Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers for both the One Piece anime and manga.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen me around the internet, that I have an unending adoration for One Piece. In truth I was somewhat late to the Straw Hat party, only starting the anime at the beginning of 2009 - nearly ten years into the anime's run and a good THIRTEEN after the manga originally started. Having denied myself the pleasure of Luffy and the crew for several years beforehand due to the crazy episode count, I finally gave in and ended up marathoning all that was available in the space of about two or three months. Night after night I immersed myself in the world of the Grand Line, laughing, cheering and crying my eyes out along the way. And when I ran out of episodes, I devoured the movies, specials and ultimately the manga. But why is it that I love this franchise so much, or more importantly, why have I continued to love it so much even two and a half years later? If I were to pin it down to one specific reason it would be this: Eiichiro Oda knows what he's doing.
It may sound like a fairly obvious observation given that he's a professional mangaka with a highly successful and long-running series in Shounen Jump, but being successful and knowing exactly what you're doing don't necessarily go hand in hand. Looking at how the story is progressing, it's clear to see that Oda has a solid idea of where he's heading. He knows in which direction he wants to go and sets his plans in motion early on, scattering odd parts through the crew's early adventures that will become useful as time goes on. For example, the Little Garden plotline may have seemed like a fluffy or almost throwaway arc used only to showcase the extremes of the Grand Line. However, the crew's encounter with the two giants, Dorry and Broggy, becomes essential in the later Enies Lobby arc and greatly contributes to their success. Had they continued their massacre of the show, quite how the infamous 4-Kids dub would have explained those events away after cutting the entire Little Garden arc, I do not know.
This definite sense of direction does Oda much credit, especially since this isn't a trait that seems to be shared by all of his peers. Oda's careful planning is in stark contrast to Tite Kubo, whose manga, Bleach, completely lacks that sense of purpose. Before the end of the arrancar saga, there appeared to be some idea of where it was all going, but considering that the Hueco Mundo arc felt like little more than a rehash of the Soul Society plotline with added arrancar, it still felt a bit haphazard. Likewise, Kubo has openly admitted that when he runs out of ideas, he adds a new character. Again this goes against Oda's style of work, where he adds characters when the story requires it and fully fleshes them out instead of tossing them aside when their shock value or interest factor has worn off. As such, One Piece proudly boasts one of the fullest casts of any shounen series and that characterisation ability makes the already impressive narrative all the more so.
Aside from the sense of direction that Oda's work exudes, the veteran mangaka knows how to construct a story and make it appeal to the masses. For each individual arc he gives enough background information to fully set the scene, which helps to make the following battles all the more epic and shocking. Meanwhile he withholds key information to be revealed at a later moment for maximum shock value. For me, this is most deftly demonstrated in the Water 7/Enies Lobby saga (there WILL be massive spoilers from this point on, so if you haven't seen/read this arc please skip the next paragraph).
Without a doubt, Water 7 and Enies Lobby is, in my mind, when One Piece gets truly epic and that's entirely down to Oda's ability to plan out his story and visualise every aspect of this world. He starts by introducing you to the island of Water 7, an impressive city built on two levels and completely at the mercy of the weather. He introduces you to the Galley-La company of shipwrights and begins on one of saga's mini-arcs - that of the Going Merry's fate. Oda makes you engage with the new characters and helps to immerse you in the culture of the island, and then it all goes tits up. Oda then proceeds to throw multiple challenges in the faces of the Straw Hats to really test them. The loss of Usopp, the approaching, devastating storm, the emergence of a special government assassin group known as CP9 attempting to kill Iceburg and seemingly "recruiting" Robin, and the Straw Hats getting blamed for the attempt on Iceburg's life. Then with the knowledge that Robin in fact hasn't betrayed them, but is sacrificing herself for the safety of her crewmates, the stage is fully set for the epic fighting on Enies Lobby as Luffy et al take on the World Government itself. But even when the battle section of the saga commences, Oda still has the odd trick up his sleeve, rewarding the audience by finally revealing Robin's past, giving the cowardly Usopp some balls as the confident Sogeking, and making links with the previous Little Garden arc thus proving that their past actions have meaning and can affect their future. By doing this and still creating some of the most heart-stopping battles of the manga (the Luffy vs Lucci fight is pretty damn awesome), Oda makes his story wholly engaging. I remember when I watched this saga, I cried buckets at Luffy and Usopp's fight, felt heartbroken at Kaku's betrayal, sat on the edge of my seat at the crew battled CP-9 and laughed my arse off at Franky's "recruitment" into the Straw Hats. I couldn't wait for the next episode and watched one after the other, annoyed that I had to sleep because it meant I couldn't continue watching. And when I got to this story in the manga, I was just as excited if not moreso.
What also really makes the Water 7/Enies Lobby saga is the characterisation, another aspect where Oda excels. The mangaka fully explores his cast with each of the central players having their own pasts. Admittedly backstory isn't a new thing in shounen manga, but what Oda does that not so many others do, is he focuses on the crew's growth equally. Each character goes through their own journey and they're just as important as Luffy's since while the young captain will still be the saviour of the day, the story isn't all about him. While Bleach tends to leave its supporting mains slightly more in the background while focusing on the main hero, One Piece and to a slightly lesser extent, Naruto, plays out more as an ensemble show. In Bleach, the likes of Orihime, Chad and Ishida hide in the shadows and return powered up. Naruto fares much better, with Kishimoto showing the likes of Sakura's determination to not be left behind, Lee's incessant drive to become powerful despite his complete lack of ninjutsu skills, and Shikamaru's transition from lazy genius boy to a dependable and invaluble strategist. However, only in One Piece is the balance of power more evenly spread. While the Konoha ninjas may be strong in their own right, they still have a habit of relying on Naruto to save the day. In contrast, while some of the "weaker" Straw Hats have a tendancy to rely on others to help them, it's not purely Luffy they depend on, it's also Zoro, Sanji, Robin, Franky and Brook. But even then, each and every member of the crew is intent on becoming stronger so they can support Luffy (this is possibly also due to their own desires to achieve their dreams) as opposed to simply hoping that he'll save the day. That Oda allows more than one single hero to shine in the spotlight makes the story all the more interesting as there are infinite opportunities for growth.
As you can probably tell by now, Eiichiro Oda is the one of the mangaka I most admire. His vivid imagination allows him to create fully fleshed out and epic stories that will make you laugh, cry and cheer and you watch or read your way through them. He has managed to keep up the quality for well over a decade now, and as teh story progresses it just keeps getting better and better. Certainly the new Fishman Island arc complete with powered-up Straw Hats has me craving each new chapter, and I cannot wait to learn more about their two-years training and just what Oda has in store for us in the New World.