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Note: This post is part of the Manga Moveable Feast.
If you had asked me six years ago whether I preferred Naruto or One Piece, I would have said the one with the ninjas. At the time, I had hit a stumbling block with One Piece in the form of the Skypiea Arc, which I found to be rather lacking compared to what came previously. Naruto on the other hand felt stronger than ever. Little did I know though that One Piece would overcome this hurdle with aplomb and continue to improve, while Naruto would eventually hit a bad spot from which it still hasn’t ever completely recovered.
It seems as if almost every popular boys’ fighting manga eventually hits that point of no return, the moment where you can say a series shounen jumped the shark. Hokuto no Ken, one of my favorite series ever, has a clear defining line where it goes from good to terrible. Dragon Ball isn’t quite the same after the fall of Freeza. Yakitate!! Japan, for all its fun and humor, just could not quite maintain itself. This is all the more reason to consider One Piece is a rare feat among rare feats in the world of manga. Going strong for almost 15 years now, it has probably been the most consistently good despite, or perhaps because, of its longevity. But what does One Piece have that its contemporary peers do not? What keeps it going?
When I think of shounen series that were able to keep up their quality throughout their entire run, the first one that pops into my head is Kinnikuman. An 8-year-long series originally detailing the adventures of a comically inept superhero, Kinnikuman would eventually transform into an over-the-top dramatic intergalactic pro wrestling manga where friendship is so powerful that it is literally referred to as “Friendship Power,” leading to a final arc where the titular hero must wrestle to become king of his alien planet and defeat the evil muscle gods who conspire against him, and I think what makes Kinnikuman so consistent is that it has no real rules to abide by. Nonsensical wrestling techniques, achilles’ heels based on the most suspect logic, secret origins and an abundance of replacement limbs, all of this is as common as water in the ocean for Kinnikuman, but the series just rolls along , not allowing the reader to stop and consider how amazingly ridiculous it all actually is. Except when they do and the experience is made better by it.
Similarly, One Piece continuously rewrites the rules of its own universe, changing the meaning of “sensible” along the way. Monkey D. Luffy’s first few crew-mates are fairly normal; though their abilities might be bizarre or unique, they’re still mostly human in appearance. Then he befriends a bipedal physician reindeer. Later on he’s joined by a cola-powered cyborg in speedos and a re-animated skeleton. The Straw Hat Pirates travel the world from island to island, meeting friends and defeating adversaries. Then upon entering the Grand Line, the first big goal of the series, and what it means to be a body of land surrounded on all sides by water gets thrown right out of the window. There, in the most fierce and dangerous area of all, are islands with radically different climates and animals all within relatively short distances of one another. There’s a desert island, an island literally made out of trees, and yes, even an island in the sky. The world of One Piece continues to grow, and seemingly nothing is ever too unusual.
A good portion of One Piece‘s freedom to expand lies in Oda’s art style, which evokes a sense of fun, excitement, wonder, and comedy. It can expand its limits comfortably in a way that series more beholden to pseudo-realism such as Bleach and Naruto cannot. It makes you easily accept the fact that a man can wield three swords simultaneously with one clenched between his teeth or that an island of powerful and deadly transvestites exists.
And yet, just having a setting where almost anything can happen is not an automatic formula for success. Quite the opposite, it can cause a story to spiral out of control and to lose what made it really work in the first place, if it ever worked at all, and this is where One Piece‘s creator is truly amazing. Certainly the aesthetics of One Piece help a lot Oda is able to take this increasingly convoluted world and focus its explosive energies into a tale that is remarkably consistent in tone, theme, characterization, and overall feel. Although the series could easily get out of hand, it never completely goes off the deep end, which is a chaos that Kinnikuman itself only avoids by embracing it entirely. It’s as if One Piece tests its own limits so often that doing so has become the standard.
One Piece‘s approach to world-building and the comedic art style that supports it are certainly not the only reason that One Piece succeeds, but I think it is a good window into its real core strength, which is its ability to stay fresh and exciting, and to make it feel both comfortably close and yet also dramatically distant while also continuing to push those boundaries and distinctions. Much like the human body, One Piece constantly renews itself and grows stronger as a result.
Sometimes when discussing shounen fighting series, there are disagreements among fans as to what female characters are considered “strong” and which are considered “weak.” Someone will accuse one female character of being “useless,” while another will point out all that she’s done to help the good guys, and that she’s strong in her own way. While opinions may be opinions, I think that the nature of shounen fighting series makes it difficult for those types of characters.
Hokuto no Ken is a classic example of a series with female characters who are “strong-but-not-really.” Mamiya is a skilled fighter and trains hard to keep up in a world of mutant thugs armed with only a crossbow and some yo-yo’s, but she’s still a few tiers below Kenshiro and Friends. Yuria has great will and even greater compassion, but she’s not a fighter at all, and in this series, as strong as Kenshiro’s own compassion is, fist to face action is at the forefront.
