“You want my treasure? You can have it! I left everything I own in one place. Now you just have to find it!” These words served as the catalyst for the inciting actions of a popular Japanese comic known by One Piece. In fact, it’s the highest selling manga series of all time, with numbers that surpass comic giants such as Spider-man. Created by Japanese artist Eiichiro Oda in 1997, the comic, and adapted cartoon, centers around the adventures of a pirate captain named Monkey D. Luffy, an energetic young man who dreams of becoming the Pirate King, the freest man on the sea. The series captivates its readers with imaginative locales, eccentric characters, thrilling action, and new world-building information in every chapter, all keeping with the theme of chasing dreams and making them a reality. While not afraid to shy away from mature themes like racial persecution, One Piece generally tends to skew towards an audience of pre-teen to young adult males, but still being able to draw in female readers and older readers. It is a cultural icon in Japan the same way Marvel comics is in the United States. However, despite its global appeal and worldwide sales, One Piece never really became popular in the United States. Although it isn’t certain for sure, part of the reason may be the way the show was localized for America.
On June 4, 2004, the translation and distribution rights for the anime adaptation of One Piece had been acquired by 4Kids Entertainment, the same company responsible for localizing Pokémon to western audiences. Given the success of their previous endeavors, handling a series gaining in popularity in Japan but relatively unknown in the west seemed like a good move. In fact, 4Kids decided to keep with their past experiences and proceed to market and cater the series to America for child audiences, from about ages 6-11. Radical changes needed to be made to the episodes as a result, and as such, the end product became something more suitable for those intended audiences. The 4Kids One Piece cartoon adaptation was brought to Saturday morning television, and its infamous opening theme greeted its viewers. The song and lyrics were created to attract and keep the attention of children by taking from current music trends. They used this among other strategies to grab their audience.
Much akin to a fairy tale, the opening starts off with recalling the execution the Pirate King Gold Roger. It recounts his final words as they spark the Great Age of Pirates and incite the events that cause the main story to begin. The torn map, scroll aesthetic and retold legend appeal to the viewer’s sense of wonder and awe. The world the audiences peered into viewed these events as monumental and it firmly establishes the current state of the story. The site of several pirate ships embarking on a journey to “make their dreams come true.” The opening puts the show’s theme of dreams at the forefront and invokes a sense of adventure. It builds trust in its audience with its new but familiar foundation and promises of a grand journey. As a young boy, this would be something that hooks attention greatly by adhering to a burgeoning sense of excitement and curiosity. Then, the song begins the instant as the narration comes to a close.
The onomatopoeia of “Ya yo” blares as a cannon blasts a flag to cinders and pirates begin to raid a ship, seen from a first-person perspective. The chants come as an abrupt change of pace from the narration, immediately thrusting the audience into a more chaotic setting. A boy would be surprised at the change and might even be startled or even scared. However, that feeling would quickly change to one of bravery if they had still remembered the feelings the narration had imbued in them. Then the lyrics emerge as a rap, introducing new characters while also keeping with the established theme of dreams. The main characters are introduced alongside the music with the visuals telling giving hints to the traits of these individuals, with some attention given to Nami, the female character, fighting pirates and changing outfits. The introductions cap off with Luffy spinning his hat as it transitions onto the head of a red-haired pirate. These introductions give security to the audience as it’s their first time seeing the main cast. The brief glimpses give some intrigue while also showing off a portion of the action, edited quickly with the pace of the rap. The lyrics remind the audience not to give up on their dreams, much like how characters in the show pursue their own.
The rap then begins proper by laying out a groundwork of the plot. Each lyric is accompanied by an appropriate visual, being almost one-to-one with the song. Several faces flash as the singer says “pirates” informing the viewer of future threats. It then begins to segue into the next portion of the song with more “ya yo” chants and actions scenes with distinct characters in focus. This portion of the opening exists to inform the viewer of the story that’s about to unfold. It comes very quickly as the rap proceeds at an upbeat clip, hardly giving any time for a breather, but still building intrigue. The pace was fast enough to keep providing new information and stimulants to the relatively young audience. A child has a wandering attention and the opening recognizes that, so it constantly keeps things moving.
The song then decides to reintroduce the characters seen earlier, giving them proper introductions. It introduces the most important character first, the main character Luffy, and gives him the longest spotlight and description. His motivations and backstory are touched upon while showing clips from the show that also happen to include his voice briefly. Then the song hits on the fact that Luffy is a man made of rubber, acknowledges its strangeness and humor, and gives more information as to how he acquired that ability. Again, very quickly the opening goes through information the audience had been presented and gives more information as well as tone. The abrupt change in vocals as the song comically asks how Luffy became rubber, along with the iconic “Yo Ho Ho, he took a bite of Gum-Gum,” presents humor in contrast to the aggressiveness of the music beforehand. It gives the audience an idea of the content of the show proper, balancing action, adventure, and comic relief. Then the song introduces the rest of the cast a second time with traits said outright. This section of the song varies depending on the story. It gives ongoing watchers a treat to look forward to as the new faces are added. New things are exciting to a young child.
The song finally comes to a close as the opening once more gives credence to the end goal of the series. The cast is on the search for the One Piece and it’s time to set sail. From there the show starts proper. The “One Piece Rap,” as it’s known by most fans, is a song specifically made to hook those young viewers. At the time, rap music was perceived as popular by most people and a fast-enough pace to keep up with the frantic tendencies of a growing child. It deliberately showed more action scenes to appeal to the “cool” factor commonly liked by the pre-teen demographic. It also gave a bit more attention to the female lead character of Nami, possibly to also get the attention of small girls as well. Every edited piece of the opening was a purposeful strategy to appeal to the young child age group, it could be comparable to a more modern show such as Teen Titans Go. That comparison is very apt, as the 4Kids adaptation cast a small net and essentially only attempted to appeal to the same age group that had made Pokémon so successful.
The strategies that attracted a 6-11 age group had also alienated older age groups. In regards to the opening itself, the rap music used could be construed as corny to older watchers. If done wrong, a rap can make these age groups feel awkward by the stark contrast in quality to licensed music, effectively alienating them and losing trust. The descriptions of some characters in the song also lead to certain unsatisfying inferences. Nami’s only trait of being referred to as an L-A-D-Y, Zoro’s name being changed to Zolo, and the misuse of the word “doctoring” for a medical treatment are some examples. A teenage girl may look at the characterization of Nami in the song and feel alienated. Why couldn’t they have pointed out how she wanted to draw a map of the world? Among this, the intended audience and localization changed core aesthetics of the show itself, from rifles to squirt guns, the disappearance of female features, to a cigarette being changed into a lollipop. Too many changes were made to satisfy the demographic, and international fans of the series felt alienated.
While the show had become somewhat successful among its targeted audience, the vast changes had altered its appeal to a more general audience. The change in its strategies to entice the youngest crowd failed to keep longevity. In the future, as rights had changed hands, efforts to keep more faithful to the source material had become less effective as first impressions had already been established. 4Kids had successfully adapted One Piece for children, and that reputation stayed with it in the west. Its effective appeals made children love it, but it didn’t work as well for anyone older. Despite that, the show still comes translated online and has only grown in popularity in its country of origin. Even so, the 4Kids era had left its rhetorical mark on the franchise, for better or worse.
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tekking101. “One Piece In America: 4kids to Funimation.” YouTube, YouTube, 11 Jan. 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZ6UZd-jGgM.