, Oda sneaks in one little scene. Lola, captain of The Rolling Pirates (who had entered the story as a gag character to play off of Nami’s marriage side story) gives the Straw Hats a little piece of paper before sending them off and then explains what it is when asked. It’s remarkable how many things this little scene here does. First, it finally resolves the mystery of what the hell was that paper Ace gave to Luffy in chapter 159 (mind you, we’re at chapter 489 at this point). Turns out it’s a card made of the soul of its owner which leads you to them. Second, when Luffy checks Ace’s paper and realises it’s burning away, it slowly puts Luffy in the path to MarineFord. Third, it establishes the long-lasting gratitude Lola has to the Straw Hats, which should surely come into play. And finally, when Lola says her mom is quite an important pirate in the New World who can help them, it sets up a new mystery and deepens our expectations of The New World setting, which was just introduced at the end of the previous arc, Water 7.
Half a series later, we finally see these plot points get resolved. Turns out Lola had a twin, Chiffon, who feels pretty indebted to the Strawhats herself. Turns out she is married to one of the rising stars of piracy, who got the job of being the head of security for the Big Mom’s wedding. Turns out Big Mom has soul manipulating powers and commands an army of soul pawns. Turns out Straw Hats having a piece of Big Mom’s soul in paper form is going to tip the scales in favour of them in a big way and get their asses saved more than a few times.
Come to think of it, how can you let one small pirate crew escape an all out naval battle with one of the biggest empires of the world in a way that doesn’t feel like an ass-pull? Bringing together a huge number of plot points you scattered all over the series certainly helps (Fish-Man Island’s treasure box, Sanji’s northern origins, Jinbei’s final duty, Pekoms’ relationship with Pedro etc). But like I said, it’s not about just resolving plot points. It’s about how many things you achieve while doing it. How about when it’s time for Chiffon to make her last stand in the arc, we remind the audience whose sister she was in the first place? Let her display the same characteristics Lola displayed in her finest moments in the end of Thriller Bark, by refusing to run away from a force of nature because she made a bet and put her trust in someone she believes in. I don’t really know how you can even set up something that feels this natural among all the chaos of that arc (which many won’t even realise) but turns out you can.
To see that every little plot element in a series is calculated and planned for is no doubt cool. It’s fun seeing the things set up 20 years ago come to fruition. But where things go from fun to bonkers is the complicated, cohesive, and harmonious way they all come together to form the whole of the narrative. The manner in which Oda introduces plot points, brings them together, splits them up, and resolves them over the course of an arc, follows a math so complex and creates a tapestry so intricate that you usually just give up trying to figure out what’s going on behind the scenes and just enjoy the pleasantness of watching the rhythm of the craft. Just follow the emotional peaks and valleys until the arc is finished and when the whole picture shows itself like a Bob Ross painting, then we realize the purpose behind all the little strokes. This might not apply to early One Piece, but since then, things have been steadily getting more elaborate every arc, despite never ever feeling convoluted. At this point, One Piece’s narrative is so fucking tight, we could argue it almost starts to become a weak point. When you know for a fact that each detail you see will matter eventually, you’ll naturally see some things coming and there will be moments where the series will feel predictable. But overall none of that changes the fact that the control, the purposefulness, the planning, -dare I say it- the architecting on display here is just one of a kind.
Now let’s move on to the less obvious other end, and try to see how “gardener” characteristics apply to One Piece. The characters within a story are usually responsible for most of the unforeseen developments, as they have a tendency to take control away from their creator if they are well-developed. The first thing to notice is that Oda loves his characters, more than any other writer I know. This love doesn’t just manifest as isolated appreciation, but also as an unwavering loyalty to who they are, whatever they are going through. There is one constant question present in his head in every moment he works on his manga: What would each one of them do?
