If you read shounen manga, you’ve probably heard of One Piece. If you read manga, period, you probably know about this series featuring a guy with a rubber body who wants to become the Pirate King. Between the merchandising, pop-up restaurants, and amusement park, it’s difficult to overlook.
Despite this, I resisted reading One Piece for years. I love shounen manga, but we have a contentious relationship. It introduces me to cool female characters, like Naruto‘s Tsunade, but so often they’re ultimately rendered ineffectual by the narrative. It gives me quietly competent female characters, like Samurai Deeper Kyo‘s Yuya, who then get overshadowed by an enormous cast of super-powered male characters. So when my friends pushed One Piece on me, I refused it, because I recognized the same patterns. Did I honestly want to commit to such a long series in spite of the inevitable issues?
Obviously, I succumbed. Eventually.
I did fall in love with One Piece. Fighting for your dreams in the face of impossible odds! Defending your friends no matter what! The series goes to dark places, like the slave auctions on Sabaody Archipelago, but its overall perspective is relentlessly optimistic. You’re strong. You’ll survive this. You’ll go on living your life. These themes pick me up when I feel down. And I can’t help but laugh at Luffy’s ridiculous antics, which show that you can still have fun on your quest to become the Pirate King.
Does One Piece suffer from the same casual, sometimes subtle, sexism that pervades shounen manga titles? Yes.
Here’s the thing, though. What bothers me the most about One Piece isn’t the disproportionately miniscule number of female characters. Nor is it the fact that its main female character—despite being smart and competent—is often portrayed as a coward who needs rescuing by her male crewmates.
It’s the dead mothers.
The dead mother isn’t a new trope nor is it unique to manga. From Lily Potter to Kya from Avatar: The Last Airbender, dead mothers populate the angsty backstory of many protagonists embarking on their hero’s journey. We can find dead mothers everywhere in fictional narratives. What sets One Piece apart is the number of dead mothers.
With seventy-six volumes and counting, you can argue the epic length of the series balances the body count. Wrong. Eiichiro Oda plots with care. In chapter one, we see a specific character face off—and scare away—a sea monster simply by glaring at it. At that point, it’s easy to chalk up the confrontation to the usual over-the-top manga conventions. It’s not until chapter four hundred and thirty-four that we learn this intimidating “glare” is a specific power that possessed by the movers and shakers of the One Piece world. If Oda can do that, why depend on the missing mom trope so much? It bewilders me. Because not just one mother dies. Not just two.
Five mothers die! Six, if you count the one dead for reasons that don’t warrant a flashback or explanation.
The dead mothers of One Piece fall into two categories: mothers who died because they transgressed social mores to do their jobs, and mothers who died because…they were mothers.
In the first category, we have two women: Nico Olvia, the mother of Luffy’s crewmate Nico Robin, and Otohime, the mother of Shirahoshi (a giant mermaid with the ability to communicate with sea monsters). In the second, we have three: Bellemere, the mother of Nami (Luffy’s navigator), Princess Scarlett, the mother of Rebecca (Luffy’s gladiator ally in the Dressrosa Arc), and Portgas D. Rouge, the mother Portgas D. Ace (the adopted brother whom Luffy idolizes).
Let’s begin with the mothers who died in the line of duty.
Olvia lived on the island of Ohara, known as a center of scholarship, where she worked as an archeologist. Her daughter, Robin, would later take up this occupation. Archeologists and scholars count among the most dangerous occupations in One Piece. Not because they’re following in the footsteps of Indiana Jones, but because the government wants them dead. Their ultimate goal involves chronicling the entire history of the world, which contains many secrets the government would prefer stay buried. Their solution to the problem posed by the archeologists and scholars? Blowing up Ohara. Go big or go home. While Robin survived the disaster, Olvia chose to stay with her colleagues in a futile attempt to preserve the scholar’s collected knowledge, dying in the fire that destroyed the island’s giant library.
