Many are of the opinion that Monkey D. Luffy is a one-dimensional character, or under the impression that he is just another generic stupid goofy shounen protagonist who turns serious when fighting for his friends. I believe this is a pretty narrow way of looking at what I consider a remarkably well-written character.
True, Luffy isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to things like navigation, cooking, and politics (among other things), but he remains awesome despite being ridiculously simple-minded. I think it’s a testament to One Piece for having such a strong array of characters across the board (both major and minor), and while I had considered Zoro my favourite watching the anime back in the day, and then Sanji once I got into the manga, having gotten as far as the time-skip now, I can confidently state Luffy to be my favourite among out of all of them.
“What happened?” You may be wondering. Well, like One Piece, it’s a long story. To me, Luffy comes across as both a simple character and yet also a complex one; he’s unique. He’s not really shown to be much beyond what is displayed in his initial appearance, but at the same time he’s surprisingly demonstrated some real depth in his adventures. Part of this is left as hidden intrigue for later, such as his connections to some of the most renowned and influential figures (both pirates and marines) in the world of One Piece. Knowing Shanks as a mentor and father figure of sorts, along with being close to Shanks’ crew since he was a kid would be a facet for any character to have in its own right, but what makes this sort of connection stand out for Luffy (and for us) is how it becomes tied to his straw hat. His “treasure”. The reason Luffy always gets upset when someone touches his hat is because there’s a meaningful background and context there. The hat is a sentiment, and a representation of both his connection to Shanks, and the promise he made him – that by the next time they meet, Luffy will have become a great pirate.
So when Luffy places his hat on Nami’s head as he goes to fight Arlong to save both her and her village, there is an understanding between both characters, and us the viewers, that Nami means a lot to Luffy. Despite her betrayal and consistent reluctance against having Luffy help her, he gave her his “treasure”, because he believes Nami is a treasured nakama. This sort of action carries a lot of meaning, even without the context of it being tied to Shanks, because up until this point there has been enough moments now for both us and Nami to feel the weight and significance behind this small gesture. Luffy placing the hat on her head as she cries asking for help signifies that he trusts Nami enough to take care of his “treasure”. And her expression shows she knows just how important this hat is to Luffy. A symbol that’s being used as assurance he’ll win the fight, that it’ll be OK, and that Nami, despite her betrayal is still considered a nakama (possibly) more precious than the hat. This is further explored whenever Luffy’s hat does get torn and tattered, as Nami is always willing to sew it for him.
Luffy is inspirational in fighting for his dreams, because unlike a lot of other shounen characters who exaggerate achieving them in spite of dying, he is strangely realistic about it. When he’s about to be executed in Loguetown, he accepts it with a smile and thinks “at least I got this far”. In that moment he’s apologetic to his crew, rather than lamenting the death of his dream to be Pirate King. There’s a certain air and philosophy about how he approaches life and following his dreams that’s especially endearing. And it’s clear that despite his ignorance and recklessness, Luffy does have a certain degree of awareness about himself and others, and that he recognizes his weaknesses and other’s strengths. Like back to when he fought Arlong and remarked “I can’t use swords, you bastard! I don’t know how to navigate a ship! And I can’t cook! Or lie! And I’m pretty sure I can’t live without being helped!” Luffy acknowledges how useless he would be without his crew. He recognizes how vital each of his crew members are and does genuinely care about each and every one of them, even if he’s not always good at showing it, he does have a great many moments of empathy and understanding between his nakama and strangers he’s barely known (e.g. Vivi, Toto, Conis). He knows he’d be helpless without his crew, and greatly appreciates their support through respecting their dreams and being a pretty liberal captain, all things considered.
After Aokiji beats him, Luffy doesn’t let the defeat get to him. Instead, he jokes it off and accepts it, with the idea in mind of doing something about it (develops 2nd and 3rd gear). While he can be brash at times, Luffy isn’t a typical hot-headed idiot, but actually has a generally chill personality and positive attitude, as he takes things in stride most of the time. It’s debatable as to whether Luffy acts selflessly or selfishly, given how often his intentions and perceived actions of a situation can often overlap. I like to think of Luffy as someone with a selfish goal fueled by his awesome desire for absolute freedom on the seas, but also someone who can be amazingly empathetic and really cut to the core of another’s problem by jumping straight to the simplest solution only he can think of doing. Which usually works. I’m not saying Luffy’s truly altruistic, or for even that matter heroic, but he has had many moments where in his unabashed lovable idiocy, performed epic bold actions that shook the world or a person’s life by storm, in plenty of cases only caring about helping them and revoking any consideration of consequence. It’s a beautiful kind of recklessness that I can’t help but love and cheer for – I’m GAR for Luffy!