On the very surface level, this starts with very simple things. Every time he draws a face or a body, the expression and the body language of the character is always informed by who they are and the situation that they’re in. It’s an easy thing to get lazy on a project of this magnitude, considering he’s drawn 20 thousand pages of panels occupied lots of different characters. But the characters’ faces is one thing Oda never lets any of his assistants touch, even at this point in his career. Because while in a comic book format characters have to express themselves in simple ways, the characterisation that goes into that simplicity is always complicated. Look for every reaction shot ever drawn in One Piece with named (or in some cases unnamed as well) characters, and each time you’ll be able to tell how they feel about what they’re seeing.
The second thing he does is always letting the characters’ identity drive the dialogue within a scene. Whatever the purpose of a scene might be, each character is given enough space to define the mood and the intensity of the exchanges that they’re in. Since Oda knows a lot more about his characters than he is depicting at any given moment, all of these scenes age very well on later visits no matter their importance. One of my favourite moments in Thriller Bark that I’m sure nobody besides me cares about is the final exchange between Luffy and Moria towards to end of their battle. Out of all the things Luffy has said or done to Moria throughout the arc, Moria gets the most angry and animated the moment Luffy claims “nobody can crush him”. Not that he destroyed his ship or laid waste to his 10-year project, but this seemingly arrogant take from a young inexperienced guy is the thing that triggers him the most. Moria’s anger here is based on his own past experiences; he sees himself in Luffy at that moment. I love it because almost all of us, being in his shoes, would probably give the exact same reaction.
But more importantly, Oda lets the characters impact the narrative itself. Obviously, it’s hard to tell the intention behind a narrative point, to decide whether it is motivated by plot or character. But there are many times in One Piece where we can pinpoint a character’s individual impact within a story arc. One of my favourite moments in Water 7, and I’m sure almost everyone agrees with me on this, is the fight that escalates between Usopp and Luffy. It’s a fan-favourite scene, and if you ask most readers why they love it, the common answer you’ll get is that it feels so real. I think the reason it feels so real is that it was actually totally unnecessary for the purpose and plot of the arc and a completely organic addition to the narrative. If we remove the Usopp plotline in its entirety from the Water 7 — Enies Lobby arcs, nothing gets lost for the long term storytelling of One Piece. Oda even said in his interviews that the initial purpose behind the Water 7 arc was to get a new ship and a new shipwright. That’s its function in the overall plot. But how would Usopp feel about both his role and the precious gift from Kaya being replaced? And if this is going to lead to a conflict, what would drive the emotion behind it? With these questions in mind, the setup is then enriched with the “Franky Family stealing the money from Usopp” storyline (which also feels organic and respects all involved characters, and ties up neatly when Franky uses that money to buy the wood he’ll use to make the crew’s next ship). This new plot point, combined with the additonal beatdown he received a little later, works to push Usopp’s insecurities and feelings of inadequacy even higher, putting him in an emotionally unstable state. This set-up then explodes into a memorable scene that is unlike anything we’ve experienced in One Piece until then. The only thing I’m still wondering is if Oda came up with Sogeking on the spot when Usopp was in the train with CP9 costumes and masks. That’s just too good to be true.
“An ‘emotional story’ is one that springs up from the life of your characters, but if a writer tries to force emotion as a goal when writing a story, you end up crushing the characters [under it]. It’s the characters that have to make the story” — Oda
Like with any other story, One Piece characters are usually created based on what the setting and purpose of a story arc necessitate. But before they are put in positions to act out, they are always developed organically according to their standing within the story. Along with other details of an arc, their designs and their backstories are fleshed out further to be consistent with themselves and their surroundings. Oda says he is usually quite lax with this process and he lets things go within their flow. While sketching he even lets them say a few lines of words without even thinking about it, and this helps him figure out what kinda person they really are.
After they are developed, characters take centre stage in the process and are usually shuffled around in different positions until their natural reactions to the events move the story forward in the wanted direction. If they can’t, Oda adds more characters or removes the ones that exist until everything is coherent. For example, Zoro was initially supposed to be in Buggy’s crew, and he was to join the straw hats by changing sides. For some reason, when that didn’t work, he became a part of a completely different storyline. Getting these balances right for everyone involved is obviously quite hard when you’re trying to make them the driving force of the action. But one other trick Oda uses to get where he wants in the narrative while keeping the integrity of the characters intact is making use of the anything-can-happen nature of the manga. Instead of having to act like someone they’re not, characters mostly are pushed around by crazy and unusual impediments when necessary. Like the time Luffy spent chapters inside of a giant snake, or the time he managed to immobilise himself by sticking his legs to concrete in Arlong Park.
