Problematic faves: One Piece

Contributed by
Dec 13, 2016

Nearly 20 years after it was first published in Japan, One Piece has become an institution. It’s strange to think that this manga has gone on for two decades when it’s common for manga titles to end after only a few years. The fickleness of the Japanese manga fandom is legendary, but when it latches onto a title, it apparently latches on for life. One Piece creator Eiichiro Oda has famously proclaimed that he has at least another decade’s worth of story for his intrepid crew of pirates. So One Piece isn’t going to go away anytime soon. The comic has spawned an equally popular anime series that’s also still going strong after 15 years in production. It’s so popular that One Piece was among the first anime titles to earn a subtitled simulcast from its American distributor, Funimation. That means that as soon as the latest episode airs in Japan, it’s also available online, fully translated, in the US. 

Mention One Piece to even the most casual of anime fans and they’ll most likely have heard of it. They also more than likely will say, “Oh, that show? It’s super long.” Its enduring popularity can be attributed to a few major things: the unique character designs, a fun and diverse cast of characters, and a brilliant setting where pirates use magical powers to rule the seas. Popularity often comes at a price, and One Piece is no exception. The show has courted controversy with accusations of whitewashing and sexism, but despite the problems, it survives as one of the most popular titles of all time. Here’s why One Piece is a problematic fave, and why it still deserves a look, even through some of the most eyeroll-worthy moments.

One Piece exists in a world of oceans and islands. Pirates battle the oppressive World Government and each other for control of the seas. Each new island seems like a planet unto itself. Lands of frozen ice or humid forests. Lands populated by bird people, giants or mermaids, where even powerful gods might decide to go on vengeful rampages and destroy entire nations for fun and profit. Everything about One Piece is grander than it should be. The fish are much larger. The food tastes better. The beer gets you drunker faster. The pirates are even more ruthless, so the government counteracts with a hardcore group of Marines to patrol the oceans.  It’s a world of superlatives. 

And then you add magic.

Magic in this world is earned by consuming the mysterious Devil Fruit. Each fruit gifts the eater with a specific power, and only one fruit exists for each power. The only time there’s a duplicate fruit is when one of the fruit-eaters dies and their power becomes available again. Powers are as diverse as the pirates themselves. Some specifically increase the eater’s strength, others allow the eater to control their environment, and still others allow the eater to transform their bodies.

And therein lies one of the problems.

In One Piece, there is a group of outsiders called the Okamas who are “in touch with their feminine side” or “are women at heart” and are depicted as extremely masculine crossdressers:

And their leader is Emporio Ivankov, who looks like this:

And who is a sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania who wants to rock and roll all night

Ivankov has consumed the Horm-Horm Fruit, which gives him the power to change a person’s gender. His own:

And others, as in this scene where a huge, hairy dude named Bellett threatens Ivankov:

and Ivankov responds by forcibly changing the dude into a voluptuous woman:

It’s a bizarre scene that reads as transphobic, since Bellett was changed into a woman without his consent and Ivankov uses his gender-bending power as a weapon to protect himself. It speaks to the fear that LGBTQ people are all sexual predators who will try to alter or brainwash others to be like them. It’s a gross scene, and the worst part is how vulnerable Bellett appears as a woman. She’s naked, and dirty, and alone, and she’s so ashamed of her predicament that she refuses any help. And while One Piece often brings back secondary characters from previous episodes, Bellett is never seen or heard from again after this incident. Meanwhile, Ivankov is praised as a revolutionary hero who leads his band of outsiders to freedom. The only saving grace for this is the fact that Bellett is the villain who’s doing the threatening. All Ivankov does is try to save his own life by using his power. 

And for the most part, Ivankov and his Okamas are brave and loyal warriors who will fight to the death to protect their friends. That’s the rub. They’re portrayed as the most outrageous, awful stereotypes and yet, the characters themselves are as noble as any other characters we see in the show. Their appearance doesn’t define them. Their strength does, and in the world of One Piece, power is the most important thing. But if that’s the case, then why give the Okamas this appearance at all? Oda does seem to be fond of the grotesque as a way to differentiate characters. In an anime landscape where same-face syndrome is a real thing, the diversity is appreciated. But then Oda goes all in on the stereotypes, which is much less appreciated. 

One Piece looks like no other anime series out there. Since the title was created in the ‘90s, the style harkens back to a time before doe-eyed, same-faced teenage girls became the norm in anime shows. Monkey D. Luffy, the main character, is a lanky teenager with button eyes who ate the Gum-Gum Fruit, and now he has stretchy powers that rival Mr. Fantastic. In his quest to find the eponymous One Piece and become King of the Pirates, Luffy gathers a ragtag crew of misfits (which is honestly the best type of crew) to join him. They become the Straw Hats, named after Luffy’s omnipresent headwear, a gift from his pirate mentor, Shanks.   

Diversity among the male characters of Luffy’s crew is impressive. Apart from lanky Luffy, there’s hulking cyborg Franky, afro-headed sharpshooter Usopp, lithe martial artist and ship’s cook Sanji, Brooks (who is a LITERAL SKELETON), Zoro, a muscle-bound swordsman, and Chopper, a normal, everyday deer who accidentally ate a Devil Fruit and gained sentience, as well as an adorable, bipedal body. 

There are two female characters on Luffy’s crew. Nami, who has been with Luffy since near the beginning of his quest, and Robin, a former rival who later joins up with the Straw Hats. They are strong, clever, kind, and loyal. They are also indicative of the issue Oda has with female characters. While the male characters can be huge and tall, or short and skinny, Oda’s female characters are only depicted with big breasts and big butts and not much in the way of clothing. They don’t have same-face syndrome; they have same-body syndrome, and that’s just as bad.

