Andrew Osmond has been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt.
Of the anime titles turned into T-shirts by Uniqlo, One Piece is the biggest – the reigning king of all the anime and manga franchises, pretty much unchallenged in the 16 years since Eiichiro Oda began the manga, and 14 since Toei Animation started animating it. But perhaps Uniqlo would have turned One Piece into a line of shirts even if the saga hadn’t been a world hit. Just look at those pirate designs – brash, cartoony, uncompromising. There’s no whiff of a committee, no hint of a five-year product plan reliant on changing a heroine’s hair colour (or deepening her cleavage). It just helps that the pictures are as commercial when they move as they are when they’re a cool static graphic in a manga, or on the front of a T-shirt.
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One Piece shows history repeats with a twist. Fist of the North Star – made by the same studio as One Piece, Toei Animation – was aimed at a wide demographic, including kids, in Japan, but ran into controversy when it was aimed at kids in France. “In terms of censorship, the west is much more strict than Japan, in terms of children’s programming,” said Hidenori Oyama of Toei Animation. “One Piece features a violent gang and bloodshed; censorship means it will not be chosen for children’s viewing.”
As many One Piece fans know, there was a notorious attempt to make a child-friendly American version of the show, by the company 4Kids Entertainment. As with Fist of the North Star in France, it seems the American buyers simply didn’t really look at the show before buying the licence for a “hot” property. They also didn’t consider that a show about pirates might feature guns, and blades, and bleeding, and death. (Oh, and smoking. And alcohol…)
Anyone interested in what happened is recommended to a podcast on the Anime News Network website where Mark Kirk of 4Kids Entertainment is flambéed by fans, even though One Piece didn’t happen on his watch and he can only offer a “non-official take” on events. The real meat is at 35 minutes onwards, although there’s an enlightening account of America’s censorship rules before that. It’s great fun, but as you listen to the grilling, reflect that 4Kids had to choose between outraged fans battering their keyboards, and the prospect of angry legislators and politicians. As Kirk points out, 4Kids wasn’t making its One Piece for the anime fan cognoscenti, but for kids. Along with the Fist of the North Star row in France, Kirk might have pointed to One Piece’s own reception in Indonesia. There, the show was lambasted by the country’s Broadcasting Commission for “violence and blood,” “sensual looking women” and close-ups of “women’s body parts.”
4Kids soon cancelled its version of One Piece as a misconceived purchase, though it’s immortalised in fan infamy. Yet that may be a sign of how standards have risen over the decades. It’s debatable if 4Kids’ One Piece is objectively any less “butchered” than, for example, Battle of the Planets (the 1970s treatment of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman) and look how that’s nostalgically remembered in Britain and America. Maybe the rehab of the 4Kids One Piece is still to come, as the years pass – though quite plausibly, Battle of the Planets just worked better in butchered form.
In any case, of course, the 4Kids One Piece is now history, as Funimation has taken over the property. The new Manga Entertainment releases of One Piece have the adventures of Monkey D. Luffy, the Straw Hat pirates and the good ship Thousand Sunny as they should be – bold, bloody and unexpurgated!
The first One Piece box is released by Manga Entertainment on 27th May.