Story Shots: Monkey D. Luffy, ronin at large

Welcome to another Story Shot, this time looking at Monkey D. Luffy, protagonist of the world’s longest running anime/manga, One Piece.

Now, first for you OP fans: yes, Zoro is the real ronin. I know. Today, however, we’re going to focus on Luffy and how he, both as himself and as a proxy for the crew at large, fits the ronin story function. As ever, minor spoilers ahead, though as a note, I’m only up to about episode 150, or just before Sky Island.

First, context: One Piece is a shounen anime that follows the adventures of pirate captain Monkey D. Luffy and his motley crew as they travel in service of Luffy’s quest to find the ultimate “One Piece” treasure and become King of the Pirates. Ronin, by contrast, were masterless samurai (ronin means wanderer) from Japan’s feudal period.

A picture of the Straw Hat pirates from early in the show. A boy in a straw hat (Luffy) takes a giant bite of meat. Sanji the cook is making a kicking pose. Usopp is drawing back a slingshot. Nami sits on the edge with a staff, and Zoro crouches with swords drawn.
Clockwise from the top: Usopp, Sanji, Luffy, Zoro, Nami.

Now, if you start watching the show, it’ll quickly become clear that Zoro is the ronin. I know. But the argument I’m going to make today is how Luffy (and the team he leads) fills the ronin story function, even if he himself doesn’t wander around slicing people in half with swords.

For that, we need to jump back a bit to a movie called Yojimbo. Yojimbo follows the story of a ronin who enters a town being torn apart by rival gangs. The story revolves around the ronin pitting the gangs against each other to ultimately bring them both down. If this sounds familiar and you’ve seen A Fist Full of Dollars, it’s because the famous Spaghetti Western is essentially a remake of the classic samurai film.

In both, you see the role ronin-type characters play. Ronin are wanderers, untethered at large to locations, relationships, and causes. In Luffy’s case, which is arguably a bit of an outlier, he does have a specific goal for himself, but a lot of these characters simply wander around, looking for something to attach themselves to. This is certainly the case for Zoro, who latches on to Luffy, and for Mugen and Jin from the anime Samurai Champloo, who, however reluctantly, attach themselves to the goal of Fu, a young woman searching for a samurai who smells of sunflowers. Given their rather transient nature, they often tend to be stand-ins for values or principles, such as courage, wit, protecting those who can’t protect themselves, or honor, without having a tremendous amount of depth, backstory, or growth for themselves.

How it works

Full disclosure, this idea was first seeded in my brain by a video on the Appeal of One Piece by Super Eyepatch Wolf. Within it, he remarks on the single throughline of adventure produced by Luffy’s unwavering goal and how that allows for great flexibility in the types, lengths, and scales of plotlines for Luffy and his crew.

Looking at it from a different angle, however, one can study the role they fill once they get there.

For most stories featuring ronin-type characters, the plot advances as follows:

  • A local area or character has a problem.
  • The ronin arrives and for reasons of personal code, money, etc., gets involved.
  • Using impressive skills, wit, or otherwise, the ronin resolves the problem.
  • Problem solved, the ronin leaves, wandering off to help the next village in need.

If you’ve ever seen a Western with a mysterious white-hatted stranger rolling into town, I’m sure this looks familiar. Let’s look at how this works specifically for Luffy and his crew.

For them, each island (boat, land mass, etc.) serves as a village. Arcs begin with the crew discovering some kind of evil or abuse and taking it upon themselves to fix it. Using their amazing powers, they stop the villains, often in no small part by inspiring those around them to help themselves. Problem solved (and magic magnetic compass charged up), they sail on to their next adventure. To give just a couple of examples, when the crew first meets Buggy the Clown-themed pirate (yes, I know that sounds dumb, but he can also be super fun. Don’t judge me.), he’s ruling over a hapless port town, blowing up buildings by the handful for fun. In the Alabasta arc, however, the team averts a needless rebellion that could kill millions.

Why it’s effective

Ronin characters can be a great addition to a story for a lot of reasons. For one thing, their thematic natures make them memorable, mysterious, and powerful, with great capacity (if done well) to drive home messages and morals (think self-sacrificing cowboy willing to go to the standoff at noon). Their roles as outsiders and drifters mean they can serve both as dispassionate observers, mirrors, or judges to the characters within the story’s main locale and the literal and symbolic tools the locals need to move forward. Their nomadic nature also makes them flexible, able to drift from location to location and story to story without getting bogged down in relationships, backstories, or major character developments of their own.

The difference between this usual trope and the Straw Hat Pirates is that rather than being simply tools within someone else’s story, they are the main characters, subject to the same growths, relationships, pains, victories, and defeats as normal people. Likewise, where they do carry certain themes with them as they sail along (predominantly fighting for and protecting dreams), they aren’t simple stand ins for those values. They have goals and motives that exist within themselves and drive the plot forward by pursuit of those ambitions. Depending on your story, both variations can be put to exceeding good use.

So, what do you think? Do you have a favorite ronin character? A favorite Straw Hat Pirate? Let me know in the comments below (spoiler warnings appreciated). Want more Story Shots or recommendations? Sign up for my newsletter or blog in the sidebar (turn off mobile only mode if you don’t see it). Thank you!

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