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The Swordsman as the Artist: Aesthetics of Fragmentation in Eiichirō Oda’s One Piece and 21st Century Cultural Hybridity

By Willi Barthold

Every reader who opens a comic or manga will inevitably glimpse at “a space that has been divided up, compartmentalized, a collection of juxtaposed frames,” as Thierry Groensteen posits (19). Comic art’s fundamental principle is the representation of its objects in sequences of fragmented images that are “separated … and which are plastically and semantically over-determined by the fact of their coexistence in praesentia” (Groensteen 18). This simultaneity of “wholeness” or spatial representation, and “fragmentation” or sequential and segmented representation, manifests itself in the coexistence of images and texts that makes up a significant part of the medium’s artistic appeal. The reader can look at an entire page at once in a “synthetic global vision,” yet needs to conduct a “moment-to-moment reading” as well to decipher the full, potential meaning of the comic (Groensteen 19). This non-linear, non-restricted mode of reception and meaning production can be described in terms of Deleuze’s and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome (Deleuze et al. 1977)(Sousanis 58-67). Comic art, as a rhizomatic form of artistic expression, is capable of creating meaning and representation in a multidirectional fashion that avoids binary and genealogical structures, while also offering diversified perspectives on its objects due to its inherent medial hybridity.

Because of their extraordinary medial disposition that is inherently defined by fragmentation, comics or manga are particularly suitable for an artistic response to and reflection of the changes and challenges that a modern, highly digitalized and diversified world brings. Since at least the “postcolonial turn,” modern cultures are no longer conceived as sealed and homogenous national entities, but rather as hybrid and inherently fragmented constructs (Bhabha 1994). Therefore, if we attempt to conceive of the modern world as “an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity,” as Homi Bhabha suggests, a medium that corresponds to this reality needs to be able to reflect on and perform the same kind of hybridity—a state of inherent simultaneity of fragmentation and wholeness in the form of a dynamic collage of diverse elements (38).

In this article, I explore and conceive of manga as a medium that, at both the form and the content level, reflects on and makes use of the increased hybridization of cultures due to modernization, globalization, and the prevalence of new media (Napier 292). Anime and manga are inherently hybrid media phenomena that, as Ivo Ritzer states, “react to the economic development of trans-nationalization by following the globalized medial-cultural flows”[1] (Ritzer 147).[2] By analyzing Eiichirō Oda’s One Piece (1997-present) I will show how this manga is characterized by an aesthetic of fragmentation that corresponds to both the mediality of manga as well as the cultural hybridity from which the medium evolved and which it, in turn, utilizes for innovative artistic creation. Fragmented bodies, aestheticized acts of cutting, and the assembling of hybrid creatures are recurring motifs in One Piece that all point to aesthetic production. By displaying cutting, slicing, and fragmentation as means to inscribe and transform meaning, One Piece not only points to the fragmentation of the page that the aesthetics of manga are based upon, but also its inherent hybridity on the form and content level, manifested in the combination of image and text, that is the spatial and the sequential, as well as the recombination of tropes, motifs and cultural references from around the world. Oda’s manga demonstrates the aesthetic potential of an art form that makes use of multidimensional global cultural flows and, through its media-reflective discourse on cutting and fragmentation, defines meaning making as a dynamic process of constructing and deconstructing fragmented elements.

Fragmentation in Art: From Lessing to the Age of Film

Although the depiction of dismembered bodies and objects has long been a motif in Western art, fragmentation and segmentation became particularly crucial terms in art theory in the eighteenth century. In his book Laocoon: an Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, German intellectual Gotthold Ephraim Lessing initiates a debate about fragmentation by identifying the basic difference between literature and visual art in the types of signs that each of these art forms uses:

“if it is true that in its imitations painting uses completely different means or signs than does poetry, namely figures and colors in space rather than articulated sounds in time . . . , then signs existing in space can express only objects whose wholes or parts coexist, while signs that follow one another can express only objects whose wholes or parts are consecutive” (Lessing 78).

By calling poetry an art of time and painting an art of space, Lessing defines the limits of what each art is able to express (98).

“Objects or parts of objects which exist in space are called bodies. Accordingly, bodies with their visible properties are the true subjects of painting. Objects or parts of objects which follow one another are called actions. Accordingly, actions are the true subjects of poetry” (Lessing 78).

The major consequence of this distinction becomes apparent when Lessing describes how each art form represents an (aesthetic) object in its specific way. Since bodies are the domain of the visual arts, only these art forms are capable of representing objects as a coherent whole. The principle of visual art, namely the arrangement of natural signs in space, allows a preservation of the integrity of the represented object in the artwork. On the contrary, since actions and not bodiesare the subjects of poetry, literary art cannot preserve the wholeness of its objects if it strives to visually represent them through description. An object will necessarily be fragmented in poetry, since sequential narratives cannot present simultaneity. For the poet, a series of individual moments is necessary to present the appearance of an object to the reader or listener (Lessing 80). Therefore, literature is characterized as an art form that is inherently associated with fragmentation—in Lessing’s terms, “the division of the whole into its parts” (88). Since the publication of Lessing’s Laocoon, the thematization of fragmentation has often been used as a media-reflective element in literature and other art forms.

The association of intradiegetical acts of fragmentation with the medial disposition of sequential art accompanied the increased prominence of the concept of the fragment since the beginning of the nineteenth century (Camion 16-18). Experiments with the form of the fragment throughout this period corresponded directly to the modernization processes that slowly transformed reality. Formal or intra-textual displays of fragments or fragmentation can be seen as symptoms of a changing perception of the world that seemed to become increasingly heterogeneous, scattered, and constantly in flux (Fritz 316-331). This was even more the case when new media technologies like film and photography were introduced. Film, with its segmentation of reality into a series of frames, and the montage technique that early filmmakers like D. W. Griffith invented, gave rise to a mode of perception and representation of reality that was inherently based on fragmentation, as Horst Fritz explains:

“A mode of perception emerges that captures the world with an unprecedented elasticity and agility and that makes reality accessible as a dynamic, multi-perspective field: an extremely movable facetted-eye that captures, if not conceives reality a priori as segmented. Griffith inaugurates this type of filmic vision that has since established itself as a collective mode of perception. . . .”[3] (Fritz 327).