From persecuted occupations, we go to persecuted people. Queen Otohime ruled the underwater Ryugu Kingdom with her husband, King Neptune. Otohime, Neptune, and their people are fishmen. The obvious physical differences between fishmen and humans gave rise to deep-seated hatred between the two races. The fact that humans kidnap fishmen and sell them as slaves doesn’t help matters any. Despite this history, Otohime believed peace was possible between the two races. She spent seven long years working toward this goal, a campaign cut abruptly short when she was assassinated by a fishman who later framed the act on a human pirate. Little chance of peace after that.
Now for the other mothers.
A former Marine, Bellemere retired on a small, peaceful island where she raised two orphan girls. That idyllic existence came to an end when pirates came to their village and demanded an exorbitant “tax” for each person living there. If you pay, you live. If you don’t, you die. Bellemere only had enough money to pay for her two daughters’ lives, leading her to be shot in the head.
A former crown princess, Scarlett repudiated her claim to the throne and faked her own death to be with the man she loved. Together, they lived in a cottage with their young daughter, Rebecca. Their happiness didn’t last for long. Tragedy struck the country, and her husband was transformed into a toy. To add insult to injury, Scarlett and Rebecca lost all memories of him. This later contributed to Scarlett’s decision to go into the now-hostile town for food, where she was shot and killed.
Finally, we end with Portgas D. Rouge, the birth mother of Luffy’s adopted brother, Ace. After her lover, Roger, was executed, the government tore the world apart, looking for his potential offspring. Pregnant with his child, Rouge knew this and in complete violation of human biology, kept the baby in the womb for twenty months through sheer willpower. (One Piece features a protagonist with an elastic body. Other characters have ridiculous abilities; I shouldn’t cast stones. I guess.) The effort had its consequences; Rouge died in childbirth, the ultimate cliché of dead mothers everywhere.
In isolation, the deaths seem acceptable. As a whole, they say something else. Each of these mothers’ deaths is shown in a flashback. Each one is portrayed in detail. We know where it happened, how it happened, and why it happened.
In contrast, we see other characters’ fathers doing fine. Despite sharing a traumatic history, Sanji’s mentor, Zeff, runs his restaurant, albeit with only one leg. Luffy’s father leads the Revolutionary Army and his grandfather continues to thrive, raising a ruckus in his old age. Even the daughters who lost their mothers still have fathers. Otohime’s husband, Neptune, still rules over Ryugu Kingdom. Scarlett’s husband does his best to protect their daughter, even though he does so in the form of a toy soldier.
In One Piece, history and secrets shape a character. Case in point: Luffy is the son of a revolutionary who wants to overthrow the World Government. That’s what marks him as a person of interest to them, not the fact that he wants to be the Pirate King. After all, you can’t throw a stone without hitting someone who aspires to the title. This isn’t what makes Luffy special.
And woven through the characters’ backgrounds are their relationships with other people, especially family—both in blood family sense and found family sense. That’s why the dead mothers stand out. They’re all portrayed as awesome in life, and their deaths affect and drive other characters in some way. Robin became an archaeologist and dedicated her life to uncovering the secret history that killed her mother. Bellemere’s death turned Nami onto stealing and trickery and contributed to her undying hatred of pirates. Scarlett’s murder caused serious manpain in her husband. Justified grief, certainly, but did she have to die in the first place?
I can only reach one conclusion: awesome mothers, thriving and living in the present, have no place in One Piece‘s narrative. We see no mothers soothing their childrens’ hurts or offering much-needed advice on life and romance. What we do get is a great deal of tough love, as we saw with Luffy’s grandfather attempting to dissuade Luffy and Ace from becoming pirates or Scarlett’s husband teaching their daughter how to fight. Nor are there stable homes where our characters can return when they need a haven. They’re pirates and in One Piece, they have no safe harbor.
After over seventy volumes, the mystery of Luffy’s mother persists. I want to think she’s the exception to what we’ve seen so far. That she lives and is awesome like her son.
But based on the fate of the other mothers, I’d bet on dead.