One Piece – Volume 15

One Piece’s fifteenth volume offers a rich sampling of pretty much everything that makes this manga great. After a couple of Baroque Works-focused volumes that were frankly a little below par for the series, the team’s exit from Little Garden and subsequent steps offer action, comedy, and even some smaller character-building moments. One Piece may be at its best when fully embodying a spirit of adventure, but volume fifteen demonstrates it’s entirely comfortable operating within any number of dramatic and genre modes.

The volume’s first chapter begins with a particularly ridiculous visual gag, as the fact that Dorry is alive prompts eye-popping by all onlookers. Eye-popping by itself is a pretty standard comic bit, but I appreciated how the relative size and position of Broggy versus the Straw Hats forces the reader to take a moment in order to understand what the Straw Hats are actually doing here. Even just shifting the perspective to behind their heads, and making them small enough that you kind of have to infer what’s happening, offers a cute lampshading of this gag.

The comedy is strong throughout this volume, and not limited to simple visual gags. Perhaps my favorite comic sequence of the volume comes when the crew journeys into a wintery sea, where they witness a strange figure that seems to actually be standing on the water itself. This sequence is driven by deadpan and visual pacing, subtle tricks that require very confident execution. The absurd outfit of the man in the water establishes an expectation of farce that is undercut by the long panels of the Straw Hats and new guy staring at each other, leading into the whimsical and unexpected “sure is cold out.” It’s a great gag that makes terrific use of its extended visual duration.

The third great comic sequence here offers yet another style of comedy, this one banking on our existing understanding of the Straw Hats’ nature. Upon journeying up a snow-covered mountain, Sanji and Luffy are warned to beware of Lapins, killer snow rabbits. Of course, Sanji and Luffy being who they are, simple environmental hazards offer no challenge – and the comic actually leans on that in a comic sense, having the two of them engage in a nonsense debate as they carelessly knock away their vicious attackers. Like an earlier sequence emphasizing Luffy’s boyish enthusiasm, the comedy here leans on our existing understanding of these characters, creating an understated effect that bolsters our affection for them.

Comedy isn’t the only strength on display in volume fifteen. This volume’s drama comes in a variety of effective modes, starting with a striking conversation between Sanji and the mysterious Mr. Zero. Intercepting a phone call intended for Mr. Three, we’re introduced to Zero across a series of panels that reduce his presence to shadowed hands and clenched teeth, building up a sense of menace in spite of the outright absurdity of this new foe’s chambers. Zero’s crushing of a flower’s stem is a particularly strong sequence, with the vast empty space surrounding the stem emphasizing the fragility of the flower in this opponent’s hands. That sequence demonstrates one of the situations where backgrounds would actually be a hindrance to the intended dramatic effect – Oda clearly doesn’t shy away from complex background art, but he understands here that isolating the flower in space is crucial to the sequence’s dramatic impact.

On the action front, likely the most impressive setpiece of this volume accompanies the Straw Hats’ escape from Little Garden. The stage is set through the planting of one giant on each edge of the river, their full black cloaks offering a striking contrast with the line-busy forest and clear white sea. And with the giants there to offer a visual comparison point, a giant fish rises from the surf, demonstrating again One Piece’s titanic sense of scale. This fish is a threat fit for giants, and Oda makes the most of it, dedicating three two-page spreads to its arrival and destruction. Few things demonstrate the thrill and terror of the Grand Line as effectively as these leviathans, a truth that’s underlined by our last tidbits of giant backstory. One Piece’s storytelling often operates on the scale of unabashed myth-making, so it’s fitting that these giants are sent off with a final piece of fairytale storytelling.

Out on the open seas, Nami comes down with a terrible fever, offering opportunities for even more dramatic stretching. As the crew rushed to tend to their navigator, I was struck by how inherently satisfying it is to watch these characters exercise and expound upon their specialties. It feels rewarding just watch Sanji discuss medicinal foods, or watching Nami navigate the high seas. Luffy has built himself a fairly formidable crew, and the difficulty of gathering each new member makes their current competency feel like a continuous reward.

This volume also makes good use of Nami’s sickness in amplifying the “something’s not right” sensation of their latest seafaring mishap. Nami predicting trouble on calm seas always feels intimidating, and the fact that she’s half keeling over while arguing with Zoro gives this whole sequence a sense of building dread. The ultimate payoff of a huge typhoon almost feels less intimidating than quiet shots of Nami staring out over the water, sensing something coming but barely well enough to face it. That subtlety of visual execution is aimed in a very different direction in the following scenes, where Nami wakes up from her fever to appreciate, along with the audience, just how much this family has come to care for each other.

In the end, Nami’s illness forces the crew to search for a doctor on a wintery island. This island offers plenty more opportunities for Oda to stretch his landscaping muscles, with this unnamed place’s snowy peaks offering just as much promise as Little Garden’s alluring jungles. Oda’s matching of constant invention with sturdy visual execution once again makes visiting this island its own reward, from marveling at distance castles to bowing before the local hiking bear. Even the character designs here reflect Oda’s constantly self-refining grasp of visual storytelling – though a person like Dalton’s design is less absurd than many other characters, his profile perfectly reflects his strength, stoicism, and straightforward nature.

Things come to a head in the volume’s final chapters, as Luffy and Sanji flee an avalanche while Dalton squares off with a false king. Though most of this volume saw One Piece dancing between a variety of genres, this type of multi-pronged action conflict is undoubtedly its home. From its wintry peaks to its subtle character moments, volume fifteen is an embarrassment of riches, demonstrating an artist in full control of his impressive powers. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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