One Piece vs Dragon Ball: Which is the #1 Shonen of All-Time?
It’s pirates versus space martial artists in this battle to decide which is the best Shonen!
When it comes to Shonen manga and anime, two names immediately stand out above the rest: Dragon Ball and One Piece. Both of these properties have reached international popularity and maintain legions of fans. Merchandise and memorabilia of the franchises exist across nearly everything you can imagine, from action figures, models, trading card games, and posters to art books, clothes, toys, stationery, and so much more.
But what if you could only choose one of these two fantastic series? Or you were only able to show one of them to someone who’s never seen anime before? It might be easy for some of you to choose your personal favorite for a variety of reasons. But with a side-by-side comparison, there are interesting elements to compare and contrast to help decide once and for all: Which is the number one Shonen of all time, One Piece or Dragon Ball?
Plot Structure & Fight Pacing
Both Dragon Ball and One Piece follow a similar pacing and pattern of arcs that introduce a new villain or threat for the main protagonist and company to defeat. As the adventure builds up, the enemy is defeated in a climactic grand finale. Although both series have nearly the same structure, they do have differences in how they build up their tension to the walloping final boss fight.
The Dragon Ball anime is notorious for prolonging boss fights with plenty of face-offs where characters throw threatening dialogue back and forth. In the anime, this is usually done to spread out episodes throughout a scheduled season. Before the action blasts off, Goku and his fellow Z-fighters constantly train to match any incoming or unforeseen threat. During the battle, foes like to take their time to slowly evolve into their strongest forms and then show off their wicked powers to intimidate Goku and company.
Even though it’s getting a bit predictable to watch the newest villain become even stronger throughout the battle, Dragon Ball almost always has the most epic payoff. Once the final battle ensues and builds to a climax, everything gets emotionally and viscerally thrilling, with displays of combat and power that always push the boundaries of anime. After all, Saiyans are supposed to be the mightiest beings in the universe.
Naysayers of Shonen might complain about how these stories are all the same because the heroes always win in the end. Even though that’s part of the enjoyment of these kinds of stories, there are new surprising twists that help break the mold. With Dragon Ball Super, the series introduced a destroyer named Beerus who Goku and Vegeta simply cannot defeat in combat. Now that Beerus is somewhat of an ally, there always remains a destined battle between them looming on the horizon to prove who is the strongest, once and for all.
While One Piece also draws out their main battles in a similar fashion, newer arcs have started evolving the pattern as the series continues to gear up toward its finale. For most of the story and major arcs so far, Luffy and crew have discovered and made their way through a new area. Along the way, they overcome the main villain’s underlings before taking on the big boss to save everyone.
But in the Whole Cake Island Arc, Luffy never decisively defeated the Emperor Big Mom. He and his crew could only flee, leaving her as an active threat that would pursue them further. Wano, meanwhile, saw Luffy incapacitated by Kaido early on and separated from his crew, resulting in several different storylines.
These two events broke expectations and propelled the series in a whole different direction. Due to these unforeseen events, the conclusion to both Big Mom and Kaido’s battles were more tense, exciting, and climactic in new ways since fans couldn’t be sure how Luffy would win, and their reactions would be heightened when Big Mom and Kaido were not simply defeated by Luffy alone.
Winner: Dragon Ball
When it comes to story arcs, pacing, and big battles, Dragon Ball follows a similar pattern of Goku and Vegeta training to become stronger warriors and eventually learning how to break their current limits in order to defeat more powerful enemies. There are exceptions of course, as other arcs position the main heroes as Trunks, Gohan, Goten, and others, shifting the focus to characters besides Goku and Vegeta.
Dragon Ball Super released a movie all about the perceived villain, Broly, whose tragic story is the main arc, along with the reframing of his fight against Goku and Vegeta who are actually the antagonists of the story. One Piece has yet to release a story in this fashion. And as of this writing, the new season of Dragon Ball Super is being previewed, and has revealed that a major arc will focus on the teenage years of Trunks and Goten at Blue Hal High School, who’ve finally grown up!
