One Piece’s fourth volume is action-packed from start to finish, wholly dedicated to the protracted battle between Usopp, his new friends, and the former Captain Kuro. And it’s all very fun stuff! There isn’t necessarily a continuous heightened level of tension throughout these chapters, but there’s certainly plenty of momentum, and no sense that anything is being dragged out. I’d worried in discussing the last volume that Usopp himself would be more aggravating than endearing, but whether it comes down to the speed of manga versus anime or the simple execution of his character, Usopp is actually turning out to be one of the highlights of the manga.
As I discussed back in volume two, Luffy and Zolo (I went and bought myself the official 4-5-6 megavolume, so “Zolo” it is) are certainly unusual shounen leads in their own ways, what with their plentiful strength and unlikely prioritization of pride and conviction over friendship or righteousness. Usopp is also a fairly unusual lead, but in a very different way; in contrast to those dramatically capable fighters, Usopp is basically just good at running and hiding. But he makes the most of his strengths, and his combination of awareness of his own limitations and regular attempts to surpass them make it hard not to root for him.
It helps that Usopp isn’t actually a clown, and is really just playing one for the crowd. Usopp is perfectly aware of his weaknesses, and so he both often acknowledges them and works hard to play around them. The manga emphasizes that he’s a quick thinker and smooth talker, and his narrow range of fighting proficiency actually earns him some of the most dynamic panels of this volume. He also has a sense of nobility and conviction that both sets him apart from his new friends and makes it clear why they respect him; they may not care about saving the innocent in the same way he does, but they can respect that he’s willing to die to do it. If Usopp is going to end up being the heart of this crew, he’s off to a strong start.
Usopp integrates well into the overall pirate group, and his scenes with Nami in particular were a real highlight – there’s a great sequence right in the middle where the two of them get into a heated argument over which of them is more useless in a fight. That conversation points to the interesting shounen imbalances in One Piece’s team, which this volume addresses in a variety of ways. The setup here is that Usopp’s village and Kaya specifically are being attacked by a band of pirates led by Django and Kuro – Usopp plans to set a trap for them, but misinformation means they ultimately have to race to stop the pirates.
Just based on what we already know, it’s clear that Zolo and Luffy shouldn’t have much trouble clearing up this pirate group, while Nami and Usopp have no hope of defeating them. In the Buggy arc, this problem was sidestepped through humor; Luffy won easily, but the fight was never intended to be dramatically effective. But this fight is supposed to be tense, and so it needs actual stakes. And so, in order to create some real danger, the manga quarantines both of the heavy-hitters for a while, and lets the two schemers do their desperate best to hold off the hordes.
The manga gets away with this trick, but it isn’t exactly graceful – while Zolo’s tardiness at least plays into his relationship with Nami (she sabotages him in order to save the treasure), Luffy simply gets held back by his own narratively useful idiocy. This sort of works this one time, but it’s the kind of trick that is so clearly artificial it couldn’t really be gotten away with repeatedly. In the future, the story will likely have to find better ways to make use of characters that are much less useful in a fight – something that even Hunter x Hunter has struggled with at times, and one of the central puzzles more ambitious shounens have to solve.
More effective is the way the manga later uses space and uneven powers to make everyone relevant. The general fight takes place on the slope of a ravine with cliffs on either side, and so the positioning of the characters and their weapons ends up being consistently relevant. Nami makes herself important by managing this space and sacrificing herself, while Usopp mainly works through interference and negotiation, and Zolo cuts the space in half. It’s a fairly rudimentary way of making an unevenly skilled team work together, but it at least demonstrates a dedication to valuing all these characters that will hopefully be matched with more graceful execution over time.
Speaking of execution, One Piece’s visuals continue to improve in this volume. The action scenes are no longer entirely dominated by big impact panels; there are some strong sequences that really have a sense of action flow to them, along with plenty of shots used to create a sense of scale. Captain Kuro gets some of the best panels here, as his too-cool style and all-black outfit lend themselves to dramatically framed sequences of betrayal and villainy (one great early shot demonstrating drama through foreshortening is later echoed by Luffy, an indication of Oda growing slowly accustomed to new visual tricks). And the manga’s character designs continue to be all kinds of absurd; Oda clearly doesn’t feel any need to make his villains look traditionally intimidating or cool, and so they’re free to embrace basically any visual theme imaginable.
One Piece continues to gain steam in this fourth volume, and the addition of Usopp has proven to be far more effective than I’d expected. It’s becoming easier and easier to just keep on reading the damn thing.
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