Owing a lot of its meaning to Aristotle’s Poetics, the term ‘comedy’ has always been seen not only as a sort of humorous discourse generally intended to amuse and make fun of situations, but also as a tool often used to make political, social, and religious statements. Traditionally, comedy has been written by a playwright and has then been acted on stage by a theatre group. Regardless of the period by which the term ‘comedy’ is defined, and regardless of the comedy style, whether it was Aristotle’s classic era or the modern 21st century, there has always been a playwright, there has always been a stage, and there has always been a public. However, with the development of new media technologies it has become a valid inquiry to question the nature of comedy. Is comedy still written by a playwright and then performed? Is comedy still a passive means of entertainment where the viewer engages passively with the narrative being told? Or has the new media being made available to consumers and the intricate levels of interactivity integrated into these mediums changed comedy from a linear narrative told on the stage to a style of narrative that can be distributed widely through mass media and is not, necessarily, performed on stage?
In her book Hamlet on Holodeck (1998), Janet Murray argues that virtual interactive narratives are in themselves a form of Aristotelian theatre, and that newer narratives of this nature, mainly online cyber narratives which are weaved by multiple participants and with the complete lack of a script, can be seen as improvisational theatre influenced by Comedia del’ Arte. This is only one example of how new media narratives can be considered comedy. Certainly, although the academic purist definition of comedy is extremely exclusive and encompasses only comic theatre, it may be time to open up to new possibilities that include new means of narrative as a dramatic and comical venue. It is time for a more inclusive definition of comedy, and, perhaps, of drama in its entirety. Critics such as Lisa Trahal (2002), Lawrence E. Mintz (1985), and Lauren Labnivotz (1991), among others, agree that television is a valid means of presenting narrative structures, including drama and comedy, to the audience. However, most of these critics argue in favor of the American Sitcom and Stand-up comedy as being the sole academically acceptable means of portraying modern comedy. Not many scholars outside the field of Popular Studies will agree that animation is a valid style of comedy worthy of scholarly analysis, much less Japanese animation. However, a close look at several Japanese animation shows will show that they are, indeed, an agreeable means of transmitting a comedic narrative. This essay will take a critical look at the Japanese animation One Piece (1997) and trace its influences back to Comedia del’ Arte, Comedy of Intrigue, and Theatre of the Absurd, in order to demonstrate that modern media, regardless of the place of origin, can be as valid of a cultural tool as classic works of literature are and that, in turn, these new forms of media owe a lot of their presentations to the older narrative structures.
The Great Age of Pirates: The Comedy
The Components of Comedia, Intrigue, and Absurdity in One Piece
A term hailing from medieval times, a comedy is a literary word that “is marked by a happy ending and a less exhaled style than tragedy” (Harmon & Holoman, 1999). Being one of the lighter forms of drama, its purpose is to entertain and amuse the viewers. The humorous effect in comedy often comes from the disagreement or distortion of speech, action, or character. As previously argued, this comedic ‘play’ does not have to take place necessarily on a stage, as other means of narrative, such as television shows and virtual narratives, can also include comedic elements. Certainly, many modern Japanese animations owe a lot of their appeal to comedic elements.
One Piece is one of these Japanese animations that owe a lot of its humor to elements of comedy. The basic plot of the series involves a young and childish “Mwgiwara no Luffy” (Straw Hat Luffy) setting off on a grand voyage during the great age of pirates in order to become The Pirate King. This action-packed adventure story, however, is about close calls, unexpected meetings, and heaping mistakes over mistakes as it is about character interactions, resulting in a humorous intercourse of plot and character that owes much of its humor to comedic styles that have existed since the 16th century. Truly, the humor found in One Piece owes a lot to the Comedia del’ Arte stock characters, to the plot principles of Comedy of Intrigue, and to various lose elements from Absurd Comedy.
Commedia del’ Arte refers to a type of improvised play full of physical comedy and acrobatics originating in Italy in the 16th Century. The traditional plot in these plays is that the innamorati are in love and want to marry, but one or several elders are stopping them, leading the lovers to ask the zanni for help. Typically the story ends happily, with the marriage of the innamorati. Plays conforming to the Comedia del’ Arte structure had several stock characters that never changed, and each character had his or her own distinctive qualities. It is in the character traits found in these stock characters that a relationship between One Piece and Comedia del’ Arte can be seen. It can almost be said that One Piece characters, in a way, evolved from Comedia de’ Arte stock characters.
The first paralel that can be seen between Comedia characters and One Piece characters is in the way they are named. This is specially true of Il Capitano, La Ruffiana, the Innamorati, and Arlechinno. In Comedia del’ Arte these five characters are named after their position, their looks, one of their character traits. Likewise, some of the character names in One Piece are fashioned over character traits or positions. However, being a comedy of exaggeration, there are more characters in One Piece that are named because of personality traits or looks.
