One Piece happens to be one of the major franchises of the anime world – the manga began on July 22, 1997, among the pages of Weekly Shounen Jump, and it received an anime adaptation that first aired on October 20, 1999, and runs to this day. Saying it’s a popular series is an understatement, as it stands as a long-running production (going into its 19th year of continuous broadcast, with new episodes still being produced), and it makes sense to see where it all began so many years ago; I’m looking at the first episode here, to show how Luffy’s travails as a pirate started. What’s unusual about the first episode is that it doesn’t show its primary protagonist, Monkey D. Luffy, right away – instead, it focuses on the pirate captain Alvida and her crew attacking a cruise ship for its gold, while Nami (whose formal introduction comes later) simultaneously seeks to also abscond with the treasure inside. It takes several minutes before Luffy appears; this allows for some build-up, giving some context into the world of One Piece before introducing the main character. From the outset, the world is beset by a noticeable pirate presence – Alvida, the heavyset woman who commands her crew to attack the ship, happens to be the first pirate presented in the show, and it’s not flattering. Her underlings refer to her with the -sama honorific, a very formal one that the crew likely use out of fear of reprisal from Alvida, rather than respect. This indicates that Alvida has a very high opinion of herself, feeling she is beyond reproach and can get away with disrespecting others and lording herself over those in her employ.
This becomes a major theme in One Piece – Luffy becomes the savior, someone who stands up to an oppressive force without thinking of reward. Villains such as Alvida (and others, such as Kuro and Blackbeard) have an ulterior motive when they approach their job, and that material or personal gain informs their actions; Luffy, on the other hand, comes across as somewhat naive and reckless (he frequently mentions his hunger, and frequently acts audaciously when confronted with a new challenge to overcome), but he represents the courageous noble side of pirating. He may not thinks things through, but he never displays any cowardly, brutish behavior – Alvida, by contrast, uses her physical strength and imposing frame to frighten others into submission, never above physical violence to assure dominance and compliance from those she considers beneath her. The sama honorific represents this aspect of her personality rather well; it can be very rude to use personally, and Alvida’s behavior strongly suggests that she requires her crew to use it to bolster her own ego.
Going back to the opening minutes of the episode, we see two men retrieve a barrel from the ocean, while Nami simultaneously mingles with the cruise ship crew in hopes of avoiding detection (and being able to stealthily move towards the treasure in the ship’s hold and take it for herself); these actions establish the peculiar world of the sea, where anything can happen on a moment’s notice. The episode will later reveal Luffy is inside the barrel, but for now, the barrel remains fairly inconsequential; the appearance of Alvida temporarily takes the attention away from the barrel, and into a brief attack. There’s a nice minor dolly zoom effect seen on the man in the crows’ nest, who freaks out when noticing Alvida’s ship as it emerges from behind an island – dolly zooms can signify intense apprehension, as the subject experiences dread upon viewing something disruptive. A famous example of the dolly zoom can be seen in Jaws – it focuses on police chief Brody’s reaction to the eponymous shark.
One a storytelling level, the Alvida crew’s attack on the ship demonstrates the entrenched nature of pirates on the world; they are both revered and feared as forces of nature who will attack others with the express purpose of obtaining wealth and fame. The disorienting effects of the camera work show how pirates disrupt everyday life – Alvida represents the type of pirate who acts violently for her own sake, and the allure of treasure and personal gain are tantalizing to those who exist outside the law. Speaking of the law, only an allusion to a navy exists in this episode – made by Coby when he converses with Luffy, this mention enforces the existence of a worldwide force which ostensibly upholds the law and protects the general populace from intrudes; of course, this may not be the full picture, as the story later presents Navy personnel as people who can exploit their position of authority for personal gain, calling into question their exact distinction from pirates.
