I’m pretty stuck on this train at this point. One Piece’s fifth volume concludes the fight with Kuro’s cat-themed pirates, and adds one more member to Luffy’s humble crew. In doing so, it consistently demonstrates the two-pronged atmospheric attack that I assume has made One Piece such an unstoppable institution. The volume opens with Luffy fighting Kuro on the slopes while Usopp’s pirates attempt to stop Django, who react to his new weapons with the wonderfully absurd “he’s not a typical traveling hypnotist after all!” It’s absurdity and action all the way down, a ride that doesn’t let up for the first two-thirds of the volume.
In retrospect, having Luffy’s first opponents be a circus-themed pirate crew kind of gave the One Piece game away. One Piece can be both consistently funny and also consistently dramatically engaging – it’s basically a carnival, where you’re enjoying the roller coaster drops but also laughing all along the way. It has a sense of earnest fun that reminds me of stuff like Girls und Panzer, or Yozakura Quartet. Action doesn’t have to be grim and self-serious to create a sense of tension or emotional investment; in fact, for me at least, the opposite is almost always true. Action is inherently silly, so it’s nice to let it be silly. Let your stories embrace a sense of fun.
Anyway. In comparison to the somewhat weightless Buggy fight, the fights in this volume’s first half still somewhat lack a sense of danger or consistent tension (it almost seems like they’re all kind of floating here, for example), but make up for it through Usopp’s strong presence and Oda’s consistently improving sense of visual timing. On the Usopp side, it’s clear now that more than any other character, Usopp really does represent the heart of this series. Luffy and Zolo are strong confidence and clear goals backed up by tremendous, as-of-yet largely unchallenged power – Usopp is all of that confidence backed up purely by flimflam and belief in himself. Usopp making brave declarations while lying with his butt in the air is pretty much Peak Usopp – his body is weak, but his conviction is unbreakable. And more than anything else, Luffy and Zolo respond to conviction – in fact, that Usopp is so emotionally strong in spite of his physical weakness probably makes them like him even more.
On Oda’s side, this volume is elevated by inconsistent but much-appreciated visual highlights that offer nice bits of tonal diversity to what can sometimes be somewhat underwhelming fights. Oda doesn’t have the control of negative space that makes Bleach’s fights so distinctive (though Kuro’s outfit does help), and there aren’t yet any fights that demonstrate the tactical intrigue of Naruto’s best moments – so far, One Piece’s best fighting trick has been to mix traditional shounen fundamentals with his own Looney Tunes worldbuilding quirks. But in small moments here and there, One Piece is finally starting to demonstrate some tonal punch.
It’s the little things, really. A slight aside where Luffy grins before pulling off his counterattack, momentarily letting the audience take a breath and be positioned right there with him. Or the sequence near the end of the arc, when Luffy yells at Kuro’s pirates to run away. The sequence starts out visually crowded, following up on the end of a messy fight with several panels of pirates rushing this way and that. Then the space clears, with a sequence of three open shots conveying first Luffy taking a breath, then beginning to fall, then being caught by Nami. It’s a great sequence that uses panel positioning, negative space, and even a well-chosen page turn to make sure the audience follows Luffy’s energy as it falls, using Nami as a final reminder of the bond shared by this crew. A few more sequences like that, and One Piece will actually start looking like a top-tier series.
But there’s plenty else to dig into here, both good and bad. As far as bad news goes, as I mentioned before, the fights still aren’t quite as tense as I’d like. On top of that, the plotting could still stand to be more graceful; in the last volume, it somewhat felt like Luffy was forced out of the narrative for arbitrary reasons, and here, sequences like Usopp retroactively saying “that branch was in my way” after Zolo clears his shot feel like needlessly clumsy dramatic failures. Sequences like that just shouldn’t happen – Zolo’s actions shouldn’t be given an empty justification after they’ve already taken place, Zolo should be provoked into performing actions by dramatic needs the reader can also parse. It’s a simple issue of poor narrative drafting that I have to assume Oda will eventually learn to avoid in the planning stages.
But there are also lots of positive details, too. Awkward as the setup may be, the visual punchline of Usopp and Luffy finishing their fights on back-to-back pages is one of the manga’s biggest dramatic payoffs yet. The rapport of the main party only gets better once Usopp joins the crew, and the addition of an actual boat means One Piece is finally embracing the exhilarating freedom its premise represents. There’s a whole world out there, and if it’s full of Dr. Seuss-style embellishments like a friggin’ free-floating restaurant, I can’t wait to explore it.
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