Spoiler warning for One Piece
The word mature is tossed around quite a bit when people discuss media. It’s usually used to describe works with a lot of violence or sexual content that’s not considered appropriate for younger audiences. Having adult content isn’t a bad thing, but it also isn’t inherently good either, and certainly doesn’t make a work mature. By the same token, lighter content and being directed at a younger audience doesn’t make a work immature. One Piece is chock full of wild slapstick, silly puns, and general goofiness, but is a shockingly mature work when you dig further into it. Its maturity doesn’t come from being especially gory or dark, but from a simple understanding of what’s important and what isn’t.
From the start, One Piece shows a level of maturity beyond what most people would expect. In the very first chapter of the manga (episode four in the anime), we’re introduced to Shanks, the pirate Luffy admires so much. While Shanks and his crew are enjoying themselves in a tavern, they’re interrupted by the bandit Higuma. Higuma gets annoyed at Shanks for clearing out all the alcohol in the bar, and goes as far as to smash a bottle in his face. Higuma brags about his infamy, and then mocks the pirates for not fighting back as he leaves. Once he’s gone, Shanks and his crew only laugh at the scene he made, much to Luffy’s annoyance. It’s only later, when Higuma kidnaps Luffy, that we learn why Shanks didn’t care. This time, Shanks and his crew don’t back down and easily wipe out Higuma’s entire gang. The reason they didn’t bother to fight back before was simply because Higuma wasn’t worth it. He was no threat to the pirates, so the only time they bothered to fight back was when he gave them a real reason to fight by threatening someone.
We get a much clearer picture of this later, when Bellamy tries to pick a fight with Luffy and Zoro on Jaya. He ruthlessly mocks them for believing in a legend like the Sky Island, and attacks them to see how strong they are. Rather than rise to his taunts, Luffy and Zoro refuse to fight back, even has he smashes them into the furniture and rants about how the era of dreams is over. He calls them cowards with no pride and tosses them out of the bar, but they just dust themselves off and leave. This is after Luffy nearly came to blows with a complete stranger because they disagreed about the bar’s food. As they leave, that same stranger (who’s later revealed to be Blackbeard) comments that Luffy and Zoro won that fight. Blackbeard’s comments both identifies why Luffy and Zoro were the real winners of that fight, and indirectly reveals why Luffy was willing to fight over food and not pride.
The fact of the matter is, Bellamy was nothing. He clearly had a high opinion of himself and looked down on anyone with goals he deemed “childish,” but he was by far the most childish one there. Consider what he actually said. He spoke at length about how the so-called “era of dreams” was over and how people are going to eventually stop chasing distant goals and be just like him. When you come down to it, saying that people are going to stop taking risks and chasing dreams is just absurd. Having big goals and chasing after our dreams is an essential part of human nature, something that’s patently obvious to anyone who looks at human history. This is doubly true in the world of One Piece, with all of its legends, supernatural powers, and unknown phenomenon. Ironically, Bellamy’s unrealistic cynicism makes him the most naïve character in all of One Piece. As soon as Bellamy started mocking people for having dreams, Luffy realized he didn’t matter. He wasn’t strong enough to pose a threat to Luffy or Zoro; he was just a small-minded person who wanted to pick a fight to show off his strength. With Blackbeard, Luffy had a reason to fight (dumb as it was), while fighting Bellamy would be fighting for its own sake. Fighting back against someone so small-minded over nothing but pride would only lower them to Bellamy’s level. Even though Luffy was perfectly willing to fight Sarkies over some insults because he was annoyed, and fight Blackbeard over their tastes in food, he didn’t even care about Bellamy’s taunts because they were so pointless. Compare this with every other villain Luffy’s fought. From nobodies like Captain Morgan to powerhouses like Doflamingo, Luffy’s other opponents are all people who opposed him in some way. Either they were doing something he found reprehensible, or they hurt someone he cared about. Either way, he always had some tangible reason to fight. Luffy always treats fighting as a way to accomplish a real goal, not just a way to show off. Compared to every other opponent, even the weaker ones, Bellamy never gave Luffy a reason to fight beyond mere insults. It’s only when Bellamy stole Cricket’s gold that Luffy finally had a reason.
Until Bellamy took Cricket’s gold, Luffy had no reason to fight someone as insignificant as Bellamy. Once that happened, though, Luffy fought and won with a single punch. All through the fight, Bellamy continued to mock Luffy, ignoring the fact that Luffy had a higher bounty and how his attacks had no effect on Luffy. Bellamy was so limited by his preconceptions that he completely ignored the evidence right in front of him until it was too late. For all his childish antics, Luffy was actually the most mature person there. He understood that there was no reason to waste time on Bellamy, and only fought back when he had a reason. After seeing the Sky Island for himself, even Bellamy understood how limited his worldview was.
Again and again we see this message in One Piece: fight for a real reason, not over something as minor as wounded pride. The one time we see a major character fight over nothing but pride is when Ace turns around to fight Akainu. Even though he was already free and had no reason to keep fighting, he stayed back to fight as soon as Akainu mocked Whitebeard. His inability to swallow his pride is what ultimately led to his death at Akainu’s hands. If Ace had been able to ignore Akainu’s taunts, he would have survived and been able to escape Marineford. Instead, his pride forced him to stay behind and fight. Instead, his pride got him killed.
If there’s one idea to be found here, it’s that maturity is knowing what matters and what doesn’t. Luffy’s confrontation with Bellamy may have been brief, but it perfectly shows the difference between what matters and what doesn’t. Actions matter. Taunts don’t. This understanding is what gives One Piece a level of maturity rarely seen among its peers.