Pirating Dragon Balls

Over the last year, One Piece has been burning up the book charts in Japan. Every succeeding volume has not only out sold the previous, they have been breaking sales records, and hitting print runs in millions for the first edition. This is pretty amazing for any book series, but it’s even more amazing since One Piece is a manga written for teenage boys. This means more than just the kids are buying these books. A recent discussion of shonen manga brought up influences, and of course, Dragon Ball was mentioned. First published in 1984, most of the creators working today would have read it, if not been influenced by it. Eiichiro Oda and Masashi Kishimoto have stated that their popular titles, One Piece and Naruto were inspired by Dragon Ball’s protagonist, Son Goku, as well as series structure. So why is One Piece selling so much more than Naruto now?

I think the key to One Piece‘s success can be found in the way Eiichiro Oda utilized his inspiration from Dragon Ball to create a series that similar in feel, but still very much stands on its own. First, look at the protagonists in both titles. Son Goku of Dragon Ball is portrayed as a nice guy, not too bright, but knows right from wrong and isn’t afraid to fight for it. He has a small group of close friends that he will fight to protect, and has a way of making friends of enemies. One Piece‘s Luffy has many of these same traits. He’s the same kind of happy, go lucky guy, and you certainly wouldn’t call him smart. He spends half of the “Water Seven” arc with Usopp in an obvious disguise, and never realizes it is him. He has a definite sense of right and wrong, and would gladly die fighting to save those he considers his friend.

But Luffy is no clone of Goku. Goku has a kind of cluelessness that borders on innocence. It’s a trait that makes him cute. Luffy is just dense. Nothing he does is cute. He’s much more about the comedy, especially the frustration he caused his shipmates. Goku was all about the fight. It was about the only thing he could do really well. When he got serious, it was always about the fight. He didn’t have a lot of emotional range. Goku was either confused or angry. Luffy has a much wider emotional range. He cries when he’s happy and/or sad. He fights with his own crew, though more often than not they support him in the end. It’s a range better suited for the longer adventure story that One Piece is, compared to the more comedy-centric story Dragon Ball was.

The most important trait that both Goku and Luffy share, and that you don’t see in some of the other shonen protagonists such as Naruto or Ichigo of Bleach is that they never sink into self-doubt. No matter how tough things get, or how big the enemy is, both Goku and Luffy would face that enemy head-on and keep fighting until they won. And even if they would lose, it would only be temporary, as they work and train to become stronger and get past that defeat. If you look at Naruto and Ichigo, they get weighed down by their self-doubt, becoming very emo. Now, this might make them more popular among female fans, who seem to like a character the more emo they are, but it ends up hurting the story. This might be fine in shojo stories, where the conflicts tend to be more internal than external. But in an action story, it slows things down, as parts or even whole chapters get become about the protagonist’s internal conflict. They end up going in circles, much like their fights and never really moving forward. They might get stronger as per the Shonen fighting formula, but their characters get stuck in a rut emotionally, and that gets real tiring real fast.

What I really love about both Goku and Luffy is that they never lose sight of what’s important. They know who they are and are confident in the decisions they make, for good or for ill. They don’t try to hide their feelings from their friends, and they don’t try to do everything by themselves. They may be the first in a fight because of their diving into things head first, but there is never any doubt that their friends will come to support them. They are always moving forward, taking on the next big bad, and not constantly looking over their shoulder and worrying about the past.

In the end, while One Piece does owe a lot to Dragon Ball, it’s Oda’s strong story and characters that really carry the title. Seven years after the story was supposed to end (Oda envisioned it as a 5 year story), One Piece is not only going on strong, it just keeps getting stronger. He can do emotional and poignant scenes with the characters without having them dwell on their dark and difficult pasts. A meeting with Luffy means finding a path for going forward, and with so many dark and stagnant stories out there, it’s refreshing to have one that keeps things positive. That’s what Goku always did, and that’s what Luffy does now.

5 thoughts on “Pirating Dragon Balls”

  1. Actually, there WAS a point later in the series’ run (last month) where Luffy was demoralized to the point that he yelled “I’M WEAK!!” in a fit of despair. It didn’t last long, but it was certainly a defining moment for the series where the happy-go-lucky captain felt truly helpless.

    One important difference I feel that’s been neglected is that DragonBall had plenty of imaginative scenarios that grew more outlandish over time, which is something that One Piece excels at. Naruto & Bleach just seem to be running the gamut of the typical Shonen formula: Fight leads to fight leads to fight leads to BIG fight. (Rinse & repeat until BIG Big Bad is finally defeated)

    Another crucial difference is that despite all the interesting S-powers involved, Oda doesn’t skimp out on the significant fights among the weaker members of the crew, especially Nami & Ussop. He even mentioned that Ussop would always be the weakest one, since he was the typical everyman. (If the everyman could stand up after shattering every bone in their body)

    Very impressive essay, otherwise.

    1. I’m still catching up on my One Piece, so I missed that. In the 30’s of the Waters Seven arc I would guess? I don’t deny that Luffy will sometimes fumble, but he will always get up again with a minimal amount of despair and no real angst. That was the point though. Luffy never mopes around and gets angst. Angry and frustrated yes, demoralized, for sure, but that’s not the same as the ‘gloom and doom’ you always see on Naruto and Ichigo.

      And you are totally right about the scenarios! That’s something that’s really gotten to bug me about Bleach and Naruto, and why I hated Dragon Ball Z. It’s either one fight after another, or one reeaaalllllyyyyyy long fight. One Piece has it’s fights, but Oda does a great job of varying them so they don’t become the wash, rinse, repeat of other Shonen titles. And I love getting to see Nami and Usopp fight. I loved Nami’s fight at the end of the Alabasta arc. She was great, even with having to deal with Usopp’s party instructions.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. I like essays like this that re-inspire me to follow One Piece and other manga series’. It means a lot more than a simple review. I never looked at it that way, that Naruto and Bleach were angst-filled, and One Piece never faultering. It’s one of those series that, although it is being continued forever to make more money, it does deliver the story for the buck. I like that Oda has done something amazing with a work like this that so many fail to keep fresh. But what do I know? I’ve never read a long shonen before (other than Tsubasa).

    1. @Oliver: I’m glad you enjoyed it. I read Bleach, Naruto and One Piece in Shonen Jump, so making the comparison was pretty easy for me. A forum post got me to the connection to Dragon Ball. I started reading manga for the Shonen, so I’ve been through several of the longers series, mostly Jump. But One Piece has shaped up to be the one series I want to go back and re-read. Early Bleach is good, and Naruto volumes 28-29 have some scenes I love, but One Piece consistantly has whole arcs I want to read again and again.

      @Harvey Ahh…I was not aware of that. As you can see, I am very much far behind on my One Piece. Spoiler indeed. 🙂 But I think that says a lot of Oda to be able to go almost 60 volumes and 11 years without having to hit the angst button on Luffy. Even the other characters, once their past is revealed, they don’t dwell on it. They look forward to the future with Luffy. It never drags them down for long. Thanks for the comment!

  3. @Lori Henderson

    Actually, what DeBTt was talking about happens in very recent chapters. In fact, that chapter has yet to make its way to tankoubon format in Japan. So… yes, that was pretty much a spoiler.

    Anyway, that was a wonderful article. It reminded me why I love One Piece so much and pointed me out why reading Bleach it’s always such a drag. Thank you!

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