When we think about massive fictional universes, the first examples that likely come to mind are things like Middle-earth and a Galaxy Far, Far Away. These are settings that don’t just span immense areas but massive chunks of time, bolstered by sequels, spinoffs, tie-ins and, in the case of Tolkien’s go-to kingdom, an obsessive interest in history and language. However, there is a place that one could argue has grown to rival both in its scope: the world of Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece. Now with over a thousand episodes, based on the 1000+ manga chapters it uses as its source material (That’s not even counting the extra “filler” material and the animated films), One Piece has been expanding in both steady and explosive fashion since the first few minutes of its first episode. And it shows no sign of stopping.
Now, with its latest film, One Piece Film: Red (hitting theaters in the US on Nov. 4th 2022), it might seem like a fine time to become acquainted with what Oda has been building for over 25 years. The story of Monkey D Luffy and his misfit Straw Hat Crew’s attempts to find the fabled One Piece treasure blends magnificent emotional poignancy with escalating adventures in a way that’s honestly awe-inspiring. One might expect this kind of story to become exhaustingly cyclical, as many of its ilk have: Heroes get stronger, while new, more powerful villains appear in revolving door fashion. But One Piece has, for the most part, managed to stay vibrant, and the sense of discovery that leads people to first engage with the series remains just as potent as it did in 1997.
But how do you get people to garner the courage to set sail and try it out? At the time of this writing, there are 1,038 episodes to catch up on (available to watch, at least in part, on Hulu, Crunchyroll, Netflix, and Prime Video). So if each episode is roughly around 24 minutes, that means you would have to watch 24,912 minutes to be up to date. And that’s not even counting the new episodes coming out as you attempt to familiarize yourself with the first 415 hours of One Piece. If you skipped sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom and literally every obligation you could, that’s over 17 straight days of anime. And considering the show’s heavy level of detail and nonstop serialization, it can’t be rendered as background TV. When you watch One Piece, you gotta watch One Piece.
But viewing over half a month’s duration of a show just to have watched it is a pretty miserable way to engage with art. So let’s look at it from another angle: One Piece’s world is vast and its mythology has grown deep, so deep that even the most dedicated fans will likely have to check the One Piece Wiki from time to time. But one thing that has remained deeply approachable is the central cast of characters, where no matter how much backstory is layered on or how many new powers they achieve, the same emotional core has been kept true since the beginning: The strength of found family.
It unites every member of the crew: Luffy, the captain, is the outcast pirate grandson of a major military figure who wishes to follow in the steps of his mentor. Zoro, the swordsman, is dedicated to fulfilling the dream of his late childhood friend. Nami, the navigator, was an orphan raised by a fiercely loving adoptive mother and then by a group of cruel pirates who wished to humiliate her. Usopp, the sniper, lost his mother to illness and his father to dreams of pirating, and now tells lies to compensate for his own insecurities. Sanji, the chef, was dismissed by his power-hungry family of sociopathic royals and learned to cook as a way to take care of people. Chopper, the doctor, was kicked out by his herd (He ate a mystical fruit and now he’s a little, bipedal talking deer. One Piece is great!) and has committed his life to learning how to cure every illness on earth after being unable to cure his father figure. Robin, the archeologist, is the last member of a group of scholars that were massacred by the Navy for their research. Franky, the shipwright, is a cyborg whose mentor sacrificed himself to save his team from the deceptions of the government. Brook, the musician, is the last surviving member of a pirate crew that succumbed to disease and poisoning, unable to die due to his own power. And Jimbei, the helmsman, lost his former captain to the cruelty of mankind and wishes to see coexistence among the races of the world.
All of these characters follow a similar formula: tragic loss followed by the redemptive love of their new family. Their personalities differ widely, from Luffy’s carefree attitude to Zoro’s powerful will to Jimbei’s steady support; but after a while, they cease to feel alien to their audience. Part of this is due to the sheer amount of time spent with them, but it’s also due to the fact that we can easily see ourselves in them due to their patternized histories and different characteristics. Everyone has likely experienced loss of some kind, and many have been able to find strength in the relationships they’ve formed, whether it’s their own family or another they’ve been able to build. If you can relate to that, you can relate heavily to One Piece. Suddenly, the 1,038 episode count changes from a hassle to a hangout.
It’s in this that many series like One Piece have faltered: The franchise that One Piece is most often compared to is Naruto, mainly because they emerged around the same time and both have been ludicrously successful and long-running. But Naruto’s early nature, one that showed a keen grasp on the inherent trials and loneliness of adolescence, often becomes lost in its ever-accelerating scale. Main characters would either be shoved to the wayside or weighted down with plot turns that made them feel overstuffed. Detail mutated into baggage even as the series approached its endgame, and eventually, everyone aside from Naruto and his angsting rival Sasuke had been kicked to the curb at some point or another.
One Piece, though, remains dedicated to the simple efficacy of its characters and their lives. And with that, the episodes tend to fly by as the foundation for relating to the copious adventures has already been set. An assault of information and an eruption of worldbuilding is far easier to handle when you care about the central cast that it’s happening to. As such, embarking on the cruise that is One Piece, whether it takes you a few months or a few years, is usually a satisfying venture. 1,038 episodes is nothing if it’s about people you love.
Daniel Dockery is Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. You can follow him on Twitter.
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