The Baratie arc came to an end in this volume, concluding with as much dignity as it could muster. As before, a great deal of this volume’s weakness came down to the fact that Don Krieg is just not a particularly exciting opponent. Volume six deliberately undercut him by using him as a prop to build up a more threatening opponent, and volume seven dawdled through a series of fights with underwhelming underlings. Even Don Krieg’s theming isn’t particularly compelling – his main gimmicks are a focus on “military might” and his wide variety of weapons, neither of which serve to make him particularly threatening. Don Krieg is altogether pretty much a failure of an antagonist.
Fortunately, while Krieg does little to recommend himself in this volume, Luffy takes the opportunity to shine in every way he can. With the rest of his crew having left and Sanji out of commission, it comes down to Luffy to finish off Krieg, which lets both his conviction and his physical presence dominate the first half of the volume. From his early declaration of “I WON’T DIE” through his dramatic sequence of attacks, Luffy is on fire all throughout the first half.
Part of Luffy’s appeal is that he kinda sorta is a crazy person. I’ve previously mentioned how Luffy and Zoro’s philosophy seems totally unsustainable – the two of them are too proud and too eager to fight, and if they don’t keep running into enemies in perfectly escalating difficulty, those qualities are eventually going to get them killed. But in the short term, Luffy’s bravado only works to his benefit. Oda seems to understand Luffy’s confidence is a fundamentally terrifying thing – there are great panels here of Luffy framed as a demon from Krieg’s perspective, and plenty of momentum-filled panels of Luffy making wild, looping attacks. Luffy’s philosophy will hopefully turn against him eventually, but for now, it’s still being lionized as “grit,” an intangible quality that can overcome any less motivated adversary.
The emphasis on terrain that dominated the battle with the Black Cat pirates returns here, as Luffy is forced to cross a dead zone that’s legitimately well-constructed. For perhaps the first time, Luffy’s weakness seems meaningful – and when he crosses that barrier, we see how well Oda’s drawing preferences match up with Luffy’s powers. Even in the less dramatic moments, Oda’s panels are increasingly being filled with massively foreshortened feet and faces; given that inclination, it makes perfect sense that Oda’s hero would be a character whose body actually stretches the limits of physical form. As the art loosens over time, Luffy’s physical presence is only becoming more and more of an asset to the manga.
In the end, Don Krieg is defeated in pretty obvious fashion – Luffy hits him and hits him and hits him again. There’s honestly little tension in these exchanges, in spite of their visual splendor. Like with the Black Cats fight before, it still can feel tough to tell when any of the heroes are actually in danger. Did Krieg actually test the limits of Luffy’s current power? Everything is a little too vaguely defined for us to know.
Outside of the questionable action storytelling, this volume’s first half also features plenty more visual experimentation and muscle-stretching by Oda. The big setpiece panels are only feeling more and more confident, and the loose momentum of the physical exchanges is becoming a reliable strength. But other choices are a little more ambiguous. As I mentioned before, Oda’s love of foreshortening isn’t necessarily always used to great effect; on top of that, his growing understanding of the power of negative space is sometimes used to questionable visual effect as well. Costumes and angles that emphasize heavy blacks are great, but when single elements of panels are cast in profile for no visually discernible reason, the image can come off as ostentatious for no strong tonal purpose. On the other hand, Oda’s use of distance and many distinct visual planes is a new addition that will surely reap dividends down the line.
The end of Baratie heralds the beginning of Arlong Park, an arc that basically everyone has assured me is one of the best the manga has to offer. And the first few chapters here seem to support that reputation; the storytelling underlying Nami’s backstory already seems more confident and nuanced than that of the prior crewmates, from the way the audience is slowly given incomplete fragments of information to the inherent moral complexity of her position.
It’s a simple thing, but the confidence of the delivery here seems to more than anything else imply Oda actually thought this whole story through before committing pen to paper, meaning every element of this particular narrative’s “universe” exists in a tangible form from the first pages. The audience can really, really tell when a story is constructed slapdash versus entirely built from the start – when approaching a confidently constructed narrative, a thousand details of incidental storytelling will indicate that this is a house that already exists, regardless of what angle of approach we take.
There are a variety of other little pleasures in these later chapters. I really loved the image of a village where all the houses had been flipped upside down as a representation of the fishmen’s strength. It’s an extremely One Piece display of power – not quite believable, almost Dr. Seussian in fact, but of a piece with the manga’s overall whimsical, carnival-style shounen universe. Sanji seemed to provide a reasonable straight-man replacement for Nami, and when Nami actually returned, her actions were marked with a relatable fatigue. Nami has clearly had to make far more compromises in her life than any of her new friends.
That, more than anything, is what I’m looking forward to seeing the manga explore. I was very happy to see Zoro brought low by someone far outside his reach, and somewhat disappointed when his response was “now I’ll never lose again.” Luffy has also only been rewarded for his recklessness, with this volume outright praising him for his “I die if I stop” grit. But in this volume’s last chapters, Nami’s stepsister Nojiko actually scolds a boy for attempting to avenge his father, and thus running off to his death. She even frames that death instinct as cowardice, and a lack of consideration for those left behind. I’m all on Nojiko’s side on this one, and so I look forward to exploring what I assume will be a very different kind of strength.
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