Eiichiro Oda has been playing the long game. That’s not news to anyone reading One Piece, his globally popular manga, which has been dropping Easter eggs and seeding revelations for two and a half decades. The biggest one — and certainly the most divisive one among its many fans — was revealed this past weekend, and it has irrevocably changed one of the longest-running manga forever.
If you’re not familiar with One Piece, here’s the short version of what happened: Luffy got the hair transformation. His normally black, tousled hair has become a half-smoky, half-gooey mess, and here’s why this is an extremely important turning point in the series.
It’s a time-honoured trope in shonen manga, aka Japanese comics primarily targeted towards tween and early teen boys (although many of the readers who were tweens when One Piece started in 1997 are still reading it at 40). The most famous, of course, is when Dragon Ball’s Goku has his hair turned from black to spiky yellow when he evolved into his more powerful Super Saiyan form, but many of the most popular shonen manga, like Naruto, Bleach, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Demon Slayer, have put their protagonists through similar physical development, usually with their hair being altered in some way to physically represent the power-up.
That One Piece’s Monkey D. Luffy, the straw hat-wearing main character whose dream is to become King of the Pirates in the manga’s fantasy world, underwent this major transformation a quarter of a century from the first chapter is noteworthy unto itself, as is the fact that Oda had this moment planned at least as far back as 2011 when a character named Joyboy was first mentioned (and much more likely a great deal longer than that). But what makes this mind-blowing, and what has left some melodramatic fans crying that One Piece has been ruined forever is this: although Luffy has become more powerful, he’s also become much, much sillier.
I could write about One Piece lore forever, but here’s the short version: in the manga, there are things called Devil Fruits and if someone eats one they receive unique powers in exchange for not being able to swim. For example, the Smoke-Smoke Fruit lets them control and transform into smoke, while the Cat-Cat: Leopard Fruit allows them to become a were-leopard. Luffy, way back in Chapter 1, ate the Gum-Gum Fruit, which turned him into a rubber man with the ability to stretch his arms to ridiculous lengths, inflate parts of his body, and more. The many battles he’s fought in through the course of the series have been exciting and cool enough that it can make it hard to remember Luffy’s powers are, and look, fundamentally silly.
What was revealed this past weekend — and again, I feel I need to remind you this is issue #1044 — is that Luffy didn’t eat the Gum-Gum Fruit at all. Instead, it was a mythical fruit that’s been transforming him into a new incarnation of a legendary figure named Joyboy (who was inspired by a real and eerily prophetic 12th-century Javanese king named Joyoboyo). You don’t really need to know about either other than that One Piece’s Joyboy is supposed to bring laughter, joy, and freedom to people by using a power described as “ridiculous.”
What Luffy and millions of readers thought were rubber powers were, in fact, cartoon powers. Maybe a better way to describe this is that they’re Bugs Bunny powers; like Bugs Bunny, Luffy can do anything his imagination and sense of fun desire. When he throttles Kaido, the series’ current, mega-powerful, half-Chinese dragon villain, and spins him around like a shot put, Kaido’s suddenly wide eyes are visible like classic comic strips, Luffy laughing gleefully all the while. When Kaido fires a Godzilla-esque energy blast from his mouth, Luffy bends reality to his will, pulling up the ground like a sheet to block it, much like Wile E. Coyote can run on air until he realises he’s gone off a cliff. And there’s surely much more to come.
This incredible revelation, 25 years in the making, has left fans reeling, and made many fans upset. Some feel turning Luffy from a random kid with a goofy power who set sail to become King of the Pirates into the secretly prophesied saviour of the One Piece world makes him, ironically, less unique in a genre filled with heroes who turn out to be some kind of Promised One, which has long been a trope of shonen manga (and a lot of fantasy fiction, frankly). I think some One Piece readers forget this, because the series has always been so creative and unique, it’s still a shonen manga, right down to the increasingly powerful bad guys Luffy’s had to surpass over the course of his journey. Luffy was always going to be the one to save the world, he’s just revealed new powers — something he does regularly during his fights, another tried-and-true shonen trope.
But what most fans seem to be irate about is how silly this is, both figuratively and literally. While the world of One Piece is a highly imaginative fantasy world already, full of giants and superpowers and sky islands and cyborgs, turning the badass hero into the anime equivalent of Roger Rabbit seems like a betrayal to the epic story they’ve been so invested in for so long. I suspect that since these powers are unquestionably inspired by American cartoons, instead of Japanese manga, they rub the more diehard fans the wrong way, too.
What these fans miss is that this isn’t a betrayal of One Piece at all, for many reasons. First, Oda has always been inspired by American comics and animation, especially classic Disney films, and he’s always been upfront about that. (Compare The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Little Mermaid to One Piece’s “Thriller Bark” and “Fishman Island” arcs and you’ll see exactly what I mean.) Plus, Oda has always used these visual conventions in One Piece from the very beginning, whether characters’ mouths drop open to impossible levels to indicate fear, their teeth momentarily turn into fangs to represent anger, and grow exaggerated bumps on their heads when they’re punched for comedic effect. Luffy’s new Joyboy powers are just a more overtly textual use of these visual cartoon tropes.
The other thing that fans miss is that Luffy’s new powers are kind of perfect, both for the character and the series. Luffy’s goal has always been to be King of the Pirates, which he views as the freest person in the world. He’s always delighted with and laughing at life, even when he was seconds away from being executed. Throughout the series, his battles have been against villains who have trapped, oppressed, and/or enslaved people, and when those people have been liberated they celebrate their newfound freedom with parties filled with food, drink, and laughter. Freedom and happiness and laughter — these are Luffy’s core tenets, and Oda’s goal for Luffy is to have him bring joy to the world by liberating its inhabitants from the tyranny of the oppressive, divisive World Government.
All those classic Mickey Mouse and Looney Tunes cartoons may seem hoary in 2022, but their silliness was meant to make their audiences laugh. Bugs Bunny is a beloved character not because he’s a realistic rabbit, but a mischievous being who can bend reality to his will whether it’s for a cheap gag or to give some ill-intentioned and/or insufferably snooty antagonist their comeuppance. And who’s freer than someone whose power is bound by nothing but the limits of their imagination?
Those fans who think that this marks the end of a “serious” One Piece are wrong. This is still a series that can be so heartbreaking that it can bring kids and adults to tears (I’m still not over the end of Luffy’s first ship, the Going Merry, and that was back in 2006). Silliness and action and melodrama have always gone hand-in-hand in One Piece, and just because Luffy’s gotten more “ridiculous” doesn’t mean the rest of the manga has. There’s oppression throughout the world. The villain Blackbeard has yet to make his move, and other sinister forces are at work. Hell, Luffy still hasn’t beaten Kaido yet, and Kaido’s already defeated Luffy three times so far.
Instead, the manga has only added an extra dimension to its silliness, which has been part of the series since it debuted in 1997. If that ends up bringing smiles to the characters of One Piece, it should be making its readers smile, too.
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