Gets ya every time

onepiece-luffybloodyhand1Some friends and I were talking recently about the manga One Piece by Eiichiro Oda. It’s a seemingly innocuous story about goofy pirates and their physics-bending hijinx, but my friends and I find it irresistible. Why? My pal Jake put it best: “Oda’s a master of his craft. When one of the characters is beaten and bloody and almost dead, and struggles to their feet to say they’ll never give up on their friends–even though there’s a moment for every character in every volume–each time it pierces my heart.”

It seems like it shouldn’t work. It seems like once would be enough, twice bearable, three times too much. I mean, how many times do we need to see Luffy stand up for his friends, or Zoro fight on at the brink of death, or Usopp overcome his fear? But it works. Each time we’re on the edge of our seat. Each time we let out a little cheer. Each time we feel fulfilled.

Whether zany rubber pirates are your cup of tea or not (and believe me, ours is a love not often understood!), chances are there’s some story in your life that does this for you. Whether it’s Luke Skywalker confronting his father, Westley rising from his bed, sword in hand, or Jack slipping from Rose’s fingers and sinking beneath the ice, there are stories that “get us right here”–different for the individual, but repeating the same themes and delivering the same payoffs again and again. And we drink them up.

What need does this fill, that it never gets old, throughout human experience? What role does repetition play in our story-life as humans? Why do some tellings succeed, and others fall flat? What is that “craft mastery” that makes the difference? Is it personal taste or something more?

I don’t know. Do you?



21 Responses to “Gets ya every time”

  1. 1 Sheldon
    February 25, 2009 at 1:29 am

    I’m not sure what causes it to constantly be entertaining, but what I do know is: onepieceonepieceonepieceonepieceonepiece!!

    Also, I fail at life. I don’t remember that shot. Krieg maybe?

  2. February 25, 2009 at 2:25 am

    It says to us that it’s possible to get through the depths of the 2nd Act, so to speak. It’s a reminder that stuff that matters to us is worth caring about, I think.

  3. 3 storybythethroat
    February 25, 2009 at 7:58 am

    I think you’ve got something there, Zac. We use myths to reinforce values and practices in our cultures and subcultures, right? So a story that says, “THIS is worth fighting for,” resonates with people who share that value, and helps them internalize it. The ideal being that when they find themselves in a tough spot, they’ll stand up for their friends. And so on. . .

  4. 4 Skull
    February 25, 2009 at 9:53 am

    I believe One Piece speaks Old world truths as well as ever lasting friendship. In medieval times it was believed that every person was innocent that they even if they did evil acts that they could be saved by the example of kindness of one person.
    Take Roronoa Zoro: A pirate hunter who hates pirates from the depths of his heart due to the death of a friend. Some how luffy D Monkey is able to turn this man’s mind around and even saved his soul (since zoro was heading down a dark path in life, plus about to be killed by the navy) through nothing more than luffy’s example and 7 choice word, “your going to be my first mate”. This is why you have to love luffy ever time he meets someone who he sees as important in the grand scheme of things he tells them that they are part of his crew (no choice given) in a friendly unpirate-like manner.

  5. 5 storybythethroat
    February 25, 2009 at 10:02 am

    (Sheldon: yup, Kreig. I also paged through tons of Arlong material which was more emotionally fraught, but didn’t work as well out of context. This image tested best with folks that aren’t familiar with One Piece. Also, with Luffy’s own blood dripping from his defiantly extended fist, it very emphatically conveys that we aren’t talking about any lame 4Kids crap here. :) )

  6. 6 Niv-Mizzet
    February 25, 2009 at 10:20 am

    Empathy is hard-wired into our human brains. It gives us the ability to feel each others’ joys and pains by remembering what it’s like to feel it ourselves. If you’re reacting to a scene from a book or a movie, it’s probably because there’s something within yourself that knows that moment (probably in an admittedly small way) or it fulfills some idealized version of it that you carry with you. Even just watching movie violence is that way–it’s exciting to watch because it gets your heart racing along with the characters, and there’s a part of you that wants to be the badass on the screen machine-gunning all of the replicants. Or whatever.
    The one that gets me every damn time is Jack and Sally at the end of Nightmare Before Christmas when Sally is sitting under the moon and Jack finds her and realizes what they mean to each other, and their solos turn into a duet. There’s something about the combination of the image and the music that always makes me a little weepy, and then I feel so manipulated.