That’s not to say Luffy is totally oblivious to the consequences of his actions or is one to always ignore responsibility. No, Luffy truly understands the risks involved in following his dream, and in aiding his nakama in achieving theirs. Even before we discover Luffy’s haki, since the beginning, he’s had this special aura about him that makes him feel unlike any other character, and truly unique. He’s not the most complex of people, but he doesn’t need to be for him to be interesting, enjoyable, or even inspirational.
Luffy is not a knowledgeable character, but he does have some strong levels of intuition and wisdom ahead of his time, which could be credited to his upbringing being set in a jungle, and thus developing a fascinating connection with wildlife, possibly naturally evolving certain senses as a result. It wouldn’t explain his wisdom, but I believe that stems from his time with Shanks, whom was the one to imbue him with such a strong set of core values concerning freedom and liberty, with the notion that you shouldn’t use your freedom to take away the freedom of others.
You could read Luffy’s action as going against this, but I see it more as him exercising his own will upon them, with the legroom of both parties being as free to try what they aim to do as much as they are free to stop each other from doing so. Or in other terms, Luffy decides to do something and allows the possibility for others to try and stop him. You can apply this idea to whenever someone proclaims their goal to be Pirate King in front of Luffy. He has no qualms about anyone being a king of an island or whatever, but once someone makes his goal their own, Luffy has no reservations about kicking their ass, because there can only be one Pirate King. Luffy is someone who respects the wishes and goals of others; Cody wanting to become a marine; Luffy and Zoro lie and stir up trouble just to excuse Cody of being labelled an associate of pirates, so that he could have a chance at achieving his dream. Even though Cody achieving his goal could wind up interfering with Luffy achieving his own in the future, he still helped him with no sign of regret, and honestly wishes Cody the best of luck in fulfilling his.
And while Luffy is shown to be simple-minded for the most part, he does have quite a few moments of wisdom that shine through and enlighten others, e.g. when he confronts Vivi on the impending war of Alabasta and notices Vivi is trying to keep everyone from dying, but Luffy has to be the one to give her the wake-up call and say: “You want to keep everyone from dying? That’s naive. It’s war, people die.” As seen in the ASL flashback, Luffy already knows nobles already suck. His confrontation with Vivi shows his view is more intricate than his behaviour would seem to indicate, beyond simply beating the crap out of every problem that stands in his way, Luffy has a peculiar grasp on the world around him that actually makes sense, especially when you consider his upbringing and Shanks’ sacrifice marking just how dangerous the world is. Later, when he’s fighting Crocodile, Luffy actually demonstrates quite the apt understanding of Vivi and her predicament. Along with displaying a strong devotion to her, because they’re friends and he feels strongly about her burden.
There are many different kinds of intelligence, and while Luffy may not be that sharp with his cognition, he’s a genius when it comes to emotional intelligence. He was raised by criminals and around wild animals, had a trying relationship with his brother (ACE!!!), and had a violent eccentric grandfather who insisted he become stronger. So, it’s not far-fetched to think Luffy would come out of all that as a strong intelligent animal.
Not that Luffy is pretending to be stupid, but rather he is more concerned with having a grand adventure than dwelling on the dangers and atrocities of the world he inhabits. Sure, he is ignorant when it comes to things like world politics, but this can be explained as not being exposed to that kind of information due to growing up in the wild. His negligence for rules could easily be interpreted as deliberate rebellion in a playful manner, because he knows the rules are screwed up to begin with. Luffy knows a lot more than he lets on, but that’s because he’d rather enjoy his life than be dragged down by society.
Also, Shanks is Luffy’s hero and inspiration in life. Before, all he’d known came from Garp’s influence; solving things through violence and not letting people get away with stuff (likely a Marine practice). But then Shanks appeared and Luffy managed to find someone so strong and yet carefree enough to laugh off personal attacks (when Shanks had liquor poured on him he just sat there, laughed and took it in stride). For crying out loud, LOSING AN ARM didn’t phase the man! How could he NOT make an impression on Luffy after that.
