Luffy recoiling from a punch in One Piece

Luffy Balloon Announced for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Signaling the Arrival of ‘One Piece’ in Mainstream American Culture

Toei Animation, the Japanese studio behind the anime version of One Piece, has just shared some major news. Monkey D. Luffy, the protagonist of the long-running series, will join hallowed icons such as Snoopy, Pikachu, and SpongeBob SquarePants. Luffy—in his post-time skip design—will be getting a balloon in the 2023 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

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If you’re one of the new fans who’s jumped aboard following Netflix’s very well-received live adaptation of One Piece, this may not be surprising news to you. After all, Buggy the Clown alone basically took over TikTok with thirst videos. But to anyone who’s been a fan of One Piece for years, it’s a hallmark event.

In other parts of the world—and Japan especially—One Piece began catching on like wildfire in the immediate years following the manga and anime releases in 1997 and 1999, respectively. In Japan, there’s an annual stunt show, a chain of dedicated stores, and a former theme park (killed by COVID). But that spark never ignited Stateside or in other parts of the Western world. Passionate fandoms cropped up, but One Piece trailed far behind Dragon Ball (Z), Naruto, Sailor Moon, and Pokémon in the American zeitgeist—probably because the first English-language localization of the anime was an infamously horrendous 4Kids dub.

One Piece creator Mangaka Eiichiro Oda was very up-front about his reasons for agreeing to a Hollywood adaptation of his masterwork. Oda saw Netflix’s production as “the last chance to bring One Piece to the entire world.” It very much seems as though that goal has been met.

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We are now living in a version of the world where One Piece is beloved globally. For fans who have been on this train for years, it’s thrilling—and, admittedly, very surreal. One Piece broke an internal record for Netflix, streaming in the number-one spot in 84 countries simultaneously, beating Stranger Things 4‘s record. In the week following the Netflix show’s release, I had multiple friends text me out of the blue to ask about One Piece.

But the clearest sign that a shift was occurring was when Whoopi Goldberg raved about the Netflix adaptation on The View, a program my mother has turned on every morning for over a decade. If I had to brainstorm a TV program to exemplify a baseline in American mainstream culture, The View would be on my shortlist. Also, Whoopi Goldberg is … you know, Whoopi Goldberg! The lady from Sister Act and Star Trek!

Adjusting my understanding of how One Piece is now being perceived by American culture, via Whoopi, of all people, was a fitting warmup to the announcement of Luffy’s balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The same parade I watched on TV every year as a little kid, curled up in my aunt’s den with a cinnamon bun. To imagine American kids in 2023 being introduced to Luffy this way is bizarrely emotional.

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Luffy is not the first anime character to appear in the Macy’s Parade. A Pikachu balloon has been part of the proceedings since 2001 (though it’s been Pikachu and Eevee since 2021). There’s even been a Goku balloon since 2018. But Dragon Ball Z became a hit on American TV 20 years prior—first on the WB in 1996, then on Cartoon Network’s Toonami. Why it took the parade 22 years to reflect on American audiences’ fondness for anime characters outside of Pikachu is an unsurprisingly eye-rolling but separate story. The fact that it only took Luffy five years to catch up is wild.

I’ve always associated the choice of balloons in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with the most recognizable, digestible characters inhabiting the American cultural space. I say this with a lot of love for Pikachu and SpongeBob. It’s tempting to say that Luffy has suddenly crescendoed to become such a figure after over two decades of leading a sub-culture within the anime sub-culture, but the truth is that those two decades of impassioned fandom helped us get here. The awareness of One Piece has been steadily growing, especially in the five-ish years before this explosion.

Still, as someone who remembers having to argue that One Piece was worth dedicated coverage just two years ago—times change fast. It’s truly the Great Pirate Era.

(featured image: Toei Animation)

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Kirsten Carey
Kirsten (she/her) is a contributing writer at the Mary Sue specializing in anime and gaming. In the last decade, she's also written for Channel Frederator (and its offshoots), Screen Rant, and more. In the other half of her professional life, she's also a musician, which includes leading a very weird rock band named Throwaway. When not talking about One Piece or The Legend of Zelda, she's talking about her cats, Momo and Jimbei.