To me, the most interesting part in all this is how especially early One Piece fools its audience into thinking this kind of meticulous work is beyond it. Because compared to the encyclopedic narratives like Game of Thrones where the reader is drowned with paragraphs of unrelated context about the characters, Oda just keeps all the additional information that might hurt the reading experience and pacing to himself. He knows more about the characters than he is letting on at any given moment. And maybe further down the line, if that character shows up again to express who they are a little further, each of those old scenes only gets more enjoyable.
So, to come back to the initial question, is Oda a gardener or an architect after all? Let’s check. He seems to do a fantastic job at letting the story grow and breathe, but he never loses the grip on the narrative threads he carefully placed either. He doesn’t fall in love with any of his ideas to not change them but doesn’t lose track of any. The narrative seems always to be tight with no apparent loose ends, but the actors in it have all the space they can want to have an impact. So, I think we’re good if we say he is both at the same time.
What About Character Development Tho?
Hold on now. Here I am praising the extraordinary care One Piece gives its characters, but isn’t the most widely accepted criticism of the series is that it has no character development? As everyone knows, the only way a story can be good is if its main characters are entirely different people by the end of it. If your lead doesn’t “Walter White” his way to the peaks of villainy, or have a journey of redemption to win hearts like Zuko, that means you wrote a bad story. Right? Kidding aside, the idea that stories must fit into these blueprints that are deemed objectively “better” is a pretty common one. But it is a take that I very strongly disagree with. It’s misguided in the way that it assumes evoking emotion through a story is more about science than art. Patterns like “Hero’s Journey” are just subjective abstractions of common occurrences in storytelling. They are not rules to follow. And it’s misinformed in the way that it ignores a flat character arc is, in fact, one of those abstractions. Huh. Who knew.
The thing is, actually almost every character in One Piece does have a character arc, as much as their screen time allows them. They are all on varying journeys that are true to themselves and their experiences. But why do the straw-hats in particular seem to have these “flat” character arcs then? This once again goes back to the themes and goals of the series. By the time they start their journey together, One Piece is the story of our characters challenging and changing the world. They are the impact characters. They all do start off as different people with character flaws in their pasts before they meet each other; it is through their backstories that we witness them crystallise their ideals and become who they are. What we’re here to watch is the story of those beliefs and ideals being tested, and them staying triumphant. It is the story of their personal drives effortlessly turning into a revolution and bettering the lives of everyone. They are not gonna change other than becoming better versions of themselves, because this is a tale of ambition and dreams. Not one of nihilism or cynicism.
A Postmodern Manga
One of the biggest strengths of One Piece is Oda’s embrace of postmodern storytelling techniques. Postmodernism when it comes to writing and literature is a movement that’s associated with certain techniques like intertextuality, pastiche, and themes such as moral relativism and pluralism. It got popular after the 60s, but its influences are scattered all throughout history. Does embracing it automatically make a story good? Well, no of course. But somehow One Piece brings it together with its setting and story structures in a very cohesive way to benefit from it greatly. I already talked about pluralism in the sections above to an extent, and the technique in specific that I want to focus in this part is pastiche*. This is something Oda is an undisputed master of, and something that pervades his manga.
