One Piece’s ninth volume is titled simply “Tears.” It’s a thematically relevant choice, but it’s also about as clear an indication as you could hope for of the emotional trials to come. This volume is a harrowing journey, featuring One Piece’s greatest moments of character writing and most cathartic points of high drama so far. It’s an easy peak for the manga, a dramatic accomplishment any story would be proud of.
We start off with Arlong lording over Nami’s old village, threatening to kill a man for hiding his rifle. There’s plenty that sets Arlong Park aside even here, starting with the villagers’ pleading “in eight years, we’ve never once failed to pay you tribute!” Arlong Park is a much more complex narrative than the ones we’ve seen before; it’s not simply “bad guys are appearing, we gotta stop them,” there’s actually a full world and lifestyle established here. The relationships here aren’t binary ones, and Luffy’s group intruding will not have binary consequences.
But beyond the chesspiece distribution, even more interesting is the old man’s declaration that “we swore to fight by enduring! By living!” In the last volume, Nojiko offered one of the first challenges to Luffy and Zoro’s simplistic, strength-based philosophy, when she labeled a boy a fool for being so willing to throw his life away. Here, we see another kind of strength being embodied – a strength of endurance, where you suffer great indignities for the sake of continuing your life. It seems likely that Luffy would not have a great deal of respect for living like a slave just in order to survive, but most people are not Luffy. It’s Arlong himself who says “all creatures are not born equal” – Luffy and Zoro can crow about never surrendering all they want, but most people in this world do not have the good fortune of being shounen heroes.
But Luffy aside, the strength exhibited here, and further exhibited through Nami’s actions all throughout this volume, cannot be denied. It’s a strength of sacrifice – “no matter what happens to me, you must live on.” “No matter what they say about me, I will live to achieve my dream.” And then, moments later, we see Usopp exhibiting his own kind of strength. Standing on shaking knees, he bluffs his way through an unwinnable confrontation. There are all sorts of ways to be strong.
Of course, it is Nami’s strength that defines the majority of this volume. This is her arc, her battle; in contrast to the slowly building but still fairly simple stories of the crew members that have come before, this arc is essentially a walk through her entire past. We learn of her childhood with Nojiko and Belle-mere, and we learn how she came to be allied with Arlong’s pirates. We learn the meaning of her thievery, and the caliber of her resolve. We learn she’s had a real tough time.
The flashbacks featuring her, Nojiko, and Belle-mere are easily the manga’s best so far, and in a way that Oda has not yet consistently exhibited. In contrast to the evocative framing of Sanji’s tale, Nami’s story actually shines in the dialogue. The relationship between her and her found family comes across as effortlessly natural, three distinctive personalities who are very used to each other’s presence. That’s not a feat to be taken lightly! If you break it down, the trio share maybe thirty lines of dialogue together, but all of those lines assume a relationship built on long proximity. And it’s because those lines are so charming and robust that the emotional beats of this volume land at all.
Not all of this volume’s dramatic material worked for me. For one, the image of Nami as a “witch-woman” never felt any more than an obvious, meaningless feint. We know Nami’s not bad – even if we were totally oblivious to story conventions, we saw her crying about saying goodbye to Luffy’s crew on her way here. Oda’s framing of Nami’s actions here seem to imply the audience is supposed to sense some ambiguity, but no ambiguity really exists – not only are her cruel statements lies, but there is actually no malicious intent in any of her actions.
Nami is hated for a past misunderstanding, and all of her actions here are almost strictly aimed at protecting her friends. This thread is an understandable plot beat, but in a volume where everything else amounts to emotional or thematic catharsis, it comes across as a bit clumsier than the rest. It’d likely be better to frame the tension on the cast’s reaction to her actions – we know she’s good, but can we trust the rest of the cast to realize that as well? That’s at least a real source of tension, where things could truly go either way.
But that’s a small hiccup in what is otherwise a riveting dramatic build. Nami’s various forms of “powerlessness” are palpable all through this volume, and each reap harsh thematic dividends. Young Nami carelessly shouts “I wish I’d be found by a rich family!” – and though she regrets and repents, her purgatory ends up being a place where she pushes a golden boulder up a hill until her captor tells her to start again. Like the villagers, Nami’s only choice for revenge is a long life – suffer, live, and get a chance to eventually rise again.
This volume is infinitely richer for taking place from the perspective of someone who’s actually powerless. Nami holds to herself all the strength she can; her wiles, her resolve, her tears. She proves her strength over and over, a strength of emotional fortitude that has lasted her for almost a decade. And in the end, it’s not her strength that wavers – she pulls herself up and resolves to try again, even after Arlong takes away everything. But she can’t provide the villagers’ strength for them, and so when their resolve breaks, she’s forced to at last rely on someone else’s help.
That cry for help is easily the best moment of the series so far. Tying Nami’s tears to the “bond that’s stronger than blood” of her initial family, emphasizing the meaning of being a crew, releasing a pressure valve of tension that had been building for an entire volume. It’s a brilliant weaving of thematic ties and a profoundly powerful character moment. It’s the sort of moment that stories are for.
And jeez, all that and I haven’t even covered this volume’s art improvements. They’re certainly there! To accompany his recent advances in momentum and perspective, Oda is now starting to slot powerful breather panels into his dramatic flow. Moments like the blood drip and knife drop here add complexity and grace to fight sequences, consistently shifting the reader’s focus in a way that makes things feel more theatrical than simply brutal. And it’s clear repeatedly in this volume that Oda is striving for greater nuance in his expression work in the ways he portrays Nami’s feelings. It doesn’t always work, but that’s to be expected; Oda’s style naturally lends itself to cartoonish exaggeration, not close human subtlety. But he’s trying, and growing, and getting better. When he’s telling stories as grand and personal as this, I feel confident he’ll reach whatever heights he’s seeking.
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