In an age of miserable book sales, there’s a manga series that recently released its 65th volume and ran 4 million copies in its first printing. What is the secret to Eiichiro Oda’s bestselling “One Piece,” a manga series portraying the adventures of a group of pirates?
The protagonist is a boy named Monkey D. Luffy, whose body has the elasticity of rubber, a supernatural feature he gained after eating a magical “devil’s fruit.” To fulfill his dream of becoming “the king of pirates,” Luffy sets out in search of a secret treasure — referred to as “one piece,” due to its single-pieced formation — that was left behind by a legendary pirate. Along the way, he accrues companions with special talents including swordsmanship, marine navigation, and sharpshooting. As they fight enemies and overcome other obstacles that cross their path, the group undergoes personal and collective growth.
“One Piece” began as a series in 1997 in the manga magazine Weekly Shonen Jump, published by Shueisha Inc. In 2010, when vol. 57 was published, the first printing ran 3 million copies, which not only exceeded that of the Japanese version of J.K. Rowling’s novel “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” but was the highest such figure in the history of Japanese publishing.
When vol. 64 was published in November 2011, the first print run was 4 million copies, bringing the cumulative number of copies published to over 250 million. An animated version began airing in 1999, and a new “One Piece” film has been released almost every year. Meanwhile, the manga has been published in at least 35 countries and regions, and the franchise’s first exhibit is set to take place in Tokyo in March.
While the Weekly Shonen Jump readership tends to consist mostly of elementary and junior high school students, “One Piece” has found a strong fan base among men and women old enough to be the parents of such readers. According to a survey by major bookseller Kinokuniya Co., 90 percent of customers buying comics are aged 19 and over, with women in their 20s to 40s comprising some 40 percent of buyers. The publisher receives comments from readers saying that the “One Piece” series can be enjoyed by the whole family.
“We’re celebrating the 15th anniversary of the series this year, and still we’re periodically going through more printings of every volume from the first to the most recent,” says a public relations representative at Shueisha. “This is an extremely rare case.”
With missing treasure, companions, and travel at its core, at first glance the series doesn’t seem much different from many other manga. Why, then, has “One Piece” outperformed other works?
“(The ‘One Piece’ characters) greatly value their ties to each other, as is evident from the way they always respond to each other’s calls for help,” says Yuki Yasuda, a professor of social system design at Kansai University and the author of the book, “Luffy no nakamaryoku” (Luffy and His Capacity for Friendship). “Moreover, the characters’ lines have strong messages, allowing the content to withstand adult scrutiny. This is what makes (‘One Piece’) different from other manga.”
There is a scene in which one member of the “One Piece” group, who had been slow to open up to the others, cries for help with tears flowing. Luffy’s response is: “Of course we will!”
A two-book collection of memorable lines from the series called “One Piece Strong Words” has even been published. In the book’s commentary, critic Tatsuru Uchida writes: “It is not an exaggeration to say that (the series) is a type of bible produced by 21st century Japan.”
The strong bond between the “One Piece” characters goes beyond mutual support. Yasuda points to the equity between characters. “(The characters) maintain egalitarian relationships, with different characters taking the leadership role depending on the situation. It’s completely different from the Showa-era (1926-1989) image of the authoritarian athletic team leader pushing members to make sacrifices for group success,” says Yasuda.
Even so, why do the “One Piece” books all end up being bestsellers at a time when megahits are hard to come by?
“We live in a time when the things that we used to believe in, like employment, social welfare and safety, have crumbled,” says management consultant Takahiro Suzuki, who has written about the readership of both “One Piece” and “Gundam,” another anime series. “This is all the more reason why the characters’ way of life — believing in themselves despite the obstacles they face, trusting in their friends, and going forth with confidence — resonates with readers.”
Yasuda agrees. “Because of the time we live in, everyone is reaffirming how important it is to have companions with whom to aspire to the same dreams or achieve the same goals. The series offers readers clues to these questions,” she says. “It’s possible (the series) will become a ‘common language’ through which older generations can understand younger generations.”
I will bet my treasures that I am not the only who loves the fact that this is an actual article in an actual formal, professional, general, worldly, non-anime/or/manga-centric newspaper/site. Eiichiro Oda hitting all kinds of headlines, right here, guys. Pirate swag.
I’m so proud of One Piece. I always wish there was a literature class based on the story. I think if enough people read One Piece, our ideals as a society would slowly change for so much better.
Rapidly change for the better :)
;__; SO INSPIRING. *scuttles away to draw*
THIS! THIS, A THOUSAND TIMES, THIS!
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