MMF: Dragon Ball and One Piece: A Comparison
December 5, 2010
The Manga Moveable Feast this month is a celebration of all things One Piece, which is something I can definitely get on board with. One Piece is, along with Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and From Eroica With Love, one of my personal game-changing series, something that knocks my socks off in a way that is difficult to do, for all the great manga series I read. I’ve got reviews for over 50 volumes of the series here already, and I’m far past the initial impressions stage, so instead here’s one about something I found very interesting.
Though you don’t see it discussed very much anymore, Dragon Ball was a Big Deal, both in America and Japan. Given the scant selection of manga available in the US when I first started reading, it’s inevitable that I had some Dragon Ball under my belt before I picked up One Piece, and that makes me happy since it made the influences that much more obvious. There are a lot of series that mimicked certain elements of Dragon Ball during and after its run, though few pinpointed its charm the same way that One Piece does. Most of the parallels are definitely homages more than they are direct lifts, and one of the things that I love about One Piece is how much it was influenced by the best things in Dragon Ball.
I think the best quality that the two of them share is their overall positive mood. This is due largely in part to the very charismatic main characters, but there are other factors, too. One of the most interesting things about the early volumes of Dragon Ball, and one of the things that made me a fan all the way through, were the strange locales and people Goku visited for a variety of reasons. The most notable is the village of people dressed as cowboys and indians with no comment whatsoever as to their appearance. There are other things, too, such as Pu’ar and Oolong, animal people in a world that seems a bit devoid of such things (again, no explanation offered), the goofy opponents at the Budokai tournaments, and just the general craziness of the whole “turn into a were-monkey for no good reason” that happened through the first 20 volumes. It gets more serious later, but it never really loses its quirks, and gains them back in a big way when the characters fight Boo through the last volumes.
One Piece is also quite good at this, though Luffy tends to be the only character that takes such things in stride. Right away, we are faced with crazy pirates like Buggy, a clown-pirate, or the island of bizarre animal hybrids guarded by Gaimon, a man stuck in a tiny box. The devil fruits are inherently ridiculous all the way through (though often still deadly). Early examples like Alvida’s slippery fruit last all the way through to Hina’s lock-up fruit or the ridiculous giraffe-man fruit we see later on. The earlier storylines are a good mix of weirdness and traditional ideas, like the snow kingdom harried by a tyrant king, but inhabited by hiking bears and lapins; or Alabasta’s situation sprinkled with the occasional kung-fu dugong. All the animals in One Piece are pretty creative, right down to the transponder snails that are used like telephones. All the towns they visit in One Piece have their own personality, quirks, and hostile wildlife, which is one of the things that makes moving on so fun. I have high hopes for the eventual trip underwater, but so far the best setting as far as quirkyness goes would have to be Skypiea, which is supposed to be a world of dreams that doesn’t exist. Here, we even get hints of Toriyama’s cowboy/indian town, except the attire is angels/natives, and there’s a clear reason for the split. There’s even some more crossover in Skypiea, where the Milky Road might remind some of Dragon Ball’s Snake Way, the long road through Heaven.
The art styles also share a sort of whimsical similarity. One of the most striking things, to me, about the art of One Piece is how all the characters are always smiling. And why not? While there are plenty of Dragon Ball pin-ups of characters scowling, the smiles are another important part of what made the first half of that series so positive. Both are also good at imagining the unusual and drawing it. Toriyama’s scenery became more sparse later on, but apparently that was more of a necessity issue since he didn’t like to use assistants and preferred to draw everything himself. Both are also good at character creation. Exceptionally good, in fact, to the ridiculous point that the sheer number of characters that populate a 42/60+ volume series look completely distinctive from one another. Judging by what I’ve read, I would say that Oda is marginally better at it (by virtue of his characters being more interesting), but again, one of the things I love best about Dragonball are the unusual people Goku encounters and generally convinces to become his friend. But a talking pig that wears panties on its head is one thing, a talking skeleton that constantly makes terrible puns about being a skeleton is something else entirely. Both artists also share a marginally more cartoon-y style than you often find in shounen manga. Not “cool” enough in the case of most shounen series, but I can’t imagine One Piece or Dragon Ball without it. I love it, as it allows for a lot of wacky, almost Looney Tunes-like gestures, expressions, and takes you just don’t see elsewhere, especially in One Piece. Plus, it’s a lot of what makes the scenery and characters so interesting to look at.
