When I think of One Piece, the first thing that comes to mind is the humor. It’s what stands out to me when comparing it to many of the other popular shonen fighting titles. But it does a lot of things right in its pages, and sometimes far beyond the scope than you expect. In this case we are looking at that gray zone of right and wrong and even beyond into the idea of doing the “right” thing vs. feeling like it is the right thing.
One Piece is undeniably a kids manga with the standard Shonen Jump editorial themes of friendship, effort, and victory. Every arc has the righteous Straw Hat pirates defeating clearly wicked villains through a combination of never say die spirit and teamwork. But to simply view it as a flat children’s story would be doing the manga a disservice as well. There are some deeper undercurrents of gray morality and the examination of righteousness. I’m not going to argue that One Piece is a deep philosophically gray masterwork that is a seinen manga masquerading as a shonen manga but I will argue there are deeper themes than one might at first realize.
In a world of pirates and a corrupt world government, knowing what is right can be a bit tricky. So when Luffy emerges as a character who is wanted the world over and is fighting everyone from other pirates to marines, we know there is more to the story than merely following the law. Many a tale has taken on the moral ambiguity of law and lawlessness and history has taught us much about price of revolution; fighting an oppressive regime is a testament to the human condition, that is why we like to see it and believe in it. The piece of wisdom that One Piece excels at teaching us is to decide for ourselves what is right, to feel it deep down. The moral code is personal. Perhaps it can be seen as a bit anarchistic, after all the law is in the hands of the individual and not a system, however most of us know that the judgment has to be interpreted not merely handed down. When you think about, these are some pretty heavy concepts woven in this oft wacky adventure.
On the back of the uniforms of all the commissioned officers in the Marines are two kanji, 正義. They are the kanji for Seigi or justice. There can be no clearer message that the marines are an organization that enforces the laws of the World Government while handing out their brand of justice to anyone who would break that law. Any time marines play a major part in a storyline the topic of justice is invoked and often key marines will give their own personal philosophy of what justice is. On the flip side we have the pirates who by their very existence are law breakers. Most of the pirate bands we see are selfish anarchists who exists by living either a purely hedonistic lifestyle or by the precepts of social Darwinism. There very existence is in opposition to justice and righteousness. But the mere fact that the heroes of One Piece are pirates merits closer examination of the situation.
The Going Merry crew, and the friends they make a long the way, show a spectrum of personal morals that enhance the diversity of viewing right and wrong. When Luffy rescues Zorro early on you learn something vital about both of them, they believe in their instincts. Beyond the fact that this personally resonates with me, it showed me where their moral code is coming from. Luffy isn’t an every man for himself kind of guy, and this is probably his most endearing characteristic. It is the most vital point of his character and what makes him a leader. Each member of the crew has their own story, their own motivations, but they are willing to bend to the man they call captain. Sage wisdom says sometimes what is just depends on whose side you’re on. This is no less true in One Piece where who your captain is can be a great determining factor. But with an organization like the World Government, there is manipulation there that isn’t merely a different side to the the argument, they are well and truly corrupted and know it.
On closer examination we see that the World Government is corrupt. They are protecting some secret in the Void Century that is so damning that they have silence a whole island of peaceful scholars to keep it locked away. They routinely sacrifice people to cover up their mistakes and protect the status quo. The Celestial Dragons that support them are horrible human beings that exemplify everything that is decadent and corrupt about nobility. The marines that enforce the laws of the sickly government are often just as tainted. The top brass of the marines is often seen colluding with the government to cover up their indiscretions and often killing or oppressing innocent civilians and sacrificing their own soldiers to further their machinations. Rob Lucci and CP9 act as a black ops organization that says it follows a code of dark justice in which any sin is permissible as long as it authorized by the government. Conversely we see a good deal of honest people in the pirates. Beyond the Straw Hat crew we see Whitebeard Pirates and Red-Haired Pirates are often seen as good-natured and even as protectors of the oppressed. Both crews have both been shown to protect the innocent from both marauding criminals and corrupt government official. Whitebeard stopped the rampant slave trade surrounding Fishman Island and Shanks saved Luffy in the very first chapter. No side is seen as angelic. Individuals on both sides of the law make their own moral choice for the better and for the worse.
One Piece is able to paint a both simple and complex story depending on how much you want to look at it. That is part of what makes One Piece such a rich tale and one that never preches its ideas or sometimes ideals from on high. But make to mistake, Oda is most certainly saying something with his series, it isn’t the over analyzing of fans.
In the end the Straw Hat pirates are the primary messengers of Oda’s message on the themes of the manga. Straw Hat pirates routinely break the law and smash through taboos and customs. They are never bound to justice but in fact to do what they find as morally correct. Luffy and his companions have taken on a wide variety of pirates and marines in order to protect anyone who is being oppressed. Their internal morality is the most important thing but unlike the selfish pirates or the hypocritical marines they go out of their way to not harm others in the purist of their dreams. The theme of One Piece is to move forward while figuring out what is correct for yourself and not what others tell you is the truth. True justice comes from and mixture of compassion and understanding.