Luffy’s introduction places him in direct opposition to Alvida – he does not act proactively against the antagonistic Alvida crew, instead preferring to stay on the defensive. When we first see him, he bursts out of the barrel retrieved by the other pirates, inadvertently knocking two others away; he appears to have slept in it, indicating his nonchalant and eccentric nature. He’s the sort of character who would not think twice about sleeping in a peculiar location, and his later discussing about wanting to become King of the Pirates shows his lofty ambitions – he’s eager to become the greatest pirate the world has ever seen (following in the footsteps of Gold Roger, seen briefly before the opening credits), but he doesn’t plan things out that well, as shown by his decision to go into a barrel without a moment’s hesitation. Alvida, however, is very aggressive – she initiated the attack on the cruise ship to obtain its gold, and stricly (and disproportionately) punishes her crew for even minor transgressions, displaying herself as a leader seemingly incapable of using reasonable (rather than excessive) approaches to disciplining her crew. She’s the type of character who acts as a great introductory foil against the protagonist – we, as an audience, get to see the stakes involved in personal affairs, as Alvida has her misplaced pride as a pirate on the line, and Luffy has nothing to materialistic to gain in the fight.
Luffy himself has a bit of a blunt honesty to his approach to conversation – when he speaks with Coby, he offers his personal opinion of him without any filters, making him out to be rather brutal in his candor. However, he eventually shows his accessible and cooperative side, when he decides to help Coby escape Alvida and confront his former master’s crew; he may be honest and forthcoming in his opinion, but he stills treats others cordially, and with respect. That ability to sympathize with others, and assist them in their personal goals, makes him such a great protagonist – Alvida works as an introductory antagonist because she represents all that is destructive in the world, namely people who enter a particular business for their own amusement and selfish reasons, rather than an underlying desire to not only prove one’s worth, but to help others establish themselves in the world. Luffy doesn’t stop to extort Coby or abuse him physically; he recognizes Coby’s own ambitions, and sets him on his way with a boat.
Speaking of Coby, he finally gains his confidence after he speaks with Luffy – seeing a man with a unilateral ambition to become the best he can be inspires the boy to do the same, and rebel against Alvida (even if that means risking his own life). He manages to stand up to her in the final minutes, calling her an ugly hag and dispensing with the honorific; by doing so, he displays his own sincere hopes of making it on his own, without an aggressive pirate threatening him every step of the way. Luffy, of course, helps tremendously in this regard – he defends himself against the other pirates, but more importantly, he gives Coby a reason to fight for his own goals. Alvida may be imposing, but she can be defeated; Coby needed inspiration to carry out his resolve. His aspiration – to join the Navy and become a great recruit – is at odds with Luffy (whose stated goal is to become Pirate King), but Luffy sees it as a prime opportunity for Coby to get his life back on track; he can’t fault a boy for wanting to achieve his goals, and he goes out of his way to both free him from the confines of Alvida and set him on his path to Navy training.
One a brief note, the brief mention of Zoro provides some more backstory to the world, and a look into the future; bounty hunters become another force in the One Piece universe, and being distinct from both pirates and the Navy, they can nominally work for both. The Zoro mentioned by Alvida (and elaborated upon by Coby) is described as a viscious, demon-like man who boasts enormous power – someone not to be trifled with, as he developed a reputation among the world as a figure with oni-esque physical power. This helps establish a sense of lore and mythology in the show; by directly describing someone in mythological/religious terms, we see how people propagate the image of a man with frightening physical prowess, cementing him as someone larger than life and seemingly capable of killing in a single blow. We get to see Zoro later on, but his reputation precedes him; he’s initially presented as the type of man who’s comparable to a legendary creature in his strength and sheer presence. Pirates live and die by their reputations, after all, and being seen as a force of nature (or the living embodiment of an oni’s rage and power, to give an example) is precisely the sort of thing they would enjoy, even if it’s unfounded. Alvida’s introduction isn’t through this sort of hushed whispers, but through her actions – she betrays her insecurities by treating those around her malevolently, and it takes Luffy to help show Coby the dangers of unrestrained arrogance.