This month (if all goes according to plan) you will be treated to more than one Anime Wednesday post. Today’s post will concentrate entirely on the anime I’ve been watching religiously for weeks, but next week there will be a Bonus Anime Wednesday post by fellow blogger and anime fan Little Red Reviewer, so stay tuned for that. Above and beyond all that, ARRIETTY has been released to theatre’s in North America and I will be getting out to see it hopefully this week. You will subsequently see a proper movie review on that one as well. So this month is going to go down as the most chock full for the genre we’ve done yet. The numbers on the monthly posts do quite well, so you can expect I’ll continue to keep my finger on the pulse and bring you what’s important, and what you should be watching.
Today’s post is going to concentrate on the anime known as ONE PIECE. This had been a little known show to me up till now, but seemingly occupies a space in fandom that can only be described as a “force of nature”. It is exceedingly popular and sits alongside other such shows like NARUTO, BLEACH, and FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST for long-running, multi-arc-ed, complexly character-driven narratives. I’ve heard that both NARUTO and BLEACH run out of steam and begin to be a bit repetitive (Ala DRAGONBALL) and all about the next “power up” to defeat the next random boss, but having not sat down with them I cannot comment. Strangely, this is apparently not at all true about ONE PIECE. The people I’ve talked to that are up to date with the series actually tell me it simply gets more and more complex as things go along and the world continues to open up into larger storylines and characters. This is especially telling when you consider that the series is 500+ episodes deep already, of a projected 1000! Add to that the fact that the manga, written and drawn by Eiichiro Oda, that it is based on which began in 1997 (in Japan) is still going strong today and is at something like 65 volumes. Add all that up and what you get it a extraordinary manga and anime series that has not only lasted for 10+ years, but apparently continues to be fresh.
Now, if you would have told me that a series that had crappy, late 90’s DBZ-style animation would be written very well and find itself compelling and interesting to a discerning anime-fan such as myself, I’d have called you nuts. I recall the first time it was mentioned to me and I checked out the first episode I was put right off by the animation immediately. I locked it away in the back of my head as “Don’t watch – Ridiculous” and forgot about it.
Until about a month ago.
I had been planning to watch FMA: BROTHERHOOD since I needed some fresh anime to watch and I was ready to get properly stuck into a full series. Sadly, looking it up on iTunes it looked to be $50 for 24 eps (which isn’t bad at all), but that ended up being too pricey for me at the moment. So I pondered giving ONE PIECE a go anew, since people I trust seemed to have such strong positive reactions to the show. Above and beyond this, Funimation (who are currently doing a proper and decent English dub of the series…which isn’t the butchered 4Kids version that came out a number of years back) has set up the episodes to stream (in both dubbed and subbed versions) on their official website for free. All that is required of me is to sit through 3 15-25 second commercials per episode, a fee I don’t mind paying at all!
So I sat down one Saturday morning and watched the first 6 eps, pushing my brain past the stigma about how crappy I thought the animation was and watched for story instead. And I was pleasantly surprised. Here was a show with a seemingly simple premise:
It follows the adventures of Monkey D. Luffy, a 17-year-old boy who gains elastic abilities after inadvertently eating a supernatural fruit, and his diverse crew of pirates, named the Straw Hat Pirates. Luffy explores the ocean in search of the world's ultimate treasure known as the One Piece and to become the next Pirate King. Along his journey, Luffy makes several friends and battles a wide variety of villains, many of whom try to capture the Straw Hats.
It’s very simple, but rather early on (while Luffy is still gathering his initial pirate crew) I found that the show has a lot more depth than you could assume on the surface. The best way I can explain it is with the backstories of the various pirates Luffy gathers. I’ll use Usopp’s story for my example (though all the back stories are this well constructed). Usopp is from a small village where he seemingly is a nutter who tells wild tales about all the pirate adventures he’s been on to a local depressed noble girl who’s parents are dead to cheer her up. He also runs through the village everyday and shouts that “pirates are coming!” even though they clearly aren’t. He is the quintessential “boy who cried wolf” and the village mostly ignores him. As Luffy and Co. arrive and end up having to battle to save the same noble girl from her vicious guardian, Usopp (who considers himself Captain Usopp, and even has children play-acting as his pirate minions) joins in the fight to help save her to his own detriment as he is revealed as a teller of tales and not at all honest. Where this all came full circle and hit me in the chest was after the day is saved and Usopp is considering his future we get a flashback to his childhood. We find out that his mother was sick and dying, his father actually WAS a famous pirate who left with Captain Shanks (for the dangerous Grand Line) when he was little, and that his stories were a way of connecting himself with the father he never saw again…and running through the village shouting that pirates were coming was his way of HOPING that they would, and that his father would return and his mother would get well. Sadly, she dies and Usopp’s father never returns. I was floored by that. Here was a show that for all intents and purposes is about a band of heroes using special attacks to defeat various bosses while they look for treasure and infamy. And in a quiet moment Usopp’s story nearly reduced me to tears.
