By Hauwa Ahmadu
The One Piece (1997) manga series was created by Eiichiro Oda and started serialization in Shueisha Inc.’s Weekly Shonen Jump (1968) – a long-running manga anthology magazine. In 2015, The Japan Times reported that the Guinness World Records had recognized it “as the comic book series with the most copies published by a single author” (n.pag). This recognition highlights the effect of an international readership on the serial publication. The series has since spawned over 900 chapters, 900 anime episodes, 90 compiled volumes, numerous feature-length films, games, novels, soundtrack, or character song albums, and even a Kabuki adaptation, most of which are endorsed by or produced in collaboration with the series creator and publisher. Serial worldbuilding in such mega franchises (think Marvel or Star Wars) resembles a network of constellations as the “multiple source texts” become a sanctioned collective of related works, or “canon”, and amasses a fandom – a community of fans with personal interpretations and thoughts about a series (Bronwen, 1). The combination of the canon and those interpretation thus becomes the basis for fan-created content which takes various forms and becomes part of the serial. This article explores digital media, reader response theory and seriality, in relation to fan consumption of the One Piece franchise. It primarily focuses on fan discussion and content based on chapter 963 of the manga, as observed on DeviantArt (an online platform for artists) and on Twitter, in order to track the dissemination of content from the official canon as well as to highlight the compatibility of serial narratives and digital fandom online.
Manga magazines in Japan often request fan input on the viability of and interest in a series. In Weekly Shonen Jump, for example, fans are invited to submit questionnaires which are used to rank ongoing manga. A bad fall in the rankings may eventually lead to series cancellation but more positively, fans can interact with the publisher and manga artists through letters. In the fourth volume of One Piece published in 1998, Eiichiro Oda launched the question and answer corner named SBS (Shitsumon o Boshū Suru, which loosely translates to “I’m Taking Questions”), where he directly engaged with fans, production staff, or voice actors of the anime series and revealed pertinent details like characters’ ages and the progress of the overall narrative (28). Fans can also send letters with artwork, questions or requests to the Shueisha Inc. office in Tokyo or to the US publisher Viz Media. In One Piece, content flows in a multidirectional manner between the manga artist and series editor to media corporations, fandom, and vice versa, dismantling the traditional vertical hierarchy. These letters often seek clarification for obscure titbits or present fan interpretations which then feed back into the canon, creating a richer story world.
Media scholar Henry Jenkins has focused particularly on television, film and digital media, and on understanding media audiences as more than passive consumers. He suggests two theoretical concepts that are key to understanding how fans online actively consume manga in a serial mode while sharing their creative output. The first of these concepts is spreadability, which refers to “increasingly pervasive forms of media circulation [… as audiences] share content for their own purposes”, relying on social connections online (3). The second is convergence, which tracks the “flow of content across multiple media platforms” depending on the collaboration between consumers and media producers, which has evolved into a culture of active participation (2). The international One Piece fandom particularly thrives in cyberspace, partly due to the success of foreign companies such as Crunchyroll, Funimation, Netflix, and Viz Media. These companies license anime, manga and other related content for online distribution, though there are also countless illegal video streaming and manga hosting websites providing instant access for millions of fans worldwide.
Fan produced narratives are also generated on the internet on websites like Archive of Our Own, DeviantArt and Tumblr among others. DeviantArt is a dedicated social network platform for artists, photographers, and writers whether amateur or professional to showcase, sell their work or simply engage with colleagues. Users can choose to receive criticism to improve their creative content or not. At the time of writing this, DeviantArt holds 142 thousand items of fan-created material ranging from cosplay photography and fan art to fan fictions, as well as over six thousand fan journals (in the manner of blog posts) that are discussing and disseminating information about One Piece. In other words, the more versed fans are in the One Piece lore, the wider their networks and means of participating in the fandom become. Any related content they blog, create, and share online finds a wider audience.
As Jenkins observes, convergence produces an interconnectedness between media platforms and increasing points of similarity between them (10). Crunchyroll, for instance, began as a fan-centred anime streaming website and eventually became a legal service with paid subscriptions. Nowadays, Crunchyroll has diversified into manga and gaming while ensuring users can access marketed content on numerous devices including mobile devices and game consoles among others. Fan sites work on similar principles. For instance, Archive of Our Own permits writers to import fan fiction stored on other websites, while DeviantArt and Tumblr have dedicated mobile applications.
Maria Lindgren Leavenworth argues that “fan fictions represent an intermediary stage between print literature and complex, often multimodal, contemporary hypertexts which to a greater extent utilize the affordances of the online environment” (40). Although she focuses on prose narratives, her observation here applies to most fan-produced online content. The digitized convergence and spreadability of any fandom related content blurs the boundaries between clear-cut online spaces (websites, applications) and physical textual spaces (print, Blu-ray) while allowing media companies market directly to each fan. In 2018, Funimation, the official distributor of the One Piece anime in North America, sponsored a Fan Art Feature on DeviantArt. It included an interview with a Funimation staff member, numerous examples of fanart by prominent artists on the website, and hyperlinks to market both their streaming service and the latest DVD release, all of which enabled an almost seamless transition from passive observation to active consumption for fans.
The motto of Weekly Shonen Jump is friendship, effort, and victory. Characters from manga serialized in the anthology exhibit these qualities – specifically they solidify friendships and band together to strive towards a common goal. Series like One Piece are marketed to boys from their early teens onwards but remain popular with a wider audience across age, gender, and nationality. The animated series has been broadcast for 20 years, so fans who were children when it began airing have grown up alongside the characters. These fans can, therefore, mark improvements to the narrative and situate the lived reading experience of the series within the temporal frame of their own lives. The serialized narrative of One Piece is typically episodic with temporal disruptions in the form of frequent flashbacks to expand the worldbuilding, and it has also included one significant flash forward in the form of a two-year time skip.