Almost all writers are influenced by different works they are exposed to whether they want to be or not. Most ideas have a starting point that triggers the creation process. In Oda’s case, I mentioned stuff like “Vicky the Viking” cartoon already. But anyone who has read One Piece knows that the series’ countless inspirations don’t stop there at all. In almost every chapter, we could find nods to various non-one-piece related things. While sometimes requiring cultural insight on the level of an average Japanese person to notice, they are usually hiding in plain sight. One Piece purposefully, wholly and openly embraces its inspirations. And even more so, it seems like it actively depends on your knowledge of them to increase your enjoyment. Oda regularly brings tonnes of different elements together from various sources, flaunt them, turn them on their head, and tie them in the most unexpected ways. Like the case of “Monkey King: Journey to the West”, a 16-century story that is arguably the most popular literary work in East Asia, and arguably the single biggest inspiration for One Piece. While we could have figured that one out since this seems to be a story of a monkey-like, soon-to-be-king’s journey to the west, Oda goes out his way to stamp Luffy with the “Monkey” family name. Because he wants you to think about it. He wants you to be able to enjoy that story you thought you knew under a new light, as he merges it effortlessly with countless other fresh ideas.
This technique of combining a variety of works from a variety of genres and pasting them all together is what’s called pastiche. I think the degree to which Oda likes to use this is mostly about his approach to creation in the first place. He likens creating a manga to Tetris if he needs to compare it with a game. Because it’s mostly about bringing together scattered ideas like pieces of a puzzle and putting them into a story. One of the clearest examples of this early in the series is Usopp’s backstory, which is pretty much the “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” with a little bit of Pinocchio and Aesop sprinkled in through his face and name. But as the story approaches the 1000 chapter mark, Oda is only going crazier with it instead of running out of things to put together.
We just have to look at Wano to get a sense of this, which is littered with these nods. What if the octopus in the famous Hokusai painting was a pervy public bathhouse attendant there? What if Zoro fights someone reminiscent of Benkei* on a bridge who also collects a thousand swords, and that’s how the rebellion solves their weapon needs? What if kappas* exist in One Piece, but they were actually fishmen? What if kitsunes* really exist in One Piece, and that other guy from the bridge was a kitsune? What if Momo’s father gets killed like this* guy by being boiled for an hour, and he is named after a famous soup that’s supposed to be also boiled for an hour? What if you can only enter this classist and isolationist country -like actual feudal Japan- on carps that swim up a waterfall like the ones in Chinese mythology?
This shit goes on and on but if Wano feels too foreign for us to pick these things up, we can always look at The Whole Cake Island arc, where we witness Power Rangers created by inhumane Nazi Germany scientists being in a political marriage with the Queen of Hearts (Souls?) in Wonderland, with a film-noir twist. I mean, come on, how cool is that?
I would love to talk about each and every one of these inspirations and Oda’s unique spin on them. They are just so fun to think about and discuss. Still, it’s pretty much impossible to go over all of them without going deeper into lots of tangents. So I’m just gonna try and cover the extent of the applications he has for them in One Piece. While most of them can be elements from works he fancied, like the beanstalk from Jack and the Beanstalk finding a place in Skypiea, or Sanji having childhood out of Man in the Iron Mask as the hidden prince locked in a prison, with the perk of existing in an alternate universe, his manga can treat the real world itself as a source to crop away elements from. These can be locations such as Water 7 with a style reminiscent of Venice. It could be real-life events or historical periods, like the asbestos-related tragedy of the Casale Monferrato in Italy, like the conflict between American natives and European settlers, or the whole golden age of piracy that took place in the Bahamas,in the actual New World. Sometimes it could be more specific, like real-life people as the inspirations for characters such as Malcolm X/Fisher Tiger. But characters could also represent the ideas of real people. As is the case of “capitalistic greed” finding its place in the story as a former king who sells toys by consuming everything around himself, who might or might not monopolise the healthcare of his country, and who has a wife that marries into money. Finally, while it’s harder classify as an homage, specific forms of oppression are depicted in a way that mimics their real-life occurrences as well, like warmongering, classism, propaganda, genocide, slavery, racism, corruption, isolationism, or child-labour. But even in that case, since the creativity on display during their depiction is limitless, the story never becomes too on-the-nose. All of these unrelated dots are connected with other story elements nicely for the audience’s gratification, without coming across as preachy references.
