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Pirate tale is a treasure


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POSTED: Sunday, January 24, 2010

The ninjas of “;Naruto”; and vampires of “;Vampire Knight”; may have captured the hearts (and wallets) of U.S. anime and manga fans, but in Japan it's a rubber-limbed teen boy and his ragtag pirate crew who reign supreme.

Ever since “;One Piece”; and the high-seas h-ijinks of that boy, Monkey D. Luffy, first appeared in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump in Japan in 1997, the series has become the second-highest-selling Shonen Jump series of all time behind only “;Dragon Ball”;—and with “;One Piece”; creator Eiichiro Oda recently saying that he felt he was only halfway through his story, it's a virtual lock that it will take the top spot sometime in the future. Publisher Shueisha printed 2.85 million copies of the newest volume, No. 56, in November—the largest first printing for any manga. (To put that in perspective, U.S. publisher Yen Press will give the first volume of the graphic novel adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's “;Twilight”; an initial print run of 350,000 copies in mid-March.) The anime adaptation is at 434 TV episodes and 10 feature-length films and counting.

All this means that we here in the United States have a good deal of catching up to do. This month, Viz began accelerating its release schedule for the translated “;One Piece”; manga, releasing four volumes a month through June and pushing the series from 24 to 53 volumes. As for the anime, Funimation has released 116 episodes and the eighth movie, “;The Desert Princess and the Pirates,”; on DVD. The company is also streaming the latest episodes online soon after Japanese broadcast, albeit after a brief period where episodes were taken offline due to suspected Internet piracy.

Yet in spite of all that, “;One Piece”; has yet to gain the same critical-mass traction in the States. While volume 25 of “;One Piece”; managed to crack the New York Times top 10 list of best-selling manga for the week of Jan. 3 at the 10th spot, it still lags behind two volumes of “;Vampire Knight”; (volume 7 in fifth and volume 8 in second) and “;Naruto”; volume 46 (in third)—all of which have been entrenched on the list for at least 10 weeks each.

It's a shame, because “;One Piece”; is shonen (boys') manga and anime in its purest form. Such manga and anime, targeted toward boys from early elementary school into their teens but often enjoyed by a wider audience, feature a main character with an exceptional skill who aspires to be the greatest in a given vocation.

IN THIS case, cheerfully naive Luffy hopes to one day become King of the Pirates, sailing the pirate-laden Grand Line in search of the fabled lost treasure of Gold Roger, the titular One Piece. Along the way, he must go up against rival pirates as well as government forces, both of which might be in a tighter alliance than it first appears. His skill, the ability to stretch all his limbs like rubber and use them as weapons, was gained by accidentally eating one of the world's ability-granting Devil Fruits.

No good series comes without a memorable supporting cast, and Luffy manages to recruit a fun crew as his Straw Hat Pirates—sword-wielding pirate hunter Roronoa Zolo; Nami, the thief who steals from pirates; talking reindeer Tony Tony Chopper; chain-smoking chef Sanji; and slingshot-wielding Usopp being among the more notable recruits. That two of Luffy's crew mates were once firmly in the anti-pirate camp reveals another element of his character: Whenever he has his heart set on something, nothing anyone does or says will get him to change his mind. He's doggedly devoted to his friends and is willing to help them in any way possible.

Anything characterized as pure shonen entertainment also has to have a string of progressively tougher battles confronting the heroes, and “;One Piece”; delivers these sequences in spades as well. It gets to the point where one expects the main combatants to scream out the names of at least three of their moves during a fight—“;GUM GUM CANNON!”; and “;GUM GUM PISTOL!”; being two of many. But while many battles are bloody and prolonged—although it seems that less blood is spilled in the anime than the manga—no one ever really dies. It's a sense of whimsy and exploration that Oda carries throughout his work.