The most prominent example comes in the form of Mwgiwara no Luffy, or Straw Hat Luffy. Even though this pirate captain’s full name is Monkey D. Luffy, he is more often addressed by his nickname Mwgiwara (Straw Hat) by those who are not part of his crew, and simply as Sensho (Captain) by those in his crew, much like Il Capitano, whose name is supposed to be improvized by the actor during play, is simply addressed as Capitano. What this shifting of name does is simply reduce all of the character’s traits into a single stereotypical entity: a captain, or a captain with a straw hat.
Another example on how names are tailored according to character traits is Ussopp, whose case can be seen as a paralel to Comedia del’ Arte character La Ruffiana. La Ruffiana, which in italian has the connotation of being a whore, is an older female character with a shady past. What little is known of her is that she used to be a prostitute. While she is often in a relationship with Pantalone, one of the wealthier Vecci, her relationship can often be cut off if it suits the plot. Ussopp’s name, like Ruffianna, comes from an inherent character flaw – that of being a liar. Ussopp’s name is derived from the word ‘Uso’ from Japanese, which means ‘you lie’ or ‘that is a lie’. Just like Ruffianna’s relationship with Pantalone, when Ussopp’s character is first introduced he is in a relationship with Kaya. However, this relationship is based solely on Ussopp’s lies.
However, Ussopp’s relationship to Comedia del’ Arte character traits does not end with his name alone. Like Pluncinella, Ussopp sports a ridiculously long nose. Being a masterful liar, like Brighella, Ussopp always has a lie in store for any possible situation. Furthermore, like Il Capitano, Ussopp’s lies often revolve about great adventures he has had fighting wars overseas or fighting giant monsters, like a giant goldfish whose droppings were the size of an island. Just like Il Capitano, when Ussopp’s turn to face actual danger comes, he turns tail and flees like a coward. In essence, even though Ussopp’s name is based on the same mechanics used to name La Ruffiana, his behavior is actually representative of Il Capitano. Furthermore, the character of Il Capitano is sometimes depicted without a mask. However, when a mask is used, it is usually flesh-hued with a large nose and a moustache that is either straight and bristly or turned up at the corners.Likewise, Ussopp is most of the time portrayed without a mask, but when he needs a certain degree of bravery not contained by his ‘Captain Ussopp’ persona he resorts to wearing a mask representing ‘Sogekingu’ (King of the Snipers). Just like Il Capitano’s mask, Sogekingu’s mask is flesh-hued with a large nose and a moustache that is either straight and bristly or turned up at the corners. Still, in Sogekingu’s mask we often see markings of Coviello’s character. Coviello’s mask usually portrays him with a ridiculously long beak-like nose, often near as long as his whole face. He sometimes wears glasses, and is frequently shown with plumes in his hat.
Still, even with Mwgiwara and Ussopp as examples of how Comedia del’ Arte has influenced modern Japanese animation, the most prominent example can be seen in the amazing paralels between Sanji and the innamorato Flavio. The innamorati, often the main characters in a Comedia del’ Arte play, are the two young lovers. The innamorato and innamorata have had many different names over time, although Isabella was a predominantly popular name for the innamorata, as Flavio was popular for the innamorato. These two young and righteous characters are hopelessly in love with one another, and often wore the most fashionable dress of the period in which they are acting. Unlike the other Comedia del’ Arte characters, the innamorati never wore masks and they spent a lot of their time singing, dancing, or reciting poetry. They are madly in love but never seem able to get together. The innamorati were often dressed in the latest fashions of their time, unless the scenario forbade it. Although the characters of the innamorati were foolish, the appropriate language was filled with ornate poetical phrasing. Unlike Il Capitano and the other host of cowards presented in Comedia del’ Arte, some of the innamorato characters were notably rash in their willingness to fight. Just as the innamorato Flavio, Sanji is a hopeless romantic. His foolish acts, such as swooning over the crew’s female navigator, Nami, while being attacked by 10 Marine battleships at the end of the Secret Government Agency Cipher Pol 9 Saga, are often acompanied by poetic similes and metaphors such as comparing Nami’s gracefulness to that of a swan. This innamorato without innamorata seems to be constantly on the lookout for someone to marry, and never hesitates to rush into a fight, either for the sake of love or for the sake of friendship, but never for self interest. Furthermore, just like Flavio, Sanji is always dressed in the latest “yuppie” trends of the late 20th and the early 21st century, sometimes sporting formal pants and a blue silk shirt, others wearing a formal tuxedo with tie, and sometimes even wearing the latest fashionable summer and Christmas clothing reminescent of those found on stores like The Gap during the aforementioned seasons. Certainly, Sanji is an innamorato.
