Humans by default are built to dream.
Shonen Jump titles realize this, and we see it in all forms – from Bleach’s self assertive way of destroying whatever obstructs your path, to Naruto’s balance of achieving your dream through hard work, to Shokugeki’s idea that competition always breeds the best in one another. Eiichiro Oda, however, has a different way of talking about dreams, and weaves them into the intricate and rich work that is One Piece. Dreams in the world of One Piece, you see, aren’t made or created on the spot. They aren’t ambiguously announced; they were already made, and have been passed down over the years. Oda tackles this on a macroscopic and microscopic level, and with it, transforms the concept of a dream into legacy, in three major ways: the past, the present and the future. One Piece as a result, becomes the grand but emotionally charged work that it is.
The Past: Passing Down The Dream From Parent to Child
The majority of One Piece devotes itself to Luffy’s expedition in finding potential crewmates. Each member has their own arc, divided by three acts: an introduction, a climax, and finally, the denouement, which is always marked by an emotional backstory regarding the central character. It’s the perfect narrative form to flesh out this character’s hidden motives and then finally delve into what makes them tick as Luffy (and therefore the audience) worms his way into their hearts. As Oda would have it, that ‘tick’ happens to be a formative dream from their childhood. What begins as a simple explanation for one’s actions becomes a much more emotional story about self blame and misunderstandings. And it always works.
Why? Oda understands that we all have suffered from doubt at least once in our lives, but the backstories of our protagonists are so powerful because they are all linked through the shared concept that as children, we are imperfectly suited to the rigid laws of the world. We do not understand them, nor do we have the mental capacity to, and thus anything that happens beyond our control is our fault. It’s a basic human emotion that any child will face regardless of the situation, and our characters are examples of this. All of the Strawhats have lived through a guilt that was exploited in their childhood: Nami’s captivity stems from her wanting to be a navigator and desperation to help her town, just as Chopper blames himself for his mentor’s illness and eventual death. Franky gives up building ships after his foster parent passes away, and Robin spends the majority of her life running from the government after being the only one able to decipher an ancient but forbidden language.
Oda digs further. In order for a guilt to be traumatic to the point where it dominates a character’s life, it must come from love: for the Strawhats and many other characters, this is familial. By creating a mentor figure that is as inspirational as much as they are caring, and then taking this figure away through a devastating event, Oda lays the first part of the foundation for creating a legacy: the passing down of a dream from parent to child. These parents – whether blood related or not – have their own dream of accomplishing something profound and grand. It may be creating a panacea, or building the first express train between islands, or becoming the best known swordsman; regardless of the details, the scale is always large, and always doomed to fail due to death. One Piece characteristically begins this set-up with Luffy, whose dream of becoming the Pirate King is symbolically passed down in the form of a hat from Shanks, who in turn, received it from the famous Gol D. Rogers. In the same vein, a parent’s dreams leave their scars; Luffy through his own recklessness leaves one under his eye, just as Nami brands her arm as a reminder of whom she belongs to.
The Present: Forging Your Own Path
Trapped in a cage of the past, the Strawhats are nothing more than victims of tragedy before they meet Luffy. To many of them, their parental figure’s dream is a curse that haunts them and creates their current crisis.
This is where Luffy comes in: he is radically different from any of the other crew members by the fact that his dream is an inherent part of his personality; to be a Pirate King is a selfish desire that surfaces outside of any of the tragedies he’s faced as a child. One could argue that this is just the traditional shonen-style setup to One Piece’s story – the main character’s dream should always be born out of determined spirit rather than a tragic backstory – but Luffy’s part to play in the series is anything but traditional. While his character development in contrast to the others’ is slower, Luffy’s fundamental role in One Piece isn’t carrying other’s burdens and setting it upon himself to make the leaps towards change. It’s to instigate change within the people around him. Thematically fitting with being a captain, not only does he relight the aspiration to dream within his comrades upon meeting them, but he also extends the hand of friendship that allows them to aspire and accomplish this dream on his ship.
Through his kindness, Luffy releases the guilt from the Strawhats’ pasts and in turn, gives them the choice to do what they want. In making peace with any tragedy that happened to them, the crew members choose to follow their mentors’ dream of their own accord. It’s important to realize however, that in this sense, they are no longer chained by the past; they change it to fit their own standards. While loss lays down the foundation for living for a dream, it doesn’t enslave people to it. Dreaming, Oda argues, is freedom; pure, simple and unadulterated joy. As a result, while Luffy and his crew have ‘inherited’ their dreams from their respective mentors, they are not forced to abide by it. On the contrary, they choose to continue onwards and alter that dream to customize their own standards.
This is precisely why One Piece isn’t a story about Luffy, the Marine; it’s about Luffy and his crew, a bunch of pirates setting sail. Piracy functions as a loose undercurrent in which our characters do not fit into traditional roles or what society governs them to do. Nearly all of the Strawhats have dreams that cannot be accomplished by regular means. Zoro’s desire to be the greatest swordsman is violent enough that it violates the Marine’s most basic moral code. Nami’s characteristic greed for money also defies a life balanced by regular rules, and even Usopp, who is the most normal out of the Strawhats with his pessimism and self doubt, is a compulsive liar and while cowardly by default, has a habit of being reckless and martyristic when it comes to saving the people he cares about. It is also worth mentioning that in contrast to regular citizen’s dreams, Luffy and his friends’ dreams are all gargantuan in size; if they don’t want to be the best in the world, they at least want to change it in such a drastic way such that they will leave a mark. Having been released from their trauma, and now fueled by an undying passion to overcome even the most challenging odds (often dangerous, and irrational), the Straw Hats reach notorious levels of infamy through the means needed to reaching their dreams. It is only fitting that they would become rebellious pirates.
