Spoilers head for One Piece. Granted, all the things that I’ll be spoiling happened years ago now (god damn is this series long). But given how many people are using their time in quarantine to catch up, I figured I’d give the warning regardless. If you do decide to read, I hope you enjoy.
There are a few basic character traits that apply to most Shounen protagonists. Those traits typically being:
- Unbelievably stupid
- Appetite like an army of hippos
- Power of friendship
- Power so absurd it makes Looney Toons look sane
- Absurdly driven towards their goal
There are a few variations on that, but they’re pretty rare and far between. Most of them are pretty much Goku copy-pastes.
And then there are characters like Monkey D. Luffy, star of the most successful Shounen story of all time: One Piece. On the surface, he seems exactly like yet another Goku clone. But as the series progresses, author Oda adds layer after layer to his character. By the time he was done, Luffy truly became his own character.
Don’t get me wrong. The Goku inspirations are obvious. Luffy’s ability to put food away would put the iconic Super Saiyan on the ropes. While he doesn’t look to get into scrapes for the fun of it, he’s more than willing to throw down with anyone at any time. And calling him stupid would, to be frank, be letting him off nicely. From on outsider looking in, he certainly looks like a copy-paste.
I should know. That’s how I viewed him for a while. But I’m here to amend that mistake.
When it comes to Shounen hero dialogue, it can get pretty repetitive. If you can get through an arc without the main character re-stating his goal, you’ll have discovered the anime equivalent of a miracle. These dudes chase their goals more furverently than a dog chases a chew toy.
Luffy, though? Yeah, he’ll very often proclaim that he’ll become the King of the Pirates! But in all reality, he doesn’t seem to care that much about it. He’s not in it for the treasure itself. Rather, he’s there for the adventure of it. He wants to see new lands, meet new people, discover new things, and just have a fun time doing it! Sure, becoming King of the Pirates sounds nice! But look at that island over there! It’s a snow island with a talking reindeer! Wow, that’s cool! Let’s go check it out!
This goes a long way in making Luffy such a fun and enjoyable character. Most other characters in this world are in it for monetary gain or other such things. But Luffy looks at it with an innocent, joyous perspective. It makes it so much easier to get sucked into the world; when you see the world through the eyes of an excitable child, it becomes easy to see it the same way.
And then there’s Luffy’s other defining character trait. Not gonna lie: this is the one that made me love Luffy.
Shounen heroes having strong attachments to their friends is nothing new. However, Luffy is a shining example of how to properly do it in a unique and interesting way. Luffy doesn’t just value his friends because “Wow, friendship is nice!” Oh, no. There’s much more to it than that.
See, Luffy didn’t have any friends as a kid. What he did have was two bond-made brothers: Ace and Sabo. His bond with them quickly became one of the most important things in his life, thanks in part to his unconditional trust. He and they became as close as real brothers. Perhaps even closer.
Then Sabo done did blow up. Except he didn’t? I dunno. Haven’t gotten that far yet.
The death of one of his brothers deeply affected Luffy on a fundamental level. He and Ace became even closer, making Ace the most important person in his life. More importantly: this is why Luffy is so protective of the people he considers his friends. He knows exactly how it feels to lose someone close to him, which is exactly why he’s so eager to prevent that from ever happening again.
There are countless moments where Luffy demonstrates this. When Robin is set to be executed by the Navy, Luffy pushes himself further than ever before in order to save her. In this arc, he has an interesting exchange with one of the villains. In this exchange, he literally thanks his enemy for fighting him because it will make him stronger and allow him to protect them.
This arc isn’t the only example of this. He does this time and time again, from defeating Arlong for Nami or getting the gold back in Skypiea. But none of them compare to the most important scene in all of One Piece: Luffy’s rescue of Ace.
Or I guess I should say his ‘attempted’ rescue.
Like I said earlier, Luffy’s relationship with Ace is the most important one in his life. So, naturally, when Ace is captured and set to be executed, Luffy makes it his top priority to save him. He allies himself with numerous characters, new and old, friend or foe, in order to achieve this goal. He busts out all the stops.
Which makes his failure all the more heartbreaking.
I genuinely can’t think of another time where a Shounen protagonist loses someone so important to them partway through the story. The only other example I can think of is Dragon Ball, which doesn’t count, seeing as… you know… they come back. I honestly can’t think of an example of this ever happening to another Shounen hero. Maybe I’ll think of one later, I dunno.
Probably won’t hit as hard, though.
This scene doesn’t hit hard because the main character’s brother died. Fuck, the fact that it’s Ace that died is only one part of it. The reason it hurts so badly is because we understand Luffy so well at this point. We know how much his relationships with others, especially Ace, mean to him. We know how protective, trusting, and loving he is of them. So, when Ace is killed, we already know how deeply this is gonna affect him. It fills us with a great sense of dread and sorrow.
This is why Luffy is such a good character. He’s so simple and likable that it’s easy to get attached to him. We understand him so well that we can’t help but get emotionally invested in every scene he’s in. We feel his joy, his rage, and his sorrow. He’s the kind of guy that you can’t help but want to be friends with.
What a perfect fit for a long-running series.