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Matt Kamen smashes the bubbly on the maiden voyage of the world’s most popular pirates!

“Ninja or pirates?” While Naruto – representing the ninja corner, of course – has proven hugely popular, UK fans have long been unable to weigh in on the other side. With the long-awaited arrival of One Piece on DVD this May, that finally changes.

The series is a globe spanning adventure centred on Monkey D. Luffy, not too bright but with a heart of gold. With elastic powers that he uses in surprisingly inventive ways but a fatal weakness to water, he nevertheless sails the world as the ever-optimistic captain of the good ship Going Merry, leader to the Straw Hat Pirates. Set on a world where mystical ‘Demon Fruit’ grants bizarre superpowers and whole cultures of animal people live at odds with humans, One Piece blends fantasy and action as the heroes travel in search of treasure and excitement.

Luffy, inspired by a childhood idol to take to the seas in search of adventure, is joined by sword-master Zoro, elite thief-turned-navigator Nami, fiery chef Sanji and oddball mechanic Usopp. The loose-knit group frequently find themselves standing up for the weak and oppressed in their travels, all while avoiding the attention of both violent rival pirates and the World Government’s Marines.

One Piece is the creation of Eiichiro Oda, born January 1975 in Kumamoto Prefecture, on Japan’s southern Kyushu island. Growing up enjoying the likes of Vicky the Viking, which followed a young Viking boy who used wits rather than brute strength in his adventures, Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball, and Takashi Shimada’s and Yoshinori Nakai’s wrestling manga Kinnikuman: Ultimate Muscle, Oda’s own artistic style was inspired by the idiosyncratic visuals of his heroes.

Aged just 17, he took his first steps into professional manga, submitting his one-shot comic Wanted!, a tale of criminals and bounty hunters, for the Tezuka Award. The short earned Oda a position at Shueisha’s Shonen Jump magazine, which led to his penning another one-shot, a pirate-themed story called Romance Dawn.

The 50-page single chapter, published in the Shonen Jump Summer Spectacular in August 1996, served as a pilot for what would later become One Piece. It marked the first appearance of Luffy and his mentor Red-Haired Shanks, but was a mere snapshot of Oda’s greater plans. A second, unrelated Romance Dawn appeared a month later. This take saw Luffy fighting to protect a girl named Ann and her pet Roc, the last of a species of giant magical birds, from a rogue sorcerer-pirate.

The two stand-alone entries proved popular with readers and a year later, Oda debuted the first chapter of his revised pirate saga – One Piece. Still being published to this day, the manga has racked up over 700 chapters and 69 collected volumes, selling over 260 million copies in Japan alone. It is now the undisputed best-selling manga in history.

Similar record-breaking feats awaited the animated adaptation. Just as Romance Dawn had tested the waters for the manga, a single OVA did so for the anime. The episode, One Piece: Defeat the Pirate Ganzack!, was produced by Production I.G. in 1998, directed by a pre-Code Geass Goro Taniguchi. After its success, Toei Animation took over production on the full series a year later. Now topping 600 episodes – more even than the combined total of the original Dragon Ball, Z and GT – along with 11 theatrical movies and two further special video releases based on Romance Dawn.

The quest for treasure serves as a reason for the crew to come together but is far from the main focus of the series. At its heart, One Piece is about the sheer joy of exploration and adventure. As the series progresses, it explores unexpectedly mature themes – slavery, racism, war and child abuse are all addressed, bringing a depth and consideration to the saga that belies its overtly comedic visuals. With the uncut first season now on sale in the UK, you can dive in and decide on the “Ninja versus Pirates” debate for yourself.

One Piece is out on 27th May on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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