Summer break for most college students is a period rife with adventure. From traveling to picking up new hobbies to buttering up coworkers at your summer gig to unionize, there’s just no shortage of opportunities to grow and change as a person over the summer.
Between the months of May and August, I opted to do none of these — although I dabbled in that last one — and instead embarked on a journey of self-exploration for the books. One day, after a particularly thought-provoking shower, I decided to make an Autumn salad, plant myself on the couch and watch over 1,000 episodes of “One Piece.” By the time I caught up with the weekly release of the show on Crunchyroll circa episode 1,030-something, I was a changed person. The planets had aligned and my third eye had opened.
When I explained the enormity of this accomplishment to my 23-year-old sister, she reacted the way any sane person might — somewhere between laughter and shock. After all, the premise of “One Piece” is understandably laughable. First serialized in 1997 by mangaka Eiichero Oda and publisher Shueisha Inc, “One Piece” tells the story of a world dominated by sea-faring pirates, the hegemonic world government and its military arm, the Navy. The story is primarily told through the exploits of the protagonist Monkey D. Luffy, a teenage pirate who ate the “Gum Gum Fruit” as a child, thus gaining the ability to stretch like rubber, enhancing his fighting ability immensely and bringing him closer to his goal of being king of the pirates. Luffy is joined by his rag-tag but growing crew of pirates who are meant to represent real-world nationalities and all hold unique, decidedly goofy abilities from a swordsman who holds a third sword with his mouth to a deer who ate the “Human Human Fruit” and became a talented doctor. “One Piece” is driven by the whimsical and childlike sense of adventure of its protagonists, but also their strong and complex moral codes that seek to do away with the fictional world’s many injustices, most of which are fairly unsubtle allegories to social ills in our own world like enslavement, imperialism, corruption and violent, unjust hierarchies of race and class. What began as a playful romp through the seas by a rubber man in a barrel became an epic tale of liberation from oppression.
I first began watching One Piece about eight years ago as a sixth grader. Having all the free time in the world, I blasted through the more than 600 episodes produced at the time and read further until the arc known as “Zou.” For whatever reason — probably the soup of social pressures that punished being a queer brown kid who was also a huge nerd — I called it quits and didn’t touch the series until this summer. Even as a middle schooler, I understood and appreciated many of the political themes presented by the series, even if they were tainted by the usual suspect of misogyny that comes with any series marketed primarily towards teenage boys. Now, however, being an older — and arguably more educated — student of political science, my eyes are open to a universe of possible analyses of the series I used to view casually. Armed with this new arsenal of theoretical tools, I had an epiphany that I’ve been itching to write about; that is, a critique of the anime “fightocracy,” or a social hierarchy based majorly on combat and fighting power.
From the jump, this might feel like a pretty banal observation, and to an extent you’d be right to think that. After all, most popular shonen anime from oldies like “Dragon Ball” by Akira Toriyama and “Yu Yu Hakusho” by Yoshiro Tagashi are very much narratively structured around the protagonists’ desire to be “the strongest.” This ranges from the ability to punch holes through the fabric of spacetime to being really good at high school volleyball — shoutout to “Haikyuu!!” — but it’s now an industry standard that many, myself included, feel is a pretty derivative and quickly tiring trope. That said, truly understanding fictional fightocracies are the key to grasping a higher appreciation of popular series and their themes.
So what does a fightocracy look like? Take “One Piece,” for example. To oversimplify, the pirate world is divided between quirky, colorful and extremely violent crews. The more ass your crew, and specifically your crew’s captain, kicks, the more social, political and economic pull it kicks. If one crew kicks another crew’s ass, it supplants the former’s social power for its own, not too dissimilar from real-world military conquest and imperialism.
But where fictional ass-kicking diverges from real conflict is in the organization of these power structures. The world we live in is governed by institutions and systems as opposed to powerful individuals; trade disputes between China and the United States cannot be settled by a fist fight between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, as much as I’d drop everything to watch that. Here, hierarchies are built around economic class, racial and gender identity, corruption and nepotism, dumb luck and other non-merit Counter this with the “Four emperor” system in One Piece, Soul Society in “Bleach” and the system of village leaders in “Naruto.” In each, the status and position of individuals is directly correlated with their fighting ability. Combat power, then, is political power. Real distortions like class collusion and corruption do play key roles in these fightocracies; the last major One Piece arc partly revolves around a physically unassuming antagonist who schemes his way to the top of an isolated country with the help of his co-conspirators and a more physically powerful backer. The beauty and empowerment of fightocracies, in a perverse way, is that these unjust hierarchies can be dislodged by beating up the corrupt official and their lackeys, destroying the evil organization’s superweapon or facing the strongest guardians of the ruling class head on.
This is also much to be said on the inherent equalities and inequalities to fighting-based societies, namely that they are extremely gendered. Even supernatural mechanics like My Hero Academia’s superpowered mutations known as “quirks” — a potential equalizer when authors decide that “male” raw strength is superior — give female characters the short of the stick, with writers intentionally or unintentionally distributing the strongest and most narratively important abilities to male characters. Additionally, people who aren’t individually powerful need to depend on the good intentions of someone who is for their interests to be represented and protected — fightocracies are inherently paternalistic. Political rhetoric organizing can effectively be substituted with training and fighting against the heads of society to change the rules, which is why it is so rare that shonen anime ever flirt with concepts like democracy as an effective form of social organization.
There is an innate propagandistic value to fightocracies; they are an idyllic and fundamentally uncritical premise, and I feel this reflects in the anime community which, despite including many marginalized people, also hosts people who refuse to acknowledge racist, misogynistic and fascistic themes in their favorite series. Casual viewing is a privilege, however annoying viewers and readers such as myself have a responsibility to bring these problems to light and leverage our shared experience in fandoms or communities to host a dialogue. In the end, we don’t live in a fightocracy; you can’t power-scale oppressive forces, and our real strength comes from our ability to communicate, make connections and organize for the liberation for which characters like Monkey D. Luffy kick ass.