EIICHIRO ODA: THE KING OF WORLDBUILING
It is impossible to talk about the manga industry in Japan without mentioning the name of Eiichiro Oda, the author of the cultural phenomenon known as One Piece. Oda is part of a generation of manga artists who changed the history of the genre. Influenced by modern classics such as Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball, he had the desire to become a manga artist as early as the age of 4.
The unique characteristics of Oda’s work have captured readers for decades, most notably his bizarre yet charming sense of humour, ability to effectively combine comedy and drama, trademark quirky art style, and, most importantly, the extremely detailed and elaborate panels.
Oda’s worldbuilding is comparable to the best-known examples in fiction such as Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. His dedication to his craft is exemplified by his incredibly intense work schedule, which included three hours of sleep per day and living apart from his family who visit him once per week in his office.
Oda has always shown great interest in Japanese culture and traditions through his work. An example of that is the inspiration he draws from classic art movements, particularly the woodblock prints created during the 18/19th century known as “ukiyo-e”.
ODA’S LABOUR OF LOVE: ONE PIECE AND UKIYO-E
Manga and ukiyo-e
The spirit of ukiyo-e lives through contemporary manga as this is one of the core sources of its origin alongside emaki (12th century Japanese scrolls) and ezoshi (17th century small and cheap books of humour and erotica). Manga and the ukiyo-e artworks share a number of similarities: the woodblock prints at the time of their creation were affordable, targeted at a mass audience and served the popular taste of the day, much like today’s manga volumes and magazines. Moreover, there is a thematic similarity in that both genres explore themes of sex, violence, the opposition between rich/powerful, and poor/powerless, heroes vs. villains, supernatural phenomena and Japanese folklore legends.
One Piece Chapter 526 Colour Spread: A Yakuzza tattoo of the original three Straw Hat Pirates, Monkey D. Luffy, Roronoa Zoro and Nami.
Both Manga and ukiyo-e prints favour a simple structure, for instance the use of straight lines and a flat 2D space. The two mediums also heavily rely on visual narrative, they are characterised by their instant recognisability and enjoy a long-lasting popularity worldwide.
One Piece, Eiichiro Oda’s life work, is the world’s best-selling comic book of all time and best-selling manga with more than 460 million volume copies. It has also been, as of 2019, Japan’s top-selling manga for 13 consecutive years. One Piece has gone beyond the realms of manga and gradually turned into a pop culture phenomenon in Japan, a national symbol and a massive franchise with vast amounts of associated merchandise and tourists attractions around the country.
Oda’s life-long labour of love started serialization in 1997 and has been published in one of the most famous magazines in Japan, Weekly Shonen Jump, ever since with periodic breaks in between. 963 chapters have been published so far and as the series is getting closer to its climax, more and more readers join to follow the engaging adventures of the main characters.
One Piece explores the story of a teenage boy, Monkey D. Luffy, whose dream is to become the pirate king and find the eponymous legendary treasure left by the former pirate king, Gol D. Roger. Luffy sets on a voyage with his fellow crew mates and visits various islands on his way to his final goal.
The author of One piece has shared his love for traditional Japanese art and the influence of the ukiyo-e genre is clearly visible in his current story, the “Wano Country Arc”, which is heavily inspired by Edo Japan, the period portrayed in ukiyo-e prints. “Wa” is the oldest recorded name of Japan and, much like Feudal Japan, Wano Kuni (literally “The Country of Wano”) is ruled by a shogun and isolated from rest of the world as its borders are closed due to fear of harmful foreign influence and a desire to maintain the status quo.
Oda centres his narrative around key themes that are also present in ukiyo-e: samurai (ronin) and their sense of humour, duty and loyalty, swordsmanship, the beautiful oiran and geisha, old-school linguistic patterns, architecture (e.g. Shinto shrines), costumes (characters can be seen wearing kimono, samurai armour), music (Oda uses shamisen sound effects, a traditional musical instrument), mythology (the Eastern azure dragon, Yamata no Orochi, an 8-headed serpent, “The Tale of Momotaro”, etc.), natural landmarks, e.g. Mt Fuji is a clear reference to the real-life Mount Fuji, and cherry blossoms, a trademark of Wano’s Flower Capital.
A map of the regions of Wano: Mt Fuji can be seen in the centre
The real-life Mount Fuji as seen from above
Mount Fuji has been portrayed numerous times by talented ukiyo-e artists. Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mount Fuji” series offers some of the finest landscape prints in the genre.
Oda has shared the artistic inspirations behind his manga panels in the question corner of one of the most recent One Piece manga volumes. In an answer to a reader’s question, he talks about Wano’s unusual floating clouds: “Those are clouds!! The clouds are in the air!! Wano’s atmosphere is very different from other places! I wanted that ukiyo- e vibe for Wano!” (SBS, volume 93).
One scene in particular, the moment when Luffy and his crew are trying to fight the enormous waves surrounding Wano’s entrance and get sucked into a whirlpool, is visually very reminiscent of Hokusai’s beloved masterpiece, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”
Wano’s stormy sea as portrayed in the One Piece anime
Additionally, Wano’s structure is based upon a traditional Kabuki play, which consists of 5 acts: “After all this time, it has arrived. I love historical period dramas and had been wanting to draw this island forever!!” (Eiichiro Oda in a 2019 interview regarding the start of the Wano arc in the anime. There is a One Piece Kabuki Show called “Super Kabuki One Piece”, which made its debut in 2015 and starred popular Kabuki actor Ennosuke Ichikawa IV. The native citizens of Wano often resemble Kabuki actors in ukiyo-e prints.
O-Tsuru, one of the characters in Oda’s Wano story arc
Nakamura Shikan IV as Nango Rikimaru – Kunisada, 1862
Kyoshiro, a money lender and a leader of a yakuza family in Wano
In a scene from the manga Oda depicts traditional bathhouses from Feudal Japan that are very common today as well. The panel where two naked women, the series’ main female characters, Nami and Robin, are washed by octopi, is visually reminiscent of one of Hokusai’s most famous masterpieces, “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” (Hokusai, 1814).
Discover the captivating beauty of the ukiyo-e style and explore the artworks that inspired legendary manga creators for their beloved stories! Enjoy Hokusai's "36 views of Mount Fuji" series, as well as our collection of Kabuki actor prints, Warriors, Myths and Legends, and amazing Japanese landscapes!