The Ladies of “One Piece”

This past weekend I made the foolish decision to get back into a manga series I’ve loved since middle school—One PieceIt’s an incredibly fun story about Monkey D. Luffy, a teenage boy who sets off to become king of the pirates. I see it as a foolish decision because I only ever made it to the 21st volume, and there are over 90 volumes by now. One Piece has been in publication since 1997 and shows no signs of stopping any time soon. It might take me a while, but I’m determined to catch up on all the action.

A few things stand out to me in this current reread. The first is that, aside from the woman-crazy Sanji, there’s virtually no romance in the story. I realize that this probably has to do with the fact that it’s primarily an action series, as well as a shounen series, meaning its target audience is boys aged 8 to 18. Not that boys are forbidden from reading romance, but you know. Those pesky gender roles. Normally I wouldn’t expect there to be romance in a story about pirates with weird powers, superhuman strength, and no small amount of idiocy anyway, but I appreciate its lack because, despite the cast of characters being mostly men, there are a few major women characters, and they’re not there to play the romantic interests.

And that’s what I’m really loving about One Piece. Every member of Luffy’s crew, the Straw Hat Pirates, are their own unique characters with dreams and a purpose. This includes Nami, the Straw Hats’ navigator. She was the second member to join Luffy’s crew, and has been in the series since the first volume. She debuts as a cunning thief whose only interests are treasure and herself. Despite all of her betrayals, Luffy insists she’s the only navigator for him. A gifted cartographer, her dream is to chart a map of the entire world. She doesn’t have superpowered strength like some of the other Straw Hats, but she can take care of herself in tight situations. The only time Nami is truly helpless is when she asks Luffy to free her village from the evil fishman Arlong, which I’d say is a very reasonable request, and when she comes down with a rare virus, which, again, is a totally understandable moment of vulnerability.

Nefertari Vivi, although not a Straw Hat, is another One Piece woman I admire. She’s the princess of Alabasta, a desert nation in turmoil. When we first meet Vivi, she’s playing undercover as an agent of Baroque Works, the secret organization that’s running her country into the ground. She’s not the kind of princess who sits in a tower waiting for someone to save her; she knows how much trouble Alabasta is in, and she’s doing whatever she can to save it. At the end of the Alabasta arc, Luffy invites her to join his crew, but she turns him down so she can help bring stability back to her country.

I know another woman, Nico Robin, joins the Straw Hats after the Alabasta arc, but I haven’t made it far enough in the series to comment on her. I’m sure she’s awesome in her own right, so I’m looking forward to getting to know her.

Is One Piece perfect? Of course not, nothing is. But I’m glad that the women are allowed to be just as rich and fleshed out as the men, without the end goal being romance. (I’m looking at you, Naruto.) One of the overarching themes of One Piece is the concept of “nakama,” a Japanese word for friendship, or, in this case, crewmates. As different as the Straw Hats all are, they come to love each other fiercely throughout the journeys, and it’s rare to see that kind of platonic love involving both men and women characters. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the story goes, if I ever get to that 90th volume.