Ask John: What Can Make One Piece Successful on American TV?

Apparently One Piece is returning to Toonami in May. As much as I love One Piece and am excited about the news, I’m worried about how it’ll be received. While most hardcore anime fans know it was never really reflective of the series, the 4Kids dub (argued by many to literally be the worst English dub of all time) left a horrible taste in the mouths of countless casual anime fans who don’t know anything about the original or the Funimation dub. When I tried talking to my brother about it, he called it “that retarded show about pirates” then started quoting the old rap song. Not only that, but between online piracy, the legal distribution of viewing One Piece episodes online, and many sub-only fans being fanatically anti-dub, I’m a little concerned if audiences will still eat up the show. The climate for anime on TV just doesn’t seem as receptive as it was back when DBZ hit Toonami around ’99. I think audiences would love the show if they gave it a chance, and I’d like to see that happen, but I’m really just not sure what’ll happen.

What are your thoughts, John, and what advice would you give Funimation and Toonami?
A realistic perspective on the reception of One Piece in America requires two views. Toei, FUNimation, and the Cartoon Network should understand, if they don’t already, that One Piece will simply never be as successful in America as it is in Japan. Japan has a cultural affinity for manga that has helped make Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece story one of the most successful comic book franchises of all time. It’s the success of the manga that significantly contributes to the popularity and viewership of the anime adaptation. America does not have a big mainstream comic book readership. Even those who devotedly purchase and read Marvel and DC comics are still a fringe minority. America simply doesn’t have the large, receptive mainstream audience for a show like One Piece that Japan has. Certainly, animated adventure films from Pixar and Disney, for example, have done well in America. But films and franchises like Shrek, Toy Story, Ice Age, and Kung Fu Panda are not lengthy stories that unfold over dozens or hundreds of episodes, nor are they stories in which might literally makes right. One Piece occurs in a world in which the most powerful make the rules, justice is not necessarily moral, and individuals take what they want by force rather than negotiation or right. One Piece is a story thematically on a different plane of morality and maturity than mainstream American animation. At the same time, One Piece works on a very simplistic, child-like plane of slapstick boyish adventure. Lufy D. Monkey is an innocent-hearted, idealistic boy lacking the cynicism or jadedness of adulthood. It’s exactly his youthful optimism that allows him to continue striving for his goal, and his eternal loyalty and optimism that make him charismatic. But his literal rubber constitution and his child-like personality make the show itself seem overtly childlike and cause casual viewers to dismiss the show. The very concept of pirates is foreign to contemporary Americans. Hanna-Barbera’s 1991 television series The Pirates of Dark Water was widely acclaimed as an intelligent, well-crafted series, yet it still didn’t succeed. Ironically, average American viewers can more easily accept and relate to space aliens, supernatural creatures, fairy tales, and super powered heroes than ordinary human pirates.

While One Piece is simply never going to achieve blockbuster mainstream success in America the way Pokemon or even Dragon Ball Z did, the show does have some potential to capture mainstream attention; if it didn’t, Toonami wouldn’t be broadcasting it. The distributors involved with One Piece should also remain very conscious of the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The very reason why One Piece has become such a massive hit in its homeland is because the series achieves a remarkable excellence in action, humor, and adventure. The show is tremendously engaging largely because each of its characters, including even the antagonists and supporting characters, has enough distinct and creative personality to be interesting and engaging. Even the show’s supporting characters like Buggy, Smoker, Whitebeard, Garp, the Shichibukai, and all of the Navy generals and admirals, to say nothing of the Lufy’s crew members, could practically be interesting, fully engaging protagonists in their own spin-off stories and series. While every narrative wants its supporting characters to be believable and interesting, very few other narratives in any medium invest as much character into supporting characters as One Piece does. While viewers are interested in the characters, we also become engaged in the action and adventure. One Piece is simply a fun show. Lufy’s crew gets into tense, exciting predicaments, and while we always expect that they’re prevail in the end, we can never be absolutely confident that they’ll come out unscathed and victorious. When the crew members use their fighting techniques, viewers cheer. When the Straw Hat Pirates learn new techniques, viewers become excited to witness these new abilities. One Piece is tremendously popular because it’s pretty close to perfect exactly the way it is. So the best way to create new fans is to allow new fans to experience and fall in love with the show in the same way that earlier fans did. 4Kids tried to turn One Piece into something else. The edits and alterations that 4Kids imposed upon the show may not have seemed drastic in isolated abstraction. For example, simply changing Sanji’s cigarette to a lollipop doesn’t seem like a massive change; it’s just altering one type of white tube to another variety of white tube. But the actual effect the alteration makes on the show is tremendous. Don’t try to “Americanize” or “sanitize” One Piece for mainstream Americans. Don’t try to make it like an American program. American viewers don’t want to watch an American cartoon about pirates. It’s exactly the non-conventional American narrative sensibilities of One Piece that make it attractive to Americans. The very fact that Lufy is an outlaw, the fact that his first instinct is to use violence to resolve problems, the fact that he actively opposes authority are all reasons why One Piece is so much fun. The show should not be heavily edited or altered. The show does not need a dub filled with odd accents and quirks. Simply being faithful to what’s already there will allow the show to present its best features and earn new fans.


2 Responses to “Ask John: What Can Make One Piece Successful on American TV?”

  1. GATS Says:
    April 20th, 2013 at 7:24 am Let’s be honest. Part of the reason the One Piece anime didn’t take off is Pirates of the Caribbean beat Toei to it here. And now, those films are probably turning off casual viewers from pirate-themed entertainment in general. Anyway, you should just be glad that the manga (barely?) makes enough money for Viz to continue it, especially since the last time they sped it up probably contributed to Border’s losses. But since FUNi’s bringing it back to teevee, they should probably consider putting it in a comedy slot instead of an action one. The latter market is already oversaturated with Airbender, Naruto, and DBZ fans.

    “4Kids tried to turn One Piece into something else.”

    Another Pokemon/Yu-Gi-Oh cash-in.

  2. YotaruVegeta Says:
    April 20th, 2013 at 11:35 am Pirates of the Carribean? You think kids cared about that? Also, the last Pirates movie was how many years ago?

    One Piece didn’t catch on for a number of reasons, but I don’t think I can hook onto your pirates theory.

    I think that One Piece needs an HD cleanup, because they’re also going to fight against people who are biased against older anime, even though in my mind, OP isn’t that old.



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