  7. 7 storybythethroat
    February 25, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Very true, Chris. there’s a reason that a person who can’t empathize is branded insane, cast out from society as it were.

    And you touch on a darker side of this value-reinforcing phenomenon: it is manipulative on some level, calculated to produce an emotional effect and steer our thinking along certain channels. Like, in my childhood I encountered countless depictions and presentations of the death of Jesus, all perfectly pitched to produce a reaction of pathos with a side of guilt. So how much and what kind of this manipulation is “too far,” becoming not art but propaganda? And what happens when the standard for what is insane or sociopathic becomes simply identifying with different values from the rest of us–whether “Godless” or “Un-American” or what have you?

  8. 8 Matt
    February 25, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    WEll, as far as what does it? Its impossible to quantify. There’s just a “spark” in truly emotional storytelling that you can’t fabricate. If you can quantify, generally you can duplicate. But Eichiro has that spark (interestingly, cleach started with a spark, but now, with this last arc, seems to have lost it. I think its just how over the top everything has gotten. Too much OMFG, you are totaly way not powerful enough to defeat it. OMG you did it, oh but these guys make those guys look like beeches. No WAY you can defeat them…etc.

  9. 9 Matt
    February 25, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    SOrry, I forgot to finish the pre-bleach parenthetical. Eichiro has that spark, as well as a visual penchant for setting the scene. He is a manga genius

  10. 10 Skull
    February 25, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    I agree that the “spark” to bleach’s success is the same as what we are talking about here with “One Piece”. The both speak on the same terms, except that One Piece has more or a comical- goofy side than bleach does. Its like Oda is saying, “why do you have to take everything so seriously?” Which may have some pretext in our own culture, but says more about Japanese culture.

  11. 11 storybythethroat
    February 25, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    GK Chesterton said something that I love” The opposite of ‘funny’ is not ‘serious.’ The opposite of ‘funny’ is ‘not funny.'” I think one reason I enjoy One Piece’s particular presentation of these themes is because I fervently believe you can be “funny” and at the same time “serious.”

  12. 12 storybythethroat
    February 26, 2009 at 8:47 am

    OK, all the One Piece comments are great. But I’d like to open this up to broader consideration. Here’s a question for everyone: what role does this repeated-theme, value-reinforcing role of story play in YOUR lives? Are there stories/themes that you find value and strength in? Any that you’ve rejected or have hurt you? And have you found a way to move past them, even replace them with healthy ones?

  13. February 26, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Hey, ok, you need some practical consideration of it? You got it – I’m bi, I watch a lot of movies, and I’m kind of impressionable. Well, have you ever noticed how many gay people die in movies? Dear god, it seems to happen all the time in mainstream films!
    Yeesh, don’t even get me started on Brokeback Mountain – I enjoyed it, even if some folks called it “Shepherds in the Wind” for its breezy natural soundtrack and excess of quiet moments, but yeah, the bastard has to go and get murdered at the end. Which makes me think “Aw, shit. How can I ever find a man for me if we’re just going to split up and then he’ll die?
    This has been a subject of discussion in my therapy – I need to work on not taking films quite so seriously if mood swings and grinding depression are going to be the result of that overseriousness. My replacement is going to be to spend more time around other gay and bi men, to get some real-life images in there to replace all the commercial, death-ridden ones from film.
    Howzat? :)