On the other hand, One Piece follows suit with how the challenges and villains that Luffy face still require him to become stronger by learning new abilities, but the main difference is that he has an end goal: to get the One Piece treasure and become king of pirates.
First point goes to Dragon Ball.
Cast of Characters
A manga and anime series can’t garner growing fanbases without having awesome characters. Both One Piece and Dragon Ball excel in this area, but in different ways.
Dragon Ball has always been about Goku and that might not ever change anytime soon, but his supporting cast keeps the story unpredictable and captivating. Having the best “frenemy” in Vegeta is a dynamic that not many stories pull off, especially as long-term and consistent as Dragon Ball. Countless random alien races pop up and prove just how limitless Dragon Ball is. The other fun and dynamic element that Dragon Ball possesses is how the story introduced ways for characters to “fuse” into a brand-new being. Goku and Vegeta can merge and become either Vegito or Gogeta, while Trunks and Goten can become Gotenks or Gohanks, and so on. How awesome it is to see your favorite characters combine into a brand new warrior that’s even more epic and mighty.
There is also a multi-generational cast that includes Goku’s children and grandchildren, along with main characters from the future within an alternate timeline. Talk about being sci-fi to the max! In the early days of the series, some of the personalities blended together, but over time, each and every character began to stand out more due to their looks and personality. And as the series progresses, most of the cast have developed different paths in life with unique purposes and goals.
One Piece has an incredibly colorful cast of characters that go beyond the already awesome Luffy and his pirate crew. Luffy’s crew each have complex stories stemming from deep and often dark pasts, while they struggle with their developing futures. They also serve specific purposes on their ship, furthering their distinctions. To top it all off, they all have wildly different personalities and silly quirks.
For example, Sanji, the crew’s cook, has a traumatic childhood past, only fights with kicks in order to protect his hands for cooking, and switches from being calm and smooth into excitable and silly when he’s around girls. Nami is the crew’s navigator, and she grew up dirt poor because her mother was murdered by evil fishman pirates who then took over her village. This forced her to become obsessed with money, which made her become a thief and map-maker to try and earn an income. Now she’s the bossy navigator of the Straw Hats crew.
And then there’s Usopp, who starts out as a liar or “teller of tall tales” who is constantly battling with a never-ending fear of danger (due to his lack of powers) throughout his journey, but eventually stirs up enough courage and comes into his own. As a member of the Straw Hats, he’s the primary comedy relief but also brings incredible value with his growing marksmanship specialization and mastery of ranged weapons.
When it comes to the rest of the cast, both supporting and enemies, they’re nearly all just as colorful and memorable. Additionally, many allies and enemies stick around for a long time and make reappearances later on. It’s an enjoyable experience to see them grow and develop in unexpected ways, or play new or surprising roles in the story later on.
Winner: One Piece
Dragon Ball has shifted around story arcs and movies to focus on different characters to be the central protagonists and become the ones who save the day when Goku and Vegeta couldn’t. While One Piece has instead focused more on the complex pasts and developing stories of each member of Luffy’s crew. Both series showcase some of the most iconic characters in anime history, but One Piece slightly edges out Dragon Ball for a point here because there’s arguably more depth and backstory for more of the characters, beyond Luffy and his crew.
And while Dragon Ball’s cast is big, diverse, and always growing, One Piece still has a slightly larger cast with more diverse characters. Now, Dragon Ball can have infinitely more races and new additions to the cast, but many of Dragon Ball’s characters so far seem to come and go a bit faster than what we see on One Piece. Finally, One Piece does a fantastic job of providing backstories for some of the major villains and history of the world. Either way, both provide more than enough unique heroes, allies, and villains to set a standard in anime that few other series can come close to.
Fighting, adventure, and martial arts action are nothing new, but both of these properties took their respective mix of genres into whole new universes and worlds — literally. Looking back, it’s evident to see that there was nothing quite like Dragon Ball before it originated, and the same holds true for One Piece.