What makes Luffy such an interesting character in my mind is his motivations and how perfectly he fits the role of protagonist. In a lot of shounen series there are these pretend moments where the show makes it seem like the protagonist is losing and there’s all these stakes and drama on the line, but in reality you know they’re going to win somehow. Not that knowing the protagonist will win is the problem, but rather how it’s presented is that of forced tension with bad writing. And the longer it goes on the more damaging it is to the suspension of disbelief, and ends up coming out unfulfilling and downright insulting. Compare Natsu from Fairy Tail, for instance. A lot of the show is consistently making him out to be weaker than his peers (Erza, Laxus, etc.) and yet for some reason, no matter how hard he’s losing, how damaged his body is, or the fact that his stronger peers were beaten easily, the show always makes him the winner in fights. But he didn’t earn those victories. They lack explanation and justification, and happen just because that’s the formula this show has created for itself. There was no sense he should’ve won other than because we expect him to simply due to fact he’s a protagonist and this is a shounen.
Whereas with Luffy, from the start we know exactly what he can do and how he treats fighting; with a fun and lighthearted spirit and sense of humour, but will get serious if the opponent’s strong enough. You know the fights Luffy will win easily, because of the difference between their bounties or through comparing their abilities against one another. And you know when Luffy’s having a tough time he will act creative with his abilities. Plus, Luffy actually loses fights, and learns from them. This is a big deal for me and it’s very rewarding to see a character earn their victories, or at least have an understandable reason behind why a fight would be an easy-win for them (Luffy ate Gomu Gomu Fruit and is super strong from the get-go; no need for much explanation beyond that, though we do get some anyway).
Something else I find notably interesting about Luffy is how exciting the moments he gets serious are. Those instances where his mind is made up and his course of action is clear, and that nothing will stand in his way now, are among some of the most powerful and satisfying scenes to watch in One Piece. When Luffy requests Sogeking to shoot down the World Government flag it speaks volumes about just how deadset he and the rest of his crew are on saving Robin, and proving to her just how much she means to them as a nakama. Luffy doesn’t care about how the entire world will hunt down the Straw Hats should after this intervention. Even in the face of a global-scale adversity that could take measures to actively track down, capture and execute them, Luffy stands firm in his belief that his nakama are more important than any of that, and nothing anyone will say or do will change that.
After learning the reason behind Robin’s abandonment of the Straw Hats being done as a sacrifice to keep them safe, because she was so accustomed to being abandoned growing up and felt so happy with the Straw Hats that she’d rather leave them before ever getting the chance to be hurt by being abandoned again, Luffy reacts without hesitation and has the WG’s flag burned as if to say “We’ll never abandon you Robin, because you are our nakama!”. Luffy probably thought that if Robin was always going to worry about being abandoned and feel alone in her conflict against the WG, then Luffy just proved to her in one action, by waging war against the WG, that she wasn’t going to be alone anymore. Because now they’re in this fight together and if they come for Robin, that means they come for all the Straw Hat members and thus have no reason to leave her. It’s such a damn beautiful and touching moment, especially when Robin cries her heart out and asks to be saved, accepting their acceptance of her.
Luffy is consistent as a character. His actions, behaviour, and personality aren’t indications of him being a one-trick pony, as he does learn and grow, but even without those moments he remains charming in his childlike wonder and fun attitude. There are many moments where Luffy acts outside his perceived dimension, such as how he reacted to the room full of Nami’s maps in Arlong Park, knowing from the sight of the pen and blood that Nami must have felt like a prisoner there the entire time; to which he stops fighting Arlong just to utterly destroy the room and ensure Nami that even if he loses, she’ll never have to go back there. His disagreement with Vivi’s naive goal to save everyone in Alabasta. Him remaining calm while asserting he knows Robin’s enemy well during the Enies Lobby confrontation. How he brokered a deal with Aokiji to not harm his crew after their fight. Each of these instances showcases more than Luffy’s usual free-spirited demeanour, but not to any unbelievable extent. He’s a simple person, but also a complex character.