  14. 14 storybythethroat
    February 26, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    Wow, Zac–thanks for that vulnerability! Your reaction is understandable: that is exactly what I’m talking about: the stories that we’re told and that we retell form scripts for our lives. If those scripts are damaging we’ll either be trapped in that unhealthy pattern, or rebel against it and run the risk of reacting into an even worse pattern. It’s painful and confusing! in my case it’s a rural Baptist Christian upbringing I’m working from, and my parents could never understood the source of pain and friction that their–and our surrounding subculture’s–well-meaning influence had provoked. I’ve got thought patterns, bible verses, songs , and images resonating in my bones, that I’ll never shake, and which are often a source of bitterness or rage.

    The trick, then, is to shake the unhealthy patterns, both of conformity and reaction. And that’s fuckin’ hard! Is the answer to create new patterns, tell ourselves new stories, based on healthy principles? Seems so to me. But am I just setting myself up for further dysfunction by tying myself to those scripts?

    I’m not sure.

  15. 15 Matt
    February 26, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    more about what you guys are talking about when I get the chance. for now aq counter to the idea that it has to be personal experience. I love “I Will Survive.” I’ve never had that kind of heartbreak. I’m married to by first girlfriend, and we are wonderfully happy together. But there is something in that song that makes me love it. Though it is odd that the song makes me happy…maybe because its about the other end of that valley. Its about healing and a big Eff You to those who would prey upon you.

  16. 16 Maedhros
    February 27, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    In thinking about your question, in find myself on the outside looking in. There was a moment when I was sixteen or so when something snapped in place and my trust in the veracity of story and legend evaporated. I was at a retreat for my Catholic youth group called “Search”. The objective of the weekend-long retreat was to realize a close, personal, emotional relationship with God. The first evening culminated with a retelling of some New Testament event (I can’t even recall which one, now) which resulted in a mass, tearful response from the audience. CLICK. I realized that I was the only person out of two dozen or so who didn’t have same reaction, and it immediately caused me great guilt and confusion. Why wasn’t I “getting” it? I wanted to, but just couldn’t generate the expected response. As the weekend progressed, I began to see more and more clearly how we were being very directly manipulated with pageantry. The climax of the weekend was the “Agape” drama, a stage presentation of the Last Supper and Crucifiction. By that time, I was almost offended at the attempts to manipulate my emotions. The whole experience left me with a distrust of “storytellers” (for lack of a better term).

    When I encounter repeated-theme, value-reinforcing story elements I analyze: why, and for what purpose? The wrong answers to those questions can lead me to discount or even deride the author.

  17. 17 Skull
    February 27, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    I have always felt that these themes were the best way for any society to teach the younger generation to be better people, put friends and family first, trust, offer a helping hand, etc. It has only been in the last 70 years that these themes have been destroyed and replaced by Disney happy endings. Thank god for people like Tim Burton, Gullermo Del Toro, and Sam Raime who brought back the original stories- knowing full well that the people, people like us, want to these themes untouched and unscratched. This is the reason their movies are box office hits.

  18. February 28, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    I go for any storyteller willing to show honesty and vulnerability. Anybody taking a risk, whatever their theme, gets attention from me.

    In some ways, I think art and story exists to expose lies. The lies our culture tells you. Good story does this. Poor storytelling reinforces the lies, or simply sidesteps the issue (I kind of reinforcement I think).

    Sometimes stories tell us that we can’t survive with a whole life; like black guys in horror movies, the gay lovers in Brokeback Mountain. I don’t like these kinds of stories. Don’t tell me that this culture hates me; I know that. Tell me how to survive it, man!

    For this reason I hate the heartfelt ‘we killed all dem indians’ movie breast-beating, when the indians have continued on with what lives they’ve got.

    Miyazaki always seems to hit this note for me. How do we survive, in spite of everything that has happened, in spite of what this culture wants? From Pom Poko, to Nausicaa, to Mononoke, to heck My Neighbor Totoro. That guy knows how to do damage to my psyche in a good way.