To loop back to the initial premise, in what way being a pastiche makes One Piece “better”? I mean obviously it makes it really fun to read. But I think its main potency comes from its combination with the unusual and creative setting of the manga. One Piece takes place over a world of isolated islands, where the protagonists are on a journey that lets them change settings at a certain pace. So the story functions in isolated narrative chunks in an organic way as well. Reinforced with its themes and artstyle, this combination of technique and setting creates any writer’s dream set up: A story that lets them do anything they want; a story that they can change up whenever; a story they would never get bored of or run out of material for. Each island is a new blank canvas for Oda and they all can be about anything and everything. Maybe for some, this is a scary set up. For a story that needs 30 years to be told, keeping the reader’s engagement high in every chapter for hundreds of chapters might sound like a very hard task. But Oda, let alone being even bothered by it, seems like he has to keep his creativity in check most of the time to keep things moving.
Finally, why is all of this so freaking impressive, aside from being tremendously useful? To start with, it’s such a genius marriage of writing techniques and the setting. This kind of storytelling can only work this effectively under very particular conditions. Conditions Oda either very carefully created, or just exploited them to their full potential once they were there. But it doesn’t end there. The isolated and oppressive world of Red Line and Grand Line are not only there to provide this specific narrative structure. They make sense in their world and even tie back to the themes through their eventual destruction at the very end of the story. The Red Line doesn’t only exist for its author’s convenience. It means something to the habitants of the world it exists in. And although we’re not sure, One Piece is probably going to end when its story format is destroyed, and the world comes together. Geez, very high-level shit right here. With One Piece, we’re reaching levels of cohesion that wasn’t thought possible.
Let’s sum up all the things we mentioned until now. We always respect the overarching themes as our north star. We establish the morality of the series as an additional framework. We create worlds and worlds bringing together many different elements, in which we let our characters be themselves. All very cool. But all of these things only make sense as a checklist if we have tangible goals that we’re trying to achieve already. What then would be the driving force behind our story arcs, and how would our destinations look like in each one? One way to think about the answer of this question is, in terms of knowing what you want to get out of a story arc as its author, and knowing what your audiences should get out of it once they finish it.
From what I can tell, each story arc in One Piece starts with a purpose. Well, a lot of times more than one. These could be very simple, like integrating a new crew member, getting the crew a new ship, introducing a theme, establishing plot points for the overarching narrative. Or they could be really impactful with huge story implications, like those events that Oda likes very much, which change the nature of the world for everyone involved. In the case of the Drum Kingdom arc for example, there were two goals: having a contrasting evil king before the good king of Arabasta, and adding a doctor to the crew. While the characters within that arc might end up changing things a bit when they take over, these are what we’re meant to be left with narratively when it’s finished and most of the loose ends that are created within it are tied up.
Oda usually knows what these purposes are with clarity before he starts plotting the inner details, and dunks his hand in his bag of ideas until he has the right pieces to achieve them. And he has a very big bag that he’s been putting things in since he was a kid reading manga, thinking what would be awesome to see in a comic book. What gets things complicated is each arc having a lot of different internal balances that need to be preserved as well. These might be adding elements strictly to ensure the mood of an arc is true to One Piece, like adding Buggy to otherwise grim Impel Down arc where Luffy is away from the crew and can’t play off of them. Likewise, Kumadori probably only exists so that Chopper would have someone to challenge him to face his monster side, an inner conflict he always had as part of his character.
Beyond the lingering narrative implications, each arc would have an emotional legacy as well. A point that the reader would get out of the section once they finish it. One Piece doesn’t hesitate to make statements and put its way of thinking out there. These could be Oda’s personal opinions, his romanticised observations on life, ideas that he thinks sound cool, sentences that can sum up his manga’s themes, or aspects to enrich the character who would be uttering it. Once again in Drum Kingdom, as Oda put it, we as the readers were meant to ask ourselves “is changing the leader of a country enough to change its soul?”