Both can be pretty funny, too. Oolong wearing panties on his head reminds me of one of my favorite parts of the very early volumes of Dragon Ball, where Oolong saves the world from being ruled by a tyrant by shouting his wish for a pair of panties loudest. He then wears the panties on his head for some time after the Dragon delivers them. Some of the humor might be a lot of spillover from Dr. Slump, Toriyama’s earlier series, but even so, Dragonball needed all the humor it could get. The later Boo saga is some of the best humor in the series, where Toriyama upends all the serious and gets absolutely ridiculous with all the big bad fighters that have been saving the Earth all this time. One Piece does this on a pretty regular basis, and doesn’t have that many serious characters to begin with, but it’s still a delight whenever it happens. And while both do have panty and sex jokes, like all shounen manga, I find that both find their humor sources elsewhere (towns, scenery, animals, devil fruits, funny characters et cetera), rather than relying on the kind of awkward “comic relief character” humor that a lot of other shounen series rely on. Though One Piece does have some of those… I think the difference is that the character is usually in on the joke, and rarely do they get laughed at in a cruel way. Even Usopp.
Also contributing to the overall positive mood of both series, aside from the main character, are the very positive cast of secondary characters that are part of the main group. Dragon Ball is a smidge better at diversity and keeping some people hidden to bring out at just the right moment, but One Piece has to keep the main cast on a boat most of the time, so fighters can’t really step in and out of the story like they do in Dragon Ball (though they still do in One Piece, another one of the best things about it is that characters you liked could re-appear at any time). A lot of the character types are the same… it’s been a few years since I read Dragon Ball, but you could probably draw some personality parallels between Kuririn and Usopp, Tenshinhan and Zoro, Chopper and Puar, and definitely Nami and Bulma. The others share a more tenuous relationship and could probably be compared to general shounen manga character types to some extent (though it’s especially true in One Piece that the cast is far more developed than that), but Nami and Bulma have very similar roles and personalities. Part of me also wants to compare Sanji and Master Roshi, for the wisdom aspects (Sanji is generally one of the only male characters that doesn’t go in for Luffy’s fantasies), but also for their love of female company. Though Sanji never stole any panties.
Diversity of character types is an advantage that Dragon Ball has over One Piece, I think. The core cast is as diverse as Gyu-Mao, Goku’s father-in-law that starts off as a fierce ogre and later turns into a dottering grandfather; or Goku’s wife Chi-Chi who made a claim on Goku when they were children and is one of the few that doesn’t stand for Goku’s “adventuring;” or Baba Yaga, the old witch that gets consulted as an oracle; or the great Kami who grows the senzu beans that are central to the plot… there are a lot of different characters that are consulted continuously throughout the series. They have a role and generally stick to it, and age and background does have an effect on their function in the story. The Straw Hat Pirates, while I love them all, have a tendency to be wacky, tough, scared, wise, or lecherous, depending on which characters are being discussed. Robin is older than the rest, and is somewhat set apart from the group, but Franky is only a few years younger than her, and Brook was twice everyone’s age when he was alive. Brook is my favorite character next to Luffy, but I am a little disappointed that he doesn’t act more like the old man that he is. Maybe the “skull jokes” are supposed to be like dad jokes, I don’t know. He’s a living skeleton, I guess we can’t have it all.
How about the fighting? Both One Piece and Dragon Ball have that in common, right? Dragon Ball has a lot of fighting, but I think it gets a bad rap for it. There’s a lot of adventuring in the earlier half of the series, and even later, each of the fights are set up differently so that it’s not simply brawl after brawl. Namek is pretty fun for the “exploring another planet” aspect, and I was surprised by how much the structure of the Cell game brought to that particular storyline. The earlier quests to find the dragon balls are a lot of fun, and where some of the more imaginative material comes from (though these quests are completely written out of the story later). There’s still a lot of fighting to get each one of the dragon balls, though. And Goku’s ultimate goal throughout the series is to win the Tenkaichi Budokai, the Strongest Under the Heavens Tournament. There are several over the course of the manga, and while they are, quite literally, a fighting tournament, these are also some of the best moments of the series, with a lot of unique characters and plenty of humor.