Dragon Ball has opened up an immersive science fiction world full of aliens and super beings with immense powers and fantastical abilities while having roots in martial arts fantasy. In the original Dragon Ball story, Goku grew up wandering a different kind of Earth filled with dragon-like monsters, strange beasts, animal humanoids, androids, and superhuman martial artists. From Dragon Ball Z to Dragon Ball Super, the series introduced more aliens from far-off worlds along with multiple dimensions of existence, and alternate future timelines made possible by time travel. By combining all of these elements, Dragon Ball is one of the most uniquely synthesized genres in the world— maybe even the universe.
One Piece is not as expansive as Dragon Ball, but the entire world is completely original, full of charm, and undeniably immersive. It takes tropes from historical pirates and pirate fiction as its foundation, and while it borrows inspiration from past American pop culture, things quickly become blurred with a mix of all kinds of fantasy elements from across a wide variety of source material.
The wildly different races, technology, fashion, and history of the different islands puts One Piece in a world of its own, and this is only taken further when one considers the lore and history created for each location. And land isn’t the only inhabited realm: there are plenty of civilizations under the surface of the ocean, or in the sky on floating islands and other fantastical creations. All of this makes it easy to get caught up in the sense of being part of a fantasy pirate world with plenty of twists.
Winner: Dragon Ball
While Dragon Ball feels like a sci-fi martial arts space RPG, One Piece feels more like a traditional fantasy RPG with a heavy emphasis on pirates, adventure, exploration, and superhero-like powers. Both are increasingly expansive, but only Dragon Ball is truly infinite.
This also feels like another point for Dragon Ball because Goku is not limited to a single planet. At any time, the story could reveal new planets and races with plots that are far removed from anything in Dragon Ball so far.
Final Winner: Dragon Ball
Based on all the prior examinations and comparisons, Dragon Ball edges out the victory. When it comes to the fights, Dragon Ball revolutionized manga and anime action sequences with hyper-fighting styles mixed with martial arts and features the rawest, most emotionally charged, and epically visceral climactic battles. The characters might not have the most complex or deep backgrounds when compared to One Piece, but they still represent good heroic qualities and remain charming, interesting, and entertaining.
In One Piece, Luffy has been the champion of every single arc up until Wano, being the one to finally take down the boss villain, while Dragon Ball has featured multiple arcs and movies where Goku did not deliver the winning blow and nor did he participate in the majority of the fight, or at all. There have also been long stretches where Goku has been killed and trains in spirit form before being wished back with the Dragon Balls.
During this time, he’s limited with what he can do for his loved ones on earth. In contrast, Luffy has never been killed (and won’t be since there are no Dragon Balls to save him obviously) whereas Goku and Vegeta could be taken out for a long period of time, and the story might shift to the other characters. With this core focus, Dragon Ball’s story is free to go in almost any direction even though Goku’s goal to fight stronger opponents has been at the forefront.
And in Dragon Ball, the increasing cast of characters, the possible plots, and the very world itself have no limits because of the young generation characters that are growing up, and endless possibilities of planets, universes, and races that can always be introduced. Ultimately, nothing showcases the sheer fighting action and all the aspects of the pure Shonen spirit other than Dragon Ball.
The battle was close, and I find myself teetering back and forth between my favorite of the two. But the best part is: all fans are winners because both Dragon Ball and One Piece keep the Shonen spirit alive, and both series continue to improve (just like their protagonists) as they tell epic stories. For me, Dragon Ball was one of the few anime that made a striking and monumental impact on my perception of stories and art. Meanwhile, One Piece is the anime and manga series that I’ve invested the most reading time and watch hours into — and that’s not going to change any time soon.
Now, what is your favorite and why? Let us know in the comments below! If you want to experience the action of Dragon Ball beyond the anime and manga, check out their awesome video games FighterZ and Xenoverse 2 and the incredible TCG Dragon Ball Super Card Game. For more on Shonen anime in general, check out any of the related articles down below.
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