The Future: The Impact of Dreams on Other’s Lives
This is where the last fundamental part of establishing a legacy comes in – the impact of one’s dreams on the lives of others. The Strawhats often make large scenes in their pursuit of dreaming freely. The results of their battles and adventures are often physically destructive as they are emotionally intimate. As many pirates note, Luffy’s strongest power isn’t the effective ways he goes about using his Devil Fruit powers, but the friends he makes throughout his journey – a bond so deep that in mere seconds, enemies or rivals will turn to aid him in his time of need. His personality plays a factor in this, but what draws people to befriend Luffy and to a point, even willingly give up their lives for him is his determination and pride for his dreams. The magnitude of his dream isn’t just gargantuan, but his willpower is as well, to the point of actively affecting everyone around him.
The weight of this impact on others’ lives are not met through conversational means, but through violent ones. Whereas other series devote fights to celebrate the idea that a dream is impregnable and undefeatable, One Piece creates battles as a means to point out the flaws in destructive beliefs. These fights aren’t a way of testing the characters and fleshing them out, but as ideological battles that permanently imprint on people who observe or participate. Perhaps the most direct example of this is Luffy’s relationship with Boa Hancock, who, by default, hates men and sends Luffy to his death via battles with her women warriors. However, through his battles with them and her, Luffy manages to win her heart over to the point where despite being a Shichibukai, Boa still wishes to help him save his brother. His crew is similar; Zoro, for example, as early as the first 30 chapters of One Piece, fights against his rival Mihawk and brilliantly fails. Mihawk almost mortally wounds Zoro, but changes his mind after seeing Zoro’s perseverance and spirit; it is this same respect that allows Zoro to train under his enemy nearly 600 chapters later. Nami befriends Vivi to the point where she re-inspires Vivi to run her kingdom despite wishing to become a pirate and join Luffy’s crew, and even goes as far as to show her conviction to Lola during the Thriller Bark arc, defending her when she was hurt and helping her overcome her own romantic issues.
This impact applies to minor characters as well. Luffy’s influence stretches from major characters to small ones like Coby, whom he befriends in some of the earliest chapters of One Piece. After saving him from the clutches of Alvida, Luffy manages to inspire him to follow his dream of becoming a Marine – a dream that reaches some fruition later on after Enies Lobby when he trains under Marine Vice Admiral Garp. It’s a crucial point that ties into One Piece’s most distinguishable trait; recycling characters so as to bring life to a diverse and extensive world. By constantly bringing in characters and information that appear as much as 300-400 chapters from before, Oda not only gives the Strawhats’ legacy a three dimensional weight, but realistically expands on it as well.
Perhaps the greatest example of this would be the Enies Lobby arc. Not only does it dive into Robin’s backstory, but it also expands the Strawhats abilities and foreshadows the future troubles of their infamous legacy for the Sabaody-Marineford arcs. Details about the World Government and their greater schemes, which were scattered across previous arcs, emerge as something more insidious here, as Robin’s personal history is explored. Through her tragedy, we gain understanding of something called the Void Century, as well as Robin’s motives for investigating Poneglyphs (seen as early as Alabasta). Redeemed despite being captured, Robin finally forgives herself through an important dialogue with Luffy, marking her place as the seventh member in his crew. In their attempts to retrieve Robin from World Government custody and eventual death, Luffy and the rest of the Strawhats not only wage war against its assets, Cipher Pol 9, but eventually declare war against the World Government itself and destroy Enies Lobby. While this unmistakably follows the same format of Luffy ‘saving’ his potential crewmates from a miserable fate and inspiring them to follow him on board, it has greater implications that do not take root until later on until the Sabaody arc, where the Marines and Government find Luffy’s crew to be a threat to the point where they are eventually pinpointed for extermination and in the process, are separated. Enies Lobby Arc is a turning point of the Strawhats’ legacy; it delves not only into the personal past of Robin but the historical past of the World Government, manages to create a present shock of the crew on the greater forces that oppose them, and it lastly leaves an impact so great that it eventually leads to Luffy’s mistake of being unable to prevent Ace’s death.
It is almost fitting that the premise of One Piece opens up to the scene of Pirate King Gol D. Rogers, kneeling on his execution box and proudly announcing that his ultimate treasure is somewhere beyond the seas, daring the reckless to find it. It is even more fitting that the ultimate dream, One Piece, is an unfathomable treasure, steeped in mystery and rumors to the point where it is almost nothing but a legend. Perhaps, if not often, our dreams are out of our own mortal reach, and if nothing else, are as insubstantial as that faint line across the horizon. Maybe all we can do to really change the world is hope and pass down that hope to the next generation, not living to see the day it takes root in the world. But Oda declares again and again, with every triumph and loss in One Piece, that the right to dream – that the fundamental structure and power of humanity lies in the legacies we choose to create – is what makes us powerful.