While it is obvious that some characters in One Piece have been influenced by Comedia del’ Arte, stating that all of the characters in One Piece have been influenced by Comedia del’ Arte in one way or another is too an exaggerated of a claim. While there might be some paralels between other character types in Comedia del’ Arte and One Piece, stating that the harlequins that appear during the Sakura Island Saga are inspired by Arlechino, or that Dr. Chopper, a speaking, transforming raindeer whose knowledge in medicine is unsurpassed, can be interpreted as Il Dottore because they are both doctors from old-money families, is simply too far-fetched. Elements like the skeaking medical raindeer Doctor Chopper, the talking annonymous harlequins, the lightening god “Kaminari God Enel” (Kami is God in Japanese, while Kaminari is lightenint), and the giant bear-man who can deflect anything Tyrant Bartholomew Kuma (Kuma is bear in Japanese) seem to be more characters born out of the surrealist absurd and injected into One Piece for the sake of the plot that revolves around comedy of intrigue.
There are very few elements of the absurd found in One Piece. One of them is the surrealist, almost dream-like elements of the landscapes and the chatacters not influenced by Comedia del’ Arte. The most absurd quality of One Piece, however, if the main character’s vision and entanglement with the world, which is infantile and childlike. This quality of the infantile main character is one found in Ubu Roi, often considered as the urtext of absurd theatre. Mwgiwara no Luffy’s involvement with the world, meaning the way he sees it, is as infantile as, if not more than, King Ubu’s way of seeing the world. Luffy thinks of the world as a playground. His reason to travel the world in a ship to become king of the pirates is only in part a promise made to his childhood friend Shanks, but largely because of his sense of wanting something to do. His sense of boredom leads him to see the Grand Line, the most dangerous sea in the world, as a playground. This childlike engagement with the world, however, is not something found only in One Piece, but that is also found in several modern Japanese animations. In the Dragon Ball series the immature main character Goku sees the world as a fighting playground, while in Kodomo no Omocha a ten year old Sana-Chan sees the world, literally, through the eyes of a child. It can be safely stated that absurd theatre’s main character’s engagement with the world is something that has influenced a lot of Japanese animations to date.
Still, Comedia del’ Arte and th absurd are not the only movements to have influenced Japanese animation, or more specifically One Piece. Comedy of Intrigue is a comedy in which the manipulation of the action by one or more characters to their own ends is of more importance than the characters themselves are. Also known as “comedy of situation” (Handbook), this style of comedy focuses on the plot. In this style of comedy the background information and the setting take a second role to incongruous situations, the heaping of mistakes, the multiple plots, disguises, mistaken identities, unexpected meetings, and close calls. This plot-centered dynamic focusing on multiple storylines, unexpected meetings, and close calls is what characterizes One Piece the most.
Although the plot in One Piece revolves around a young man, Luffy, who wants to become king of the pirates, the narrative voice often changes to events happening elsewhere. This is true especially after particularly close calls. The most recent example comes in episodes 350 to 378, where the Straw Hat crew have docked in a mysterious island filled with chimeras in an absurd parody of the film The Island of Dr. Monroe. After being greeted by Dr. Hogback, whose calling in the island is to revive zombies, Luffy and his crew are quickly separated. This allows for multiple simultaneous narratives which include not only the members of the crew but other characters who have yet to be introduced in the main narrative plot. A sudden unexpected meeting in this narrative arc involves Sanji meeting face to face with Absalon, a man who had “stolen his dream” by gaining the powers of invisibility. Still, two even more surprising encounters are those of Doctor Chopper with Doctor Hogback, who had been his hero since he began to study medicine, and, more impressively, that of Luffy with Moryia, one of the Sichibukai (seven warlords) and the real master of Thriller Bark – the mysterious island. In this same narrative arc encounters with characters such as Skull Bones Brook – a perverted skeleton – and Bartholomew Kuma – one of the Sichibukai – make the viewer remain on edge not knowing who to expect next.
In the end, it is obvious that One Piece draws from several comedic traditions. While it might still be argued by the most stubborn scholars that the connections are too general, the truth is that many of the Japanese anime writers have been trained in western universities. Certainly, the Japanese sense of humor is different to the western sense of humor, but the influence of these two cultures on each other is observable in every day life. Certainly, the influence of western drama on Japanese animation is there. Perhaps it is time we revise our notions of what comedy, and drama as a whole, is and we look at the big picture – new technologies are changing the way we do drama, therefore, we should change the way we look at it too.
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