While not always obvious, there is an understanding that Luffy has a variety of character traits he’s gained from experience. That he has been shaped by his past and his life from those who taught him and those who changed him and is still learning and showing continual change. He remains simple in personality, but that does not mean he does not have more layers to him. His motivations can change depending on the situation, and acts the way he does for various reasons. Oda certainly took the time to make Luffy an interesting and charming character. For all his faults, Luffy stands out because he is so passionate about his dream and his friends, which is something I can immediately and wholeheartedly get behind. And seeing him react so desperately when either of those things are in jeopardy makes him all the more compelling.
He also has the uncanny ability so few possess of inspiring and gaining comrades who are willing to follow and even die for him. Then there’s Luffy’s unique and awesome fighting style. You’d think being made of rubber and stretching everywhere in battle isn’t cool, yet Luffy easily shows himself as a force to be reckoned with, and often in comedic fashion too. And I haven’t even mentioned how well designed Luffy’s character is; aesthetically he exudes charm in even just purely through visuals. From the straw hat on his head to the red vest, shorts and sandals, his appearance alone brings his character to life by portraying him with such a strong and colourful aesthetic.
Luffy is both perplexing, yet reasonable. He relies a lot more on intuition than knowledge, and I wouldn’t consider him “idiotic” because of it. Personality-wise, Luffy is a rich blend of childlike innocence and humour with an adultlike determination and responsibility. When he gets involved in other people’s affairs, it’s not without reason, as he’s been shown to truly care about whatever he gets involved in (helping Vivi and Alabasta, finding and ringing the bell in Skypiea). I won’t make apologies for my fanboy bias here, but Luffy is one of my favourite characters in manga, and would favour him over many other protagonists because I’m just so impressed and fascinated by Oda’s unconventional approaches to characters like him. It’s something I can’t help but admire and truly appreciate as I read further.
Whenever Luffy’s empathic and emotional side is at the forefront, it’s hard not to feel excited and inspired by him. I don’t think it’s remotely an accident Oda designed Luffy this way, because the whole narrative keeps emphasizing how much of a key player he is in affecting everything. Even little things like that time at the beginning of the series when he gave the dog some dog food so it could keep a piece of its master’s memory alive. Luffy took the time to be kind to an animal in-between his fight with Buggy, just because he sensed something was off and intuitively did a nice thing, despite the dangerous circumstances facing him. Even if it’s an animal (like Laboon) Luffy maintains this understanding about what others want and so long as they don’t cross his principles (e.g. don’t mistreat friends he just made, don’t mess with Luffy’s nakama, don’t touch his hat, etc.), he will try and help set them on the path to achieving said goals. His moral compass deviates based on his mood, making him seem unpredictable. Though he loves his family and friends, he is so passionate and serious about his dreams that he would be willing to beat the crap out of them in order to achieve his goals. A passion only matched by his willingness to help others. Also he has an endearing love of culture.
Eiichiro Oda often incorporates unconventional characters into his story, so it should come as no surprise for his protagonist to also be an unconventional character that can enact all these awesome situations for both progression of the characters and the epic story to unfold, as well as comical scenarios to arise out of them. He’s even gone as far as stating: “when drawing Luffy, I try to make him very straightforward about what he wants to be and how he feels, which is why out of all the main characters, he has the least number of thought bubbles, since he acts and says what he wants to do rather than think it”. Which explains why Luffy’s a pretty chill character too, and how magnetic of personality he’s had since day one.
Honestly, in my mind Luffy is one of the most interesting characters in the series, out of a lot of other arguably equally or more interesting characters. Part of that mostly comes down to how other characters, who are intriguing in their own right, react to Luffy. While he does ask questions about other’s appearances and actions in a very straightforward manner that offends and angers his (would-be) enemies, there are just as many who receive similar comments (though, perhaps to a seemingly more lighter degree) and are amused and laugh off Luffy as a fun and interesting guy. To quote Dracule “Hawkeye” Mihawk: “It’s not some sort of special power, but he has the ability to make allies of everyone he meets. And that is the most fearsome ability on the high seas…”
Luffy is a friendly and endearing, simple-minded adolescent with a strong sense of ambition, but also has a strong sense of kinship; and despite his shortcomings, Luffy is an amazing character because of how much he values the people in his life – from his mentor, Shanks; who recklessly endangered his own life and lost an arm in the process to save Luffy – an act of selflessness Luffy will never forget and has been one of the core events that shaped his life, and why he prides his strength on only being good enough if he can save his nakama; to his crew and all the friends he’s made in his travels.
