One Piece has been chugging merrily along so far, gathering crewmates and engaging in one-off adventures, but it’s been a fairly self-contained story. We know this is the “era of pirates,” but that doesn’t really feel tangible outside of the fact that all of the bad guy groups have been pirates or naval officers. The story doesn’t really have a sense of coherent scale – it’s largely felt like episodic adventures were just being invented one after another, which is quite possibly true. On top of that, very little so far has felt legitimately threatening; though Luffy and his friends have certainly been in danger, there’s been little threat of actual consequences or death.
In its sixth volume, One Piece begins to rectify these issues, as Luffy’s quest to find a ship’s cook just runs into one complication after another. In truth, this is a somewhat messy arc; characters are introduced and shuffled off the screen within awkward sub-chapters, and the overall dramatic arc bobs and weaves as various opponents appear and disappear in sequence. On top of that, new potential crewmate Sanji doesn’t initially do much to recommend himself; though he’s clearly got a bit more complexity than Zoro, his “loves the ladies” gimmick feels old the moment it’s introduced. One Piece’s sixth volume is one that perhaps most clearly demonstrates the difficulty of starting a major shounen manga – many such manga are actually sunk by middling arcs such as this, and it’s almost sad to think of how many mangaka really just needed a few more volumes of breathing room to find their storytelling feet.
And yet, for all those various issues, this volume also clearly demonstrates that Oda is beginning to gain both an understanding of the scale he could possibly be working in and a much stronger eye for visual composition and setpieces. There are some breathtaking moments in this volume, and ideas that point to a willingness to engage with storytelling on a much larger scale. The world is expanding now, something clear in both the dramatic fights and the worldbuilding reveals.
As far as worldbuilding goes, early on, this arc’s villain is set up as “Don Krieg,” a pirate who commands an armada of fifty ships. Don Krieg is built up as a powerful and bloodthirsty pirate, someone our heroes should clearly respect, but when he appears, he’s nearly in pieces. Apparently, Don Krieg journeyed to the Grand Line, and was rewarded for his troubles with the destruction of his fleet. The Grand Line has been a nebulous concept so far, but this volume is clearly committed to making the audience understand that the arcs so far have been small-fry material. The story gets almost videogame-esque in its detailing of how minor Luffy’s adventures have been – when describing the scale of the world, the great swordsman Hawk-eye describes their quadrant as the tamest of all of them. Clearly there’s plenty of leveling up to be done.
On top of that, One Piece’s heroes are finally starting to run into conflicts and characters that challenge their initially simplistic perspectives. So far, Zoro and Luffy’s strength-focused philosophy has been unchallenged by the powers arrayed against them, but here, Zoro is soundly defeated by a swordsman far above his level. Shounen strength is in truth a death wish, and though Zoro promises by the end of the fight to never lose again, I have to imagine this battle will be at least something of a humbling experience. On top of that, both Sanji and Nami demonstrate more texture in these chapters – Sanji through his uniquely humanist philosophy (“my job is to feed people, not judge them”), and Nami through the strange admission that accompanies her latest betrayal.
But if the storytelling here is somewhat messy in its ambitions, the art just keeps getting better. Volume six is elevated by both small tricks of composition and dramatic visual setpieces, starting with the shambling arrival of Don Krieg’s tattered ship. The man himself has an equally strong entrance, one demonstrating how Kuro’s simple but iconic, manga-friendly design has lead into more designs demonstrating a strong understanding of dramatic two-tone contrast and negative space. Even in the smaller moments, this understanding of how bold visual contrast creates dramatic tone is starting to elevate the storytelling.
The panels expressing motion are equally strong, with Sanji in particular getting some real standout highlights. Unlike some of the earlier Luffy fights, there’s a sense of movement to these panels, of momentum in the swinging limbs. Tricks like the previous volume’s use of busy panels leading into open ones to create a punchline return, and when it comes time to really impress, Oda is ready to please. There’s an inherent majesty in these great ships, and a sense of horror in seeing them destroyed. It takes quite the steady hand to capture that sensation, but it’s looking like Oda’s arrived.
One Piece’s sixth volume is messy, but messy in ways that seem reflective of necessary growing pains more than actual failures. Its narrative shuffle points toward increased storytelling ambition, and its visual highlights reach higher peaks than ever before. The manga’s fundamentals continue to steadily improve.
This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.