Perception as well as artistic creation in the age of film was conceived as an act that follows the principle of montage: a constant process of construction and deconstruction in flux between fragmentation and wholeness (Roloff 244-247). This new medial aesthetic also corresponded to the now common perception of modern reality as fragmented and heterogeneous due to technological and socio-cultural transformations, with which artists tried to grapple throughout the early modern period (Fritz 316-331). For all these reasons, fragmentation became an even more prominent motif that was used for medial self-reflection on the nature of seeing, the medium film, as well as changing notions of reality. Acts of fragmentation and fragmented bodies in movies frequently function as media-reflective elements that display the fundamental principle of film on the level of the diegesis. Feminist research on film, for instance, has pointed out how the camera gaze dissects female bodies into fetishized fragments, a process that many movies reflect on and expose (Mulvey 402)(Baudrillard 254). Limbs that have been detached from the body can thus become salient motifs that indicate medial self-reflections on the representation of the female body and foremost the very act of mediation of the medium film (Prokić 177-181).

Therefore, it should be evident that the thematization of fragmentation or cutting in art extends beyond shock effects or an enjoyment of the grotesque, and instead, often bears an explicit media-reflective dimension, as well as a close correspondence to the cultural-historical context. Analyzing the motif of cutting and fragmentation in the manga One Piece means to investigate how the intradiegetic discourse corresponds to both the medial disposition of manga as well as the historical context in which the artwork was created. Manga has a profound and multifaceted affiliation with the form of the fragment, which results from its unique position between the “art of time” and “the art of space.” The medium combines the fragmented and sequential representation of reality with a simultaneous spatial layout of its verbal-visual components and therefore blends the two categories that Lessing established. Fragmentation in manga works through an act of inscription that creates fragments “without fragmenting” or, as will be shown below, “without cutting anything”, in other words a visual performance of wholeness and fragmentation at the same time. The One Piece series displays an intradiegetic discourse that reflects on both the formal uniqueness of manga described above and today’s global cultural landscape, thus epitomizing in both form and content the prominence of hybridity in twenty-first century popular culture.

Eiichirō Oda’s One Piece

Even though it has received relatively little scholarly attention thus far, the manga series One Piece by Eiichirō Oda is a prolific object of investigation not only due to its striking media-reflective aesthetic, but also because of its prevalent position in Japanese pop-culture. Oda began publishing the series in the popular weekly Shōnen Jump magazine in 1997. Since then, over ninety volumes containing roughly ten weekly installments each have been released, and the series has become a tremendous international success. Almost four hundred million volumes have been sold to this day, making One Piece the best-selling manga since the emergence of the medium by far (Solomon 2017). Furthermore, Oda’s work has been adapted into a popular anime as well as multiple videogames, and the series has benefitted from a flourishing demand for merchandise, trading cards, and other forms of multi-medial adaptions. Therefore, One Piece can be seen as an illustrative example of the “axiomatic hybridity” [4] and trans-mediality of anime and manga (Ritzer 133).

The story of One Piece takes place in a fictive world that has its own geography, time, cultures and species, among other features. The manga can roughly be described as a pirate-adventure: twenty-two years before the beginning of the main plot, the “King of the Pirates” Gol D. Roger ushered in the “great pirate age” when, just before his execution, he revealed the location of his treasure, including the mysterious “One Piece,” at the last island in the treacherous ocean called the “Grand Line.” The main story focuses on Monkey D. Luffy, a pirate who dreams of finding the One Piece and becoming the next king of the pirates. The reader follows Luffy as he becomes both a hero and a notorious pirate widely recognized within the world of the story because of his iconic straw hat, which also gives name to his crew, the “Straw Hat Pirates.” The Straw Hats confront diverse villains and hardships, while uncovering the secrets behind the “World Government,” its Navy, and the shrouded history of the world, not to mention the One Piece. The series is famous not only for its fight scenes, but also its complex story as well as creative character designs. As a classic shōnen-manga intended for young men, One Piece experiments with extraordinary character and body transformations, spectacular fighting styles, and supernatural powers. In this context, the so-called devil fruits constitute a crucial story element as they lend supernatural powers to the eater, often including a transformation of the body’s constituent material (Sasada 195-198). The combination of fight scenes, unusual characters, and superpowers inherently invokes the aesthetics of cutting and fragmentation that makes One Piece a multifaceted case study in art of the globalized age.

“To Not Cut Anything”: Cutting, Fragmentation, and Body Hybridization

Everyone who reads One Piece or watches the anime notices that sword fighting and swordsmanship are recurrent and prominent elements throughout the series. Notably, the manga’s first mini-arc entails Luffy’s recruitment of his first mate: the swordsman Roronoa Zoro, who grew up learning the art of sword fighting and pursues only one goal: to become the world’s best swordsman. Zoro’s presence in a fighting sequence usually indicates that spectacular acts of swordsmanship, cutting, and slicing will be performed. The design of the character references the common Japanese pop-cultural trope of the bushido: the disciplined, ambitious, and powerful samurai-warrior whose swordsmanship reaches supernatural dimensions (Drazen 104-117). Through Zoro and other swordsmen, the manga presents a differentiated discourse on swordsmanship that combines a theorization and aestheticization of sword-technique with social concerns, such as moral values and gender definitions, among others.

Besides being a trope in manga and anime, the depiction of sword fighting and the spectacular cutting of objects or people has another, media-reflective significance. From a culture-historical perspective, cutting tools like knifes or swords have, on a symbolic level, often been associated with instruments of artistic production. A prominent example from the Western cultural context is Lessing’s play Emilia Galotti, in which the dagger as a cutting device points to the pen as a tool for writing, as Grant McAllister has demonstrated (McAllister 2008). As he explains, blades do not only symbolize the power to violently destroy, but also to create meaning by leaving inscriptions on surfaces through carving and etching. The act of cutting can therefore metaphorically resemble drawing or writing and is often discussed in conjunction with questions of agency and (linguistic) authority in works of art. As McAllister points out, for instance, the German term reißen signifies “both tearing and marking” and therefore signals the semantic analogy that turns a blade into an “instrument that marks and signifies (creates presence) by creating gaps and gashes (absence)” (396).

