Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Art What I Like: One Piece Is Awesome, Example #24

As ever, I'm impressed by the subjects that Eiichiro Oda tackles in One Piece alongside all the awesome fights and wacky gags. In volume 31, he expands on his previous commentary on religion, revealing even more depth. While he had hinted at the use of religion as an oppressive means of control, here he looks at the way people use belief in the supernatural to try to understand the world around them and the forces that are beyond their control. While he ultimately favors science and knowledge over faith, he does show an understanding of the appeal of these sorts of beliefs, from the way they provide a grasp on the unknowable to their benefits in uniting a community of people.

Much of the 31st volume is taken up with a flashback to 400 years before the current story, explaining the background of the island of Jaya and its inhabitants, the Shandians, who were driven from their land after it was blasted up into the sky and assimilated into the cloud kingdom of Skypeia. But before that happened, we learn the true story behind the legend of an explorer named Mont Blanc Noland who landed on the island and changed their way of life. When he gets there, he's horrified to learn that the Shandians, who are currently being ravaged by a deadly plague, are practicing human sacrifice in an attempt to appease the gods and save themselves from being completely wiped out. He impulsively stops the sacrifice and kills the giant snake which they viewed as a deity, which makes them certain that all is lost. But he convinces them that he can cure the plague using medicine derived from herbs found on the island, and even though they're sure all is lost, they give him the chance to make good on his promise. However, after an earthquake hits the island, he gets trapped in a fissure and can't make it back to the village in time, and to make things worse, Kalgara, the Shandians' greatest warrior, happens across his predicament and decides to just watch him suffer. This leads to an incredibly dramatic debate about religion and science:

The thing that I find fascinating about this is that as horrifying and barbaric as Oda, Noland, and the audience see the practice of human sacrifice, he doesn't present it as the result of complete ignorance. The Shandians' religion makes sense to them; it's their way of understanding their world, and when they don't follow what they see as the gods' wishes, it seems that disaster inevitably results. They themselves are horrified by the awful things they do, but as loathsome as their acts are, they see them as necessary, an affirmation of the value of human life rather than the debasement that Noland sees it as. It's all they understand, and Oda manages to convey that really well in this exchange, demonstrating how they struggle with what they view as necessary in order to survive.

In fact, Oda seems to view the people's approach to their religion rather optimistically, presenting them as considering their beliefs deeply and willing to put them aside in favor of that which is more beneficial to them. If only that was true in the real world; in actuality, most religious people follow their dogmas blindly, never questioning the reasons they believe what they believe, and clinging to their antiquated ways in the face of knowledge and progress. Oda's take on the subject fits in to his exaggerated shonen world, in which heart and determination can win out over the most difficult obstacles; that he manages to fit the deeply complex ideas surrounding religion into this framework is kind of amazing. This series is really something special, and I can't wait to see what subject Oda manages to tackle next, while still providing all the thrills, laughs, and emotional bombast he does so well.

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