The Monstrous World-Building of One Piece

My productivity these last few weeks has taken a serious hit. I can come up with any number of excuses for it. ‘I’ve been depressed’. ‘My jobs been kicking my ass’. ‘I just wanna play that new game I bought’. But all of them would be lies. Because the real reason is quite simple.

I’ve been reading way too much One Piece.

Remember when it was just these three idiots? God, dude, those were simpler times.

For some reason, the series never really clicked with me until recently. Whenever I’d read it, I could acknowledge its quality easily enough. But I had a hard time making myself sit down and actually read it. Luckily, with… everything… that’s happened this year, I finally ran out of excuses!

And now I’m addicted. Oops.

There’s a lot to love. The characters, the incredible art, the gags, the action, the list goes on and on and on. But that’s all a topic for another day. Today, I want to talk about my personal favorite part of it: the world itself!

The level of detail put into the setting of One Piece is absolutely insane! It has so much history, so much culture, so much character, that I don’t even know where to begin! The world of One Piece is easily, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most consistent and fleshed out setting from any manga I’ve ever read! It’s so big that I don’t even know where to begin!

Let’s start with the ocean itself. In the world of OP, the sea is divided into sections. The are the four normal seas, the North, East, South, and West Blues, which each cover a corner of the world. Separating them vertically is the Red Line, a massive range of mountains that encircles the entire world. Going ’round the world horizontally is the Grand Line, a wild and unpredictable stretch of ocean divided into two halves by the Red Line: Paradise, the first half, and the New World. Surrounding both of these stretches of ocean are the Calm Belts, stretches of water where there are no tides, no wind, nothing with which to sail; only giant monsters called Neptunians, or Sea Kings, live there, and they… aren’t exactly friendly.

If you look closely, you can see the Straw Hats ship on their nose. You know. To put things into perspective.

On the Grand Line, all normal rules of sailing are thrown out the window. Each island has its own magnetic field, which make the ocean currents wild and unpredictable. Factor in the insane weather patterns and the fact that each island has its own seasons to go along with the normal ones, totalling to sixteen seasons, and you’ve got a wild, unpredictable landscape rife with possibility.

That premise alone is absolutely ingenious. Not only does it make the world seem truly vast and varied, but it also provides a strong method to progress tension and stakes. The story starts off in the East Blue, an ocean like the ones you’d expect. Then it takes us to the Grand Line, where everything gets crazy, then to the New World, where shit really goes nuts! For a Shounen adventure story, that structure is absolutely perfect!

And I haven’t even touched on the individual islands yet!

Since each island is almost entirely isolated from the others, bound together only by the World Government (we’ll get to that), each one has its own culture and history! The desert kingdom of Alabasta is built around the importance of water and the dangers of traversing the plains of sand. On the other hand, Water Seven is a Venice like island where everyone gets around on canals and people make a living building ships. Hell, there are even islands in the sky that are entirely separated from the normal ones!

Oda does a fantastic job of establishing each island in the series. Often times, an arc will spend a few chapters up front building the setting before the story itself really gets underway. Better yet: the individual quirks of each island often come into the story perfectly!

The flag of the World Government; shocking, I know

Now, let’s take a break from the world and talk about politics! See, the world of OP is divided into several different factions. There’s the World Government and the Navy, which are often the primary antagonists. This massive, majorly corrupt organization binds most of the countries in the world. However, it’s not all bad apples; some of the marines are genuinely noble and respectable. This moral complexity makes them a fantastic antagonistic force; depending on the circumstances, they could end up working with or against the Straw Hats.

The same can be said about the various pirate crews inhabiting the seas. Some of them are selfish and malicious, posing a threat to everyone around them. Others are entirely neutral, doing their own, often harmless thing. Some of them are even heroic, like the Whitebeard Pirates, who protect others when the World Government fails.

Then there’s the third faction, the Revolutionary Army. This group directly opposes the World Government and the Navy, aiming to tear them down for their corruption. These guys are the wild card of the story. You never know when or where, but sooner or later, they’ll show up start causing some havoc.

The moral complexity of these three factions, when combined with the massive variety of the setting itself, lends itself incredibly well to the story! Any one of them could fit any role in a given arc! The Straw Hats could be going up against a more dangerous pirate with the aid of the Navy or vice versa! They could all be fighting for some important mcguffin on that specific island! Because of how huge and varied the world is, the list of possibilities is practically endless!

And by god, it doesn’t end there! Oda, the magnificent madman that he is, decided to take it one step further!

A problem that a lot of stories have is that they seem to revolve around the protagonists. If the main characters aren’t present, the rest of the world may as well not exist. Everything important that happens happens exclusively to the stars of the show.

This is where Oda truly excels. At least, he does in the manga (which is how you should experience One Piece, don’t @ me). See, in most manga, there are special covers for each chapter. In other manga, they act as a little preview for what is to come, or they just show our characters doing something cute. But Oda? He often tells little stories with them starring other characters!

You wanna see what Buggy got up to after Luffy beat the hell out of him? Want to know what the CP9 dudes do when they lose their jobs? Or how the Baroque Works goonies escaped the Navy? Wanna see Ace’s adventures? These, as well as many others, are explored in small, one-panel stories on the covers of certain chapters!

This goes a long way in fleshing out the setting. You not only get to see what the other characters get up to after our heroes leave them behind, but you also get to see entire islands that they never get to visit! It makes the world feel truly alive, like it would exist with or without Luffy and his friends!

Good god, dude, there is so much to talk about here! I didn’t even mention Devil Fruits, the Void Century, the Poneglyphs, or all the various technologies! There is so much to talk about, so much to explore, that we could be here all day and only scratch the surface of it all! I don’t have time for that! I need to go read more One Piece! I just got to Punk Hazard, god dammit!

So, I’ll leave you off with a bit of advice: if all of that sounds even slightly interesting to you and you haven’t read One Piece, go read it! It’s a fantastic series, easily one of, if not the, best Shounen manga ever written! Sure, it’s really long! But what else are you gonna do in quarantine?

Aside from anything. But trust me, One Piece is more important. You won’t regret it.

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