The association of cutting weapons with artist tools, i.e. cutting with artistic creation, is also visible in artworks from beyond the Western hemisphere and found its way into manga mainly through the bushido character and the motif of aestheticized swordsmanship. The popular portrayal of the latter is strongly shaped by historical accounts of samurai ethics, in particular the binary of bun and bu, “meaning ‘civil’ or ‘letteredness’ (bun) and ‘military’ or ‘martiality’ (bu)” (Benesch 27). Constantly renegotiated and interpreted throughout Japanese history, the bun-bu dichotomy functioned as a guiding principle for the bushido that demands to maintain a balance between education in military skills and education in arts like writing, poetry, and painting.[5] The bushido was thus conceived as a warrior who constantly remains in control of his destructive energy by practicing art as a productive outlet that is an essential part of a complete education. Japanese popular culture took up this central motif from samurai writings and developed conventionalized sets of characteristics that commonly define “good swordsman” characters in anime and manga, including the conflation of cutting with mindfulness, virtue, and art creation. A significant example is the main character Himura Kenshin in Nobuhiro Watsuki’s series Rurouni Kenshin, who constantly grapples with balancing the destructiveness and virtue of swordsmanship. Given that Oda once worked as an assistant to Watsuki, it seems plausible that the character Zoro in One Piece is conceived as a manifestation of the same discourse.

The acts of cutting that One Piece displays allude to artistic production in the spirit of bun-bu, and function as a self-reflective momentum of the medium manga. A striking detail regarding the character Zoro reveals this conjunction of sword fighting and meaning inscription: the character’s name references the popular fictional figure “Zorro,” created by the American writer Johnston McCulley. As numerous adaptions of the Zorro-story in popular culture reiterate, one of Zorro’s identifying features is the mark that he leaves on his opponents by the means of his sword: the “Z” for Zorro (Meier 2007). This motif makes the literal connection between the sword and the pen, fighting and writing. By naming his central swordsman “Zoro,” Oda references the image of the “writing sword” and signals the media-reflective dimension of the sword aesthetic that he depicts to the attentive reader. A less central character, the samurai Kanjuro that appears in a later story arc, wields a sword that literally is a paintbrush that he can draw and create objects with. This “samurai-artist” alludes to the prominence of calligraphy as a manifestation of bun in the bun-bu binary (Levine 168). Combined with the largely samurai-themed Wano story arc, the character Kanjuro is perhaps the most explicit manifestation of the conflation of swordsmanship and art, cutting and creating that Oda’s work displays.

Zoro accentuates his status as a signifier of artistic production in the Baroque-Works story arc, where he learns a special technique. When confronted with a devil-fruit eater who has a body of steel, Zoro finds it at first impossible to cut his opponent. In order to win the fight, he remembers a lesson that his sensei taught him: the art of “not cutting anything.”[6] With this technique, that is portrayed as an act of cutting with a higher spiritual consciousness, Zoro wins the fight and is thenceforth able to cut steel. The art of “not cutting anything” associates cutting with inscription and therefore artistic production. “To not cut anything” means to only scratch or carve, i.e. inscribe without releasing destructive energy. The technique is therefore a highly aestheticized act of sword-usage that turns the blade into a pen. In a media-reflective manner, this sequence points to the specific creation process of manga art: a page is segmented and divided into different images, an action is represented as a sequence in multiple frames, but unlike the medium film that “cuts up a pertinent zone” of reality while excluding what is not seen, the manga does not literally “cut” reality into frames but “delimits an area offered to the inscription” (Groensteen 40). “To not cut anything” perfectly describes the medium’s foundational principle: a fragmented representation of objects that simultaneously build a coherent whole. “Nothing has been cut” because fragmentation works through inscription, enabling a simultaneity of fragmentation and wholeness, the spatial and the sequential.

Fig: 1 Swordsman Zoro learns the art of “not cutting anything.” ONE PIECE © 1997 by Eiichirō Oda/SHUEISHA Inc.

The media-reflective dimension of Zoro’s swordsmanship can be illustrated with the example of a double-page from One Piece volume 69. After an intense battle, Zoro defeats the antagonist Monet: a woman-animal hybrid that ate the Snow-Snow fruit and thenceforth can produce snow from her body, which also consists of snow. As the double-page shows, Zoro splits Monet’s snow-body directly in half. The sword as the aestheticized instrument of cutting is shown prominently in the foreground. Whereas the central image that spans from the entire right page to parts of the left page focuses entirely on Zoro and Monet’s halved body, the left page provides additional close-ups. On the top left of the left page, the reader sees a close-up of Monet’s halved face. The vertical cut reaches from the top edge of the page to the frame on the bottom of the image, creating a gap between the two halves of her body. The black space, i.e. the gap that the cut establishes, resembles an actual frame of the manga: the image itself is split into two. Intradiegetic cutting therefore corresponds to the frame as an element of the manga page so that the sequence blurs the boundaries between the world of the diegesis and the medium itself: Zoro’s sword becomes the pen of the mangaka. The medial self-reflection does not end there, but continues in the other images that show close-ups of the characters’ faces, highlighting the eyes. The juxtaposition of open eyes, Zoro’s closed and scarred eye, and the eyes that have been detached from one another alludes to the fragmentation of vision that is a prominent topic since the age of film and also references the surrealist motif of the sliced eye-ball. Overall, this double-page serves as a vivid example of the media-reflective aesthetic of fragmentation that comes to the forefront through the actions of Zoro and other swordsmen.

Fig 2: Zoro defeats Monet by cutting her snow-body in half. ONE PIECE © 1997 by Eiichirō Oda/SHUEISHA Inc.