Additionally, In One Piece, Oda employs the title pages of the manga chapters to deliver side stories for secondary characters, and this results in a further expansion of the story as the embedded narrative progresses within the same temporal frame as the main narrative.
Oda leaves the main narrative strand, which follows the Straw Hats pirate crew, and documents the simultaneous adventures of an affiliate crew, the Fire Tank pirates. The screenshot above marks the thirteenth in a series of title images based on this affiliate crew – a series that works to further this sub-narrative. The serial mode ensures that the embedded narrative does not produce any drastic shifts in the main narrative.
Christina Ro notes that manga and anime often “offer the first formative exposure to the culture for many non-Japanese people around the world” (n.pag). Although this article mostly focuses on English, the official language of One Piece remains Japanese. Licenced versions in other languages worldwide retain the Japanese phrases, cues, and onomatopoeia to which fans become accustomed and these are echoed in fan-produced content as a result. Similarly, Kinko Ito observes that manga in Japan is “closely connected to Japanese history and culture, including such areas as politics, economy, family, religion, and gender” (26). Hence, the long-term serialization of manga like One Piece enables a transmission of the cultural norms, history, language, iconography and local fandom in an understandable format for a global audience.
According to Sabin Sielke, seriality and networks are linked because they are both often seen as existing within a linear timeframe and operating through continuing “processes of emergence, becoming, and evolution” (83). One Piece is currently ongoing and subject to further change. Fan discussions online may be archived and used to contribute to or even change future interpretations and content based on the series, demonstrating the link between seriality and networks. Fans often specify which medium or part of the canon they are responding to when creating or discussing content, as observed on the Twitter hashtag #onepiece963. The hashtag refers to Chapter 963 of the One Piece manga, officially released on 24 November 2019 but leaked online a few days earlier. The chapter mostly consists of a flashback; that temporal shift is a key discussion point of the Twitter posts.
Figure 2 shows how one user merges a page from a past chapter of the manga with one from chapter 963, placing them side by side to showcase the progression of the narrative while responding to the introduction and eventually death of a character who has a significant effect on the Straw Hat Pirates in their main (future) timeline. Another user, @Ohara_the_Fox, compares two characters from the past and present, hypothesizing that they are the same person due to their outfits: both are wearing dark kimono with a lighter coloured haori (outerwear) on their shoulders and the fact that they fight with Japanese blades. Other tweets like @EtenBoby’s focus on information in the weekly author comments, explaining jokes and visual puns revealed in the chapter.
With regards to seriality and storytelling on social media, Ruth Page observes that there is “a part-whole relationship between smaller units that incrementally constitute a larger narrative” (34), and this relationship is clearly discernible in the fan-created content. For instance, @Ohara_the_Fox posts One Piece chapter reviews, character analysis, and a podcast on his YouTube channel. His uploads are categorised into different playlists, some of which must be watched serially to be understood, thus functioning as small parts that form a larger narrative; they are a mixture of his interpretation and the One Piece canon. Ohara reflects on his reading experience and disseminates his opinions of chapter 963, which garnered 14,691 views in one week. He also critiques the pacing of the chapter, the overall arc, the chapter’s attentiveness to two famous characters who are already deceased in the main (future) timeline and its neglect of several background characters that fans “would be following after the flashback ends” (n.pag). He nevertheless praises the narrative for the excitement of the reveal and invites watchers to engage with his content, which will result in spreading the franchise. This interaction highlights the symbiotic relationship between serial narratives and digital fandom.
One panel in particular from chapter 963 has drawn the fans’ consideration. Figures 3 and 4 show are two coloured interpretations on the panel by users known as FanaliShiro and Melonciutus, who have both previously produced One Piece related content on DeviantArt. Their posts feature statistics to showcase the number of viewers who have seen, commented on, and marked the posts as favourites (see the eye icon, speech bubble and star icon at the bottom right of the frame).
FanaliShiro’s post remains faithful to the portrayal in the original manga. They (singular) use pale but bright colours which highlight the sound effect written in the Japanese katakana script – a mainstay of manga – in the background. Melonciutus, conversely, chooses a darker theme that is more appropriate to an animated frame. They forgo the iconography to produce instead a mountain in the background, including rings of light to visually represent the clash of weapons. In this situation, the original manga panel functions as a canonical paratext for the divergent interpretations in the images.
Jenkins uses the concepts of “convergence culture” and “spreadability” to signify the affordances of digital media, as well as the importance and active participation of consumer fans. Oda’s One Piece engages fans in a serial yet multimedia transmission of content while also providing an entry point into Japanese culture, history and language. The content that fans produce in response is often created in serial instalments or in multimedia modes; consumption, reception and creative production are interconnected, while also impacting on the original series through subjective interpretations. However, the specific affordances of digital communication and transmission require further elaboration. The study of the relationship between seriality and participatory fan cultures is crucial to a fresh understanding of these ever-evolving literary and cultural affordances, and for the development of appropriate new definitions and theoretical frameworks, in an increasingly digitized world.
Hauwa Ahmadu, “Transmissions: from Manga to Fandom” Alluvium, Vol. 7, No. 5 (2019): n. pag. Web. 15 December 2019, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.5.03
About the Author
Hauwa Aliyu Ahmadu is an alumna of York St John University and the University of Oxford. Her research interests include Afrofuturism, Japanese literature, fan cultures and transmedia storytelling. Hauwa received the Clarendon Fund Scholarship to study a Master’s Degree in Japanese Studies at Oxford and has taught scholarship candidates on the Ashinaga Africa Initiative in Uganda. She tweets @vanteya37.
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