By Erica (Okazu) Friedman
One Piece is like Dickens’s Oliver Twist, or Frank Herbert’s Dune. Something you know about, something you know you ought to read, because it’s clearly insanely popular around the world, but somehow intimidating and maybe even off-putting precisely because it’s so popular.
Aside from the sheer number of volumes, there’s the art. It’s so…screwball. It’s hard to take a story about a rubber pirate with enormous goofy grins and elongated limbs seriously. And even setting the lead character aside (which you cannot do, not even for a second,) there are his enemies – clowns, zombies, angels… the list of goofy goes on and on. It’s totally understandable to not know where to start or why you should even bother. Many of the other MMF reviews are going to explain that to you – I’m not going to try and convince you that the goofy art is to distract the target audience of young boys from the incredible writing and character development. I’m not going to dwell on the sheer emotional bombardment of Nami’s or Robin’s (or Zorro’s or Usopp’s or Sanji’s or Franky’s or Chopper’s) backstories. I’m not going to talk about the craft of storytelling that is expressed in One Piece in such a refined manner that you don’t even notice it. I won’t write about how Oda is, in my opinion, the best writer in manga today.
What I’d like to do, instead, is talk about a theme that is so beaten to death in shounen manga it’s a cliche of a cliche – friendship. Is there a shounen manga (especially a Shonen Jump manga) series that doesn’t trot out friendship and teamwork as a key element? And yet. And yet. In One Piece it’s more than that.
There is a character who appears in Chapter 129. That’s pretty far into the series. His name is Mr. 2 Bon Clay. The “Mr. 2” appellation lets you know that he’s one of the bad guys of this arc, a member of the Baroque Works. His appearance is… distressing. He looks like a badly shaven man wearing garish and poorly applied make-up, swans on his shoulders and stubbly, naked legs that protrude awkwardly from a very ugly pantaloons. His long jacket proclaims in Japanese おかま道, Okama Way – the path of the cross-dresser. He is clearly meant as a figure of ridicule and gender misalignment. Only…he’s not. Mr. 2 is never made fun of. His powers are not slandered as being “effeminate.” He’s dealt with by Luffy the exact same way Luffy deals with everything and everyone else – 1) Can I eat it? Yes/No. 2) If I can’t eat it, is it funny? Yes/No 3) If it’s funny, does it want to be my friend? Yes/No.
Luffy cheerfully proclaims Mr. 2 to be his friend. And then it all goes wrong. Luffy and his crew are attacked by the very Baroque Works that Mr. 2 works for. It’s all over for the Mugiwara Pirates! Until Mr. 2 does something unexpected. Unthinkable in a comic book “for children”… Mr. 2 sacrifices himself to save Luffy and the others. In the middle of a battle against his own people, Mr. 2 defects to save his *friend.*
Now, I don’t want you to mistake this sentiment. Mr. 2 is not suffering from low self-esteem on account of his gender identity. In fact, as he sings in his wonderful image song, because he is both man and woman he is the STRONGEST!
But I’m a man who is a woman
So I’m the strongest (the strongest)
The strongest (strongest!)
Mr. 2 is not lost, alone, desperate for a friend and pathetically glad to have Luffy’s acceptance. Hell no, he is the STRONGEST and when someone as funny and strong as Luffy is his friend, that means something. He’s a man and woman of his word.
So, why does Mr. 2 react the way he does? Because he can see that Luffy is someone who will go to the mat for him. And Luffy does. Luffy, standing on top of Arlong Park has put himself and every member of his crew on the line to redeem Nami. And again, when Luffy leads to the team to Alabaster because Vivi wants to save her country…and again when Robin has been taken to Enies Lobby in a scene so filled with emotion that I can’t even type about it without choking up. Luffy is just that kind of guy – and so is Mr. 2. Mr. 2 is all Swan Lake, until he’s busting someone’s ass with Swan Kenpo. Mr. 2, a character that in any other series would be unlovable, unloved, mocked, tormented and ridiculed is, in One Piece, a paragon of friendship. And when he returns from the dead (which they all do, this *is* a shounen manga, after all,) he still values that friendship above all other loyalties.
And that, my friends, is why he – and his good friend Luffy – are the STRONGEST.
I can’t make you want to read One Piece. I won’t try.
I’ll just say this – Mr. 2, a minor side character in a series slammed chockful of minor side characters, is awesome. One Piece is so good that it is totally worth reading 52 volumes until you find out just how awesome he is.