Another character at the center of the discourse combining swordsmanship and art is Trafalgar Law. Law is a pirate that forms an alliance with Luffy and who benefits from the power of the Op-Op fruit that enables him to transform a designated area into his “operation room” and thenceforth segment, shift and recombine everything in this room. Known as the “surgeon of death,” he has the power to dissect bodies or objects in a controlled manner that aims at (often artistic) reassembling, and to keep these bodies or objects in a state of liminality between fragmentation and wholeness. His cutting, however, is not necessarily destructive, as dismembered body pieces do not bleed, but simply exist as self-contained units. Just like Zoro, Law “does not cut anything,” as humans that are dismembered by his sword live on and can be reassembled without lasting damage to their bodies. His power enables a multitude of body hybridizations, such as Monet, and provides for humorous sequences in which body parts go missing or get disordered. His sword that fragments everything in his “operation room” without ever being purely destructive is a device that corresponds to a paintbrush or drawing pen. In one scene, a character identifies the product of Law’s cutting and reassembling as an artwork and makes explicit the connection between fragmentation and art.[7] In a media-reflective manner, Law’s artistic and aestheticized slicing references the necessary fragmentation of objects in sequentialized art that Lessing identifies, but also reflects on this principal of fragmentation as it applies to manga. The fragmentation of objects goes hand in hand with their reassembling in space and the creation of new entities that, because of the endless potentiality of Law’s power, remain in a liminal state between being dismembered and being intact. Once again, the paintbrush-sword alludes to the spatial as well as sequential art of manga that displays fragmentation while being whole at the same time.

Fig 3: Trafalgar Law slicing objects and human bodies. ONE PIECE © 1997 by Eiichirō Oda/SHUEISHA Inc.

In one spectacular act of cutting, Law not only cuts through his opponent and the interior of a room, but also an entire mountain, splitting the geography temporarily into two. As can be seen, the cut spans the entire right page of the double-page and even goes across to the left page, only stopping at the frame that separates the large main panel of the double-page from the collage of panels on the left. The mountaintop is separated from the rest of the land without being destroyed so that the two parts can be recombined in the next volume. Since the fragmentation has no permanent effect, Law, in reference to Zoro, “does not cut anything,” but the separation is necessary for the visual impact on the readers. The large cut that spans from the edge of the page to the next frame resembles a manga frame and signals a media-reflective momentum. The two halves of the mountain could be seen as separate images, but since the frame that divides them is not an actual frame but an intradiegetically performed cut, they are still clearly one image. This scene plays with the simultaneity of fragmentation and wholeness that manga is based on by calling the relationship between the images and the frame that “segments them” into question. The same technique is visible in the double-page that precedes this crucial scene. On the left page, the first image focuses on the halved factory, once again displaying the cut in a way that resembles a manga frame and exactly parallels the real frame at the bottom. The next image then exclusively shows the sword as the aestheticized object of fragmentation and creation, juxtaposed between two frames that correspond to the cut that goes through the world of the diegesis. The interdependence of intradiegetic cutting and the formal disposition and mediality of manga in the aesthetics of One Piece could hardly be visualized more clearly.

Fig 4: Law splitting an entire island in half. ONE PIECE © 1997 by Eiichirō Oda/SHUEISHA Inc.
Fig 5: Law cuts through his opponent and the factory. The focus is on the sword and the large cut that resembles the frame between panels. ONE PIECE © 1997 by Eiichirō Oda/SHUEISHA Inc.

Law’s modification of the environment, and especially the human body, are not the only cases in which Oda’s manga presents hybridizations of bodies that are based on the principle of fragmentation and reassembling. A character who is defined by the latter principle is the pirate “Buggy the Clown,” one of the first villains that the Straw Hats encounter. As the eater of the Chop-Chop fruit, Buggy is able to segment his body into an infinite number of parts and to move as well as reassemble them at will. As with Law’s technique, Buggy’s body does not lose any blood when dismembered, turning fragmentation into an aestheticized act that represents hybridity and flexibility rather than destructiveness. His body is in a constant state of liminality between being fragmented and being whole. The simultaneity of completeness and incompletion that is his defining principle once again references the mediality of manga, but also calls into question the holistic nature that usually is assumed for the human body.

It is this idea of holism that One Piece problematizes with its numerous depictions of bodies that transcend human anatomy. These depictions can be seen as visual experiments with “posthumanism,” or beings in the liminal state between humanity and its others (Hayles 2000). As in many manga or anime, cyborgs (i.e. human-machine hybrids), play an important role in the series, as even one of the Straw Hat pirates modifies his body with technology (Brown 2010). Additionally, so-called “Zoan-type” devil fruits enable humans, animals, and even inanimate objects to transform into other creatures. For example, one of the Straw Hat pirates, Tony Chopper, is a reindeer who is able to transform into a human-reindeer hybrid because he ate the Human-Human fruit. Likewise, humans who eat Zoan-type fruits can turn into human-animal hybrids, yielding almost countless variations of hybrids within the series. Certain devil fruits can even enable the eater to transform others, as is the case with an antagonist in the Dressrosa story arc who transforms humans into toys. Yet another type of body transformation appears in the context of scientific experiments. The evil scientist Dr. Hogback, for instance, creates human-animal and even human-toy hybrids out of corpses that are brought back to life. Hogback’s creatures consist of different body parts that have been reassembled in a manner reminiscent of a Frankenstein aesthetic. As is often the case in the series, the fact that these beings were once fragmented is never concealed, but rather openly exhibited through the scars and stitching that stays visible.

Fig 6: Human-animal hybrid Absalom, whose body is assembled out of multiple body parts, indicated by visible stitching. ONE PIECE © 1997 by Eiichirō Oda/SHUEISHA Inc.

The examples that I have analyzed demonstrate the manga’s ongoing scrutiny of the idea of homogeneity and holism of the human body through an increased artistic hybridization of beings. This hybridization corresponds to the formal hybridity of manga, as well as hybridity on the content level: Oda’s experiments with the posthuman and the fragment indicate that One Piece actively engages with the increased hybridization and dynamic interrelation of cultures, social identities, and media content in the modern globalized world. The artwork overcomes an outdated notion of completeness and homogeneity by using the medium’s potential to creatively fragment and reassemble reality into new and unprecedented forms of artistic expression. Unlike Buggy’s or Law’s powers, which have no permanent effect on the body, the acts of cutting, fragmentation, and recombination that do permanently affect the body leave visible scars, stitching and other traces of fragmentation. Scars in particular play an important role and have a high visual prominence in the series, usually representing a lesson learned or other memorable events. The visibility of scars and stitching designates cutting as the inscription of meaning on the body and ensures the constant visual presence of the acts of fragmentation that created them. The manga openly displays and celebrates fragmentation as a means to create and transform meaning, marking it as the foundational principle of the art form. Medium, form, content, and medial-cultural context correspond in this case and turn acts of cutting, fragmentation, and transformation in One Piece into a highly self-aware reflection on the present times, its mode of perception, and the manga’s mediality. The roots of this aesthetic lie in the art of surrealism that grappled with medial and cultural change processes as well, as I discuss below.

