By Sean Aitchison
Luffy has saved a lot of people, freed several nations from their authoritarian oppressors and proven himself to be a hero over and over again…which is weird, because he’s a pirate.
This is to say that Luffy’s actions don’t sound like the general idea we tend to have of pirates—no-good scoundrels who pillage towns, steal, murder, smuggle goods, etc.—and this is because Luffy and the Straw Hats are mostly pirates in name and status alone—or rather, one can see One Piece’s definition of “pirate” is different as a means of exploring themes of military states, imperialism and oppression.
See, Luffy loves freedom; he loves to explore, go on adventures, experience new things and places, and go where the wind takes him. One of the ways to escape from the strict laws of the World Government and the massive naval force that would prevent this kind of freedom is to ignore the rules altogether and become a pirate!
At the same time, Luffy’s love of freedom is also what drives him to heroically take out the villains of the series—he can’t stand to see freedom taken away and punches the snot out of anyone doing exactly that. This is the essence of Luffy, and by extension, the Straw Hat crew. Their love of freedom is both what makes them pirates and what makes them heroes, even if they don’t give a damn if they’re called that.
Freedom on the open seas
While it’s true that Luffy (and his crew) constantly makes the bold claim that he is going to become King of the Pirates, there’s more to this goal than just Luffy being the strongest pirate in the world who rules over the seas with an iron fist. Rather, it’s more of a marker than anything.
Luffy doesn’t want to be the most powerful pirate in the world, he doesn’t need to hold reign and influence over all other pirates or be seen by the government as their most dangerous enemy, he simply wants to be in a position that marks ultimate freedom—Gol D. Roger was the King of the Pirates because he explored and did as he pleased, fighting anyone who tried to stop his sense of freedom—and following in the footsteps as the most infamous free man in pirate history is the endgame.
To explore, to see new places and experience new islands, meet interesting people, sail to the unknown, eat new foods, make great friends—these are the things Luffy wants, and finding the One Piece and becoming King of the Pirates is just the end point of his thirst for adventure and freedom. Luffy says as much in Chapter 507/Episode 400 of One Piece—Rayleigh asks him if he can really rule as the Pirate King, and Luffy responds with, “I’m not gonna rule anything. It’s the freest person in this sea who’s the King of the Pirates!”
There it is, plain and simple. Luffy wants ultimate freedom—not for anything nefarious, mind you—and becoming the Pirate King is the way to achieve it.
King of the Pirates
With Luffy’s concept of what the King of the Pirates position means to him, it becomes clear that being a pirate isn’t specifically what he wants to be, it’s just what he ends up being categorized as in seeking ultimate freedom.
This could be seen by viewers as a result of the oppressive World Government—they have a strict set of rules and laws and a powerful navy to enforce them, so anyone who breaks those rules is labelled as a pirate (in addition to some just being criminals) and thus a dangerous enemy of the government to be hunted down without question or exception.
In my opinion, this categorization of pirates encompasses several groups: 1) actual pirates by traditional/popular media definition—i.e., pillaging criminals, privateers and killers, 2) dangerous criminals who happen to do their business via the sea, and 3) anyone seeking ultimate freedom.
Luffy fits into the third category—it’s his love of freedom, his desire to express that freedom and his goal of becoming the most free man in the world that gets him labelled as a pirate, as a shorthand for criminal, “criminal” itself being shorthand for “doesn’t bend to the will of the government.”
Being a pirate, in my view, is the only way for Luffy to be free. That said, it is also worth noting that Luffy also embraces the pirate moniker, proud that he’s defying the government that would deny freedom to himself and others. But he’s not a bad guy—in fact, Luffy’s love of freedom is also what makes him incredibly heroic.
Hero in a Straw Hat
Luffy ends up being a hero to a lot of people by way of taking out pirate warlords and emperors and other oppressors holding people and their nations hostage, or even just people who threaten, capture or otherwise harm his friends and crew.
As it is with his pirate status, the reason behind Luffy punching and kicking the snot out of bad guys is his love of freedom. Luffy takes out big bads like Arlong, Crocodile, Eneru and Doflamingo because they are either in his way on the road to becoming the Pirate King and/or they are actively taking away the freedom of others.
The first one is obvious; Luffy isn’t gonna let anyone or anything stop him from being the King of the Pirates, that’s just his stubborn determination. The second reason, seeing freedom taken away from others, is what further solidifies freedom as the center of Luffy’s character and a main theme of One Piece—it makes Luffy’s blood boil with rage to see someone’s freedom being stripped away, and you can bet he’s going to ignore any other plan, goal, task, etc., to punch the living hell out of whoever is taking away the freedom of others.
This is what makes Luffy a hero; when he sees others in trouble, hurt or broken by the oppressive, violent acts of authoritarians, he’s filled with anger and goes to start a fight with them!
And the most heroic part is that Luffy doesn’t care about being a hero or not; he and his crew are going to do the right thing no matter what and don’t care about the aftermath, good or bad—heck, Luffy doesn’t really care to be called a hero most of the time, preferring to simply be called a pirate.
This is to say he truly does good things for the sake of doing the right thing, and his crew follows in tow. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished, and often Luffy’s heroic acts, like the love of freedom that drive them and his quest for ultimate freedom, further label him as a pirate.
But, if being a pirate means protecting the innocent, fighting the baddest of the bad and being free, then Luffy has all the more reason to want to be Pirate King, and it’s exactly why he’s fit to be.