One of the common patterns that shows up often in One Piece is putting these thoughts forward through dead characters during their flashbacks, staying true to their convictions. Almost every flashback would have an idea that is being communicated within it: like the moment we saw Hiluluk tell us how people only die when they’re forgotten; or like the moment Tom told us the act of creation itself can not be a sin before he is sentenced to die; or like the time Saul told Robin to laugh in the face of hardship while being frozen to death. Not all depictions of these ideas would fit into the famous last words mould though: sometimes revolutionaries would tell us that liberation can not be gifted, that it’s the responsibility of the people to rise up either individually or collectively; or through Norland, we would learn that progress can only happen with the courage to challenge our traditions.
If we look back on our journey with the series as a whole, we’d realise a lot of the most memorable moments that stayed with us are in fact these emotionally charged and profound statements. While there are series like Berserk, which are a lot more dependent on these novel observations as part of their identity, they are quite integral to One Piece as well. And Oda makes sure he has something new to say each time.
Confidence, Love and Talent
We’re in the last section of this long writeup. All the things I went through until now were mostly about the style and technique Oda has as an author. This one will mostly be about who he is and how that affects his work. I’m gonna talk about three different aspects that are otherwise not related. Let’s start with the confidence he has in his manga.
Oda is not shy or humble. He thinks the world of his series. In a lot of his interviews, he mentions how surprised he was with the less than stellar early reactions he was getting with it. I think this confidence that his manga is pretty good and that people will be reading it for a long time is what lets him take risks that most writers wouldn’t. He has no rush to get anywhere and no tendency to overexert himself just to prove the competency of his writing. Everything in One Piece retroactively gets better. No matter which part of the series we’re talking about, when we look back and reexamine it with the context we gained when we finished the series, it’d be more enjoyable to read. This is more or less the reason for the common saying among the fans of the series: “oh shit, I had no idea how good the X arc was until I reread it”. One Piece continuously drip-feeds information that would recontextualise past events. This is mostly because Oda doesn’t hesitate to construct narratives without sharing all the context behind their details, knowing that they could still be engaging without.
What people commonly refer to as foreshadowing is mostly the result of the same confidence and patience Oda has as an author. When he was introducing Laboon at the beginning of The Grand Line, it looked like quite an unusual start for the Arabasta storyline and didn’t make much sense for the longest time. But he had the patience to wait 9 years before telling Brook’s story. He knew that he would get to the gothic-horror themed arc eventually to tell the story of the crewmate who’d be too old to be alive, and that people would be still just as much into One Piece when he does.
The same confidence is what gives him the ironclad control over the tone of the series. A lot of writers would inorganically increase the tension in their stories, put a dramatic spin to things to present conflicts that are not really there just so they can keep the attention of their audience. Oda frequently does the opposite, one of the most recent examples being the first half the Wano arc. Knowing for a fact he has interesting enough content for every chapter, he’d de-escalate the tension even when he is presenting very high-stake events. Likewise, a less confident writer wouldn’t have the courage to write the Davy Back arc and would rush to the Water 7 saga to increase the tension and stakes as soon as they can. This control lets him keep the spirit and mood of the series in line with the themes, all the while providing a nice contrast to play off of when he wants you to be on the edge of your seat.
It’s not possible to construct a 30-year-long narrative without having varying levels of intensity and a lot of mood shifts. I don’t think it’s possible to present different moods effectively without having the utmost confidence in every corner of your writing. This ties back to why ambition and willpower are central themes and continuously put on a pedestal in the series in the first place. Oda’s is quite ambitious as a storyteller, and he has a lot of willpower to do what he wants.
The second thing I want to talk about is the love Oda has for everything he creates. He loves One Piece itself and loves everything within it individually to go with it. It’s probably not possible to work on the same thing for 25 years, day and night, 7 days a week with the same enthusiasm you have on the first day without loving it more than your firstborn anyway. But yeah, he kinda loves it more than all fans of the series which is crucial if you want to attempt an endeavour such as this.
But I think more important than the overall love he has for the whole thing, it is the love he gives to all the individual elements within it that makes the difference. We already went over in detail the care he treats his character with. He knows about their favourite foods, when they go to sleep, what is their favourite pastime and what do they care for. The reason he does not stop until each character has a storyline that is true to them is that he loves who they are. This might also be the reason almost none of the characters go to the garbage bin like most of the long-running stories. It should be tough to let characters go when their storyline is over if you love them this much.