For the crew of nakama he has formed, there simply isn’t another captain that would’ve been able to form such a strong camaraderie with them; Zoro being the first, pledging himself to Luffy for his help in returning his swords and because Luffy’s goal is a higher ambition than Zoro’s, and he wouldn’t follow anyone else. Luffy was able to convince the infamous “Pirate Hunter Zoro” to join him and in-so becoming a pirate.
Nami went along with them for a while until she betrayed them for the sake of her village, but even then Luffy didn’t blame Nami for breaching their trust. Instead he felt angry that Arlong made her cry and suffer all this time and took it upon himself to beat the crap out of Arlong and annihilate the building Nami associates so many painful memories with. Of course, he helped her under the ulterior motivation of wanting her as part of his crew, but that doesn’t detract from his empathy and selflessness here.
Usopp joined Luffy because he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a brave warrior of the seas. Luffy was already that in Usopp’s eyes by the end of their meeting and I imagine Luffy’s connection to Usopp’s father was all the more reason to follow him. Sanji having his dream of exploring “All-Blue” rekindled after meeting Luffy, as well as his signs of concern every time Luffy falls in water and he dives into save, and their relationship regarding food all display an awesome dynamic between the two characters that only gets more interesting the more you read into it.
Robin devotes herself to Luffy and the crew after he saves her when she’s given up on life, then when he finds out her ditching them was to save them at the cost of her own life, he wages war on the marines by destroying their flag so that Robin knew he wasn’t going back on his decision. And it shows on Robin’s face how much this decision really means to her.
Luffy is forgiving of his crew’s betrayals and other actions that would probably be enough excuse for any other captain to get rid of them. What makes Luffy’s actions both impactful and inconsequential for his crew, is that they either know he can handle it himself, or they’ll handle it together, because they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses so well, and have this tight sense of camaraderie on par or greater than that of Shanks’s crew. And each member has displayed on several occasions the strength of this bond, from Zoro, Nami (and again), Usopp, Sanji (and again), Vivi (temporary member), Chopper (and… again), Robin, Franky, and Brook (and of course THIS). Also, a lot of the character’s actions (not just Luffy) are done for comedy. Though while maintaining within character, are still exaggerated for the sake of comedy in unison with progressing the story more than anything else (the manga makes these moments flow a lot better without it feeling like the story comes to a halt to make room for them).
For me personally, showing such remarkable compassion is a quality I find incredibly endearing, and Luffy embodies this quality to Kamina levels of ridiculous awesomeness. I am especially touched by his behaviour later when he witnesses all his nakama disappear right in front of him as he frantically tries to escape with them from Kuma. You can see the anguish on his face as Luffy is forced to keep trying to retreat with the rest of his crew as he so suddenly is made to process the possibility his nakama are being killed in front of his very eyes. Here we see Luffy being reminded of the dangers of the sea, but unlike before when he alone was certain he was going to die and embraced it with no regret, he feels distraught seeing it happen to his nakama, because he is their captain and they mean more to him than his own life. He will go against the world at large for the sake of his comrades, not just the Straw Hats, but even people he just met and befriended.
Luffy expresses major concern in their fight against Kuma, because this is the first time he’s felt he couldn’t win, been this serious about it and actually felt the need to escape. So he orders his crew to run away, but shockingly loses all he’s gained in one fell swoop as all his nakama disappear right before his very eyes. Later he cries out how he’s a failure of a captain, showing how, despite appearances, he’s very serious about protecting his Nakama and risks his life again and again for them; as seen when he climbs the ice-cold tower to visit the doctor to save Nami. And later after Ace dies, and the news of Luffy’s brother is revealed publicly, we see the desperate cries of his nakama pained by the loss that has struck Luffy, and despite their predicaments are more concerned about his well-being than their own. Which shows just significant of a figure Luffy is in each of their lives, despite whatever differences they have between them, they mean a lot to each other and help one another through their personal problems.
Monkey D. Luffy is someone who exhibits loving family values, while living dangerously with a unique creed all to his own. As foolish as he may be, and as heroic his deeds may seem, overall Luffy is a larger than life character that embodies the word “adventure”, and his character arc being intrinsically tied to the narrative of One Piece certainly makes this clear.