Yes, One Piece IS Political
Andrew Kim
one piece admirals gorosei
one piece admirals gorosei
Developing a battle-based work, regardless of medium, has consistently asked a fundamental question: for what do we fight? Certainly, there have been multiple answers offered through the conflicts of many stories throughout the years, but few -- if any -- of those answers can escape a political lens. Even works with basic, seemingly apolitical motives, like saving the world, cannot fully be removed from political ideas, because the follow-up question is clear: saving the world from what? In film, perhaps the most notable recent example lies in the character of Thanos from Marvel's Avengers series. The MCU villain's ideology nods to modern the Neo-Malthusian concern of environmentalism and famine.
Thanos serves as an example of fighting against society and morality in order to bring about what he sees as a "good" change, something that is not limited to the Avengers movies. From The Hunger Games to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, this theme has permeated many other works of fiction. In anime and manga, it has developed into a core theme of the seemingly apolitical One Piece.
The initial arcs of Eiichiro Oda's series have few political underpinnings; instead, building the basic story elements of the franchise. In particular, the idea of friendship is key, as the Straw Hat pirates build their crew and bond with each other -- something that has notably led to the significance of the word "nakama" among One Piece fans. Equally as important is the theme of adventure, as the crew searches for the elusive and titular "One Piece," meeting formidable challenges and powerful allies along the way. And of course, One Piece mixes in classic elements of traditional battle shonen: superpowers, conflicts between larger powers and (arguably) repetitive battle build-ups.
Yet, underneath all of that is a distinct and important facet of One Piece. The protagonists of the series are heavily romanticized pirates who live outside the law. While they distance themselves from the horrendous acts normally attributed to real-life pirates -- such as pillaging and cold-blooded murder -- their self-identification as pirates automatically pits them against the World Government. This in itself has little significance at the beginning other than to measure the worth of the Straw Hats through bounties assigned to them by the World Government, but as the series progresses, the latter party's role in the story grows larger and larger.
For the first 300 chapters of the manga series, the World Government is relatively silent. In the Water 7 saga, though, they're put in a markedly different light than a simple governing body. Rob Lucci explains the true reason for CP9's existence: to assassinate anyone who does not cooperate with or is a threat to the World Government, introducing the idea that it is, in fact, an authoritarian regime stifling any and all opposing actions or ideas with force.
Such a thesis is further solidified in the same arc when Nico Robin's past is revealed. The scholars of Ohara researching the so-called Lost/Void Century are all killed, with the sole survivor of the Buster Call being Robin herself. Even though many of the residents of the island were innocent, they were sacrificed in an attempt to completely eradicate the scholars and their research. Though such acts would normally be the subject of immense criticism, the silencing of such criticism -- thanks to the work of organizations like CP9 -- does much to prevent any backlash. Moreover, the World Government has a clear commitment to Absolute Justice, an ideology that seeks the eradication of all who perform criminal actions regardless of the cost in innocent lives. The Marines are trained to follow this ideology and, combined with the fact that the Marines are deployed around the world, this gives the World Government a near-global dominion.
Putting all of this together paints a frightening picture. The World Government is a terrifying power whose influence spans the entire world and uses censorship, brute force and indoctrination of its military to maintain its legitimacy. In such a world, pirates are the only force that can defeat them (along with outlier groups such as the Revolutionary Army). By characterizing the World Government as a threatening and heartless authoritarian regime that threatens not just Luffy and his friends, but any and all dissenters in the world, Oda subtly changes One Piece from a boy's dream of finding treasure to a resounding statement about the evils of such regimes.
Much like Neo in The Matrix, or V in V for Vendetta, Luffy serves as a character of hope that leads the charge against the ruling powers, and thus, many pirates in One Piece can be said to hold thematic parallels with real-life freedom fighters. In fact, he's more than a character of hope -- he's the latest in a series of pirates who passed that torch down from generation to generation, with Luffy's direct predecessor being Gol D. Roger, the legendary figure who kicked off the Age of Pirates.
From the vantage point of critiquing authoritarianism, much of Oda's work makes perfect sense. Authority is held by a very small group of people: the Five Elders and, ultimately, the mysterious Im. Much of what we see of them involves defending the image of the World Government at any cost. In contrast, the pirates and the Revolutionary Army serve as elements outside of their power, and the name of the latter implies that there will be a revolution against the World Government at some point in the series. But information and propaganda are vital for both sides, and so far, the Five Elders have contained anything that might cast them under a worse light -- even if they have to destroy an entire island to do so. The information of the Void Century may be the key that definitively casts the World Government in an even worse light and gives the people a reason to revolt.
Critics of politicization may argue that the story would have been better off without such commentary. Yet the portrayal of the World Government allows Oda to ground his characters in realism in a world of fantasy. In particular, Oda offers us glimpses of how authoritarianism affects different demographics to heart-wrenching effect, and doing so allows side characters to have a natural and in-depth characterization. In an age of global connectivity, governments and their policies -- both domestic and international -- factor greatly into how people in different circumstances live their lives. Though fictional, One Piece has a base of reality to draw from and sends a powerful message of freedom and hope in spite of harsh, real-world restrictions.