Of course, the artist’s drawing style evolved and changed over twenty years, but that’s still not an excuse for making all the female characters look the same, with hourglass figures and scantily-clad forms. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a woman wearing whatever she chooses, natch. But when it’s the norm in a series, when all women are expected to dress this way and look this way, when the diversity that’s so prized among the crew becomes homogenous, that’s where the problems start. Female fans were drawn to One Piece as they saw in Nami a character who, although she didn’t have the strength to fight, had a thief’s smarts and had skills as a navigator and cartographer. Here’s how she looked when she was introduced in the series:

And here’s a later look:

One could make the argument that she has to wear a bikini top because she is on a pirate ship most of the time and it’s just more convenient for her to wear something that shows off a lot of skin since she’s exposed to water a lot, but when she’s the only female character? It sends the wrong message. In a show where all the characters are depicted as actually changing clothes once in awhile (a rarity in the genre) the fact that Nami almost exclusively wears bikini tops is frustrating. 

Oh, wait, she recently made it to another island, and so she gets to wear something different, right?

Right.

Even better.

At least it’s not a bikini top, for once? But a dress with exposed sides presents another bunch of problems altogether. Practicality issues aside (how is she exactly expected to fight like this?) what can you wear as underwear with one of these dresses? And what kind of message does this send to the kids, since, yes, One Piece is considered appropriate for kids in Japan? The dress is a gift from the Mink Tribe, a group of anthropomorphic animal people who value physical contact as a way to develop friendships. The Minks are fascinated by the humans who came to their island because of the relative lack of fur, they sure do love to rub against bare human skin. 

Yikes. 

But that’s still nothing when compared to what happened to Nico Robin. Originally a member of Baroque Works, a group that opposed the Straw Hats, Robin was won over by the bonds of friendship Luffy had with the rest of his crew and she eventually joined them as a full-fledged member herself. Robin ate the Flower-Flower Fruit and has the ability to duplicate parts of her body (usually her hands) on herself or on other living things. It’s a bizarre ability, in a world full of bizarre abilities, but one can’t argue with the strength of someone who can summon up a bunch of gigantic hands that could slam you into the dirt. 

Anyway, here’s how she looked when she appeared on the show originally:

And here’s Robin from a more recent episode:

Yes, Robin got whitewashed. What’s worse, it seems like her skin lightened when she became more attached to the Straw Hats, since she was clearly depicted with darker skin when she was an antagonist. This could just be the anime production company itself. Oda, in the manga, never depicted Robin with brown skin. Toei Animation, for whatever reason, depicted Robin as initially brown-skinned, but after the series went through a two-year time skip, Robin came back as pale as Nami. It made no sense, and the implication was that she became white because she now was one of the good guys.

Personally, as a WOC with brown skin, I adored Robin. I adored her tragic backstory. I adored her bizarre hand-summoning powers. I also adored the fact that she was a badass who chose her own destiny instead of having others tell her what to do. The fact that she had the same skin tone as me was incredible. Anime shows barely have depictions of characters who looked like me, so I became attached. And when Robin came back white, I was devastated. She was clearly the same badass as before, but she didn’t have my skin tone anymore. Toei Animation obviously just course-corrected Robin’s look to match the manga, but now, Robin doesn’t feel right to me. 

And then there’s this dink.

Sanji is the pirate crew’s cook and a literally kickass martial artist whose legs are so powerful that he can essentially fly by kicking against the air. He’s also a weirdo who’s obsessed with Nami and keeps pushing himself on her even though she’s obviously not into it. Sanji will never get a chance with Nami, but normalizing his behavior is dangerous. It’s not just Nami who gets Sanji’s attention, either. Every single beautiful woman is a target for Sanji’s misplaced affections. And in the world of One Piece, all the women are depicted as beautiful, so they’re all a feast for Sanji’s lustful eyes. And while all of these women are strong enough to fight back, it’s beyond frustrating that Sanji doesn’t learn his lesson. He just keeps hitting on women, and women just keep beating the crap out of him, which only encourages him to try harder.

The sexism is played for laughs, and Sanji’s behavior comes dangerously close to a “boys will be boys” mindset. He can’t help himself. He’ll always be like this. It’s just one of his quirks, and Luffy likes people who have quirks. So Sanji, perverted nature and all, is accepted without question. What’s strange is that Sanji was originally depicted as a chivalrous character. Not an overt catcaller, but a guy who had an old-world type of respect for women. He did not get beat up very often in the past because he just didn’t engage in that behavior in the past. Somewhere along the way, he turned from his chivalrous, “women must be protected” side and accepted his pervert side. There’s no real explanation for this change, and it’s frustrating that Sanji has transformed into this one-note character, good for only a couple of sexist laughs before he’s clocked into the sky like a baseball during a home run. 

Although these issues are frustrating, One Piece still deserves a watch. Oda is a master storyteller, and the conflicts he concocts for his characters are still above and beyond what one can find in the rest of the genre. The overall message is that friendship and loyalty are more important than brute strength. Luffy is strong because of his friends, not in spite of them, and the fiercest battles are often won with a combination of teamwork and luck. Luffy’s single-minded goal to become the King of the Pirates makes little time for romance. In fact, Oda’s declaration that Luffy will never fall in love resonated with the asexual community, and Luffy is considered one of the only main characters in an anime series who can be canonly considered asexual, or at least aromantic. 

One Piece’s popularity shouldn’t shield it from criticism. Something so popular should be looked at with a critical eye, because people are influenced by the media they consume and the messages sent by the media, even by a Japanese kids’ cartoon about magical pirates, are important. There are glimmers of greatness already inherent in One Piece. Its celebration of diversity is its best asset, and this show only needs a little more kindness and respect to its characters to be truly great. 

Really, it’s what Luffy would do.