This love and care go even to the objects and props within the series. One example of this is The Going Merry always having very detailed plans and blueprints. Oda meticulously planned each and every room within it and what kind of ship it has to be. In my thinking, this care is what gave us the fan-favourite, “death of going merry” storyline in the first place. He loved that ship too much to let it go without a proper funeral and a goodbye. Not sure it’s possible to pull off a scene that out of the ordinary without making your audience buy into that love as well.
A part I should have probably given its own section here is the love Oda has for his locations. You can’t praise One Piece’s locations enough;I’m not aware of even one fictional work that can rival it in this aspect. We can endlessly talk about how imaginative and fleshed out each of Skypiea, Jaya, Water 7, Fishmen Island, Dressrosa, Impel Down, Zou, Tottoland is. And lots of people already did many times. It’s tough to run out things to say on them. But one specific aspect that I’m never seeing praised enough how tightly Oda constructs his narratives and set-pieces with the places that they are taking place. One Piece really feels like a story written in 4D spacetime projected into 2D panels, instead of just surface-level drawings. Fights in most other shounen manga are commonly drawn with bland as hell backdrops: a regular cave, a regular mountainside, a regular-ass town. In One Piece, the most influential character except Luffy in any set-piece would be the location itself. I’ll try to give an example to what I’m talking about here as it’s easy to miss how much of a common occurrence this is with One Piece.
I love the conclusion of the train ride towards the Enies Lobby. It’s really simple but gets the point across well. If you can’t remember, the setup goes something like this: Sanji is caught up with the annoying Wanze in cart 4. As they were looking for another way forward, Franky came across Nero on the roof of the cart 3. And Usopp, through his trickery, manages to go to the cart 1 to Robin, where they’re having a conversation. The scene starts when Sanji kicks the shit out of Wanze all the way to the Cart 2 where the CP9 are chilling through the empty cart 3, right at the same time Franky pins Nero down to the cart 3’s roof. As CP9 looks slowly back and Sanji intimidatingly walks into cart 3, Franky punches Nero down through the roof right next to him. So what they see is Sanji and Franky getting ready to fight them in the coolest way possible and the bodies of the people who they defeated. Then Robin throws Usopp to the same cart 2 to put an end to the fight, and with that, all actors share the same location. Ussop then orders Franky to release the 3. cart through the commotion, throws a smoke grenade, grabs robin and brings her to the car getting released. Franky sacrifices himself by getting cart 2 to block CP9 there. Robin rejects the attempt, fucks Usopp up once again and gets back to cart 2 as well. After one final emotional send-off, the set-piece ends with Franky and Robin being caught again in cart 2, and Usopp and Sanji being released from the train in cart 3. Mission failed in the worst way possible, but we had lots of spectacular panels and emotional interactions through it all.
This kind of composition is where circumstances of the location driving what’s happening, is just everywhere in One Piece. It’s one reason why Oda plans and details every room, every floor, every area and shares it with his reader ahead of time when the action moves to a new location. He frequently uses maps to show where everyone is at any given time, and the narrative threads always come together in a way that makes sense with their positioning. This is quite rare in any fictional work whether it’s TV shows, movies, books or comic books. It might be hard to achieve if you’re just focusing on what needs to happen in the story, but from what I can tell, it comes naturally to Oda only because he loves to think about every little detail about his locations anyway. Once you give that much thought to them, I think it’s a given that they become actors in their own right in whatever story you want to tell.
And finally, yes, it all comes back to this, motherfucker is very talented. I know I said there has to be more than that at the very start of this writeup, I went through everything related to style and technique as long as I can. But many of the significant aspects of One Piece are not easy to achieve no matter how meticulous, methodic, and hardworking you are. Oda is unbelievably good at what he does in many ways. Let’s say you’re doing everything we talked about right, if you can’t match his great sense for drama it would be pretty much meaningless, or a great sense of humour for that matter. I’m not sure if it makes sense for me to go through all the things he does exceptionally well, but I’m gonna try for a quick summary anyway.