Surrealism and the Fragmented Vision: From Buñuel to Oda

Drawing a connection between the art of surrealism and Japanese aesthetics is not an unprecedented idea. The dreamlike and consciously nonsensical aesthetic of surrealism seems to naturally be a source of inspiration for manga and Japanese animation as well as a useful object of comparison for analyses of manga’s visual language. In a prominent study, Steven T. Brown shows how the popular anime movie Ghost in the Shell is inspired by the dolls of the German surrealist Hans Bellmer, and also identifies significant connections between the aesthetics of the Japanese film Tetsuo and the surrealist movie Un chien andalou (Brown 13-64). Particularly insightful for the purpose of this research are the artistic experiments of surrealist art that reflect upon the changing notions of perception and medial representation in modernity. The aesthetic of fragmentation that One Piece displays is highly influenced by surrealism and its constant endeavor to find new ways of expression in a rapidly changing “mediascape” and socio-cultural reality (Harris 2).

Surrealist artists like Buñuel and Dalí were intrigued by fragmentation, as a specifically modern phenomenon and condition, as well as the motif of the fragmented body. One motivation for their interest in this concept was the attempt to explore the aesthetic potential of dreams and the subliminal imagery of the mind, as advances in the field of psychoanalysis revealed the fragmented nature of the human psyche and the self (White 104–107). The depiction of dismembered bodies or anatomically “unfinished” individuals was also motivated by the attempt to transcend the boundaries of contemporary art, shock the audience with unprecedented images, and artistically subvert prevalent models of body representation (Felten 248)(Lyford 68). Furthermore, fragmentation constituted an artistic principle and a salient motif in surrealism in order to react to and reflect on the changes of human perception due to the prevalence of new media, like photography and film. Surrealist art explored the new possibilities of fragmentation and dismemberment of vision that film introduced, and it also reflected on the principle of construction and deconstruction upon which vision, as well as artistic creation, is based (Roloff 242-247). Buñuel defined the foundational principle of film as découpage, or the “‘simultaneous separation and ordering of visual fragments’” (qtd. in Conley 202). The duality of segmenting and arranging that defines this concept “conflates succession and simultaneity”—”segmentation becomes both a division into parts and a composite sum of visual units” (Conley 203). Significantly, Buñuel uses the term “segmentation” in his theoretical works in a way that is almost synonymous to “writing,” defining the artistic process as an arranging of fragments (Conley 205).

As these statements show, the surrealists’ engagement with fragmentation and the motif of the fragmented body bears a media-reflective dimension that is similar to Oda’s reflection on manga and can be identified as a possible source of inspiration for the latter. One of the most prominent and insightful examples in this regard is Buñuel and Dalí’s movie Un chien andalou (1929). Often called “an inquiry into the nature of seeing,” this experimental film is one of the most radical artistic inquiries into vision and perception in the age of cinema (White 108). The famous opening sequence, in which the eye of a young woman is cut open with a razor blade, has been called an “intermedial meta-filmic reflection”[8] (Roloff 247). The literal cut through the eyeball symbolizes the discontinuous, associative and montage-like nature of both human and filmic vision and comments on the aesthetic and mode of perception that the film not only made observable, but also created (Roloff 247-249). Innumerable references to seeing, as well as fragmentation, range from depictions of a severed hand and sequences that represent or emulate eyeballs or pupils, to “the fragmentation of the body into fetishized parts” through close-ups and other cinematic means (Conley 209-211)(Brown 62). Un chien andalou was revolutionary in its embrace of a cinematic aesthetic that is based on discontinuity, associations, and montage, as well as its meta-reflection on the new mode of perception that film evoked.

The aesthetic of fragmentation that the surrealist film displayed and which has found its most vigorous symbol in the slit eyeball had a profound impact on Oda’s One Piece, as is evident in numerous visual references. In the second half of the series, Zoro has a scar on his left eye, which remains constantly closed. This scar parallels the one on the eye of the legendary pirate Rayleigh, who served as the right-hand man of the former pirate king, Gol D. Roger, and can be seen as a counterpart to Zoro, the soon-to-be-pirate-king Luffy’s right-hand man. Another character, the mysterious navy admiral Fujitora, who appears in a later story arc, appears to be blind and has vertical scars on his eyelids as well. Zoro, Rayleigh, and Fujitora are all identified as a swordsman. These characters that wield the sword as the aestheticized object of fragmentation and artistic production visually allude to the media-reflective montage-aesthetic of surrealism every time a panel of the manga shows their eyes. The image of the slit eyeball that represents the filmic and specifically modern mode of perception since the age of surrealism is adapted and appropriated by the manga: instead of showing the cutting of the eye itself, One Piece keeps the fragmentation of perception visually present by showing scarred eyes.

The motif of the scar represents (violent but not purely destructive) meaning inscription and artistic production, especially when we recall that the principle of manga is the fragmentation of the page by inscription. Whereas the act of slicing in the movie is, as every sequence, a transitory and quickly passing moment that is immediately followed by a new scene due to the principal of montage, the manga ensures the constant visibility of the cut by putting the scars on show. The medium’s combination of the spatial and the sequential makes the montage of images become traceable on the individual page, which increases the symbolic significance of the frame that is intradiegetically emulated by scars. By combining the motif of the swordsman with the sliced eye, One Piece transports the surrealist media-reflection into its own time and media-cultural context. Furthermore, facial and especially eye scars are a common motif in shōnen manga such as Naruto and Rurouni Kenshin, which indicates that Oda’s designs can also be seen as an intertextual reference to the works of his rival Kishimoto, or his former mentor Watsuki.[9] Since both of these series also revolve around traditional Japanese warrior ethics as well as the virtues of swordsmanship, Oda’s intertextual borrowing extends the described media-reflection beyond One Piece as an individual work and calls attention to these motifs as a common characteristic of popular manga in general.