And as much as I like Hyuuga Hinata from Naruto, and as much as I think she is an excellent character, I know that she is not meant to be one of those female characters who is actually able to keep up with the guys when the chips are down. And in fact, as far as I can tell, despite the fact that Naruto is full of skilled kunoichi, there are only two or three female characters in that series who can actually fight on an even keel with the guys: Tsunade, Temari, and maybe Kurenai. Sakura definitely had the potential, and was supposed to end up as being super strong and super determined, but she too has fallen victim to the Shounen Side Heroine Syndrome.
But being physically weaker or lacking in skills compared to the main hero and the guys doesn’t mean a female character will necessarily be “weak.” Nami and Nico Robin from One Piece are both excellent examples of characters who carry their own weight. And even before Nami gets the Clima-Tact and starts participating in battles, her skills are shown to be indispensable to the team. Another good example of a female character who uses the skills that she has and contributes immensely to the overall cause is Tokine from Kekkaishi. Tokine, while not capable of as much sheer “brute strength” as her male counterpart Yoshimori, is able to use her finesse to not only match him but often outperform him.
“But wait, weren’t you the one who talked about how great it is when characters accomplish things at their own pace? Isn’t that one of the great appeals of moe? And aren’t you a supporter of moe?” And you would be right on that, but again I must say that it has to do with the fact that shounen fighting series inevitably revolve around fighting or at the very least getting characters to a point at which they can fight. Basically, the moe series will define strength within the context of their series as overcoming a small adversity which is difficult for them in particular, while a shounen fighting series is all about displays of strength, even if they are fueled by friendship and honor.
The big, essential difference between the Sakura/Mamiya group and the Nami/Tokine group is “results.” Both groups of female characters might not have as much raw skill or ability or training or whatever as the guys do, but one of those groups gets things done. Nami and Tokine don’t just contribute to the overall goal by doing something like blocking the villain’s attack just that one vital moment so that the hero can get in the final shot, but instead actually accomplish significant goals, things that can move the story along. It’s not even that they simply defeat opponents that the others cannot, but that they will do what it takes to win.
This doesn’t even necessarily apply to female characters. All you need to to do is take a look at Usopp from One Piece as a good example of a character who fights with what he has. It’s just that this is often the situation in which female characters find themselves, and often it’s done so that the guys can come in and go, “Stand aside, ladies. It’s MAN TIME.”
…Which is not necessarily a bad thing either, as having the men be strongest in a series for boys makes all sorts of sense. It’s just that if someone’s looking for female characters who really pull their weight to accomplish an overall goal, they may end up disappointed as a result. Though not a shounen fighting series, Legend of the Galactic Heroes can often seem like a sausage fest despite a plethora of genuinely well-written, strong, and clever female characters because of the fact that none of them are out there commanding ships and fleets, i.e. the very activity that is at the absolute forefront of LoGH.
Again, I like a lot of female characters who might not be the best or the strongest but try their best to do what they can even if they can’t keep up with the boys, characters who do things their own way at their own pace. However, even if a series actually says explicity, “This girl is truly strong because she really tried and her help, however small, was essential for victory,” within the context of shounen fighting “strength” is more defined by the overall setup and themes of the story, and rarely is any amount of lip-service enough to make the readers truly think otherwise.
I’m here to remind everyone that January 31st, 2009 is the last day you can see the three exclusive Shounen Jump anime specials airing on their official website.
I already wrote a review for their Dragon Ball special, so check it out.
The One Piece special is an isolated episode, but it’s the fun and wonder you’ve grown to expect out of One Piece. Even if you’ve never actually seen One Piece before it’ll be all right as long as you’re not afraid of spoilers, as the Straw Hat Pirate crew is pretty far along by this point.
This is Letter Bee’s first anime, and it’s really nice to look at. Kind of atypical for a shounen jump series, Letter Bee feels a little more subdued than expected, which I can only call a good thing.
I’d write longer reviews but I realized that by the time I wrote them, it’d be already too late.
So go forth, young anime fan!
An anime-themed restaurant of course.
But I don’t mean just people cosplaying or there being posters on the wall and anime music playing. Hell, I don’t need any of that.
What I mean by an anime-themed restaurant is that the food is anime-themed. And by anime-themed, I mean the food is taken straight from anime.
Hagu’s pumpkin mint ice cream. Usagi’s curry-that-doesn’t-look-like-curry is okay too. Fresh taiyaki served in a winged backpack.
If you have a large family, get one of the large meals. Choices are Luffy, Lina and Gourry, and Saiyajin.
Oh, and you can Kuga Natsuki any food for free (mayonnaise).
If only I had the money, I would totally do this.
Oh, and of course you can order the Ogiue special: Average-tasting food with some ikura sushi on the side.