At last, the moment has arrived! After nearly a full volume of Luffy slowly drowning, the Luffy-Arlong battle begins in earnest this volume. I’ve discussed before how the fundamental assumptions of One Piece make it awkwardly inevitable that Luffy finds himself tied up for long stretches of fights. The fact that Luffy’s power adheres to cartoon logic as opposed power level logic is one of One Piece’s most distinctive features – but it also means that it’s tough for him to share the stage, or for his fights to maintain tension for long. The simple fact is, nobody in One Piece has yet managed to test the limits of Luffy’s very silly strength. And so it goes with poor, doomed Arlong.
That’s not to say the Luffy-Arlong battle isn’t exciting. On the contrary, this volume’s early chapters offer a fine demonstration of just how much Oda has tightened his control of battle mechanics. Panels like this one demonstrate that Oda is continuing to hone his understanding of visual momentum. Even without Luffy’s spin, you can see through Arlong’s posture, and the relative closeness to the frame of his different limbs, the momentum that’s about to carry him out of the frame. The understanding of perspective that’s also informing shots like this one (where that little cloud Luffy kicks through offers a crucial piece of mid-distance perspective) also informs the sense of momentum, demonstrating the myriad ways an understanding of depth can impact action fundamentals.
The Luffy-Arlong fight also demonstrates the importance of simply varying up your fight mechanics. While Luffy’s attacks are a series of bizarre, spur-of-the-moment rubber gimmicks (along with other Looney Tunes-esque tricks, like trying to bite Arlong with his own teeth), Arlong moves methodically from one attack strategy to the next, essentially framing himself as a multi-step boss fight. From straight-up brawling, the battle moves into a shark tooth-focused knife fight, where the impact comes from the bloody consequences of even a single successful strike. Then we jump to a sequence that plays on the fact that Arlong is actually a shark, relying on classic visual signifiers like the fin in the water. And then we get to Arlong’s regrettable Shark Darts.
The Shark Darts kinda reflect the fact that Oda’s progression is still experimentation, a work in progress. In theory, jumping out of the water to skewer Luffy should play on both Arlong’s unique physical qualities and the classic threat of a shark that you can’t see. In practice, the fact that nearly all these attacks are framed from beneath Arlong’s feet means there’s virtually no sense of impact in these attacks. It is very hard for a shot framed directly behind a moving figure to convey a real sense of movement, much less so when that movement is a straight-line dive. It’s an interesting experiment, but I wouldn’t call it a successful one.
There are some other nice visual tricks scattered throughout this battle, like a pair of sequential panels that contrast Luffy’s exaggerated looseness with Arlong’s formidable solidity. Luffy’s rubber form facilitates both his attacks and his moments of weakness, while thick shading on Arlong’s arms emphasizes his consistent power. And on the thematic front, Luffy’s eventual victory comes down to him reiterating the lesson Usopp learned last volume. While Arlong paints Nami’s membership in his crew as a kind of safety, Luffy knows the opposite is true. Being a member of Luffy’s crew doesn’t mean freedom from consequences – it means accepting the responsibility of partnership. Luffy’s crew know they are responsible to each other, and the weight of that responsibility makes all of them stronger.
Of course, the conclusion to Arlong Park only takes up the first half of this volume. After finishing off Arlong and saying goodbye to Nami’s hometown (a couple more choice panels: Luffy triumphant and Nami smacking the crap out of Nezumi), One Piece finally acknowledges something that’s become kinda unavoidable: Luffy is sort of a big deal.
Luffy started out this adventure as a powerful but reputation-free nobody. Though it still feels kinda early by shounen standards, at this point, Luffy isn’t nobody anymore. Luffy has smashed through three separate and fairly formidable pirate gangs, and tussled with the navy a few times along the way. Luffy is now a legitimate threat to the order of this world, and the ambiguity of that reputation hangs over this volume’s second half. We even get our introduction to what will presumably be One Piece’s fairly unique “power levels” – the bounty put on you by the World Government.
While various forces around the world all reflect on Luffy’s new notoriety, the Straw Hats themselves head off to Roguetown, the place where Gold Roger was born and executed. These chapters offer a fine demonstration of Oda’s increasingly graceful arc-threading, introducing characters naturally before they end up becoming dramatically relevant. The contrast between this setup and stuff like Zoro’s backstory really hammers in how far we’ve come – not only are secondary characters now being introduced through offhand but plot-relevant sidebars, but even the characterization of Luffy’s theoretical antagonists is gaining some complexity. Over a mere three chapters, Roguetown manages to build a tense and coherent confrontation, reiterate the unique talents of all of Luffy’s crewmates, and even introduce a new foe who actually seems like a pretty reasonable guy. The scenes where One Piece rises over shounen staples to arrive at truly iconic setpieces are becoming more common by the volume. It seems like we’re really going places now.
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