Our smile is among the most powerful social tools we have, shaping how we see and perceive the world. Smiles enable us to influence ourselves and those around us by – helping create a positive mental attitude, communicating our feelings and moods, and is indicative of a healthy body alongside good oral health.
As ancient and modern poetry have portrayed over centuries, smiles are rays of sunshine that beam through war, traumatic loss, and dark and uncertain times – even if everything crumbles around us, our smiles convey the small, but distinct promise of strength and hope for brighter days in the future.
One of the most renowned and infectious smiles offering hope, strength, and joy to the world he lives in and to real world fans across the globe, belongs to an unassuming protagonist, Luffy, in a story you may not have heard of – One Piece.
WHAT IS ONE PIECE?
If you know the answer to that question, then you would have unraveled the 25-year epic mystery of the titular series of the same name…
One Piece is a Japanese manga series (i.e. comic or graphic novel) created, written, and illustrated by Eiichiro Oda. The manga was serialized by Weekly Shōnen Jump in July 1997 and is currently still running as one of the publication’s top titles. In the last decade, One Piece has become more popular than ever as the major animated, One Piece: Film RED, is being released in U.S. theaters which for the first-time enjoyed a promotional take-over of Times Square in Manhattan, a soon-to-be-released 2023 live-action One Piece Netflix series currently in production, and even recently broke the Guinness World Record for selling more than half a billion copies worldwide, being only one of two literary works to achieve the feat – the other being the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
For the last 25 years, the manga’s unique mix of action, adventure, comedy, and mystery, has captivated fans the world over, spurring countless fan theories of the storyline and its looming ending, and dubbing Eiichiro Oda affectionately as “GOda” aka the “God of Peak Fiction.” The common maritime backdrop and goofy character designs of One Piece belie its deep lore, masterful storytelling and worldbuilding, and deft utilization of dark themes like slavery, racism, and childhood trauma that propel the story and characters through a complex and unpredictable tale of epic proportions.
One Piece tells the story of Monkey D. Luffy, a spirited young boy who is determined to become the Pirate King in a grand world ravaged and ruled by cut-throat pirates, the seemingly corrupt World Government, and the military might of the Marines who uphold the World Government’s “justice.” To become the Pirate King, Luffy has to sail the seas overcoming powerful adversaries and reaching the final island that contains the ultimate treasure, One Piece, left by the previous Pirate King, Gol D. Roger.
POWER THAT’S A BIT OF A STRETCH
One of the unique thematic aspects of One Piece is its focus around “Devil Fruits,” which although believed to be cursed, grants the person eating it fantastic powers while robbing them for life of their ability to swim. Powers gained from Devil Fruits can take on the characteristics of an element or force of nature, like fire, lightning, or smoke, while other devil fruits may bestow the abilities of an animal, mythical beast, or legendary figure or deity, like Buddha, upon its user.
In Luffy’s case, he accidently ate the “Gum Gum Fruit,” instantly giving him powers to stretch his body at will, making him a “rubber-man.” Oda is considered a master storyteller and his choice to give Luffy the most laughable and seemingly ridiculous devil fruit power, as his main protagonist, was no accident. The implication being that even with a joke of a fruit and its powers, Luffy, a skinny boy who wears a signature straw hat, can and does overcome any obstacle through the strength of his will and creativity.
Throughout the series, it is Luffy’s innocent (and sometimes idiotic), happy-go-lucky nature and beaming smile that draws countless people to him; even once strident enemies eventually find themselves on friendly terms or in a pirate alliance with the protagonist. It was once stated in the series that Luffy’s ability to draw allies to his side wherever he goes was the most dangerous ability in the world. You’d think the aspiring Pirate King embodies greed and raw villainy, but instead, Luffy is more of an anti-hero of the high seas, acting with unexpected righteousness by saving sympathetic characters, upending oppressive regimes and oligarchies, and becoming the living symbol of freedom to many kingdoms, countries, and races, on his quest for the One Piece. His unmistakable smile assures his friends and allies that his heart and will to overcome adversity are boundless.
THE SUN GOD, “NIKA”
For all One Piece fans and the uninitiated alike – MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD – you have been warned.
As Luffy gains strength and experience, he is forced to get more and more creative with his rubber abilities in order to outmatch his opponents, calling his successive powerups “Gears,” like he’s upshifting the performance of his body. His first self-actualized power up, came in the form of “Gear Second” which uses his rubber-like properties to pump his legs like cylinders of an engine, propelling his blood more quickly throughout his body, giving him blinding speed. “Gear Third,” allows him to blow air into his elastic bones, creating giant sized limbs for maximum impact, and “Gear Fourth” enlarges his muscles to gain immense strength and tenacity.
But the coup de grâce and his final form, “Gear Fifth,” recently published in March 2022’s milestone Chapter 1044 of the series, afforded Luffy the ultimate power up and fully awakened his true devil fruit abilities. His final form basically made him into a living cartoon, giving him complete and total freedom to fight any way he chooses – only limited by his imagination. With his awakening, he can manipulate his environment like he does his rubber body, amidst feeling pure enjoyment, laughing, and smiling through even the grittiest battles.
With the introduction of Gear Five, the story discloses one of the many 25-year secrets of the series that Luffy’s devil fruit was never actually the Gum-Gum Fruit…in fact, the fruit he ate was the “Human-Human Fruit: Model NIKA.” Essentially Luffy had eaten the fruit of the legendary Sun God, a mythical deity whose name “Nika” is the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound effect made when a character smiles or grins – quite literally, he embodies the Sun God, SMILE!
THE POWER OF A SMILE
Luffy’s transformation into the Sun God Nika fulfilled a prophecy that he is the one destined to bring the dawn to the New World, a renaissance of peace and freedom for all lands and peoples.
In the real world, people don’t have fanciful powers of a rubber man or a Sun God, but we do have the underlying power used by Luffy throughout the series – our smiles.
Our smile’s ability to instill hope, love, compassion, and reassurance to each other during challenging times is nothing short of miraculous. Never underestimate the power your smile has to impact your world and those around you…you might just influence the world, one smile at a time, to come together in ONE PIECE.