He is great at character design, he has a thousand of them with each one having a unique silhouette that you can recognise. He is great at figuring out the nuances of what makes his characters tick. He is great at depicting the “presence” of characters through panels. Like, picture all the scenes where Whitebeard and Kuma appear for a second and how you feel their gravitas without any effort. He has a great sense of figuring out what to show and what to keep off-screen, in the service of building excitement. Or like in the case with Strawhats, he is really good at making all of us buy in their authenticity as living people. With really subtle background details in which they do weird shit, or keep showing them in new clothes, or painting them in lots of different situations where they’re being themselves in colour spreads. And like he hasn’t have insane number of priorities he oversees and satisfies day in day out already, he’s also great at ensuring the continuity and the balance within the portrayal of power and influence for all of his characters and organisations despite the countless moving parts.
He is great at framing scenes with photographic, sometimes cinematographic quality. He puts a lot of effort into storyboarding and framing as he considers the way a scene is directed could be even more important than the story it tells. He is great at coming up with very cool, memorable one-liners in those scenes. He is great at culminating them into unforgettable moments. So much so that he considers “flashy scenes” as one of the themes of One Piece.
He is great at enriching his story with bold additions to the narrative like revolutionaries, warlords (privateers?) or rookie generations. He is great at maintaining an enjoyable day-to-day reading experience in a closeup, while carefully serving the needs of his overarching story. When he is planning, he has a knack for figuring out the important and exciting beats of a storyline which he distributes evenly throughout the chapters. He is great at changing and adapting the series, keeping it fresh, finding new ways to make it impressive, but keeping the core of it the same. He is really really good at making full use of his medium in any way he can, like telling extra stories through the covers. Pretty much nothing is off the table to this guy. Using symbolism, allegories, parallels, callbacks, a shitload of puns and wordplays, and even music through text. And I still don’t know how he can bring everything together in a fluent narrative in which he respects every little character arc while moving the stories in the exact direction he wants at the end.
That’s a lot. To be honest, I don’t think he is necessarily the best at all these things I just mentioned. It’s more like he is really really good at so many different things, and all of it contributes to why his story is as good as it is. I feel like we can talk about a lot more of these things if we want, but the point is: the guy is good, and One Piece is good because of it — quite a bit in fact.
As I’m wrapping this up, I know there are some aspects people associate with One Piece and why it’s good that I haven’t mentioned. Chief among them is “worldbuilding” I guess. But I don’t think you can make a story “good” by aiming it to have good worldbuilding per se. One Piece doesn’t have any detail in it that doesn’t serve a narrative purpose one way or another. I don’t think Oda thinks this way either. In one interview he noted that the world of One Piece expands unintentionally, not necessarily because he values the literary quality of worldbuilding in and of itself. One piece is not good because it has worldbuilding. One Piece is just so good that it results in good worldbuilding too. That worldbuilding is only good because how all of those little details come together to be something bigger than just encyclopedic lore.
Anyways, at this point, I have to thank any person who’s still reading this. It became quite a long journey on its own. Not sure if I managed to convince you why One Piece is really the best thing that ever was, but I sure hope it painted a picture of how so few details within it are actually random. One Piece might be targeting boys who are too young to appreciate its finer details on paper but it is written with unparalleled care. Honestly, that’s just a testament to how enjoyable it can be to many different demographics for various reasons as well.
It could be argued that it’s not wise to make such claims when we don’t even know how it ends yet. And there are many cases where that might be true. God knows we’ve seen one too many stories fall on their face right before their finish line. But the reasons that make One Piece good are not things that can disappear overnight. They are not cheat codes to make the story more enjoyable today at the expense of its future. This is a story written in a way that it only gets better the more you learn about it.
Overall, I don’t know if a story with this grand of an ambition is ever attempted, let alone delivered on. But I’m quite sure once it ends, more people will be talking about it, giving its rightful place in art history: the odyssey of our times; an epic among epics; a legend among legends; the most adventurous adventure one can imagine and the most impressive fictional achievement that we know of, created by one single person.