Fig 7: Zoro’s face with one closed, scarred eye. ONE PIECE © 1997 by Eiichirō Oda/SHUEISHA Inc.
Fig 8: Blind admiral Fujitora with scars on his eyelids. ONE PIECE © 1997 by Eiichirō Oda/SHUEISHA Inc.

A reference to the eye-slicing sequence is also apparent in the visualization of the world in which One Piece takes place. Oda’s version of earth is a planet that has just one continent called the “Red Line”—a massive mountain range that spans the planet like a ring—whereas the rest of the world consists of water and islands. The Red Line intersects twice with the “Grand Line”—the most significant of the five oceans—that perpendicularly rings the planet as well. The Grand Line can only be accessed through “Rivers Mountain” on the Red Line, which contains four canals from each of the other oceans, and one canal to the Grand Line. On the exact opposite side of the planet from Rivers Mountain lies the “Holy Land” of Mariejois, the capital of the World Government. The visualized world of One Piece resembles an eyeball, with Rivers Mountain as the nerve endings, and Mariejois, the seat of the ever-watchful World Government, as the pupil. The mountain range-like Red Line then resembles the scar on the eye: the key-symbol of fragmented vision.

Fig 9: The world of One Piece, resembling the scarred eyeball. ONE PIECE © 1997 by Eiichirō Oda/SHUEISHA Inc.

Another prominent motif of the surrealists’ artistic engagement with fragmentation that One Piece references is the giraffe. Because of its heterogeneous spots, surrealist artists chose this animal as one of the central symbols of their media-reflective aesthetic. In 1932, Buñuel and Giacometti created a wooden giraffe sculpture with concealed compartments that resembled the spots of the animal (Roloff 249). Visitors could access the giraffe by means of a ladder and explore the diverse contents of these compartments (Roloff 249). Motivated by curiosity, the viewer could find objects in the spots that triggered different emotions ranging from laughter, to fear or disgust, and find oneself in a situation that mimicked the fragmented perception in the age of film (Roloff 249). This project has been described as a “multi-medial and intermedial performance . . . that acts out and reflects on filmic and photographic vision as well as the fragmentation of the gaze”[10] (Roloff 249). Buñuel explains this performance and reflection on the nature of vision in an essay that was later published in a volume that contains a collection of his major theoretical writings in German, titled Die Flecken der Giraffe (The Spots of the Giraffe)(Buñuel 9-13). The motif of the giraffe had an enormous significance for surrealism beyond Buñuel, for instance, in Dalí’s giraffe paintings, which also display different compartments that evoke the desire for the fragmented gaze (Roloff 251).

One Piece adapts this motif of surrealism and incorporates it into its own media-reflective aesthetic. In the story arc around the Court Island of the World Government, called “Enies Lobby,” one of the enemies of the Straw Hat pirates eats a devil fruit that allows him to transform into a giraffe. As with the other characters that create a connection between Oda’s work and surrealism, Kaku, the giraffe-human hybrid, is a swordsman. This character does not only serve as an example of the manga’s display of hybrid transformations of the body, but feeds into the aesthetic of cutting that symbolizes the medium’s very mode of meaning creation. Even though the character’s design might seem to be mainly motivated by its absurdity, Kaku contributes significantly to the bushido discourse that One Piece develops, since his swordsmanship is portrayed as rather erratic and stands in contrast to Zoro’s virtues and controlled cutting. Just like the fishman-swordsman character Hyouzou in a later story arc, the giraffe-human and his uncontrolled sword usage thus reinforces the manga’s media-reflective distinction between purely destructive and artistically productive fragmentation that is based on the bun-bu dichotomy. Beyond that, one of the most striking scenes involving Kaku is the act of cutting that he conducts inside the so-called “Tower of Law”—the World Government’s supreme court and symbol of its power. Due to Kaku’s uncontrolled strength, the attack that was directed toward the Straw Hats slices the tower in half. Thenceforth, whenever the split tower is shown, it not only symbolizes a serious fracture of the World Government’s monopoly of power, but keeps fragmentation as the defining principle of the medium visible. One Piece adapts the image of the giraffe as a surrealist motif of fragmented perception and creates a visualization of the aesthetic power of cutting: a giraffe-human shattering the symbol of the existing world order.

Fig 10: Giraffe-swordsman Kaku transforming. ONE PIECE © 1997 by Eiichirō Oda/SHUEISHA Inc.
Fig. 11: The Tower of Law cut in half by the giraffe-human. ONE PIECE © 1997 by Eiichirō Oda/SHUEISHA Inc.

The manga’s references to surrealism are so numerous that they could never be described in their entirety within this essay. One Piece, while reflecting on the possibilities and aesthetics of its medium in its own historical and cultural context, draws on surrealist artworks that engaged with similar media-cultural transformation processes in their respective time. The art of Buñuel, Dalí, and other artists of the surrealist period served as a significant inspiration for Oda’s verbal-visual epos precisely because those artists experienced what is the reality of the time in which One Piece was and is still being created: a world that is inherently characterized by perceptual, medial, and cultural fragmentation. Oda’s manga, in turn, reflects on and utilizes this modern condition for its artistic creation.

Trans-Culturalism: One Piece as a Hybrid, Global Artwork

Ivo Ritzer conceives of anime as an axiomatically trans-medial, trans-generic, and trans-cultural phenomenon, a statement that is applicable to manga as well (Ritzer 148). With its inherent hybridity that enables acts of border crossing across different cultures, media, and forms of artistic expression, manga is a medium of the present times that corresponds to the changing conditions of the globalized age. At least with the emergence of the discourse on postmodernism, the way in which scholars conceptualized the global cultural landscape experienced a significant shift, as the grand “meta-narratives” which previously attempted to ensure an organization of knowledge and meaning were discursively replaced by a multitude of diverse discourses (Lyotard 112). Unambiguousness and wholeness of meaning constructions were no longer given, which led to an increased significance of the concept of the fragment and the collage as more appropriate models of reality that reflect the ambiguity, dynamism, and hybridity of the modern world. Building on Ōtsuka Eiji’s work on narrative consumption, Japanese cultural critic Hiroki Azuma characterized the social structure of postmodernity as being defined by “the omnipresence of simulacra and the dysfunctionality of grand narrative” (Azuma 29). In this world of disorientation, popular culture like manga provide alternative forms of meaning and social cohesion, in particular but not exclusively for enthusiastic fans commonly referred to as otaku (Azuma 28). According to Azuma’s model of a database culture, these fictional stories provide meaning and orientation not as a simple replacement for the grand narratives lost in postmodernity, but enable selective acts of “reading up” fragmented narrative snippets from a larger pop cultural “database” (Azuma 31–34). Following this model, the embrace of fragmentary and trans-cultural aesthetics appears as an inherent characteristic of manga that corresponds to its cultural function in the postmodern world.

