By (The Myth, the Man, the Legend) Nomad Otto
So, I’ve previously made disparaging comments about the state of Shounen Jump, with the exception of One Piece. I should probably begin by clarifying my earlier comments. When I say “Shounen Jump sucks except for One Piece, Jojo’s and Death Note,” what I really mean is “For anyone over the age of say, 15, Shounen Jump sucks except for One Piece etc.” The reason why I feel the need to put the age exemption in there is because Shounen Jump is fundamentally for young boys, say, from the ages of 6 to 16ish, and is written with that end in mind. One doesn’t mock children’s literature for being childish, that’s the point. There is a possibility of narrative depth and deeper understanding in some children’s literature (see JRR Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories for some background) , but, that’s a super added bonus, not a requirement.
Once one’s tastes mature, and when one looks for more depth in works, Shounen Jump is quite insufficient, this is mostly because Shounen Jump is run for the sake of making large sums of money, and, so, pretty much everything that runs in it suffers from an extended middle, or “pot belly.” Traditionally (by this, I mean Aristotle said so), stories consist of a beginning, followed by rising action, leading to a crisis, which then is resolved and produces falling action. However, the traditional formula has been changed successfully to accommodate longer form media, which cannot have a single climax, or, rather, which is able to create multiple points of impact. The Shounen Jump format admits rising action, and even temporary climaxes, but cannot ever allow for an ending, because then the property will cease to be profitable. Because I like graphs, here’s an example below:
Well, sort of. It’s not exactly true, as I’m glossing over a lot of details, but the basic point still holds. So, what does this have to do with One Piece. I mean, on the surface, One Piece is just as bad as every other Shounen Jump series, as it’s been running for like, what, 45 volumes now? It follows the same sort of generic: Guy finds people, they fight, they become friends, they go fight other people, there is training/ powering up, etc. What’s different?
To begin with, and, seemingly unrelated to the above graphs, the style of the work is very different than most things running in the magazine. The fundamental story of Shounen Jump is one of growing up, of becoming an adult when you were just a kid. You can see it in Naruto, where the big tension is about how kids can take problems and grow up to be good (Naruto) or bad (Garaa/ Sausuke). You can see it in Dragonball, where Goku goes from being a kid who’s trying to find his place in the world to some kind of intergalactic fighting guy. You can see it in Eyeshield 21, which is about how the main character goes from being a lame, overprotected weakling to being an awesome football player. One Piece isn’t really about that story, except with some of the minor characters (The marine guys), instead it’s about friendship and exploration.
Friendship is very important in most Shounen Jump series, with people who try to be all bad-ass by themselves getting kicked around and realizing the true value of friendship, etc. But One Piece isn’t about that, well, most of the time (the whole Robin getting kidnapped was about the traditional Shounen Jump meaning of friendship). Instead, it’s about a guy (I’m gonna refer to Luffy as a guy, even though later I’ll make a claim about his mental age/ ability to connect with the reader) who wants to be the leader of a bunch of friends who go exploring and do cool things.
This is even more important because, due to Luffy’s actions, he’s obviously intended to be a contact point for the child-reader. He’s a child in a man’s body, but not in the weird, Fauknerian man-child sense (well, if One Piece were more serious, he would be). So the child-reader of One Piece is supposed to associate with Luffy, and seek to emulate him, because he’s uniformly shown in a positive light. Moreover, once you get past the Macguffin of the One Piece, you can see that the reason for Luffy’s travels is pretty much the travel itself. He’s going places because he, with the help of others, can go places, and, so, he can live his life to the fullest by being out there, in the middle of things. So, rather than trying to assuage the child/teenager that he too can function in the adult word, if he tries and is good, it tries to say, “look, you don’t have to worry about tomorrow and growing up, it’ll happen. What’s important is for you to go out and make friends and explore the world.” Which is an important message that I feel needs to be said more often.
But for those of us who are no-longer young (oh man, recently, I have felt so old, well, old is the wrong word, more like, an adult with the whole “gonna TA a class” and “people assuming I’m like 26 and have a job”), what’s the value of One Piece, and when, precisely, am I going to get back to those pretty charts? Well, for the same reason that Tolkien proposed that there was a value in adults reading fairy stories, to begin with, and, secondly, because One Piece does a damn good job of taking the endless rising action Shounen Jump formula and making it into an actual narrative structure. You see, in the early volumes of One Piece, there are a number of things referenced (the big ones being Luffy talking about who he needs for a crew and Usop telling a bunch of stories) that, slowly, come to pass (Luffy now has everyone needed for the ship but a musician, and that might be resolved in the current arc, while I haven’t kept much track of Ussop’s lies recently, but, for example, he tells a story when he’s introduced about how he saw a giant goldfish, and, about 10ish volumes later, a giant goldfish is indeed spotted). There are a finite number of these predictions, suggesting that Oda does have a conclusion in mind.
Moreover, the fundemental problem of trying to match the story of growing up to a structure of endless rising action is that you eventually do grow up, and it’s kind of a bummer. There’s no rising action to infinity involved with growing up. Exploration and friendship, on the other hand, do offer almost endless rising action, each time you go somewhere new, and each time you make a new friend, it’s not only important, but, also, it adds to the stock of experiences that you have without necessarily needing to be bigger. Because that’s the problem of rising action, especially when the primary conflict is physical. If you’ve just beaten the Robot Devil and saved the world from eternal destruction, what’s left to do if your entire story is based around finding evil and destroying it? However, each time you see a new mountain, if you’re not jaded, it’s different, and the experience has value, regardless of how many other mountains you’ve seen before.
That’s the value of One Piece. It takes a bad structure, and, by virtue of the story it tells, and, by virtue of the characters (who are anything but jaded), it makes it work. Also, it’s fantastic voyage, if you’re willing to look at things from a child’s perspective, into the great wide world, which, to most people who really think about it, is so vast and wonderful that it’s nearly as miraculous as islands where it’s winter all the time and cities built on clouds in the sky. Finally, even if you feel that One Piece is a catastrophic, jumbled mess (and that criticism is somewhat valid, as One Piece does maintain it’s sense of childishness all the way down to the way that things are presented, in a child’s colorful, chaotic, mish-mash), I’ll have pointed you at what many regard as Tolkien’s greatest contribution to the world of modern literary analysis, other than his work on Beowulf, maybe. (Remember, it’s called On Fairy Stories, and you can find it in the collection The Monsters and the Critics). So, I’ve said my piece, and will return with more long-winded essay-type posts as time permits (I start having to actually show up in the mornings on monday). As a reward for your patience, here’s some pretty pictures: