At last, it’s time for One Piece’s triumphant return! After far too many days/weeks/months of dilly-dallying, we’re back on the One Piece train with the second volume of the fabled Arlong Park arc. Nami’s backstory, the powers of her crew, and Arlong’s menace all rolled into one explosive manga adventure. And after all this time away, I have to say that… this volume is maybe a bit of a letdown.
Yes yes, this is the second portion of the Fabled Arlong Park Arc. But I’m guessing that when most people talk about the heights of this arc, they’re referring more to the material of the previous volume – the tightly written, emotionally rich Nami story, where a young girl’s determination in the face of her own powerlessness is eventually rewarded by One Piece’s firm belief in our ability to raise each other up. That moment where Nami finally admits she’s not strong enough, and asks Luffy for help, is an all-timer. This time, it’s just Luffy and the crew beating up some dang friggin’ fishmen.
At the point we’re at in One Piece, the big battle sequences have already started to become a tricky narrative problem to be solved. One Piece is an emphatically ensemble production, where the fact that Luffy is working with a stable crew isn’t just part of the appeal, but also in large part the thematic point. The finale of this volume underlines that fact in spectacular fashion, offering Luffy’s most straightforward articulation of the fact that he can’t do everything, but it’s his ability to rely on others to play their part that makes him strong. His words echo Nami’s own lesson here, further girding the key thematic insight of this arc and the manga at large. That’s an awesome message, and I’m always here for it.
That said, the narrative consequences of this being an ensemble shounen, as well as the natural consequences of the particular pieces that make up this ensemble, are tricky. First off, having a whole crew be the main character means that pretty much every villain now also has to have a crew, if only to give Luffy’s friends something to do in the big sequences. The enemy crew also kinda has to be tailored to the strengths of Luffy’s own crew, since while Zoro and Sanji can just do general fighting shenanigans, crewmates like Nami and Usopp aren’t really built for battle. On top of that, we still haven’t really reached a point where anything in this world truly challenges Luffy, meaning the manga’s own protagonist often gets in the way of exciting fights.
Given all those prerequisites, I’d say this volume does a successful but not particularly thrilling job of jumping the hoops. And ultimately, the fact that Luffy’s crew isn’t just all made up of straightforward action badasses is itself something worth celebrating – it just makes One Piece arcs that much harder to write. Setting up tricky narrative challenges isn’t an inherently good or bad thing, it just forces your writing to adapt in turn.
The first hurdle for this fight, Luffy’s absurd strength, is handled in typical fashion within the first couple chapters. Luffy plants his feet in the cement and turns himself into a giant, henchman-clobbering pinwheel… only to find he’s stuck and can’t get out. Then Luffy gets himself thrown in the lagoon with cement feet on, and saving Luffy essentially becomes a timer that runs down and preoccupies his friends through the rest of the volume.
It’s not the most graceful solution, but I did like the fun new application of Luffy’s power. While Luffy is still too strong in general for this average point in a shounen manga, the genius of his power is that his attacks don’t really need to make standard “power level sense” – they have to make visual, cartoon logic sense. Oda can come up with whatever silly attacks for Luffy he wants, but as long as they “feel right” for his cartoony rubber man, they won’t feel like cheating to the audience. Luffy’s lack of weaknesses is counterbalanced by a nice dramatic flexibility.
Much of the rest of this volume is dedicated to Zoro and Sanji each taking on one of Arlong’s lieutenants, with each fighting progressing pretty much as you’d expect. The visual highlights here didn’t really match the peaks of Sanji’s arc, since basically everything is just a series of punches exchanged by a poolside, but I did like to see how much Oda is mixing up the depth of his panels. What was originally a flourish reserved for the biggest of moments is now regularly adding visual impact to smaller exchanges, with a punch or slash’s movement into the frame often creating a great sense of momentum. Zoro’s three swords in particular allowed for some very dynamic compositions, further illustrating Oda’s increased control of heavy blacks as a compositional tool. And on the narrative side, I appreciate that Zoro’s arc isn’t forgotten, and that his strength ultimately comes down to not physical prowess, but mental conviction – the classic “weight of his swords.”
Oddly enough, it was actually Usopp’s fight that most stuck out to me this time. Usopp doesn’t have the privilege of great physical strength equaling the fishmen, but that actually meant his fight had a real sense of danger and consequence. On top of that, Usopp’s mental challenge here felt more poignant than any of the others – unlike Sanji and Zoro, Usopp is dominated by fears, but his ability to rise above them makes him feel all that much more heroic. And on top of that, the fact that Usopp couldn’t physically match his opponent meant his fight had to lean heavily on tactics and trickery, making it feel more impactful in a narrative sense than the others’ “I gritted through it, powered up, and won.” There’s more than one reason to like an underdog.
In the end, this volume resolves in the way I’d kinda hoped it would begin – with all of Luffy’s gang working together, performing different roles in one larger scheme. Zoro delays Arlong, Sanji breaks Luffy free, Usopp distracts Arlong’s lieutenant, and basically everyone ends up being necessary for the team’s next step. Offering the different crew members individual opponents works reasonably enough, but I’m hoping the future will offer more opportunities for the whole crew to show off their strengths together. Luffy has already acknowledged that it’s the support of his friends that makes him strong – if One Piece can consistently demonstrate that in dramatic terms, I’ll be very happy.
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