The postcolonial turn introduced the concept of hybridity, that, in its decidedly anti-essentialist shaping, attempts to capture the “doubleness and in-betweenness of national/cultural identity formation” by conceiving of cultures as dynamic constructs that cannot be clearly defined in definite terms, but are involved in ongoing processes of exchange and negotiation (Iwabuchi 51)(Bhabha 38)(Bachmann-Medick 141-146). Cultural identities are created and constantly reshaped in a transnational arena: “the notion of transnationalism draws attention to the ways in which the intensifying scale and speed of the transnational flows of people, capital, and media has disregarded, though not entirely, the efficacy of clearly demarcated national boundaries and identities” (Iwabuchi 52). Negotiation and hybridization takes place in the “third space” between seemingly distinct cultural self- and identity constructions, which can be defined as a creative in-between space in which “cultural interconnection, transgression, appropriation, reworking and cross-fertilization” come into play (Bachmann-Medick 146-148)(Bhabha 4) (Iwabuchi 51).

Manga and anime have often been described as media that directly correspond to this new condition of the world in which cultural identities, meanings, and motifs lose their “wholeness” and exclusiveness for a particular culture, and circulate as fragments in the global media market. Susan Napier calls anime (and thus implicitly manga alike) the “ideal aesthetic product for the contemporary period, at the forefront of creating an alternative cultural discourse that goes beyond the traditional categories of ‘native’ or ‘international’ to participate in what may well be a genuinely new form of global culture” (Napier 292). On the form level, manga functions through the arrangement and composition of various visual and verbal “fragments,” creating a coherent artwork while embracing its fragmented nature at the same time. This formal disposition corresponds to the intradiegetic hybridity that the medium displays by combining elements borrowed from diverse cultural contexts in order to generate a new and decidedly hybrid artistic creation. The general design principle of manga has been called “bricolage”[11], an eclectic assembling of different genre features and cultural references that, instead of just blending them, consciously emphasizes the incoherence of the elements and therefore the artwork’s collage-like nature: a re-contextualization of established cultural meanings (Ritzer 144). Since “people, machinery, money, images, and ideas now follow increasingly non-isomorphic paths,” manga can become a globalized “melting pot” of ideas and motifs (Appadurai 301). Transcultural flows of images do not follow the center-periphery paradigm anymore but become non-linear, multidirectional, and rhizomatic processes (Iwabuchi 36). The formal disposition of manga corresponds to this development, since it offers associative, non-restricted, and rhizomatic forms of reading and meaning making as well.

One Piece is a vivid example of how this hybridity of manga manifests itself. The unique character of Oda’s artwork results from the medium’s involvement in ongoing transculturation, defined as a “process of globalization, in which the asymmetrical encounter of various cultures results in the transformation of an existing cultural artifact and the creation of a new style” (Iwabuchi 40). This new style practically erases any clear distinction between genuine Japanese and “foreign” elements in order to highlight the inherent hybridity of the medium (Napier 22-27). Similar to the Afro Samurai franchise that Ritzer discusses, One Piece takes place in a cosmos that is hard to locate in both space and time (144-145). The story—at least until the explicitly Japan-themed Wano story arc—neither occurs in a clearly definable period of Japanese history, nor does its geography show any obvious similarities to Japan or other places in the world. The pirate-theme that characterizes Oda’s work supports this ambiguity, since piracy occurred in all times and all cultures that had access to the sea, therefore being an inherently global phenomenon that cannot belong to a single cultural identity. Instead of referencing a coherent historical or mythological background, One Piece “merely operates with well-known, generic set pieces and thus plays with the medial-cultural knowledge level of the audience”[12] (Ritzer 145).

Those “set pieces” or fragments are diverse, ranging from pirate motifs from Japanese or Western mythology to American popular culture. The design of the Straw Hat crew, for instance, reflects such cross-cultural references. The above-mentioned Roronoa Zoro alludes to the character “Zorro”; the ship-doctor, Tony Chopper, toys with the imagery of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”; the notorious liar, Usopp, with his long nose is an allusion to Pinoccio; the shipwright Franky is a cyborg and references several common motifs of human-machine hybrids from Japanese as well as Western culture, and the musician and living skeleton Brook is a character whose design plays with Halloween imagery as well as the cultural symbol of the afro-hairstyle.[13] The design of the main character, Monkey D. Luffy, is an example of mokokuseki, often defined as “the erasure of visible ethnic and cultural characteristics” (Iwabuchi 71). Commonly used in anime and manga, this style choice improves the overall potential of hybridization by creating characters that cannot clearly be racially or nationally identified (Bainbridge and Norris 246-248)(Napier 22-27). Keeping the “Japaneseness” of the world and the characters in the background is used as a tool to avoid binary cultural distinctions between Japanese and non-Japanese, so that the “bricolage” principle of manga that does not know any static ascriptions of cultural belonging can unfold its full potential.[14]

Fig 12: Some members of the Straw Hat crew (left to right: Nami, Zoro, Luffy, Usopp, Sanji, Chopper). ONE PIECE © 1997 by Eiichirō Oda/SHUEISHA Inc.