One Piece has much in common with what keeps Dragon Ball moving through all its fights, and it far exceeds it. One Piece combines the adventuring aspects of the earlier stories and uses it throughout the series, making it one of the most compelling aspects. Where will the Straw Hats go next? The areas are always worth seeing and exploring, and Oda definitely has a talent for imagining worlds that top each other again and again. Both share the unfortunate plot device of holding back the Luffy/Goku fight to the end by necessity (because both are 100% confident they will win, for good reason), but otherwise there is a decent amount of variety to be seen in both. Fights fought on planks floating on the open ocean, inside golden temples, running around secret government facilities, or even on gigantic boats or islands, the setting does sometimes make all the difference, and the illustrations bring that out in One Piece. The variety of enemies helps, too, especially the way the characters have to conquer different devil fruit users every time. The devil fruit angle may seem like it could get tired, but it really doesn’t, simply because all the users are strange individuals that may be looking for the serious fight from Zoro or the novelty fight from Chopper, Usopp, or Nami. The types of people, from hardened pirates to revolutionaries to bandits to zombies, is really something, too. The adventuring, diversity of areas, the different devil fruit powers, and the variety of fights every time are really what keeps me coming back to One Piece.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Goku and Luffy. I was taken aback at first by how similar Luffy and Goku were. I mean, didn’t people notice that Luffy is almost exactly the same type of optimistic, silly, naive, I’ll-kick-your-ass-anyway type of character that Goku was? I do wonder if Oda was criticized for it early on, because they are very similar, and Goku was the most famous Shounen Jump hero of all time. Before Luffy. The dopey, naieve angle just isn’t well-suited for shounen manga in most cases, since you need your character to be a kind of shy or noble underdog that gains powers he didn’t know he had. Neither Goku nor Luffy are shy or humble, and their lack of common sense has the potential to lose them a lot of respect in the eye of the reader. I mean, you can’t have a stupid shounen hero, right? Goku is even more unusual, since he spent 18 or so volumes as a little kid and not the 14-18 year old of most SJ series (Luffy is this age in the first chapter too, to be fair, but only one chapter… and later, but all the sunshine in the world can’t make that flashback care-free). But Goku and Luffy have other qualities, such as the ability to boldly forge friendships in almost any situation, a kind of fearlessness when facing even nasty opponents, and a desire to be the Strongest Under the Heavens/Pirate King. The latter two are qualities that can be found in any shounen hero, but the last is usually an ambiguous goal to “do the right thing” in some sense (oddly, “Justice” is a rather negative theme in One Piece), and the second is usually tempered by some fear that winds up disappearing when a new ability is discovered mid-battle. Goku and Luffy always confront a new unconquerable foe head-on, with no doubt whatsoever that they will win. And it’s usually hard going, but they always do (or almost always… both have their bad moments). I know that’s being somewhat unkind to shounen manga in general, but these two series really do break the mold, and these two characters are two of the most unusual, and the best, you can find in the genre.
Because of their naivete, Luffy and Goku also share an inherent hilarious sense of humor. Luffy seems to love life and takes in all the strangeness and jokes he can in his own incredibly goofy way, and Goku loves meeting new people and finding new techniques, usually adding his own silliness to the mix. Both character’s unusual outlook tint their encounters and make reading the series that much more fun. Interestingly, Goku’s naivete comes from growing up in the middle of the woods with no human contact, but Luffy’s seems almost… self-imposed.
At this point, I would say that One Piece has far surpassed Dragon Ball in terms of ambitiousness, plot, and just about everything else. But it’s interesting to see how much Oda took from growing up with Goku every week and how he made it completely his own. Fans of One Piece that haven’t had the pleasure of reading Dragon Ball really should go back for the new 3-in-1 omnibuses that have started coming out. It has a lot of the same flavor, and as I said, Dragon Ball tends to get a bad rap it doesn’t deserve, likely because it was the first manga/anime series that a lot of people heard of and just sounds inherently over-masculine and stuffed with too much fighting. I’m sure it’s aged, and again, One Piece does surpass it, but there’s still an awful lot of fun to be had there.