You think cartoons go on forever? You think The Simpsons has outstayed its welcome? You know nothing, friend, until you’ve met the epic animes of Japan. One Piece, among the most popular, has been running since 1999, fourteen years. Which is less time than The Simpsons, but that other American show doesn’t make an effort to tell a sustained story. And believe it or not, since One Piece comes out nearly weekly and The Simpsons has finite seasons, there are more episodes of One Piece, by about a hundred. This is a show that does not mess around.
A brief primer. Anime are typically broken up into story arcs, with anywhere from 2 to 200 episodes per arc, but One Piece has so many episodes that its arcs are then grouped into sagas. This is the closest analog One Piece has to “seasons”, in which case — hurray, I’ve just finished the first season of One Piece! Which included 61 episodes, 2 movies, 1 hour-long special, and an animated short. In other words, a viewing experience that took me a long time to complete.
The 61-episode “East Blue” saga (plus 2 movies, plus… never mind) is essentially all origin story. It introduces five pirates of varying character, tells their background and goals, and spends approximately one story arc per crewmember telling how pirate captain Monkey D. Luffy meets them, helps them, and gets them to join his crew. Sometimes it doesn’t take much convincing: pirate hunter Zoro joins Luffy almost immediately. Sometimes Luffy has to do a little more, like saving Usopp’s island or Sanji’s restaurant ship. And with Nami, things get particularly complicated: she joins Luffy’s crew for duplicitous reasons, and in the saga’s highlight, departs once she gets her way, inciting Luffy to track her down and help save her island as well.
This is pirates at its most high fantasy. If you thought Pirates of the Caribbean was crazy with squid-faced monsters, giant whirlpools, and ancient curses, One Piece takes all of that and multiplies it by a factor of a hundred. The central gimmick is that some characters have eaten Devil Fruits, which give the users special powers. Luffy, for example, ate a “Gum-Gum Fruit” early on, which gave him the ability to stretch like rubber, a feat quite useful in fights. Villains are half-fish or all-clown or modeled after Michael Jackson, and their character design is as varied and creative as that of the protagonists.
In fact, if there’s anything that keeps the show interesting past 61 episodes (and 2 movies, and an OVA, and an animated short), I’d start with the character design. It’s colorful and appropriately over-the-top for what is in essence a comedy show; everything’s cartoonish, but it does have weight. And then I’d move on to the characters themselves, which are generally well-developed. Everybody has their own set of goals, fears, joys, tragedies, etc. All five of the main crew have tragic backstories, and loving families they leave for the sea, both of which spur them to achieve their dreams, the central theme of One Piece. In fact, when the characters don’t work, the show doesn’t work: it’s really that simple. Luffy’s ward in the first episodes, a young marine wannabe named Coby, is grating; Apis, a bland Mary Sue character who shows up towards the end of the saga, is incredibly dull, and lays the foundation for an unfortunate story arc for the saga to end on. (Seriously, whoever decided to finish this saga with the Apis Arc needs to rethink their life.)
Another major element that allows the show to work as long as it does is the pacing. Stories are dragged out for a long time. The first arc, also the shortest, is 3 episodes; the longest arc is 15. And if you were to watch any given episode out of sequence, well, you might have some idea of what’s going on, but the intention is definitely to create long stories that take an enormous period of time to wrap up. That’s why watching the movies isn’t like watching a more epic version of the show, but a less epic version, because there’s so much less time to tell a complete story. To its credit, the show takes its time ramping things up. By the time you get to the longest arc and emotional high point, Arlong Park, you feel invested enough in the characters to keep going.
Mind you, I could turn right around and complain about aspects of the pacing, too. Since it takes such a long time for the story to progress, many plot beats are telegraphed long in advance of their realization. Usopp, the Great Liar of his village, plays out the “Boy who Cried Wolf” plotline? Who’d have guessed? And then there’s points that more than stretch the bounds of realism, like characters who stay underwater for entire twenty-minute episodes without breathing. You could argue that time has been telescoped in those instances, but there’s plenty of time for characters in directly adjacent locations to have long drawn-out conversations.
But One Piece doesn’t aim for realism anyway. The protagonist Luffy can stretch, so he’s literally been turned into a cartoon. He has dramatic overreactions, and his strength allows him to smash entire naval vessels in two. The central goal of One Piece’s cartooniness is two-fold: comedy and over-the-top anime combat. The comedy sometimes translates well into English, and sometimes doesn’t, although the show’s sense of humor seems to have improved by the end of the saga, or maybe I’ve just gotten used to it. How much you like the combat will really depend on the person. Even Puella Magi Madoka Magica had over-the-top combat, but it really is taken to a higher level of jokiness here. Zoro, who I’ll remind you is entirely human, is in one case nearly split in two and able to get back up and keep fighting. Then again, this is no Bleach or Naruto; all of this is driven by not merely the desire to look cool, but also by the characters’ willpower and desire to succeed. Still, I know anime can have normal pacing (see any Studio Ghibli movie for proof), but One Piece chooses not to, fairly strongly. It’s a style choice, I suppose.
So it ain’t gonna be for everyone, and its length may turn you off as well; Oda, who writes the manga on which this anime is based, estimated he’d reached the halfway point nearly a decade into the anime’s run a few years ago. I will say this: it’s possible to approach One Piece in fairly bite-sized chunks. Early arcs are short, and gradually get longer to draw you in. The movies similarly don’t take long to watch, though their stakes are smaller and they generally have lower-quality writing than the show. And the characters are really, really good. I mean that: Usopp, Nami, Luffy, and the rest are gonna stick with me for a while, even the villains. This is a stellar cast, and I have reliable reports that it continues to expand dramatically beyond the first arc. There’s a character for everybody to like here, it’s a fairly optimistic show, and it’s fun — three qualities it shares with Doctor Who, my other favorite show this year. What a coincidence that both of those shows have lasted for so long.