The majority of the characters and settings in the series are designed according to the “patchwork” principle: different and heterogeneous cultural motifs and images are recombined and merged into a new whole. To name a few, a sky-island area combines motifs from Japanese mythology with Native American imagery; the giant ship-island “Thriller Bark” blends the werewolves and zombies of Michael Jackson’s Thriller with other Halloween kitsch ranging from Frankenstein to gothic Lolita fashion; an underwater island which is governed by a king named after the Roman god Neptune, and terrorized by a villain based on the “Flying Dutchman”; an underwater prison that resembles the depiction of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy; an Amazon-Warrior island that is governed by a trio of Medusa-like sovereigns; a pirate called Capone Gang Bege as an allusion to Al Capone and the movie The Godfather; giants inspired by the Vikings from the cartoon Vicky the Viking, and many more.

The hybrid disposition of manga, as a medium that is at the center of transculturation processes in the globalized world, makes such a dynamic collage of imagery from disparate cultures possible (Napier 22-27). When different motifs are integrated, their cultural origins become virtually insignificant, since “transnationally circulated images and commodities . . . tend to become culturally odorless in the sense that origins are subsumed by the local transculturation process” (Iwabuchi 46). Manga itself offers what could be called a “third space” in the terms of Bhabha, understood as a media-cultural arena for the exchange, intertwining, amalgamation, re-appropriation, and hybridizing of images and tropes that are no longer exclusive to one culture, but become globally recognizable motifs, “traveling images” that can be used for new forms of expression. Just like Ritzer argued for the medium anime, manga can therefore be seen as an “aesthetic junction in a global network of economic and cultural exchange”[15], as well as a symptom of “the infinite circulation of capital, information, and images”[16] in the globalized world (147).

As we have seen, the discourse on fragmentation in One Piece unfolds on three interconnected levels: on the level of the diegesis, aestheticized acts of cutting, and collage-like body transformations are displayed. In turn, these motifs correspond to the second level: the mediality of manga and its principle of arranging fragmented images in space through a segmentation of the page. On the third level, the significance of the aesthetic of fragmentation goes beyond a medial self-reflection and points to the transformed global cultural flows in the present that enable a multidirectional amalgamation of different motifs and influences in one artwork. One Piece makes use of the unique disposition of its medium and demonstrates how the increased fragmentation of cultural identities and the loss of “wholeness” of cultural entities can lead to innovative aesthetic outcomes. The aesthetic of fragmentation on the plot-level exhibits the artwork’s creative potential, as well as its modernity by interweaving cutting and dismembering with hybridization and artistic creation.


One Piece openly displays an awareness of both the specific mediality and aesthetic potential of manga as its medium, as well as its position at the center of 21st century global popular culture and the socio-cultural context that gave rise to it. The series references a discourse on fragmentation that lies at the center of modernity’s struggle to come to terms with the gradual transformation of social reality and human perception, ranging from Lessing’s early reflections on medial representation of reality to the surrealists’ engagement with the fragmented nature of vision and the montage aesthetic brought about by the age of film. Oda creates an association between the mangaka’s pen and the sword that performs acts of cutting that are not purely destructive but rather creative and aesthetically productive. This interweaving of form and content turns the manga’s images of cutting, fragmentation, and body hybridization into media-reflective comments on the nature of the medium: wholeness and fragmentation coexist in an aestheticized manner that emphasizes the artistic value of hybridity. It is this anti-essentialist focus on the hybrid, collage-like, and dynamic character of artistic production that makes One Piece an artwork of the globalized age: trans-culturally circulating influences, images, and motifs are joined together to become a hybrid new creation that is in a constant state of transformation, making any binary distinctions or essentialist definitions of cultures impossible. The title of the work indicates this disposition: just as Trafalgar Law transforms fragmented bodies into new entities and the mangaka transforms disparate and sequential images into a spatial unit, Oda’s magnum opus transforms a multitude of different cultural themes, images, and motifs into One Piece.


[1]“reagiert auf die ökonomischen Entwicklungen der Transnationalisierung, indem es den globalisierten medienkulturellen Flüssen folgt.”

[2]In this research, I will sometimes apply statements that have been made in research on anime to manga as well. Since many anime are based on manga and, especially in these cases, both media generally present similar content, I consider it legitimate in the context of this research to extend the applicability of certain conclusions to both art forms, in particular when they merely refer to content aspects and not the specific formal language of each medium.

[3]“Es entsteht ein Wahrnehmungsdispositiv, welches die Welt mit einer zuvor unbekannten Elastizität und Agilität erfaßt, das sich die Wirklichkeit als dynamisches, multiperspektivisches Feld erschließt, gleichsam ein extrem bewegtes Facettenauge, das Realität a priori als segmentierte erfaßt, wenn nicht gar konzipiert. Griffith inauguriert jenes filmische Sehen, das mittlerweile sich als eine kollektive Weise des Wahrnehmens durchgesetzt hat . . .”.

[4] “axiomatische[n] Hybridität.”

[5] For further information on bu-bun, see Benesch 2014, Wilson 1982, Levine 2006.

[6] One Piece vol. 21, p. 181. This paper cites the English-language editions of the One Piece manga, published by VIZ Media, LLC.

[7] One Piece vol. 67, p. 112. In this scene, Law’s cutting results in the creation of a “sculpture.”

[8] “intermediale metafilmische Reflexion.”

[9] For the concept of “intertextuality” see Böhn 2013.

[10] “multimediale und intermediale Performance . . ., in der filmisches und photographisches Sehen und damit auch die Fragmentierung des Blicks inszeniert und reflektiert werden.”

[11] Ritzer refers to this term as it was coined by Lévy-Strauss in his book The Savage Mind in 1966.

[12] “operiert lediglich mit bekannten generischen Versatzstücken und spielt so mit dem medienkulturellen Wissenshorizont des Publikums.”

[13] For a decoding of popular cultural references in the design of the Straw Hat pirates see also Skweres 239.

[14] The implicit negotiation of Japanese identity through its absence can also be seen as a manifestation of Japan’s identity crisis after World War II. As artists like Takashi Murakami demonstrate, the country’s traumatic past shapes all aspects of Japanese popular culture, resulting in ambivalent attitudes towards genuinely Japanese imagery and an embrace of the motif of the fragment that reflects the impossibility of coherent self-description, as I argue in this article (Murakami 2005).

[15] “ästhetischer Knotenpunkt in einem globalen Netzwerk ökonomischen wie kulturellen Austauschs.”

[16] “infinite Zirkulation von Kapital, Information und Bildern.”

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