Two decades after One Piece introduced the world to a swashbuckling pirate in a straw hat, fans of the Japanese cartoon series are giddily awaiting last weekend’s release of the 1,000th episode.
One Piece first appeared in manga [comic book] form in Japan in 1997, with an anime [animated TV series] version following two years later.
Since then the franchise has become a global cultural phenomenon, smashing records and winning fans around the globe.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t an immediate hit.
“It’s a miracle,” Ryuji Kochi of Toei Animation, the Japanese company behind the anime series, said of the 1,000-episode landmark.
“From the beginning, it was a tough title. It was not easy to place on the TV,” he said, adding that growing a fanbase for the show was not easy either.
Kochi said it had taken 13 long years for the anime, following the adventures of hat-wearing hero Monkey D Luffy, to reach cult status.
Today, however, hundreds of millions of fans are gripped by every twist in the hunt for the eponymous One Piece, the treasure coveted by all pirates.
The popularity of the manga version has also endured as the TV show has taken off.
Its creator Eiichiro Oda holds the Guinness World Record for “most copies published for the same comic book series by a single author” – 490 million, to be precise.
The 1,000th episode of the anime series will be released in 80 countries over the weekend.
In Tokyo, a giant banner of the main characters has been erected at Shibuya station, one of the Japanese capital’s main transport hubs.
Special screenings are planned across the US, while in France – the world’s biggest manga and anime market after Japan – more than 100 cinemas are planning a marathon watching binge.
Fans from Africa to Europe to the Middle East have posted some 20,000 selfies to a fan site in honour of the milestone.
“I’ve been a One Piece fan for 20 years!” tweeted one Japanese enthusiast impatient to watch the landmark episode.
“I’ve been watching it since junior high, and I’m still enjoying it even after growing up.”
French fan Alexis Poriel, who runs a manga fan group on online platform Discord, said the broad scope of One Piece was a key reason for its popularity.
“It talks about social issues, there’s action, there’s humour,” the 26-year-old said.
“One Piece manages to really make a link with societal questions,” he added, from racism to geopolitical intrigues.
The series also spans geographical and cultural references, from ancient Egypt to medieval Japan, that help to make it feel universal.
As for what’s next – a live-action adaptation by Netflix is in the works, with fans speculating that it could catapult the franchise to global household name status similar to Star Wars or Harry Potter.
Netflix’s announcement of the cast set social media alight earlier this month, with 18-year-old Mexican actor Inaki Godoy preparing to take on the role of Luffy.