  19. 19 storybythethroat
    March 1, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    Great responses, everyone! In reverse order:

    Willem: Right ON. That’s a wonderful and noble standard to hold stories to, and beautifully put. I think the real tough part is realizing-as teller or audience–when a story is feeding into a harmful cycle. And then what to do about it? Like, would I be willing to purge from my story diet EVERY tale that feeds something negative? Could I bear to shun the royalism of Tolkien or the racism of Howard? I’m not sure I could.

    Also, good call on Miyazaki. Damn right.

    Skull: That’s an interesting observation. I’m curious if you could unpack what you mean: specifically, what are “these themes” that you’re holding in contrast to the “Disney happy ending?” It almost sounds like you particularly mean “unhappy endings, as in tragedy or failure. Or do you just mean ambiguous or nuanced endings? Your perspective seems to fall in contrast with Willem’s–“tell me how to survive!”–but I’d like to hear more before I analyze it too much.

    David: I hear you, for sure. I broke out of just such a perpetual cycle of guilt-tripped spiritual-emotion-fests: youth group, bible camp, Christian school were all calibrated to make you feel bad, and then good, and then bad when the high wore off, so you could “rekindle” that spark and feel good again. It was crap, it was hurtful, and Story was definitely being put to a sinister use in the proceedings.

    I’d like to explore how to tell the difference between the positive and negative results of “reinforcing stories.” Obviously it’ll be different for every person, but are there telltales that will help us spot lies quickly but hold fast to truth? You do well to ask “for what purpose?”, definitely.

    Matt: I’d love to hear those further thoughts if you can get back to this. Meantime, I’m curious where tis concept came from that you’re countering. I didn’t notice anyone claiming that “it has to be personal experience” for a Story to move you. Maybe you’re saying it was implied? In any case, I’m right there with you in empathizing deeply with stories that don’t mirror your life. Johnny Cash’s “I Hung My Head,” for instance.


  20. 20 Maedhros
    March 1, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    I just spent Inauguration week in Maryland with my friend Dean, who was involved in that same Search retreat from the other side – he was one of the “Team” that was presenting the pageant. Having recently just rehashed that whole situation with him, it jumped to the front of my brain when you asked for examples of story impacting our lives. But I don’t want to imply that I’m a grumpy curmudgeon, so I’ll come back with something good to say :)

    One story that I felt was extremely positive, not at all manipulative and definitely not “Disney” was “No Country For Old Men.” People were confused by this film, I think, because they mistakenly thought it to be about Llewellyn when it was about Sheriff Bell. The “message” of the film is subtle and probably very personal to the viewer. To me, I took away the idea that while there exists in the world terrible Evil that cannot be placated or defeated, it has ever been thus and the world still moves forward, survives. I found the ending to be very profound, as it reveals that after long last Sheriff Bell has found God – and not in the way he thought he would, or in the way we thought he would, or in the way Hollywood usually would tell us he would.

  21. 21 Matt
    March 3, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Sting’s “I Hung My Head”

    I thought there was someone who hypothesized briefly about being related to personal experience, but its not a big enough deal to look up ^ ^

    I think from the teller’s perspective, its when you start to try to add themes and reinforce morals that stories start to break down. The story comes from you, and will reflect your beliefs and, quite frankly, soul. Then you don’t have to worry about what morals you are teaching
    Of course, from the reader’s perspective, if you don’t like the morals, it probably is an issue with the writer’s core beliefs–unless the story is hackneyed mass market BS ^ ^
    “Disney plots” (or “anime plots” or any other formula family) all have reinforced, repeated themes, and not all of them are bad. What is tiring about them is that they are repeated without originality, and, frankly, soul. Its the difference between a truly artistic story, and furmulaic crap ^ ^ (sotrry if there are any vagueries or ill exlpoed points, on a timeframe ^ ^)

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