That was the moment I KNEW I was watching something special.
As the show goes on and Luffy picks up more people – the initial 4 are master swordsman Roronoa Zoro, Slingshot sniper Usopp, thief and navigator Nami, and lastly famed cook, cigarette smoking, martial arts master Sanji – and a ship called the Going Merry, the Straw Hat crew begin to experience more and more of the East Blue ocean before heading properly off to the insanely dangerous Grand Line. What I notice is that little portions of the narrative are seemingly innocuous points, but come into play later on in bigger ways. Bafflingly enough (with a story that is going to be 1000 episodes deep), Oda apparently has a plan. How on earth he can keep everything straight is a dedication you absolutely have to admire in the man.
Now I am about to utter some big words. Last night I rounded the 45th episode of the show (the tail end of the Arlong Arc) and even only being this far into the show I can say without much worry that ONE PIECE has fast become one of my favourite anime shows ever, if not THE best. Now, you might ask me why and I’ll simply say this. Story. Yes, the animation improves somewhere after the 30th episode, but the thing that keeps me coming back time and again is the story. There is a heart where I wasn’t expecting one, there is bravery of a blatant kind, bravery of a learning kind. There is heavy backstory that never intrudes too much on the pacing. The best way to describe this show is that it is inexorable. They will continue to tell this story to its conclusion and once you get stuck in, you won’t stop either. The introduction of new characters and how they fit into the narrative, the attention paid to older characters that I thought we were done with who show up with fresh story points, all add to the weave of the show and make the quilt larger, more complex and simply more impressive. And they haven’t even gotten to the Grand Line yet!
I’m on board. I don’t care how many episodes I have to catch up with; I will keep watching the show as long as it is made. I am fearful (like I was once I realized I liked Jim Butcher’s DRESDEN FILES books) that once I catch up I’ll salivate for the wait from week to week to see new episodes, but that’s a long way off as I still have about 500 eps to go before I am caught up, plus there have been 8 movies. This ought to keep me in deep for months and months.
Get past the lackluster animation you will initially see and probably dislike (trust me that it not only grows on you, but becomes an endearing facet of the show as well), and get through the first 10-15 eps where the main story is still building…for after you pass that section the show gets better, the ramp starts to tilt up, and the narrative will suck you right in and not let you go.
A note on the dubbing: After the 4Kids fiasco (see link above for explanation), FUNIMATION stepped in and bought the license, and have been really faithful to the actual Japanese scripts and (as far as I know) have not touched the animation or cuts scenes. The voice actors that are portraying the characters do a really good job, Colleen Clinkenbeard (Luffy) and Christopher Sabbat (Zoro) being the standouts, and even the lyrics to the opening theme song for Season 1, sung by Vic Mignogna, are a faithful English translation of the Japanese. If you wish to watch the English dub (It’s where I started) then you won’t be disappointed as it’s well crafted and executed. That said, I watch the show streaming on the Funimation Official ONE PIECE site and they rotate which eps are up in English dubs on a seemingly monthly basis, so one month the dubs for Ep1-29 might be up and the next month they might not. This is so that Funimation doesn’t lose the revenue from people buying the DVD’s (something I have since ordered) by streaming it all at once free. Instead they offer it up piecemeal as a taster. Have no fear though, they have a HUGE selection of the original Japanese subbed eps up as well. Now, after I caught up with the existing show order English dubs (they were up to roughly Ep 32 last I checked) I decided to wait until I had the DVD’s or the dubs for the next eps rotated up on the site.
I’m not made of stone. I could not wait.
After taking about 2 eps to re-adjust to the Japanese voice actors (they are quite different in some cases, like Luffy is more of a stoic crazy than a all-shouty crazy as played by Clinkenbeard in English, though both are good portrayals), I fell utterly in love with the original Japanese actors. The other note being that for some strange reason the dialogue and sequences that are emotional simply seem to resonate at a deeper level with the Japanese cast. I’m not sure why, but it seems that is the case with a lot of English dubs. I don’t want to take away from the English cast though as they do as stellar a job as I think I’ve seen on any Anime, it’s just something small I noticed and thought it warranted mentioning.
Oh, and the theme songs (opening and ending) are catchy as hell and you will find yourself either singing them (badly in Japanese if you are like me) or humming them at random. It’s just a fact you will have to accept.
I am so pleased I got over my initial first reaction of the show, and got into it properly. It makes for compelling watching, and fast moved up in my list of things to watch. I can now fully understand the ridiculously huge following the show seems to have garnered over the years, and I now count myself among them.
Ravenously funny, heartfelt, action-packed, and even quite thought-provoking ONE PIECE is (as I mentioned above) a literal force of nature that sweeps down from lofty pirate ship masts and grabs you by the scruff of the neck to whisk you away on an adventure the likes of which you weren’t expecting.
I leave you with the 2nd ending song that I can't get out of my head: Run! Run! Run!